By Rose Nelan
January 14, 1985 12:00 PM

In Washington, a town where proximity is power, Paul Nitze’s elevation a few weeks back from the fifth floor of the State Department building to a seventh-floor office was regarded with more than casual interest. Nitze’s new digs are but a few doors from the suite commanded by Secretary of State George Shultz. Indeed, when Shultz sits down this week in Geneva with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to work up an agenda to resume arms control talks, the word is that he will rely heavily on the wily counsel of his “special adviser”—the man the Soviets know as the “Silver Fox.”

At 77, an age when lesser mortals are content to take their gold watches, Nitze is a veteran of tête-à-têtes with the Soviets, a man who has served every post-war U.S. president except Eisenhower and Carter. “Whereas most of us have to draw on history books,” says one admiring State Department colleague, “Paul draws on personal experiences he has had at the highest levels since World War II.”

Cut from the same Ivy League cloth as Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, Nitze is the picture of the senior statesman. He is known, however, as a somewhat more rugged performer than they—a shrewd debater who prepares for negotiations in the meticulous way a lawyer prepares a case for trial. Arms control expert Strobe Talbott, in his book Deadly Gambits, observes that Nitze “genuinely enjoys what many have found the tedious exercise of banging his head against the stone Soviet wall.”

By birth Nitze would seem to have been made for more genteel pursuits. His father was professor of romance languages at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and the family moved in a comfortable, intellectually stimulating environment. Harvard-educated, Nitze spent 10 years as an investment banker in New York. There he met and married Phyllis Pratt, whose grandfather co-founded Standard Oil of New York, and with whom he has four children. By the late 1930s Nitze’s shrewd investments made him rich. In the ’40s he and his brother-in-law were foresighted enough to buy real estate in Aspen, Colo., which they sold to 20th Century-Fox in 1977 for $50 million.

Nitze came to Washington during World War II as an economic adviser. In 1944, as Vice Chairman of the Strategic Bombing Survey, he was among the first to stand on the scorched earth of Hiroshima, an experience critical to his subsequent career. Seeing Hiroshima, he says, “made one think about how he could prevent such a thing from ever occurring again.”

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations Nitze served as Secretary of the Navy and later as Deputy Secretary of Defense. In 1972 he helped negotiate SALT I, the first Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty with the Soviets. But in the late ’70s he worked against SALT II in the belief that Jimmy Carter’s treaty granted the Soviets nuclear superiority. Says one defense expert: “The way he carried on his campaign [against SALT II] verged on the mono-maniacal. He harangued people.”

With his work against SALT II, Nitze revised his image from that of a realist to that of a hard-liner, and his new posture recommended him to the Reagan Administration. But as chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva arms talks, Nitze also brought with him an overriding desire to reach accord with the Soviets—the legacy of his post-war pilgrimage to Hiroshima. In July of 1982 Nitze and Soviet representative Yuli Kvitsinsky took their now famous “walk in the woods” outside Geneva and hammered out an unauthorized proposal. The package was disowned by Washington and Moscow as soon as it leaked, and Nitze was roundly condemned by conservatives.

Now, as he he prepares for new arms talks, drafting refinements of U.S. positions in longhand notes, Nitze must once again balance his instincts for a strong defense with his belief in the necessity of arms control. For that reason, he seems well suited to his purpose. “Because of the specter of nuclear conflict, he believes we have to get along with the Russians,” as one State Department colleague puts it. “But the Russians regard him as a worthy opponent, and he has no illusions about them.”