jimsleeper.com » Can Anything Change the Conversation? This Book Came Close

Can Anything Change the Conversation? This Book Came Close

Two events in 2009 suggested a transition from one conversation about the American republic to another. The old conversation, often little better than a shouting match or a dance of snarky repartees, petered out with the passing, at 89, of Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism. But a different conversation was renewing itself, in a voice coming from the center of the old republic, thanks to Nicholas Thompson’s gripping, stirring  book, The Hawk and the Dove.

Writing about the half-century-long rivalry and friendship of arms-race “hawk” Paul Nitze and Cold War strategic “dove” George Kennan, Thompson shows that even bitter antagonists can remain friends if they care more about the civic-republican spirit that is the secret of this country’s true strength than they do about themselves or their grand strategies.

It’s not an obvious or easy truth, but it comes to life thanks to Thompson, a grandson of Paul Nitze, the preeminent arms-race “hawk” of the Cold War. In the 1970s, Nitze strode arm in arm with neo-conservatives in their Committee on the Present Danger, inflating the Soviet threat out of proportion to reality at a time when, as we now know, the USSR was beginning to implode. If Thompson were a tribalistic, filopietistic neo-con himself, he’d launch into a pugnacious defense of his often-militaristic forebear. And he would cast George Kennan, the apostle of Cold War “containment,” as the sinister, anti-American foil that many neo-cons did make of him and others who opposed their grand plans.

Irving Kristol made foils of liberals this way even while writing about Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hysteria in 1952. He acknowledged the senator’s vulgar demagoguery yet added darkly that “the American people” knew well that McCarthy, “like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they know no such thing.”

Nicholas Thompson has something deeper in mind and at heart than writing such shaming, insinuating prose, which became a hall-mark of neo-conservative propaganda, as it had been of the Communist variety in Kristol’s youth. Thompson is intent upon telling a truer, more instructive story of two patriots, each annealed in a civic-republican discipline stronger and more supple than anything Kristol ever truly absorbed.

While Nitze grew up in comfortable circumstances (his father was a distinguished philologist at the University of Chicago), Kennan grew up almost poor after his mother died when he was an infant. Yet both men attended civic-republican training schools (Kennan the Midwestern St. John’s Military Academy, Nitze the elite Hotchkiss preparatory school in northwestern Connecticut) whose brooks seemed to bubble with moral instruction and whose eight-man river rowing taught that self-denial for the common good requires first a self that has been made strong enough to deny.

These schools encouraged self-scrutiny, plain living and high thinking, an understated felicity of expression, a quiet readiness to shoulder responsibility without reward, and a capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because spiritual grace was thereby assured.) A characteristic self-deprecating humor deflected others’ envy. The term “character” is ridiculed these days as shorthand for elite breeding, but these lean, bonded boys honed not only the bookish but also the kinetic and moral intelligence that counts for more than the mere “merit” or distinction whose attainment so preoccupied so many neo-conservatives.

Neither Kennan nor Nitze really took his civic training to heart while undergoing it: Kennan was rather too introspective and bookish, Nitze boisterous and rebellious. But something of these schools’ pedagogy took root and tempered each man’s pride and resentments in ways that would benefit the country: It left each man knowing throughout life that his strategic differences with the other weren’t as profound as their shared commitment to a republican strength that no “national defense” policy can nurture or ultimately even defend.

“They often inspired or enraged each other with their ideas,” Thompson writes. “They did, however, greatly respect each other and admire each other’s seriousness of purpose, demeanor, and dedication. They realized they shared an uncommon endurance. They also shared a similar fate: neither reached his ultimate ambitions, while many lesser men reached the positions of influence [Secretary of State or Defense] to which they both aspired.”

“My research revealed two very different men who nevertheless shared a commitment to the United States and to their very different ways of serving it,” Thompson also notes, and he carries that commitment forward himself in a way that gives it brighter prospects.

Such a commitment need not be elitist or naive, as aristocratic indulgences often are. A civic republican resists “solidarity” with either left or right yet draws from both, knowing that both have valid claims to certain truths: The left knows the necessity of public planning and sustenance for the village that raises the child; without it, the individual dignity and traditions that conservatives cherish would never flourish. The right knows the equally important truth that without irreducibly personal responsibility and initiative, even the best leftist social engineering can turn people into clients, cogs, or worse.

A good society, like a healthy person, strides on both feet — the left of social provision, the right of personal responsibility — without worrying whether all its weight is on one or the other foot at any given instant in a balanced stride. But ideologues of the left and right try to strengthen one foot at the expense of the other until it swells, each side clinging to its “own” truth until it becomes a half-truth that curdles into a lie, leaving it right only about how the other is wrong.

Thompson understands this, and he illustrates it by describing the somewhat-unlikely tributes Nitze and Kennan tendered each other, after decades of strategic rivalry, when Nitze dropped his arms-race work for a day to attend Kennan’s 80th birthday party in 1984, at one of the tensest moments in the arms race.

