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Kennan’s Realism

On Dealing with the Communist World

by George F. Kennan
Harper & Row (for the Council on Foreign Relations), 51 pp., $3.00

Mr. George Kennan’s many claims to eminence include an enviable capacity for reducing complex problems to relatively simple terms. Scholar-diplomats are rare: diplomats who can put scholarship to enlightened uses are even less common. Mr. Kennan has only recently retired from the post of U.S. Ambassador to Belgrade, and already he has found it possible to turn his stay in Yugoslavia to good purpose, for much of the substance of his latest work (originally delivered in lecture form) clearly represents a distillation of thoughts that occurred to him during those two and a half years spent in an East European environment. This interplay of practice and theory is what his readers have come to expect from him. Even those who missed the intellectual shock of his famous “X” paper on Soviet conduct in the July 1947 Foreign Affairs have by now acquired the habit of looking to him for variations on this theme, and—perhaps, who knows?—for signs of how the wind may be blowing in official or Congressional quarters where the perennial problem of coexistence is concerned.

In this latter respect, though, readers of his most recent publication—a slim volume of not much more than fifty pages—are likely to suffer some degree of puzzlement. From the disillusioned, not to say despondent, tone he adopts, they must derive an impression that Mr. Kennan believes himself to be at odds with the prevailing temper of public opinion. Yet much of what he says about the need to improve East-West relations is clearly in tune with official thinking. The explanation then must be that when he tilts at opponents, he is thinking primarily of the political Right, and secondarily perhaps of their allies in the capital. The reader is told that the advocates of unrelenting hostility to Russia “have a strong and growing hold on much of our student youth”; that there are “entire geographic regions” where it is not safe to challenge them; and that “so strong is now their prevalence in Congress and certain other segments of government in Washington that…we have today two wholly different and mutually contradictory foreign policies being pursued simultaneously in that city.”

This is the aspect of Mr. Kennan’s argument which will be most deeply pondered abroad. In other respects he may be said to develop a case with which Europeans are familiar, for the good reason that it accords with the enlightened commonplaces of European officialdom. This was not always the case. When Mr. Kennan first came out with his plea for coexistence, exactly a decade ago, he caused no small stir on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, Europe has caught up with him, but it appears many of his own countrymen have not. It is now common coin among British and Continental conservatives (let alone liberals and socialists) that coexistence is desirable, and that the best hope lies in encouraging the gradual process of de-mythologizing which Khrushchev appears to have started among his followers. It is not regarded as immoral to trade with Communist countries: indeed West European trade with the Soviet bloc is now quite considerable; it is not even thought discreditable to do a little trade with Cuba. On all these points Mr. Kennan feels more at home with European than with American opinion; and much of the argument of his lectures is addressed to those among his countrymen who, as he sees it, have not caught up with the way the world is going, but who nonetheless are amenable to argument. He clearly has no hope of persuading those committed to “a policy of ‘we or they’—a policy which sees no issue to the present contest except in the final and complete destruction of one side or the other.” It is instructive to be told on Mr. Kennan’s authority that such people exist not only in Peking but also in Washington; the present reviewer had tended to discount their influence; plainly it is greater than one had supposed. In recent weeks it has become possible to take the political temperature by studying the reaction to Senator Fulbright’s pronouncements, which clearly are in tune with Kennan’s thinking (and may even owe something to him). To minds accustomed to British and Continental ways of thought, the echo was not exactly encouraging—less because of the predictable nonsense from the Right, but because officialdom seems unwilling to emerge from its straitjacket.

With these worries at the back of his mind, it is understandable that Mr. Kennan should devote a good deal of space to the exposition of what, on this side of the Atlantic, sound like truisms, but are apparently new and disturbing thoughts for some of his prospective readers. They include the notion that East European Communism (so described by its beneficiaries) is a going concern, more or less, in industry, if not in agriculture; that a Western trade blockade is not likely to be undertaken, or to be effective if tried; that the East European satellites are becoming somewhat less dependent on the USSR; that the Soviet regime is in a slow process of internal evolution toward something which may one day begin to resemble a civilized state of affairs; and that in any case the Soviet Union is far from ramshackle as a politico-military unit, and cannot be broken up by force into a number of national components: this last being a reference to the “liberationist” doctrine preached by those Americans (apparently more numerous and influential than one had thought) who in 1959 induced and innocent and vaguely sympathetic majority of Congress to endorse the so-called Captive Nations Resolution.

