July 29, 2012


The Sources of American Conduct : A review of George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis (Angelo M. Codevilla, July 23, 2012, Claremont Review of Books)

Gaddis's subtitle, An American Life, reminds the reader that George Kennan's intellectual and emotional ambivalences are anything but atypical of America's 20th-century upper-middle class, that they are interesting to us because they explain, to some extent, the class that gave the American Century its character, and that such things are among the deepest sources of American conduct. The most basic factor among them was a sense of superiority to the mass of Americans. Like others of his class, Kennan loved the America of his own reminiscences, imagination, and close acquaintances, while loathing the rest of Americans and the civilization they represented. He recalled lovingly his youth at his family's compound on a Wisconsin lake, and treasured his gentleman's farm in exurban Pennsylvania, as equivalents of Chekov's spiritual communion with the cherry orchard of his doomed character, Ravenskaya. These "stood for certain ideals of decency and courage, and generosity." Kennan's attitude toward the rest of America seems a paraphrase of the Pharisee's prayer in the Temple: "Lord I thank thee that I am not like other Americans...."

Thus when Kennan looked at Hitler's Germany in the 1930s he saw primarily "a great garden, well kept and blooming...populated by clean and healthy people." By the same token, while he recognized that Communism negates the soul--Soviet funerals showed "the meaninglessness of life expounded and argued from the meaninglessness of death"--he nevertheless thought it was better "to sell one's soul...than to let it dry up in its own bitterness and get nothing for it whatsoever."

Lack of soul, or indeed of anything worthy, is what Kennan saw in ordinary Americans. He wished that Americans might "have their toys taken away from them, be spanked, educated, and made to grow up." That would take a "strong central power (far stronger than the present constitution would allow)." Meanwhile, he expressed revulsion at the sight of well-fed, "shapeless, droopy" Americans, getting out of their cars "tired from not walking," "a skin disease of the earth." He told his diary: "I hate democracy; I hate the press.... I hate the 'peepul;' I have become clearly un-American." America was unworthy of him. [...]

In 1947 Kennan became a victim of the Peter Principle. Having become a celebrity, he was promoted out of his competence as a reporting diplomat and into the role of a policymaker, which encouraged him to pontificate, to indulge his prejudices and inner instability.

He began well enough. In the spring of 1947, as the "X" article was being printed, he advised Secretary of State George C. Marshall that containing the Soviets in Europe required relieving the continent's misery, which in turn required massive American economic aid with the sole condition that plans for it be coordinated among Europeans and agreed upon with Americans. The ensuing "Marshall Plan" indeed started the process that Kennan had advocated, of "turning former enemies into allies." But it was downhill from there.

As theoretically sound and similarly influential, but pregnant with trouble, was Kennan's critique of President Truman's pledge of aid to Greece and Turkey. The decision was the first manifestation of the "Truman Doctrine," a promise to intervene in any and every situation where there might be danger of the Soviets gaining any advantage, no matter how small or temporary. Kennan's general point was valid enough: surely no principle of policy applies automatically to any and all circumstances. Indeed, Gaddis reminds us that Kennan's formulation of containment had implied both automaticity and universality, rendering his critique of the Truman Doctrine a refutation of his own words.

Kennan the policymaker argued strenuously for retrenching U.S. commitments. Czechoslovakia should be allowed to fall to the Communists, never mind the sad precedents of 1938-39. Even China, he argued, on which America had placed so many hopes and expended so much blood and treasure, should be permitted to go Red--the sooner the better. To boot, he urged driving the anti-Communist side out of Taiwan. He repeated that the Soviets could not hold onto such conquests, that they would choke on them in the long run. But Gaddis notes that in Kennan's original formulation, containment's virtue consisted substantially of depriving the Soviets of vital psychological satisfaction. Would Communist victories in China and Czechoslovakia not give them that satisfaction? And what would their victories do to us psychologically? Why would Kennan's new version of "containment," which seemed to be about containing America more than the Soviet Union, not dispirit and destroy us instead of them?

Because Kennan never addressed such questions directly, we may well suspect that his enthusiasm for retrenchment came, not from any understanding of history or principles of statecraft, but instead from his increasing socio-political identification with Americans who believed Soviet advances and American retreats were inherently good. Indeed, to the extent he got involved in policy and politics, he set principles aside. His mind seemed to work on two mutually exclusive levels. For example, he seemed unaware that his statement of diplomatic principles in American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 was identical to the argument of A Foreign Policy for Americans, published in the same year by Robert Taft, whom he loathed socio-politically. In later years, he reacted with outright disbelief when discovering that his views matched those of conservatives.

...by John LeCarre, who shared this loathing for America.

Posted by at July 29, 2012 8:01 AM

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