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Man Without a Country

Kennan declared that diplomacy should be divorced from sentiment. He was a firm supporter of the classic doctrines of national interest and spheres of influence. Ideologies were foreign to him, and so were the causes of violence. Concerned with methods rather than objectives, “I was never a man for causes.” Yet this is only part of the truth, for he is a man whose entire career is marked by moral judgments, whose code of morality is as strict as that of any of the Scotch Presbyterians from whom he is descended. It is simply that his morality is selective: that it is less outraged by the Nazi tyranny than by the Stalinist police state, less by the barbarities of the German soldiers than by those of the Russians, less by the materialism and cultural poverty of average Europeans than by that of Americans. Kennan claims to be; and no doubt honestly considers himself, a supreme pragmatist. Yet he is typically, and inescapably, American in his idealism and in the high tone of moralism that pervades his writing and his thinking. He is neither the misplaced European, nor the purely rational eighteenth-century philosophe that he may imagine himself to be. He is squarely in the American tradition: somewhere between Henry Adams and Jay Gatsby, between the world that had vanished and the world that was never to be.

His long years of service in Russia (eventually as ambassador, in a later period not covered in this book) brought out his deep-seated moral attitudes, and filled him with a profound repugnance to the system he observed. It was a repugnance that had a considerable effect upon his political judgments—perhaps a far greater one than he may have realized. “So insistently were the evidences of Russia’s degradation borne in upon me during the years of my residence in Moscow—so prolonged and incessant were the hammer-blow impressions, each more outrageous and heart-rending than the other—that the effect was never to leave me.” Although he had a patronizing affection for the Russian people (whereas for the Germans he had a profound respect), he so detested the Stalin regime that he even doubted whether it deserved to be recognized by the United States. On FDR’s decision to exchange ambassadors with Moscow in 1933 he wrote: “Never—neither then nor at any later date—did I consider the Soviet Union a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country.”

If this sounds like John Foster Dulles on the subject of Communist China, the resemblance may not be so coincidental as it seems, for both these statesmen were basically religious fundamentalists, even if one dealt in ideology while the other spoke in the language of classic diplomacy. Although he was far more perceptive about the nastiness and untrustworthiness of Stalinist Russia than were the woolly-headed American liberals of the 1930s and early 1940s, his emotional antipathy to the Soviet regime led him to questionable exaggeration. He deplored FDR’s belief that it was possible to maintain mutually advantageous relations with the Soviet Union, had little sympathy for it during the war, and stressed the extent to which “Hitler’s final decision to attack Russia was influenced by the stubborn greediness of Soviet diplomacy.” The war, one might suspect, was all the fault of Stalin, who “would so seriously overrate his own bargaining power as to make the Germans’, as a price for Russia’s collaboration in the wider war against Britain’s world position, demands so greedy and extreme that they would convince Hitler he had no choice but to attempt to eliminate Russia as a factor in the world situation in order to get on with his principal job.” Here is some meaty material for a new generation of German revisionists who will no doubt one day try to demonstrate that Hitler was pushed into the war by the greedy Russians and their Western dupes.

Two days after the German attack on Russia he wrote an influential associate in the State Department “that we should do nothing at home to make it appear that we are following the course Churchill seems to have entered upon in extending moral support to the Russian cause in the present Russian-German conflict.” He remained faithful to this position throughout the wartime alliance with the Russians and would continue “in opposition until the movement of the pendulum from left to right would bring it close to my own outlook in the years 1946 to 1948, only to carry it away once more in the other direction, with the oversimplified and highly militarized view of the Russian problem that came to prevail after 1949.” He had no use for those who sentimentalized the Russians because they were our allies. At best they were fools or dupes, at worst agents of the Soviet Union. He even castigated the American military establishment as early as 1945 for being “still deeply affected by what I had felt to be the disgraceful anti-British and pro-Soviet prejudices that certain of our military leaders had entertained during the war.”

Even before the war was over he was ready to reverse the alliance and urged the US to cut off all aid to the Soviet Union as punishment for her refusal to aid the non-communist Polish underground during the Warsaw uprising. The threat to cut off aid would also, he believed, force the Russians to be more cooperative in the problems of organizing the United Nations and plotting the political future of Eastern Europe. Russia’s behavior during the Warsaw uprising was, in his mind, “the moment when, if ever, there should have been a full-fledged and realistic political showdown with the Soviet leaders” over Eastern Europe. So much for the lingering impression, totally refuted by the record, that Kennan ever had anything but contempt for the communists, their methods, and their goals. He was a hard-liner from the beginning. The great difference between him and those who later took his warnings to heart was that he did not allow his moral indignation to militarize his thinking.