Now it needs to be said that these points would not in recent years have been worth making in front of a European audience, though it is arguable that until lately there were people in Bonn who might have felt like disputing them. The fact that Mr. Kennan had to devote the greater part of the 1963 Elihu Root Lectures to expounding such verities is cause for worry. It ought by now to be possible to argue about coexistence without having to rehearse the commonplaces of enlightened discourse. Evidently it is not yet possible. This is a problem to which Mr. Kennan’s countrymen must address themselves. Beyond making sympathetic noises, the European bystander can do nothing to assist them. It may even be that the less we say, the better for all concerned. One might have supposed that by now the considered statements of successive British Tory Prime Ministers (not to mention more controversial political figures) would have made some impact upon the American Right. Apparently they have not. Perhaps the British are all regarded as sissies. What then of General de…but let us not raise the temperature more than is necessary. If Mr. Kennan is right—and he ought to know—America is in no mood to take advice from decadent Europeans.

For a reviewer who shares the author’s basic approach to the problem, the difficulty is that he can hardly venture to disagree with him on any point without appearing to advocate some nonsense such as “rollback.” Thus if one notes that there is in his lectures no mention of Yalta (or for that matter of Berlin), one immediately feels guilty. Yet a discussion of the Cold War, or of Coexistence, is somehow inadequate if one abstracts from the circumstances in which the East-West confrontation first made its appearance. In the lectures he published ten years ago, under the title Realities of American Foreign Policy, Mr. Kennan laid some stress on the upheaval produced by the Soviet Union’s military advance into the heart of Europe. In his latest pronouncements he is more concerned with the danger of encouraging the West Germans to believe that they can alter the status quo. Personally I share his belief (which is anyhow orthodox, though unofficial, doctrine in London, Paris, Rome, and The Hague) that the status quo in eastern and central Europe ought now to be formally recognized. But to concede this is one thing; to suppose that the need to do so is anything but a colossal disaster for Europe (and for the people concerned), is something else again.

Let us be perfectly frank (it is such a relief for the nerves): Most West Europeans are in two minds about U.S. foreign policy. They know they are dependent on the American nuclear “umbrella”: they also resent the fact, and moreover are convinced that things would not have come to such a pass if Roosevelt had not, over Churchill’s unavailing protests, given away far too much ground at Yalta. Some of them also share Mr. Robert Murphy’s belief that in 1948 the Western Powers should have picked up the Soviet challenge over Berlin, instead of evading it via the air-lift. (At the time this view was held by, among others, Aneurin Bevan who, alone in the British Cabinet, urged a showdown with the Russians. He was convinced—probably rightly—that Stalin was bluffing.) It is a point of some importance that these “tough” views are held by people who in principle agree with Mr. Kennan that coexistence is possible and necessary: They merely happen to believe that the West’s position in 1964 would be better if in 1944-8 fewer mistakes had been made. They also feel that, as things are now, it is no use placing one’s hopes in reciprocal withdrawals from some areas of central Europe, or in a “non-aggression pact” between NATO and the Warsaw Pact members. This last is seemingly advocated by Mr. Kennan; I cannot imagine why. Surely we have all learned what such paper promises are worth?

He is on firmer ground when he suggests that someone ought to talk sense to the West Germans on the subject of the partition of their country, and of their relations with Poland. It is indeed remarkable that Washington and London (but not Paris) have gone on with the absurd fiction that the Potsdam settlement in 1945 was merely provisional. The hope has evidently been that the Germans would eventually come to see that their only chance of ever getting their country reunited was to accept its present eastern frontiers. So far they have not done so, and it is questionable whether they will admit the truth to themselves as long as they are sustained by the illusion that reunification can be had without renouncing the 1937 frontiers. What they expect to do about the lost territories in the improbable event of national reunion is another question; probably very little, or even nothing at all. Yet it is this mental rigidity which prevents them from getting out of their present political straitjacket.

I hope I have said enough to indicate that Mr. Kennan’s latest offering, like its predecessors, is quietly subversive of much that passe for considered thought in official and unofficial quarters. One could argue with him about some aspects of his analysis, such as his habit of referring to an abstraction called “Communism” when he means the USSR (surely the most powerful emotional and political current in Russia even today is nationalism, not Communism?); one could also question his employment of certain fashionable terms now current, as when he implies that Moscow clings to farm collectivization for “ideological” reasons, which is rather like saying that General Motors has an ideological stake in private enterprise. But perhaps Mr. Kennan believes this—now and then he gives the impression of thinking that ideas rule the world, and that if it were not for people’s preconceived notions, most of the problems that bother us could be eliminated quite rapidly. This is perhaps beginning to be felt by some Soviet technocrats, but Party orthodoxy still prescribes attachment to Lenin’s doctrine that important issues are settled by violence, or not at all. Still, with the proviso that unfortunately there is no one in the Soviet Union who could conceivably deliver a similar course of lectures (let alone get them published), Mr. Kennan’s latest work can be described as the most persuasive plea for coexistence yet on record. If only he had taken the trouble to point out that coexistence and the Cold War are precisely one and the same thing!


We’re OK, Jack June 11, 1964

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