For the observer of Soviet-American arms control over the last half decade, two questions are striking: Why did the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev move adroitly toward arms control agreement? And why did the United States not?
Strobe Talbott’s detailed history provides an answer to the second question, interlaced with a portrait of Paul Nitze, whose career at the center of American defense policy spans five decades, not five years.
Talbott, the translator of Khrushchev’s memoirs, has no peers in writing what he calls the “second draft” of superpower arms-control history. Talbott’s “first draft” appeared in his reportage for Time, and this volume continues the arms control history of his earlier “Endgame” and “Deadly Gambits.” Some of his journalistic techniques make professional historians nervous--conversations appear in quotation marks, for instance, even when Talbott was not there to hear, much less record them, although he uses that device only when he got the quote from someone who was present.
In his defense, not only will history’s later drafts be much later, but they will have deformations of their own. Once government documents are available, future historians will give them too much credence, for we know that in the 1980s documents often are written precisely for history, or for self-protection or vindication. Those future histories are likely to lack the grit of reality provided by Talbott’s recitation of endless meetings, draftings and corridor chat.
Talbott’s history is primarily of strategic arms control, the strategic arms reduction talks, START for short, and their connection to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars.” He treats the events that led to the intermediate nuclear force (INF) treaty of 1987 more skimpily. His subject, Nitze, was less involved in those after 1983, and there were fewer negotiations between Washington and Moscow than between the United States and its European allies.
The short answer to why the United States did not move is well known: President Reagan refused to compromise his SDI even when it appeared he might have his cake and eat it too, achieving deep cuts in offensive forces while agreeing to constraints on SDI that would not really bind anything the United States was ready to do. He was urged on in that stance by his friend and defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, and especially, by Weinberger’s bureaucratically gifted deputy, Richard Perle.
Perle had disliked arms control long before he came to like SDI, but the uncompromising stand suited him perfectly. The Soviet Union was bound to argue, with reason, that it could not agree to deep reductions in its offense without having some assurances about the character of the defense it would face. Thus, no compromise on SDI meant no arms control.
To any suggestion that SDI be used tactically, for leverage, Perle retorted: “Once you agree to the principle of limiting deployment . . . you might as well kiss the whole program goodby.”
The longer answer is long indeed. Talbott’s book is a chronicle of just how tedious work in the government can be, even on the high politics of superpower arms control.
For three long years, beginning in 1985 when he was 78 years old, Nitze drafted and redrafted, named and renamed, argued and reargued schemes to persuade his President to have his cake and eat it too. He got some help from Robert McFarlane, the President’s national security adviser, who embraced SDI as a way to produce the “great sting,” an offense-for-defense trade that would do something about the Soviet missiles of most concern to the United States.
McFarlane, though, came to feel that the SDI he had embraced was “Frankenstein’s monster.” From others, Nitze got only passive acquiescence: George Shultz, the secretary of state, was typically inscrutable, while Max Kampelman, the chief negotiator and fellow Democrat, was open about the politics--the President would not budge, hence to press him was to risk influence.
Talbott admires Nitze, but his portrait is not altogether admiring. At one level, Nitze seems principled and determined, devoting his adult life to the service of his country. At another, though, he comes across as vain and ambitious. When his ambition for high office was thwarted, as it was more than once, his retaliation was nasty. So it was with his opposition to Paul Warnke as President Carter’s director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency once Nitze himself had been passed over. So, too, there seemed a personal edge to his Committee on the Present Danger’s opposition to the SALT II treaty, a treaty Nitze later used as the basis for his own attempt to do better.
For would-be followers of Nitze’s into the wars of government, Nitze’s career is exemplary but not entirely encouraging. He was meticulous about details and dogged almost beyond imagining, but he had the luxury of not needing to earn a living.
The line between doggedness and zealotry is one for the reader to judge: Nitze was a man whose idea of fun, according to Talbott, was to be locked into verbal combat at a Georgetown dinner party, oblivious to all else around him. In the end it took that zealotry not to reach his goal but, like Zeno’s arrow, only to keep reducing by half his distance from it.