The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities of American Foreign Policy
Revolution in the Third World
Thirty years ago this summer, George Kennan, recently returned from the mists of the Moscow embassy, erupted in public with the news that the Soviets were intent on pushing into “every nook and cranny” and could be contained only by the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” wherever they penetrated. It was what he had told his admiring boss, Averell Harriman, and just what the top men in Washington—Truman, Acheson, and Forrestal—wanted to hear. Kennan’s pseudonymous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, presenting to the public what he had earlier laid out for his superiors in his “long telegram” from Moscow, provided the intellectual justification for a global confrontation with communism.
From the containment policy flowed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, NATO and German rearmament, the alphabet soup pacts of the 1950s, the sustenance and subversion of foreign governments, the equation of nationalist insurrections with communism, the Bay of Pigs and the secret war against Cuba, and ultimately the Vietnam war.
Already in the 1950s Kennan began to denounce the doctrine he had popularized, declaring that he had never intended that it be taken in a military sense. Falling out of step with the cold war consensus he had helped to form, he became persona non grata both to the Russians, who told him not to come back to Moscow, and to John Foster Dulles, who refused to give him another job. He then retired to Princeton, scene of the undergraduate tribulations he recounted so movingly in the impressive first volume of his Memoirs, and proceeded to write the studies of Soviet-American relations that have established his reputation as an eminent historian.
But Kennan has never been content to remain in academic life. Behind the Princeton recluse, obsessed with Russia, alternately drawn to and repelled by a society that remains, for all his knowledge of it, perpetually elusive, there stands the diplomat counselor, yearning to advise presidents, never quite understanding why lesser men are in such powerful positions. Periodically the scholar retires and Kennan the impatient outsider takes over, stripping away masks, offering perceptive insights, and not infrequently tilting angrily with phantom opponents.
His recent book, inscrutably entitled The Cloud of Danger, reveals Kennan both at his best and at his worst. Unfortunately he leads off with his worst, complaining repetitiously about the stupidity of Congress, the machinations of ethnic pressure groups, the distortions of the press, and the failings of a system of government which, in giving Congress too much power over the president, seems “not constituted for the conduct of foreign policy in the first place.” This is a curious complaint to make after Watergate and Vietnam, but Kennan has never seriously doubted the good intentions, if not the wisdom, of the foreign policy elite to which he belonged. One of his chief complaints is that a government of divided powers impedes the “promptness and incisiveness…necessary to an effective world policy” and complicates the dedicated work of those “highly competent persons in …