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Tension Between Opposites, by Paul H. Nitze

Public & Private

Tension Between Opposites: Reflections on the Practice and Theory of Politics.
by Paul H. Nitze.
Scribner’s. 212 pp. $22.00.

Paul Nitze’s latest book, Tension Between Opposites, provides a fascinating glimpse into the character, and inner growth, of one of our most extraordinary and distinguished public servants, a man whose life critically affected—indeed, almost embodied—the history of the cold-war era. Designed to distill the lessons of a long and extremely active life, Tension Between Opposites briefly sets forth some theoretical observations about politics and then applies them to the characters and decisions of famous men Nitze has known. But what is most interesting about the book is what it reveals about Nitze himself.

The résumé of Nitze’s public achievements is nothing short of remarkable. In 1945, he supervised the Pacific branch of the Strategic Bombing Survey, which made the first systematic study of the effects of the atomic bomb. A key adviser to President Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson by 1950, he was the principal author of NSC-68, often considered the master document of American cold-war strategy. In 1962, he participated in the Cuban-missile-crisis deliberations with President Kennedy. Later he served as Secretary of the Navy. A member of the SALT I negotiating team in the early 1970’s, he helped shape the key provisions of the 1972 ABM treaty. In the mid- to late 1970’s, disillusioned with Presidents Nixon and Carter, he became a leading critic of SALT II and, as a founder of the Committee on the Present Danger, may have been more responsible than anyone for that treaty’s virtual defeat. Under President Reagan, he was chief negotiator at the crucial Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) talks and later played a key role in the dramatic 1987 Reykjavik summit.

In between, Nitze somehow found time to be a movie mogul (he once controlled, with his brother-in-law, the largest bloc of shares in Twentieth Century-Fox), to co-create and develop the Aspen ski resort (with its famous institute), and to co-found what later became Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies—which, with millions gained shrewdly in business, he has handsomely endowed.



Few men have more richly lived the history of their era, contributing significantly to so many major realms of human pursuit: finance, government, military affairs, diplomacy, education, culture, sport, and even (briefly) show business.

Yet to all perhaps but his closest associates and friends, Nitze has always remained something of an enigma. Two big questions have loomed over his career: the first concerns his failure to attain a cabinet post as Secretary of Defense or State (he was eminently qualified for both jobs); the second concerns the real nature of his political allegiances. Both Democrats and Republicans have at different times regarded Nitze as an ally and an adversary. He has belonged to both parties and served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Nitze is conscious of the first question and uses the second to answer it. “In business,” he writes, “I found it difficult to put the interests of my firm ahead of all other interests as a true team player was expected to do. In government, I found it hard to be wholly loyal to the principles of either the Democratic party or of the Republican party. I, therefore, never achieved appointment to the highest political offices.”

There were other factors, too, of course: a certain lack of showmanship, a serviceable but unspectacular command of rhetoric (as the present volume attests), and perhaps the absence of a politician’s instinct for intuiting and connecting with the popular will. A patrician to the bone, Nitze made his place among the nation’s elite, always the insider, at ease in the highest reaches of influence and power. His list of mentors and close colleagues—for example, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, George F. Kennan (each of whom earns an appreciative chapter in this volume)—reads like a Who’s Who of the cold war.

But what is most fascinating is the degree of inwardness that this book shows to have been present in a quintessentially public man. Even more than his 1989 memoirs, From Hiroshima to Glasnost, or Strobe Talbott’s 1988 biography, The Master of the Game, this brief volume gives us a real glimpse of the inner Nitze.



It is interesting to learn, for example, that this paragon of public success began life as a thoughtful introvert. “As a boy I was excessively shy, awkward, lacking in self-confidence,” Nitze writes. “I lived in a world of ideas, which tended to separate me from my classmates.”

The preoccupation with ideas never went away, even amid the stress and glamor of high-profile international diplomacy. Paralleling Nitze’s tireless strivings in business and government, as this book makes clear, was an inner quest for wisdom and wholeness, a powerful commitment to what used to be called “humanism,” modeled on the Greek ideal. A man of rich culture and wide reading, Nitze attempted to remain conversant with what Matthew Arnold called “the best that is known and thought in the world,” poring over abstruse philosophical texts, conversing at every opportunity with learned men, gradually evolving his own theory of politics and even his own philosophy of life, which he sketches here.

At the core of this philosophy is the notion of the “tension between opposites.” As a reflective man of action, Nitze seems to have attained early on a dialectical understanding of human conflict, recognizing that one-sided approaches to human problems frequently miss the mark. Hence his stress on finding solutions in the “harmony” and “tension” between “opposites”—whether one speaks of opposing sides of an argument, or opposing sides of the human spirit—a concept he borrows and adapts from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Behind Nitze’s theory one can also sense something of the man of action’s distrust of simple absolutes, stemming from the constant awareness that if you have to make decisions, you will always make some mistakes.

Dissatisfied with modern political science—which, he claims with some justification, offers little insight of value to real political actors—he also developed his own four-part method of political analysis, based on the notions of “political structure,” “value system,” “situation,” and “point of view.”

At first blush, this method of analysis seems a bit abstract for general application—though it certainly served Nitze very well. More obviously compelling are his reflections on ethics—nurtured, as he tells us, in long conversations with the famous American Jesuit priest, John Courtney Murray, whom he remembers as “my wisest and most profound adviser.” At an early stage, we learn, Nitze integrated ethical principles explicitly into his theory and practice of statecraft; moreover, by all appearances, he lived them—a fact which may indeed unlock some of the mysteries of his career.

During the 1980’s, for example, when many American conservatives were inclined to regard arms negotiations with the Soviet Union as a Machiavellian sham, Nitze seems to have been constitutionally incapable of doing so (in this he proved closer to his boss Ronald Reagan than were many of Reagan’s own political supporters). One might say Nitze had too much integrity, personal and intellectual, to take any but a basically honest approach with an interlocutor or any but a constructive approach to the problem at hand.

Not that he lacked tough-mindedness: on the contrary, few in the U.S. government were more schooled than Nitze in the technical details of nuclear war-fighting; few were more cynical about the nature of Soviet aims. Nonetheless, the ethical tenor of his outlook disallowed a purely cynical view of nuclear arms control itself. Even his devastating criticisms of SALT II were based not on hostility to arms control, but on the failure of the treaty to live up to what he regarded as legitimate arms-control standards.

As a negotiator, Nitze plainly saw the evils of the Soviet system but sought to work around them, establishing strong personal connections with his Soviet counterparts—Alexander Shchukin during SALT I, Yuli Kvitsinsky during the INF talks—broadening their conversations to include music, art, science, and philosophy, and using this human rapport, in turn, to try to craft common solutions, to achieve a measure of harmony amid tension and opposition. One might agree or disagree with the outcome, but this was clearly a man seeking, intelligently, to do the very best he could.



Historians will appreciate the series of chapters filling the second half of this book in which Nitze offers short, first-hand sketches of famous men. Though these portraits sometimes lack color and literary flair, what he seeks to expose in each life is some virtue to emulate (or faults to avoid). In the end, the strengths he finds in his “heroes”—Forrestal’s iron will; Acheson’s elegance, professionalism, and courage; Marshall’s principled patriotism; George Shultz’s loyalty and humaneness—seem to reflect the character he himself has striven to form.

That Nitze maintained such a solid reputation in Washington through so many decades—which included four virtual “firings” from government, and three resignations on principle—probably has much to do with the virtues he strove to develop and maintain as a human being. Nor does it seem surprising that at the end of a long and luminous career, what loom largest for him are not Washington’s transient preoccupations with honor and office, but just these deep questions of character and ethics.

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