The death of George F. Kennan the other day at the age of 101 is a milestone in the history of American diplomacy. It also provides a terrifying reminder of the almost complete lack of any real dissent regarding fundamentals of American foreign policy today, and the extent to which the United States's foreign policy elite has succumbed to the temptation of seemingly absolute power.
Despite Kennan's extraordinary influence during the early years of the Cold War, when he helped design and enunciate the containment policy towards the Soviet Union, he was, beginning in 1950, a man out of step with his time. Indeed, as he often acknowledged, he felt out of step with America, and had relatively little trust in the instincts of the American people, especially as reflected in the attitudes of Senators and Congressmen with whom he had to deal. He believed in government by an elite--an intellectual, and to some extent, a moral elite. Yet his views on foreign policy could not hardly have differed more from those of the Straussian neo-conservative elite that hold our destiny in our hands today. Kennan was, more than anything else, a skeptic--a skeptic about power, about American influence in the world, and, indeed, about human nature and the perfectability of mankind. That, more than anything else, divided him from his contemporaries and from the next generation, and turned him into an outcast for the last fifty years of his life.
Kennan saw totalitarianism first hand, both in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia, and he had no illusions about it. His role in the formation of the containment policy dated from early 1946, when he warned in his famous Long Telegram that the wartime alliance was over and the United States had to treat the Soviet Union as a hostile power. Yet he was convinced, as he wrote a year later in the X article, that the Soviets did not want war with the United States, and that the Cold War did not require a primarily military response. He supported the Marshall Plan because he felt Western Europe had to be put back on its feet, but he was uncomfortable about the formation of NATO because he did not want to help divide Europe into hostile blocs. By 1950 he thought the Communists had clearly been kept out of western Europe, and that the time had come to reach some kind of a detente with Stalin that would allow the world to live in peace. But it was in that year that he was replaced as head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department by Paul Nitze, who argued in NSC-68 that the United States had to achieve clear military superiority over the Soviet Union and roll back its influence before any kind of settlement had been reached. Military supremacy remained a pillar of American policy for most of the rest of the Cold War.
In 1953, at the age of 50, Kennan was driven out of the State Department by John Foster Dulles, who did not have the courage to offer the man who had coined the dreaded word "containment" a new job. As Kennan wrote in the second volume of his memoirs, Dulles knew there was no alternative to containment despite his and Dwight Eisenhower's calls for "liberation" in the 1952 campaign, but letting its architecht go was one way to distance himself from the concept. Kennan's account of his last day at the department is one of the most moving passages I have ever read. It's an irony of fate that certain professions exile the men and women who care about them most, and he, like Col. David Hackworth, was one of those.
From then until 1990 Kennan saw no reason for the Cold War to continue. Only two subsequent Presidents, he felt, understood his views. John Kennedy brought him back into government briefly as Ambassador to Yugoslavia and, in 1963, began the kind of detente with the Soviet Union that Kennan had long advocated, and Kennan made clear in his memoirs that he cherished their brief association. Richard Nixon, Kennedy's great rival, also tried to stabilize the Soviet-American relationship. In 1992, in one of his last published writings, Kennan violently attacked Dan Quayle and George Bush for claiming to have won the Cold War. Everyone, he said, had lost the Cold War, by spending far too much money on arms, by undertaking needless wars in the third world, and by maintaining a needlessly hostile atmosphere. And Kennan was among the first to realize that the collapse of the Soviet Union could easily create a more, rather than a less, dangerous world.
Kennan rejected the idea that the United States had to take a keen interest in political change all over the world. This was, in part, a racial judgment. I discovered a document a few years ago, written in 1962, in which he suggested that democracy only seemed to work among people whose ancestors were fortunate enough to have been born on the shores of the North Sea. That, I believe, was far too narrow a view, but history has shown that the promotion of democracy does not always have the best results. Kennan, I think, understood that the peoples of the world need, to begin with, to live with a certain minimum of food, peace, and security, allowing them to live, work, raise their families, and pursue the arts. Those are the blessings of which the United States has now deprived the Iraqi people, for instance, for two years, with no end in sight.
Kennan's death reminds me of my recent reaction to a fascinating documentary film, The Game of Their Lives, about the North Korean soccer team that competed in England at the 1966 World Cup. The North Koreans, whose flag initially the British Foreign Office did not want to allow to fly for political reasons, won the hearts of the fans of Middlesborough (where they upset Italy 1-0) and Liverpool (where they lost to Portugal, 5-3, in one of the most exciting quarterinals in World Cup history) with their sportsmanship and spirited play. What was more interesting, however, were the more recent interviews the film featured with some of the players in North Korea today. We have become accusomted to thinking of North Korea as a hell-hole threatening the world with nuclear weapons, and it surely is a depressing regime. But the people we saw in the film were clearly eating regularly, and even having banquets on their birthdays. More importantly, the players spoke with genuine affection about their late leader Kim Il Sung and credited his teachings for some of their success.
I do not, of course, share those views, and I don't think Kennan would either. Yet I like to think he would have recognized those views as a product of various accidents of history that have led tens of millions of people to be born, live, and die, under a Communist regime. Kennan would also have appreciated the monumental North Korean effort to rebuild their country (and especially their capital) after it was almost completetly levelled by American bombing during the Korean War. In short, rather than write off the whole country and threaten it with war if it did not change its regime, he would have respected its regime as the unfortunate outcome of history--much of that history no fault of North Koreans themselves--and he would have trusted to time and human nature to do something about it.
It is that view, sadly, which seems almost to have disappeared from American public life. One hundred years ago, the Spanish-American War generated a healthy anti-imperialist reaction, and many distinguished Americans argued that we should lead the world only by example, and that the worst native government was better than the best one that could be imposed from outside. Now the idea that we know what is best for everyone has become orthodoxy, and not only in the Bush Administration. We do not debate our goals; we debate how we can achieve them. Thus we shall all suffer if they prove, once again, to be far too grandiose.
Kennan was an independent thinker, and he suffered the fate that most such thinkers undergo. In 1950, when the Soviets exploded an atomic weapon, he argued rather brilliantly that the use of nuclear weapons could not possibly serve American objectives--but he could not halt the arms race. Only briefly did he enjoy the influence he deserved, but he always remained true to himself and always had unusually interesting things to say. In 1983, when I wrote and mailed him a somewhat mixed review of his book on the Franco-Prussian alliance, he immediately replied with one of the nicest letters I have ever received. It was my great regret that when my book on Vietnam appeared in 2000, he was apparently no longer well enough to read it. Yet I have to believe he would have recognized his own influence, and I am glad to have done my small bit to keep some of his ideas alive.