Nicholas Thompson's trump card in writing about Nitze and Kennan

Historians in the News

Nicholas Thompson is not bragging when he says that his new book about the two master builders of America’s cold war strategy, Paul Nitze and George Kennan, could have been written only by him.

After all, Mr. Thompson is Nitze’s grandson, and he had access to all of his grandfather’s personal papers and letters, as well as to his family, his closest friends, even to his opponents, the old Soviet warriors who sat opposite him at the negotiating table.

“I did about 150 interviews,” for the book “The Hawk and The Dove,” Mr. Thompson said, and many of them “would not have talked to me if I wasn’t Paul Nitze’s grandson.”

Thin and tall, with a sweep of dark hair falling across his forehead, Mr. Thompson, 34, was lunching on the Upper East Side, just a few blocks from the Council on Foreign Relations, where both Nitze (the hawk of the title) and Kennan (the seeming dove) often went during the more than 50 years that they advised presidents, congressmen and cabinet members on issues of war and peace — usually from opposing sides.

Mr. Thompson, an editor at Wired magazine, said he was often taken aback by what he found. The book is brimming with fascinating revelations about the men and the harrowing events they steered through. Among them: Kennan’s request for a cyanide capsule while serving as Soviet ambassador (Nitze, in a note, attributes it to Kennan’s fear that a romantic affair would be publicized); Kennan’s contact with an Associated Press reporter who was helping Stalin’s grandson defect to the United States in 1975; Nitze’s decision to destroy evidence that Soviet pilots were flying aircraft for the North Koreans in 1950 to avoid a potential nuclear showdown; a discussion between Nitze and Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense, about provoking a Soviet attack during the Cuban missile crisis.

Mr. Thompson, whose mother, Nina, was one of Nitze’s four children, grew up in the middle of some of this history. In the basement of their house were the black (Soviet) and white (American) missile models that his grandfather always used to illustrate the difference between the superpowers’ forces. At 5, Nicholas learned from his father, Scott Thompson, what the balance of power meant. For a term paper in the sixth grade, he remembers writing about intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), the items his grandfather had recently argued about with the Russians in Geneva.

“We were brought up to believe that the Soviets were bad and dangerous, and missiles were important,” he said.

Mostly, though, Mr. Thompson’s recollections of his grandfather are of a kind, generous and funny man. They hiked, fished, played tennis and skied together. By the time Mr. Thompson was old enough to take part in political discussions, however, his grandfather, who died in 2004 at 97, was frail and no longer in the thick of things....
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