November 14, 2011


The Age of Kennan: a review of GEORGE F. KENNAN: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (HENRY A. KISSINGER, 11/10/11, NY Times Book Review)

Kennan had rejected the proposition of an inherent American-Soviet harmony from the moment it was put forward and repeatedly criticized what he considered Washington's excessively accommodating stance on Soviet territorial advances. In February 1946, the United States Embassy in Moscow received a query from Washington as to whether a doctrinaire speech by Stalin inaugurated a change in the Soviet commitment to a harmonious international order. The ambassador was away, and Kennan, at that time 42 and deputy chief of mission, replied in a five-part telegram of 19 single-spaced pages. The essence of the so-called Long Telegram was that Stalin, far from changing policy, was in fact implementing a particularly robust version of traditional Russian designs. These grew out of Russia's strategic culture and its centuries-old distrust of the outside world, onto which the Bolsheviks had grafted an implacable revolutionary doctrine of global sweep. Soviet leaders would not be swayed by good-will gestures. They had devoted their lives (and sacrificed millions of their compatriots) to an ideology positing a fundamental conflict between the Communist and capitalist worlds. Marxist dogma rendered even more truculent by the Leninist interpretation was, Kennan wrote, "justification for their instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value. . . . Today they cannot dispense with it."

The United States, Kennan insisted (sometimes in telegramese), was obliged to deal with this inherent hostility. With many of the world's traditional power centers devastated and the Soviet leadership controlling vast natural resources and "the energies of one of world's greatest peoples," a contest about the nature of world order was inevitable. This would be "undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face."

In 1947, Kennan went public in a briefly anonymous article published in Foreign Affairs, signed by "X." Among the thousands of articles produced on the subject, Kennan's stands in a class by itself. Lucidly written, passionately argued, it elevated the debate to a philosophy of history.

The X article condensed the Long Telegram and gave it an apocalyptic vision. Soviet foreign policy represented "a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power." The only way to deal with Moscow was by "a policy of firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

So far this was a doctrine of equilibrium much like what a British foreign secretary in the 19th century might have counseled in dealing with a rising power -- though the British foreign secretary would not have felt the need to define a final outcome. What conferred a dramatic quality on the X article was the way Kennan combined it with the historic American dream of the ultimate conversion of the adversary. Victory would come not on the battlefield nor even by diplomacy but by the implosion of the Soviet system. It was "entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions" this eventuality. At some point in Moscow's futile confrontations with the outside world -- so long as the West took care they remained futile -- some Soviet leader would feel the need to achieve additional support by reaching down to the immature and inexperienced masses. But if "the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument" was ever so disrupted, "Soviet Russia might be changed over night from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies."

No other document forecast so presciently what would in fact occur under Mikhail Gorbachev. But that was four decades away.

Four and a half decades of wasted lives and wealth and cultural degradation.

Posted by at November 14, 2011 4:06 PM

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