THE RUSSIANS, in his eyes, were not only untrustworthy allies, devious schemers, and moral hypocrites, but Oriental brutes carrying on the traditions of Genghis Khan. He was moved to agony over “the wild brutalities and atrocities being perpetrated by a portion of Soviet troops…as they made their way into Germany,” although he does not show such indignation at the uncountable brutalities and atrocities committed by the Germans. So extreme are his anti-Soviet, pro-German prejudices, that he condemns the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals on the grounds that we lost the right to judge the Germans once we became allies with the Russians. “The day we accepted the Russians as our allies in the struggle against Germany,” he wrote in 1947, “we tacitly accepted as facts, even if we did not ourselves adopt, the customs of warfare which have prevailed generally in Eastern Europe and Asia for centuries in the past and which will presumably continue to prevail long into the future.” Better, in his view, to have shot the Nazi war criminals on the spot than to have held a public trial which “could not expiate or undo the crimes they had committed,” and admitting a Soviet judge whose presence “was to make a mockery of the only purpose the trials could conceivably serve.”

It was not only the presence of a Soviet judge that bothered him about the Nuremberg trials, but the belief that “history, in judging the individual cruelties of this struggle, will not distinguish between those of victor and vanquished.” By a not unsimilar logic he opposed the postwar efforts at de-Nazification of German society, arguing that it would be difficult to accomplish, that it would endow the victims with the cloak of martyrdom, and that it was unnecessary. “It must be demonstrated to Germany that aggression does not pay,” he advised the State Department in 1943. “But I do not see that this involves the artificial removal of any given class in Germany from its position in public life.” This is indeed the long view of history, but one wonders whether, if the situation were reversed and it was the Russians whose territory were being occupied by the American army, Kennan would still have argued against the “artificial removal of any given class” in the Soviet state.

Although sympathetic toward Germany, a country whose language he spoke fluently and in which he had lived for some six years as a student and as a diplomat, and intensely hostile to Stalinist Russia, Kennan prided himself on being a political realist rather than an ideologue. He recognized that peace did not depend on the “intimate collaboration with Russia that Americans had been taught to envisage and to hope for,” but rather “all that was really required to assure stability among the great powers was the preservation of a realistic balance of strength between them and a realistic understanding of the mutual zones of vital interest.” The Russians understood this, and the problem was to get the Americans to understand it as well—to see the cold war not as a moral struggle for the soul of mankind, but as a conflict of interests that could be dealt with by an unemotional show of strength. He chided the “chimera of Soviet collaboration,” but he stressed that the primary problem faced by the West was political rather than military. “Moscow would have no reason to contemplate a further military advance in Europe,” he wrote in May 1945; “the danger for the West was not Russian invasion—it was the Communist parties in the Western countries themselves, plus the unreal hopes and fears the Western peoples had been taught to entertain.” He wrote this not during the anxieties of 1947, but in the full flush of Russo-American cooperation two years earlier. In this assessment of Russia’s intentions he was right, while those who criticized him at the time later embraced views far more sweeping and militarily oriented than any envisaged by Kennan.

THESE RECOMMENDATIONS later appeared in the famous “X” article that he originally wrote in January 1947 as a memo for Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, a man who became Kennan’s protector in the government, and who was instrumental in having him assigned to the prestigious National War College and later chosen by General Marshall to head the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. The article made Kennan famous, largely for its espousal of the “containment” doctrine, and it was received so enthusiastically because it came at a time when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union had turned into a cold war rivalry. A new foreign policy was needed, and Kennan provided its intellectual substance by urging a program of resistance to further Soviet penetration in Europe. Kennan became a hero overnight. The containment doctrine became the foundation of American foreign policy, and we have been living with its heritage ever since.

For Kennan the whole thing became a source of acute embarrassment. Although it made him famous, he believed that his recommendations were misinterpreted and distorted so that they no longer represented his assumptions. Instead of a doctrine for the political containment of the Soviet Union in Central Europe, it became the justification for an enormous rearmament program aimed at military containment. It was the “X” article that provided the foundation for the NATO pact, a construction Kennan viewed with alarm and dismay. Looking back, Kennan singles out the deficiencies in the article that led so many people, including Walter Lippmann, to interpret it differently from the way in which he intended it. Lippmann, for example, took him to task for conceiving containment as a military posture, and for failing to offer any program that might lead to the mutual withdrawal of Soviet and American troops from Europe. Kennan deplores this misinterpretation and assumes much of the blame for not making himself clearer. “The Russians don’t want to invade anyone,” he wrote in an unsent letter to Lippmann. “They don’t want war of any kind.” Containment, he insisted, was designed to encourage Western Europeans to resist domestic, not international, violence. Eventually the containment policy was supposed to provide the stability that would allow us to negotiate with the Russians to end the partition of Europe. This was the link, he argued in a much later reassessment of his own doctrine in Foreign Affairs, between containment and disengagement.

