April 18, 2007


The Sources of George Kennan's Conduct: a review of George Kennan: A Study of Character by John Lukacs (CARL ROLLYSON, April 18, 2007, NY Sun)

Profound respect for Kennan the man and the writer is writ large on every page of this crystalline book, which is a kind of throwback to the 18th century, when the term "character" meant a good deal more than it does today. Life may be unpredictable and ever changing, but character "changes hardly or not at all," Mr. Lukacs asserts. "And by ‘character' I mean his conscious decisions, choices, acts and words, but nothing of his — socalled — subconscious; that is, no attribution of psychoanalytic categories, no ham-handed projections or propositions of secret or hidden motives."

Mr. Kennan's character consisted of certain lifelong principles: Liberal democracies should be viewed with as much concern as dictatorships; the major defining event of the 20th century was World War I, not the Russian Revolution; diplomacy is nearly always a better course of action than intervening in the internal affairs of other nations.

What were the practical consequences of Mr. Kennan's principles? He objected, for example, to much of what passed for American anti-Communism because it was hysterical and ignorant. Stalin should be viewed as a Russian tyrant who had certain national goals, not as an international revolutionary who wanted to take over the world. When Kennan argued that Soviet communism had to be contained, he viewed the USSR as pursuing tsarist goals: dominating Eastern and Central Europe. In the long run — as Kennan predicted as early as the 1940s — the Soviets would not be able to hold onto Eastern Europe, let alone the rest of the world. So much of the American anti-communist talk was puerile, he concluded, especially when coupled with "national self-adulation."

He pretty much understood their weakness but underestimated our strength. The result was containment/Cold War, the worst of the three options available.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2007 10:24 AM

The three options being, I suppose:

1) Atom bomb the Soviet Union
2) Let the Soviets take over western Europe and Asia
3) Containment

And number 3 is the worst? Worst for whom? That is the important question.

Posted by: Brandon at April 18, 2007 12:12 PM

It was the worst for everyone, not least the Russians.

Posted by: oj at April 18, 2007 1:52 PM

Some historians might make a case that a more openly confrontational approach could have speeded the 'inevitable' implosion. There were costs involved in Kennan's approach that may have been avoided. The fear of mutually assured destruction or the overrunning of Western Europe and it's acceptance as policy by the State Department implies some fears by same that the Soviets were more powerful than do you or even kennan. What did Reagan do after all than nothing more than calling a spade a spade, so to speak, while tactically arming that part of Europe. He was really the first to call the bluff. It may have been right to have done it earlier in the game.

The real story would be what were the domestic political motivations for dragging things out.

Posted by: at April 18, 2007 2:29 PM