Parallel Lives

Nicholas Thompson, the grandson of Paul Nitze, chose to write a biography of his grandfather, but with a restriction.  Thompson thought it best to describe and compare his grandfather’s public career together with that of another public personage, George Kennan.  I wonder why.  Perhaps for the sake of an extensive biography.  We ought not attribute motives to an author, but we can say something about the result.  This is a book of parallel lives; but such a structure, or composition, seldom works.

Though Paul Nitze and George Kennan were very different men, their lives were chronologically similar.  Both were men of the 20th century: Kennan was born in 1904; Nitze in 1908.  Kennan survived Nitze by less than a year, but that does not matter.  What matters is that their temperaments, their learning, their convictions, and their views of the United States and of the world were profoundly different.  Kennan was a compulsive writer and a dedicated thinker; Nitze was a compulsive bureaucrat.  Kennan was an intensely private person; Nitze was not.  At least in one instance Nitze’s grandson understands this: “Kennan never fit in; Nitze always did.”  They knew each other, they respected each other on occasion, but they never were close friends.

Thompson’s thesis is there in the title of his book: Throughout the Cold War, Nitze was a hawk; Kennan was a dove. ...

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