YET IF ALL THIS was clear in Kennan’s mind, it was not so in anyone else’s; neither in the minds of those who were preparing for a military showdown with the Soviet Union, nor of those who hoped that the division of Europe could be eased before it became rigidified and militarized. However much Kennan may regret this, much of it was his own fault—not only because he failed to make himself clear, but also because his vehement antipathy to the Soviet Union made it impossible for him even to envisage a cooperative approach. Perhaps such an approach would have failed. That is certainly Kennan’s belief, and he reproaches those who continued to believe otherwise. But by virtually precluding any hopes of such cooperation and by favoring initiatives, such as the creation of an independent West German state, that “aroused keen alarm among the Soviet leaders” and so forced the Russians to respond in kind with equally drastic measures of their own, Kennan accepted as inevitable the very partition of Europe that he deplored. He accepted that the Russians were going to remain dominant within their sphere of influence, and urged we should take every step necessary to solidify our own. Although he did not believe that conflict between the two blocs was necessary or even likely, he could see no prospect of reaching a meaningful accord with Stalinist Russia.

As early as 1945 he argued that “the idea of a Germany run jointly with the Russians is a chimera,” and stated that “we have no choice but to lead our section of Germany…to a form of independence.” From this flowed logically all the things he deplored: the partition of Europe, the creation of NATO, the rearming of Germany. He may have been surprised, but he shouldn’t have been. Urging us to protect our own sphere of influence, he saw no reason why the Russians should not do the same in theirs. He was not surprised by the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, nor by the attempt to force the Western allies out of Berlin—both of which he viewed as “defensive reactions on the Soviet side” to the Marshall Plan and our decision to set up a West German government. He could not understand why people in Washington were so alarmed, why they rushed to set up NATO and rearm Germany. He tried to explain the reasons for his equanimity to the people in the State Department and expresses surprise that officials accepted the “tough” part of his analysis but were unmoved by his more subtle qualifications. “The only answer,” he comments with curious naïveté, “could be that Washington’s reactions were deeply subjective, influenced more by domestic-political moods and institutional interests than by any theoretical considerations of our international position.” Kennan apparently thought he was working in the world of pure intellect and was shocked to discover that his colleagues had parochial interests and a regrettable shortness of vision.

He admits that the policy of containment later failed. This was not because it was impossible to halt the Russians, or because Soviet policies did not mellow. “The failure,” he writes in retrospect,

consisted in the fact that our own government, finding it difficult to understand a political threat as such and to deal with it in other than military terms, and grievously misled, in particular, by its own faulty interpretations of the significance of the Korean War, failed to take advantage of the opportunities for useful political discussion when, in later years, such opportunities began to open up, and exerted itself, in its military preoccupations, to seal and to perpetuate the very division of Europe which it should have been concerned to remove. It was not “containment” that failed; it was the intended follow-up that never occurred.

The follow-up never occurred because it was not the way official Washington saw the problem—particularly after the outbreak of the Korean war. According to Kennan, the Soviet decision to unleash the attack in Korea probably stemmed directly from Washington’s decision to set up permanent bases in Japan, and to sign a peace treaty without Russian participation. But by then Washington was thinking almost exclusively in military terms, and the Korean war seemed like the prelude to a Soviet probe in Central Europe, rather than a defensive measure designed to frustrate the American effort to turn Japan into a military bastion. Along these lines Kennan reveals that in July 1950, only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, the Chinese reportedly accepted an Indian proposal to end the conflict by a restoration of the status quo ante, and by the admission of Communist China to the UN—and that the US government turned this down flat, although Kennan thought it a sensible compromise. He had already decided to quit the State Department and soon left. Later, as we know, MacArthur marched toward the Yalu, the Chinese intervened as they had warned they would, and the war dragged on for three more years.

Perhaps none of this would have happened had Washington followed Kennan’s advice. Perhaps we would have been spared the worst excesses of the cold war, the agonies of Korea and Vietnam, the waste of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the rearmament of Germany which solidified the partition of Europe. With an uncommon lucidity, an intellectual acuity, and a deep sense of humanity, Kennan would have been a far better guide than any we had during the squandered later years of the cold war. Yet he bears a share of responsibility for the hardening of our own attitudes—and perhaps that of the Russians as well—in the early post-war years.

Perhaps the most depressing part of these memoirs is Kennan’s puzzlement over the fact that his advice was taken only selectively—that official Washington finally in 1947 came around to his point of view when he urged a crack-down on the Russians, but that nobody listened when he insisted that the real danger was political rather than military. Yet this should not have been surprising. His influence was not so great—he could not, after all, persuade any of his superiors to do anything they were not ready to do in the first place. Rather, he provided the intellectual framework which permitted them to rationalize what they were ready to do anyway—confront the Russians—for reasons that had little to do with Kennan’s memos.

Although at the center of the storm, he remained very much on the fringes of power: one of the many intellectuals who are drawn into the government, whirled around the vortex until they produce something that is useful to their superiors, and then disgorged like dried sponges. This has been the fate of countless others, and it would have been Kennan’s as well had he not had the courage and the good sense to get out of the State Department and try to influence policy from the outside. The Kennan who is so respected today throughout the world is not the architect of the containment doctrine distorted by the military minds of four administrations, nor the free-talking ambassador who was declared persona non grata by the Soviet Union, but the historian who has since used his remarkable intellectual gifts and his eloquent pen to question some of the most persistent myths of the cold war.

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