Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Paul H. Nitze (1907-2004)

Paul H. Nitze, whose career in government service spanned almost fifty years--from FDR to Reagan--died last night at his home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 97. Nitze was, in many respects, the quintessential Cold Warrior. As a member of the Strategic Bombing Survey following World War II, he was one of the first Americans to see the impact of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the ground. In 1950, he was the principal author of NSC-68, an influential study that established the foundations of American defense policy during the Cold War. He served in a variety of posts in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, but was not offered a post by President Carter. On the outside, Nitze became a harsh critic of Carter's arms control policy.

The details of Ambassador Nitze's career are here in this New York Times obituary. I have a personal experience with Ambassador Nitze to add.

In 1980-81, I was a student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Nitze was a co-founder of the school and had a long and close association with it. In fact, in 1989 the trustees of the University voted to rename the school the "Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies." When he was not occupied by government service, he sometimes taught classes there. In the fall of 1981, I was part of a seminar he offered entitled "Strategy in Support of Political Purpose: Theory and Practice." Although already in his 70s, Ambassador Nitze was extraordinarily sharp. He spoke with equal lucidity and assurance about his personal experiences at the beginning of the Cold War and about the state of the world at that moment.

Of all the things that Ambassador Nitze said in his seminar, nothing struck me more forcefully than a comment he made about his experience of walking through Hiroshima as a member of the Strategic Bombing Survey just a few months after World War II ended. He said that the destruction there was no worse than it was in any number of other cities that had been bombed using conventional weapons.

Objectively, I knew he was correct. In fact, more people died in the March 1945 bombing raids on Tokyo than died in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. At the same time, I thought the comment offered an important insight into his perspective on nuclear weapons. It suggested, I thought, a cold and calculating view of the original weapons of mass destruction, one that helped to explain his insistence on the political utility of nuclear weapons.

Ambassador Nitze did not finish the semester with us. His seminar was turned over to Fritz Ermarth, a specialist in Soviet nuclear strategy, because Ambassador Nitze had been asked by President Reagan to lead the U.S. delegation in the arms control negotiations conducted in Geneva from 1981 to 1984. Later, in his last government assignment, Ambassador Nitze negotiated the INF (intermediate-range nuclear forces) Treaty, the first arms control agreement designed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. In some respects, the INF Treaty seems to have been a repudiation of his earlier hard-line views. Ambassador Nitze, however, no doubt regarded it as a vindication of those views.