(The following interview by Martin Agronsky took place on December 16.)
MARTIN AGRONSKY: Mr. Kennan, I think you are uniquely qualified to deal with the initiative of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who recently, you know, sent indirectly a very important message to President-elect Jimmy Carter and said Carter need not fear that the Soviet Union will subject him to any test of strength in will and will go out of its way to avoid any crisis with the United States. Do you believe him?
GEORGE KENNAN: Oh yes. I think there’s no reason to doubt that. I don’t think he would have said it unless he had meant to follow along that line.
MA: Well, you know, our secretary of state, Dr. Henry Kissinger, apparently doesn’t believe him. When he returned from his last trip to NATO, at the beginning of the week, he said that the Russians were on everyone’s mind, and the suggestion was made, apparently by Mr. Kissinger, that it was insulting of Brezhnev to have told Carter that he wouldn’t foment a crisis next year.
GK: Well, I saw that in the paper. It didn’t say specifically that it was Henry Kissinger who made this observation, but certainly it was some senior person in his entourage or himself.
MA: Mr. Kennan, you can assume it was the Secretary.
GK: I suppose one can. But I couldn’t agree with that at all, and I think it was unfortunate to take Mr. Brezhnev’s remarks that way. Everybody knows abroad that this period between our elections and the assumption of office by a new president is one of uncertainty and semiparalysis and disarray in our foreign policy, and I think Mr. Brezhnev meant this as a conciliatory gesture and as indicating that he would hold his options open for productive and useful exchanges with the Carter administration.
MA: Do you feel that it’s a mistake, then, to reject it as an insult or a provocation?
GK: Yes. Why we should take this sort of thing on the points of our bayonets, I don’t understand. We should be pleased. The word was used somewhere in that story that Mr. Brezhnev had said that he wouldn’t force us to any confrontation. I don’t think those were the words he used. He simply meant that there would be no initiatives from the Soviet side which would create sharp and difficult problems for this country in this uncertain period. Well, I welcome that. I think we should make the best of what favorable signs we can get on the international horizon.
MA: Well, it leads me, to stay with the current events for a moment, to the other observation that was made by this official spokesman, that being, of course, Dr. Kissinger, that Mr. Carter should be aware, according to The New York Times account on this, that the Russians will be watching his first moves carefully, and the United …