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If one would explain how the most abstruse metaphysical claims of a philosopher really came about,” Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “it is always well (and wise) to ask first: at what morality does all this (does he) aim?” With regard to any philosopher, he went on, “there is nothing whatever that is impersonal; and above all, his morality bears decided and decisive witness to who he is.” Substitute “policymaker” or “strategist” for “philosopher” and you have a pretty good idea of what Ned O’Gorman is up to in this sometimes insightful, often exasperating book.

O’Gorman examines four strategies articulated in the early years of the Cold War: containment, massive retaliation, liberation, and deterrence. Since each of these strategies was, in his words, an “expression of ‘spirit,’” that is, “motivated at least as much by worldviews” as by empirical fact, he links the four frameworks to the psychologies of four individuals—George Kennan, John Foster Dulles, Charles Douglas Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower—showing how each man’s strategic ideas were shaped by his temperament, values, and pre-conceptions. It is a worthwhile exercise. O’Gorman rightly says that political scientists and historians have too often ignored the role of personality in the formation of ideas. Foreign policy is not grounded in hard mathematical reality—there is nothing hard or mathematical about it. The field is a complicated interweaving of fact and value, externals and internals, substance and desire.

German thinking weighs heavily on O’Gorman’s book, for better and worse. While it helps him to understand the deep backgrounds of his four principals, it also trips him up in at least two ways. The first involves his use of Max Weber’s methodology. O’Gorman employs Weber’s ideal types to delineate the worldviews he identifies, and he even provides his readers with a chart for clarification. The chart does not clarify. The four worldviews are stoicism (Kennan), evangelicalism (Dulles), adventurism (Jackson) and romanticism (Eisenhower). One line of the chart shows their “typical means of addressing the tensions of foreign policy”: vigilant self-criticism, equivocation, irony and dualism; another the “typical typological mode”: metaphor, metonymy, irony and synecdoche. This kind of language brings back memories of long afternoons in stuffy classrooms. O’Gorman also likes to use words like “aporia” and “apatheia.”

Moreover, his ideal types are overly schematic and forced, more the product of his preconceptions than of the concepts he is trying to analyze. This is clearest in the case of C.D. Jackson. It is evident that Jackson doesn’t have the stature of the other three men, and doesn’t belong in their company. He served as Eisenhower’s psychological warfare adviser during World War II, and later directed Radio Free Europe and worked as an executive for Henry Luce, overseeing the various magazines of the Luce empire. No doubt he was an excellent bureaucrat. But here he is meant to represent the strategy that called for the liberation of the Communist-dominated countries of Eastern Europe, and because, as O’Gorman explains, he could be oblivious of “external obstacles” (which is to say, nuclear annihilation), he is categorized in the book’s scheme as an adventurer, an opportunist, even a nihilist.

But is there a strategy here at all? Isn’t it the case that what Jackson really represents is an ideologue unrestrained by the responsibilities of office, someone who is free to say whatever he wants because he doesn’t have to worry about the consequences? (Examples of similar “strategists” can be found in the current Republican presidential debates.) A more substantial voice for liberation was Dulles, who supported what he termed “rollback,” but who also declared that “no responsible person that I know of has advocated a war of liberation or an effort now to stir up the captive peoples to violent revolt.” Dulles would seem to be a better spokesman for the strategy of liberation, yet he occupies a separate category in the book’s structure, though O’Gorman never makes clear what the strategic differences—as opposed to the tactical differences—were between Dulles and Jackson.

Dulles, O’Gorman says, exhibited a greater degree of “equivocation” about liberation than Jackson did. That is right—Dulles had to take consequences into account. He might have admired the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956, but he was not about to start World War III to support them. He knew the difference between policy and posturing. It is not always clear that O’Gorman does. He is so eager to highlight the psychological motives of his four subjects that he all too readily plays down or ignores the ways in which the real world impinged on their thinking.

That is O’Gorman’s second German-inspired misstep, and it is best seen in his discussion of Eisenhower. O’Gorman describes Eisenhower as a “romantic,” a rather surprising word to use for that hard-nosed, practical military commander. What he means is that as president Eisenhower pursued the “dualistic” strategy that we know as deterrence—publicly advocating world peace while at the same time building up America’s nuclear arsenal. O’Gorman finds the source for this apparently contradictory stance in various nineteenth-century romantics who also engaged in double-track thinking as they sought to reconcile nature and spirit or fact and value. Rousseau, Herder, Goethe, Coleridge and Emerson are mentioned. What’s Herder to Ike, or Ike to Herder? (Eisenhower’s second Secretary of State was named Herter, but that doesn’t count.)  O’Gorman has no firm evidence for an intellectual connection, so he speculates, wildly: “Such romantic portraitures could have come to Eisenhower in any number of ways. … It should not be forgotten that he was educated nearer to the turn of the century, an age in which the likes of Emerson, Goethe and Carlyle permeated schooling.”

