Archive for January 2010

Book reviews: A hawk, a dove and the missile man of America

January 23, 2010

Two books on the Cold War

1. The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War – Nicholas Thompson

In this book, Nicholas Thompson provides a fascinating account of the life, times and work of probably the two most important American diplomats of the Cold War. George Kennan and Paul Nitze were starkly opposite in many respects, yet both provided immensely important direction to American geopolitics through their advice to many Presidents and shaped the Cold War more than any other two American policy makers.

Of the two Kennan is the more famous and is regarded by many as the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century (he passed away in 2005 at the ripe age of 101 and was known for the resplendent prose in his many books which I could strongly recommend). Kennan is mainly known for a famous 1946 telegram that he sent from the Soviet Union. At this time Americans were still trying to understand the looming Soviet menace and Kennan was probably the most knowledgeable Soviet expert in the country. He rightly understood Stalin’s bluster and sent a telegram describing the intentions and nature of the Soviet state. The telegram instantly catapulted him to recognition and set in place the official policy of “containment” which Kennan’s name became synonymous with. In the telegram Kennan indicated that the Soviets would respond to only strength and not reconciliation and weakness. In his book on the hydrogen bomb, Richard Rhodes says that it was this telegram along with Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Stalin’s rousing speech in Moscow that inaugurated the Cold War.

However Kennan did not advocate necessarily employing military strength. This was advocated by Paul Nitze, a man who may not be as famous as Kennan but who was no less important. Nitze is regarded by many as the “father of threat inflation”. As a measure of his influence as a hawk, it suffices to realize that many of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration were either Nitze acolytes or acolytes of Nitze’s proteges. Just like Kennan Nitze also became famous for a secret 1950 document called NSC-68 that advocated the use of preemptive force against the Soviets and exaggerated their military might. This was a pattern that Nitze and his growing band of followers (among them in various ways were Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld) would consistently pursue; whenever they thought that liberals were trying to be too reconciliatory toward the Soviet Union, they would prepare documents and advocate polices exaggerating Soviet military potential and intentions. Their policies frequently worked and became especially influential during the Reagan administration (formerly they did a good job of portraying Carter as being weak on the Soviets). To some extent they were responsible for the dangerous arms race between the two nations.

Needless to say, such hawkish views radically differed from those of Kennan the dove whose more measured opinions fell somewhat out of favor in later years. Yet the book does an outstanding job of showing that the agendas of both men were more subtle and complicated. Occasionally when it was necessary Nitze would take a softer approach, and during the later Reagan years he joined the President in pressing for open disarmament and reconciliation when many of his followers continued to take a hard line. In his later life Nitze mellowed down, and in 1999 went so far as to write a New York Times op-ed recommending unilateral nuclear disarmament for the US. Although Nitze rightly perceived the work that he had done to be very important in dictating Cold War policy, it is tragic that unlike him, others did not have the sense to see the shortcomings and detrimental effects of these policies in a post Cold War world (Nitze and the accompanying rise of the neo-cons are very well-documented in J. Peter Scoblic’s
“Us vs Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security”).

With such differing perspectives one would think that Nitze and Kennan would have been mortal enemies. But remarkably, through several decades of acute differences and disagreements, the two men remained close personal friends. As Thompson who is Nitze’s grandson shows, it is a mark of the character of both men that they managed to rise above their political differences no matter how severe these were. Thompson shows in this highly readable volume, the tremendous impact on US foreign policy that the work of Nitze and Kennan had. He bring both of them to life and sensitively and wisely dissects their personalities, thoughts and lives. Very strongly recommended for foreign policy/Cold War enthusiasts.

2. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon- Neil Sheehan

Neil Sheehan apparently spent 15 years writing this account of a little known Air Force General, Bernard Schriever, and the time he spent on the man shows in this comprehensive account. He has performed a very valuable service in bringing this rather obscure character to life and driving home the importance of his accomplishments. Schriever was one of the individuals most responsible for jump starting the US’s missile program, especially shepherding the development of the ICBM. Sheehan does a great job bringing to life all the characters that Schriever was associated with, from his mentors in flight school (including General “Hap” Arnold) to his bete noir, the notorious Curtis LeMay, to his contact with brilliant scientists John von Neumann and Edward Teller whose contributions were critical for America’s missile and atomic bomb programs.

Sheehan provides ample background and little known tidbits of Schriever’s life and times. For instance I was not aware that the US Air Force was a rather inefficient backwater organization till the mid-1930s, easily outclassed by its European counterparts. Apparently at one point, pilots were asked to deliver the mail in the wake of a post office scandal. Their inexperience in flying and the loss of life that resulted galvanized FDR and others to issue directives for a modern Air Force that would become among the best in the world.

The main problem I have is that while Sheehan’s digressions (for instance on the atomic bomb project and Soviet espionage) are fascinating and reflect the most up-to-date information, they are too many and too frequent. An editor who could have shaved off a few pages and encouraged a tighter narrative would have definitely helped. The digressions draw your attention from direct information about General Schriever. To be fair the book is not supposed to be just about him, but a little less meandering would have been a boon.

In spite of this deficiency, the book will be fascinating for Cold War enthusiasts who want to know about the development of the US Air Force and its atomic and missile arsenals during the early Cold War. There is also a fair amount of technical detail about missiles explained in relatively plain and accurate language. After JFK came to power Schriever’s influence waned and the latter part of the book is not as interesting. Nevertheless, Sheehan has done a valuable and outstanding job in bringing a little known individual to life and telling us about his enormous contributions during a critical period of American history.

Particle or nuclear?

January 13, 2010

This is interesting. A Tehran University physics professor has been killed by a bomb planted outside his home. There is speculation whether this could be the work of outsiders, especially from Israel or the US.

To me the accusation that this was an Israeli operation seems anything but far fetched. After all there has been ample talk of the Israelis bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities the way they did with Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1980. But any such action would likely cause immense international outrage and political problems for Israel, not to mention added Arab animosity. Thus from their perspective the next best option would be to do something like this, assassinate someone who was playing a key role in the nuclear program with the hope that it would at least slow down Iran’s plans and intimidate them.

The trouble is that until now the specialty and role of the assassinated professor is not known. As the NYT reports,

There was some dispute about his field of scientific specialization.

The English-language Press TV said he taught neutron physics at Tehran University, although it was not clear whether he was part of Iran’s contentious nuclear enrichment program.

The broadcaster called the professor a ?staunch supporter of the Islamic Revolution? of 1979 that overthrew the Shah and initiated three decades of theocratic rule.

But two Iranian academics, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said in telephone interviews that he was not a nuclear physicist and had specialized in particle and theoretical physics. The Web site of Tehran University lists him as a professor of elementary particle physics.

Now that’s silly. A professor who teaches neutron physics would likely know a lot about nuclear reactors and bombs; in 1939, the greatest expert in neutron physics in the world was Enrico Fermi, probably the most important physicist working on nuclear energy. Everyone should know that it does not matter much whether the dead professor’s field of specialty is “nuclear” or “theoretical and particle” physics since it is quite easy for a particle physicist to learn nuclear physics and vice versa (even the movies seem to have understood this; in the George Clooney-Nicole Kidman blockbuster “The Peacemaker”, the scientist working for the bad guys is an astrophysics PhD.)

Thus the unfortunate man’s specialty by itself does not at all preclude him from working on the nuclear program. Only time will tell what his exact role was.