November 7, 2011


Getting Real: George F. Kennan's Cold War: a review of George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (Louis Menand November 14, 2011, The New Yorker)

The war in Europe was won on the Eastern Front. Between June 22, 1941, the day Germany invaded Russia, and June 6, 1944, D Day, ninety-three per cent of German military casualties--4.2 million missing, wounded, or killed--were inflicted by Soviet forces. Stalin was not an ally of choice; Roosevelt and Churchill understood the ethical niceties of the situation they found themselves in. In an earlier book, Gaddis quotes a saying of Roosevelt's (apparently a Balkan proverb): "It is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge." The Allied coalition was held together by one common goal: the total defeat of Nazi Germany.

There is no doubt that Stalin saw things the same way. In the most uncharacteristic blunder of his career, he had imagined that he could talk turkey with Hitler, and, in 1939, had signed a non-aggression treaty with Nazi Germany. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, twenty-two months later, Stalin was completely unprepared--one reason that the death toll in the East was so enormous. The Wehrmacht had come within sight of Moscow; it cost the Soviets almost a million lives to beat the Germans off, and millions more to drive them all the way back to Berlin. In the end, Soviet dead exceeded twenty-six million, roughly fourteen per cent of the population. (Fewer than half a million Americans died in the war.) Stalin needed a second front in the West, just as Roosevelt and Churchill needed the Red Army in the East.

From the start, the question was what the price would be. Stalin's view was uncomplicated. "This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system," he explained privately to a group of Communist officials when the Red Army was bearing down on Berlin. "Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise." This is exactly the way Kennan thought that the Soviets understood the matter, and he regarded Soviet intentions in Eastern Europe as the worm in the Allied apple. Once Germany was defeated, Moscow would revert to prewar form, and the United States would have little leverage. But he could not seem to get anyone to acknowledge that the worm was there.

In August, 1944, with Soviet troops less than sixty miles from Warsaw, partisans in the Polish Home Army staged an uprising against the city's German occupiers. Stalin failed to intervene militarily; he refused to airlift armaments to the Polish fighters; and he turned down Harriman's personal appeal to allow Allied planes to refuel at Ukrainian bases so they could get supplies into Warsaw. Stalin's motives were not hard to guess. He was waiting for the S.S., which had taken over the battle in Warsaw, to annihilate the Home Army for him, thereby removing a potential obstacle to the establishment of a Soviet puppet regime when the war was over.

The S.S. more than obliged. Though Stalin eventually relented, and the Soviets airlifted (actually, simply dropped from planes) matériel into Warsaw, it was to little effect. In two months, the Germans killed twenty thousand members of the Home Army and massacred two hundred and twenty-five thousand civilians. Half a million Poles were shipped to concentration camps, a hundred and fifty thousand were sent off to forced labor in Germany, and, on Hitler's orders, Warsaw was razed. When the Red Army entered the city, in January, 1945, not a single inhabitant was left.

Kennan always believed that this was the moment when Stalin showed his hand. In the "Memoirs," he recalls Harriman returning from his futile meeting about the Ukrainian bases "in the wee hours of the night, shattered by the experience. There was no doubt in any of our minds as to the implications of the position the Soviet leaders had taken. This was a gauntlet thrown down, in a spirit of malicious glee, before the Western powers." Kennan thought that the Soviets should have been given the choice, right there, of relinquishing their designs on Eastern Europe or forgoing further American assistance. He didn't think that this would have stopped Stalin; he considered the creation of a Soviet "sphere of influence" inevitable. But it would have ended the impression of American acquiescence.

In all his reports, Kennan's repeated message to Washington was "Get real." He didn't just disapprove of idealistic policy talk. He deeply loathed it. Declarations about the self-determination of peoples or international economic coöperation--the kind of thing that Roosevelt and Churchill announced as Allied war aims in the Atlantic Charter--seemed to him not only utopian and unenforceable but dangerously restrictive on a government's scope of action. If you tell the world that you are fighting to preserve the right of self-determination, then any outcome short of that makes you look hypocritical or weak.

By not fighting to destroy Communism as well as Nazism we were hypocritical and weak, and the Cold War was the price we paid for it, as WWII was the price for Wilson's hypocrisy after WWI and the WoT has been the price for our hypocrisy in preferring the "stability" afforded by Arab dictators to the unruliness of Muslim democracy.   All we've done in these instances was delay the inevitable at great cost to the peoples we failed and to our own society.

Posted by at November 7, 2011 8:48 AM

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