And Eisenhower wasn’t simply influenced by the romantics. Like them, O’Gorman continues, he turned dualism into a philosophy. “He stood amidst incongruities, paradoxes and even contradictions,” and the “romantic” strategy of deterrence was his way of maintaining a necessary balance. Its seeming inconsistency actually masked a consistency that emphasized spiritual values, American values, in the face of Cold War demands. Or as O’Gorman writes, Eisenhower “elevated the difference between political necessity and national purpose to near-ontological status.” That’s one way of putting it. Another is to simply say that Eisenhower was a pragmatic politician who, like any American president, was trying to cope with the conflicting requirements of his office. Eisenhower and ontology?  “Muddling through” is a more useful category for understanding him. At one point, O’Gorman says: “I risk inviting the epithet of ‘literary criticism.’” You might say that.

In his enthusiasm for loose parallels and vague affinities, O’Gorman sometimes seems to be sending us dispatches from another planet. And yet his chapters on Dulles and Kennan are worth our attention. This is not an accident. Dulles and Kennan embody the two broad strategies that have dominated American foreign policy since the Spanish-American war: Wilsonianism and realpolitik. O’Gorman himself says he personally is “caught” between Dulles and Kennan, and he is not the only one.

It should hardly come as news that Dulles was moralistic in his thinking, intent on spreading democracy around the world. But O’Gorman provides us with a useful guide to the underpinnings of that thinking, and teases out some of the implications.

Dulles was a prophet by temperament, an evangelical visionary who believed in objective moral law, absolute right and wrong. In his own writings, he spoke of a new world order, mass conversion to The Good, “an ethic of universal solidarity.” O’Gorman shows us the Calvinist origins of these ideas and, more surprising, the influence of the French-Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson. After graduating from Princeton in 1908, Dulles went to Paris to study with Bergson, whose thought, O’Gorman writes, “tracked closely” with the evangelical notion of a progressive world order. Bergson was an admirer of Woodrow Wilson and a supporter of the League of Nations. “Throughout the remainder of his career,” O’Gorman tells us, “Dulles drew heavily on Bergson’s concepts and categories.”

But if Bergson’s doctrine took flight in an ethic of universal love that was a secular version of evangelical Christianity, it came to rest in Dulles’s doctrine of massive retaliation in which civilization ran the risk of being obliterated through nuclear war. Calvinist absolutists such as Dulles divided mankind into saints and sinners—the first group abetting progress toward the goal of universal solidarity, the second obstructing it. In the climate of the Cold War, he had no trouble identifying who was who: Americans were a virtuous people, an exceptional people. Their battle against Communism was a moral struggle of good against evil, and for an absolutist personality, it was better to perish than to allow evil to prevail—thus the doctrine of massive retaliation. Dulles, the secretary of state, could be pragmatic when he had to be; Dulles, the Old Testament prophet, was prepared to destroy the world in order to save it.

Naturally, Dulles thought George Kennan’s strategy of containment was immoral, or at best amoral, because it tolerated human suffering and encouraged Washington to compromise with evil. Kennan heartily reciprocated Dulles’s dislike. Foreign policy for him was not a moralistic struggle with the promise of victory bringing an end to history; it was a Sisyphean task in which there was always a rock to be rolled uphill. “The best humanity can hope for,” Kennan wrote, “is an even and undramatic muddling along on its mysterious and unknowable paths.” In the best chapter in his book, O’Gorman shows how this stoical temperament was a key to Kennan’s strategic thinking.

Readers of John Lewis Gaddis’s authoritative George F. Kennan: An American Life already know that throughout his life Kennan was sour, morose, and pessimistic. “Life can never be other than tragic,” he said, and that outlook, or “worldview,” dictated a policy of caution, moderation, and quiet if unflagging strength. Moralism, with its absolutist strictures, was a dangerous and hopeless pursuit, its implicit utopianism “almost criminally unforgivable.” The world was never going to be brought together in universal brotherhood, and it would be reckless for the United States to build its foreign policy on a program of intervening to eradicate what it viewed as evil. It was better advised to understand its genuine interests and to safeguard them. Therefore, the Soviet Union had to be contained, not converted.

O’Gorman notes that Kennan’s actual policy prescriptions were often vague, and that containment could be used to justify actions at odds with his own specific positions. I think he is wrong to suggest that it could legitimately be employed in support of McCarthyism and the Vietnam war: too many dubious assumptions and questionable steps of logic—such as ignoring the fact that Kennan was one of the earliest and most influential opponents of the war--are required to get us from George Kennan to the Big Muddy. But I think he is utterly convincing—and at his strongest—in arguing that Kennan was less interested in formulating particular policies than in shaping the overall perspective of policymakers. Kennan did not teach “what to do,” but “how to be.” Containment was a school for stoicism.

The Kennan chapter is O’Gorman’s best because Kennan, of his four subjects, is the best exemplar of the interplay of policy and personality. “Without stoicism,” O’Gorman writes, “we would never have had Kennan’s containment.” That is probably an overstatement, but one knows what he means. And the argument can be taken even further, as Kennan himself probably did. It might be said that Kennan’s particular brand of pessimism, his tragic sense of life, is a necessary prerequisite for the conduct of sound foreign policy, that benevolent optimists and other do-gooders are not equipped to handle affairs of state. Think Bush One vs. Bush Two. It is a virtue of Spirits of the Cold War that it provokes such thoughts; and whether they are true or not, what can certainly be said is that American foreign policy since the time George Kennan served in government gave him—and the rest of us—a great deal to be pessimistic about.

Barry Gewen is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.