Containing the Atom: Paul Nitze and the Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons

On a rainy day in June 1982, two men sat on a log in the forest outside of Geneva, Switzerland. The topic of conversation was nothing less than the terms of a dramatic nuclear arms reduction pact between the United States and the Soviet Union. For weeks delegates from both nations had been butting heads at the negotiating table with little progress to show for it. Frustrated, and fearing the ultimate failure of this unusual opportunity to limit the scope of the furious Cold War nuclear arms race, these two delegates departed from the confines of their retreat center for what would come to be known as “the walk in the woods.” Seated face-to-face on a fallen tree, the two men from opposite sides of an iron curtain hashed out the details of a compromise between East and West. Far from the White House and the Kremlin, Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitszinsky’s frank discussion on that afternoon demonstrated that the unlimited proliferation of nuclear arsenals was not predestined, and that individuals long associated with unflinching commitments to nuclear strength could now seriously envision a world without the existence of threatening nuclear arms. The biggest surprise was on the American side, as Paul Nitze, a fixture of the US defense establishment since World War II and the hawkish author of NSC-68, had come to believe in the idea of completely eliminating nuclear weapons. His apparent turnabout was so unexpected that it begs the question of whether the United States had ever really been serious about using the nuclear weapons in its vast stockpile.