Nitze, Paul

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(b. January 16, 1907; October 19, 2004) Investment banker; important architect of U.S. national security policy during the Cold War, and arms control negotiator during the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Paul Nitze entered government service in 1940 after a decade as an investment banker in New York. At the end of World War II, he was vice chair of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, an official study of the air war against Germany and Japan. The report he helped write emphasized that atomic bombs were important but not necessarily decisive weapons and that nations had to prepare for prolonged warfare in the nuclear age. After working on the Marshall Plan for postwar aid to Europe, Nitze became chair of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in 1950. The Soviet detonation of an atomic device in August 1949, which ended the U.S. nuclear monopoly, and the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war, led President Harry S. Truman to order a review of national security policy. Nitze supervised the study, known as NSC 68, which went to the president in April 1950 as a report of the National Security Council.

The report reflected Nitze's view that the Soviet Union posed a military as well as political threat and that the United States had to undertake "a rapid and sustained buildup" of its "political, economic, and military strength" to meet the danger. With the Soviet Union building an atomic arsenal, U.S. freedom and democracy were "in greater jeopardy than ever before in our history." President Truman at first deferred action on the recommendations in NSC 68 because of his concern about their costs. But after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Truman approved NSC 68. By 1953 national security spending had risen to an annual level of $50 billion, almost four times greater than when Nitze began writing NSC 68. Defense spending remained high even after the war was over, as the United States developed a national security state to meet continuing Cold War dangers.

After working for Johns Hopkins University while Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Nitze returned to government service in 1961 and held several important positions in the Pentagon, including deputy secretary of defense. Nitze regretted the loss of U.S. nuclear superiority during the 1960s, as the Soviets rapidly increased their arsenal of strategic missiles. He also had reservations about "mutual assured destruction" (MAD), the belief that the best way to prevent nuclear war was for both the Soviets and Americans to possess sufficient retaliatory power to inflict catastrophic losses upon each other. Nitze recognized that it would be impossible to regain nuclear superiority, so he advocated maintaining equivalent strength, an idea that guided his work as a negotiator in U.S.-Soviet arms talks beginning in 1969. Nitze made a major contribution to the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972, which established limits on missile defense systems. But he had reservations about the first Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) agreement, which Nixon and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev signed in 1972. Nitze resigned from the Nixon administration in 1974 and criticized the continuing SALT negotiations for allowing the Soviets to maintain advantages in powerful, offensive missiles. In 1976 he helped organize the Committee on the Present Danger, a private organization that warned that the United States risked falling behind in the nuclear arms race.

In 1981, President Reagan appointed Nitze as the chief U.S. negotiator in talks on intermediate range nuclear missiles. When the negotiations reached an impasse, Nitze and his Soviet counterpart left the conference table in Geneva and reached a tentative agreement as they walked in the Swiss mountains. Yet neither the Soviet government nor the Reagan administration had any enthusiasm for this "walk in the woods" compromise. Only in 1987, long after Nitze had left the negotiations, did the two sides agree to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. From 1984 to 1989, Nitze served as an arms control advisor to Secretary of State George Shultz and helped lay the foundation for deep cuts in Soviet and U.S. long-range nuclear missiles under the first Strategic Arms Reduction treaty of 1991.

Nitze never gained the public recognition of George F. Kennan, an expert on Soviet affairs who conceived of the strategy of containment at the beginning of the Cold War. Nor did he ever hold a cabinet position, as did James Forrestal, Henry Kissinger, and other important shapers of Cold War policy. Yet as the author of NSC 68, which many historians consider the most important U.S. policy paper of the Cold War, Nitze has had a lasting impact on national security policy and American society.


Callahan, David. Dangerous Capabilities: Paul Nitze and the Cold War. New York: Edward Burlingame, 1990.

Nitze, Paul H. From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the Center of Decision. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.

Rearden, Steven L. The Evolution of American Strategic Doctrine: Paul H. Nitze and the Soviet Challenge. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984.

Talbott, Strobe. The Master of the Game: Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Internet Resource

"NSC 68." Truman Presidential Museum and Library. Available from <>.

Chester J. Pach, Jr.

See alsoArms Control Debate; Cold War Mobilization; Containment and Détente; Kissinger, Henry; Korea, Impact of; NSC #68; Powell, Colin.