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…

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