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Paul H. Nitze, ‘icon’ of State Department, dies

Paul H. Nitze, whose hard line toward the Kremlin helped shape U.S. diplomatic and military strategy during the Cold War, has died at 97.
Paul Nitze, 97, was ebullient at a ceremony in April when the Navy christened a destroyer the USS Nitze at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Paul H. Nitze, who pursued a hard-line approach toward the Kremlin as he helped shape U.S. diplomatic and military strategy during the Cold War, has died at age 97.

His son, William A. Nitze, said he died Tuesday night at his home in the Georgetown area of Washington. A funeral service will be Saturday at Washington National Cathedral.

Nitze’s long career, which began with success on Wall Street as a young investment banker and included government service under eight presidents, was capped in April in Bath, Maine, as he witnessed the christening of a warship bearing his name.

Seated in a wheelchair, Nitze, a former Navy secretary, smiled broadly as his wife, Leezee Porter, swung a champagne bottle against the destroyer’s bow to the cheers of hundreds of onlookers. A band then broke into “Anchors Aweigh,” and red, white and blue streamers and confetti shot into the air.

President Ronald Reagan awarded Nitze the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, in 1985.

Architect of anti-Soviet buildup
A self-described “hard-nosed pragmatist,” Nitze as director of the State Department’s policy planning staff in 1950 helped frame the strategy of building up U.S. forces to keep the Soviets contained in Eastern Europe.

He wrote in a 1950 national security paper that the Soviets were “animated by a new, fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, which seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.”

“I didn’t think we should go to war with the Soviets, and I don’t think they wanted to go to war with us,” Nitze said three decades later. “But how do you conduct things so that the Soviets would be deterred from foreign expansion and be forced to look inward at their own problems?”

The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington was founded in 1943 by Nitze and the late former Secretary of State Christian Herter. Nitze could not attend the school’s annual banquet last week, at which Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke in tribute to his long government service.

“He is an icon to those of us who are in the State Department,” Powell said.

Recalling their time working together in the Reagan administration, when Powell was national security adviser, Powell said sitting with Nitze “was like having Moses at the table.”

In 1957, Nitze conceived the idea of attaching a “think tank” to the school, which is now called the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute. Three years later, he helped Johns Hopkins University raise $4.2 million for the SAIS building near Dupont Circle, which was named for Nitze and his first wife, Phyllis Pratt Nitze, in 1986.

Then, two years later, he offered to match any amount SAIS raised to expand the school. The goal was reached in 1989, doubling the school’s space with another building.

Democrat gravitated to Reagan
Nitze, a conservative Democrat, was a natural fit for Reagan’s Republican administration that began in 1981 because they both opposed President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union.

Along with a few other prominent conservative Democrats, organized as the Committee on the Present Danger, they contended that the treaty could not be verified and would enable the Soviets to strengthen their nuclear arsenal. Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

The hard-line Democrats, convinced that their party had drifted leftward, swung to support Reagan, himself a former Democrat.

Nitze took charge of negotiating reductions in intermediate-range missiles with the Soviet Union in 1981 for Reagan, who had changed direction to support arms control accords.

The negotiations were marked by a “walk in the woods” near Geneva, Switzerland, in July 1982 with the Soviet negotiator, Yuli Kvitsinsky, that produced a compromise breakthrough, but the treaty was not concluded at the time.

Wide influence from the shadows
Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and author of a 1988 biography of Nitze, called him “an extraordinary and influential figure over a long period of time.”

“It was all the more remarkable because he operated at a level below the Cabinet and had a cumulative impact way beyond those who were secretary of state and secretary of defense,” Talbott said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Nitze “could be ferocious as an opponent on the outside when he was not in the government,” said Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

Born in Amherst, Mass., the son of William Albert Nitze, a Romance languages scholar, Nitze grew up in Chicago, graduated from Harvard University in 1927 and worked for 12 years as an investment banker at Dillon Read & Co., before taking his first government post in 1940 in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

In 1986, reflecting on the Soviet Union, which was to disintegrate five years later, Nitze said negotiating with the Soviets was like working with a defective vending machine.

“You put your quarter in, but you don’t get anything out,” he said. “You can shake it. You can talk to it. But you know it won’t do any good. It just won’t talk back to you.”

Nitze is survived by his wife, four children, 11 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.