Raising his glass, Nitze said, “George Kennan taught us to approach issue of policy, not just from the narrow immediate interest of the United States, but from a longer-range viewpoint that included the culture and interests of others, including our opponents, and a proper regard for the interests of mankind.”

As Thompson tells it, “Kennan rose to respond: the main lesson he had learned from Nitze, he said, was that when one disagreed with government, ‘it may be best to soldier on, and to do what one can to make the things you believe in come out right.'”

Kennan wasn’t counseling a lockstep or “old school” loyalty without integrity. He was invoking a subtler, more tensile strength that’s necessary to sustain both realism and principle in a world of imperfect institutions. But how and when to do that? Reading Thompson reinforces my belief that Kennan, although he was no democrat, understood better than Nitze that power flows not from top-down command but from bottom-up cooperation and from a voluntary acceptance of necessary authority that comes from democratic deliberation itself.

Thompson’s account also shows that both men understood that the discipline that citizens bring to their deliberations can come only, if at all, from a civic culture that doesn’t rely on statist surveillance and coercion. Rather, it nurtures people’s trust in one another and trains them to cooperate in ways that become second-nature.

If, in contrast, a society has to rely on state enforcement to preserve “freedom,” and if it surrenders its deliberative disciplines to a seductive, predatory consumer marketing and dog-eat-dog materialism, its freedom will be lost and, with it, the strength to take a blow from outside. Neo-cons are constitutionally unable to see this, because so little in their own historical memories, and therefore their temperaments, seems to confirm it.

Reading Thompson, I’m also drawn to Kennan’s peculiar convictions, and writerly temperament — and even to some of his insecurities, prejudices, and Gibbonesque despair of the republic — though not to his anti-democratic biases. I also understand Nitze better and respect his record at least marginally more than I did before.

I’ve been able to reach these conclusions because Thompson’s rendering of Kennan is as compelling, fair, and even sympathetic as is his portrait of his grandfather, whom he knew and loved until his death, when Thompson was 24. This book, then, is more than an effort to give a grandfather his due (or, as some will see it, more than his due) by pairing him with Kennan, whom people like me are inclined to admire more. Thompson is willing to risk my concluding that his grandfather suffers a bit in the comparison, because his true purpose is to present each man’s interaction with the other — and with world events and powers — in a way that strengthens the civic-republican culture that is the real if elusive protagonist of the book:

“The two men were equally influential and equally important, yet vastly different. Nitze was the diligent insider, Kennan the wise outsider; Nitze the doer, Kennan the thinker. Kennan designed America’s policy for the Cold War, and Nitze mastered it. With respect to America’s ability to shape the world, Nitze was an idealist and Kennan a realist. In their old age, Nitze still wanted to win the Cold War, and Kennan wanted to be done with it. Their views overlapped at strange and crucial moments; but for most of their working lives, they disagreed profoundly. In [a] <em>New Yorker</em> article published just before his eightieth birthday party, Kennan had indirectly criticized Nitze — who marked the piece up vigorously and also sent a letter to a mutual friend complaining that the argument showed a ‘complete separation from fact and logic.'”

Thompson doesn’t rest with this quasi-poetic and perhaps pat balancing act. He complicates it with nuances and unexpected details as he unfolds each man’s life. He never polemicizes or debates. He draws contradictory currents of perception and principle together, not as Kristol or Norman Podhoretz would, in order to swamp their enemies, but to show how the currents actually converged and buffeted one another in historical tides that always confound ideologues who think they can channel them.

Writing a book such as this takes formidable civic-republican strength, even a steely, sometimes chilly courage. It’s a strength young neo-conservatives lack because their faith in the republic is over-matched by their insecurities. Thompson’s writerly strength is palpable in spare, unadorned prose that is the more eloquent for declining to call attention to itself — an old WASP virtue that runs back to the poetry on the 18th-century gravestones standing a hundred yards from me as I write this on a weekend in western Massachusetts, where Kennan’s ancestors settled in Puritan times.

Thompson’s rendering is so well balanced (and maybe also ironic) that he even gives us a younger and wiser Norman Podhoretz’s observation in 1968 — in a rare moment of agreement with Kennan, who’d just written a condemnation of student militants and hippies — that Kennan’s voice is “an old-fashioned voice: cultivated, gentlemanly, poised, self-assured. There is strength in it, there is serenity in it, there is solidity in it, there is authority in it – but not the kind of authority that can easily be associated with repressiveness.” That’s not the kind of authority that Podhoretz’s own more clamorous and churlish writing has ever achieved.

Thompson not only appreciates Kennan’s quiet authority; he radiates it himself. He’s not yet Kennan’s equal as a writer, and I’m not an historian of the period who can second-guess his decisions about what to show us and how. But Nicholas Thompson has delivered a book that’s not just a labor of love; it’s a vindication of a tradition of civic-republican comity that can’t be coerced but is quietly stronger than anything the republic’s noisier claimants offer in this frightening, polarizing time.