(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 States must move quickly to warn the Russians if they try to meddle in the Rhodesian situation.
GK: Well, this, too, I must say I fail to understand, for two reasons. In the first place, we have recently involved ourselves quite actively in the Rhodesian situation, and I don’t think that we can really expect to have a double standard applied all the way down the line to the Soviet Union and ourselves. But secondly, this whole question of Soviet interference in the Third World and among the underdeveloped countries, supporting the so-called anti-imperialist movements—here was an area of Soviet policy where I would not have expected that we could make great changes at this time. I think if anybody supposed that what was called détente meant that the Russians were going to stop doing this sort of thing, stop supporting those factions, they were quite wrong about this. The Russians are on the spot, vis-à-vis the Chinese, and the Russians, from their standpoint, have to show themselves as principled Marxists who are not yielding and falling down and playing dead before counterpressures all over the world; they have to give an appearance of supporting the left-wing Marxist factions in these countries.
MA: So how should we show ourselves? Should we react vigorously? The secretary of state has said that we are now committed to majority rule, for example, in Rhodesia, and in all of southern Africa.
GK: Well, there are a number of problems involved in what you’ve said. I personally don’t know what people mean when they talk of majority rule. As far as I can see, they mean rule by an authoritarian regime or a dictator who happens to be an African and not a white, which is a different thing, in my opinion, than majority rule. Whether we should support those tendencies. I think personally that we should be very restrained in any advice we give to people in southern Africa about what they ought to do.
MA: Why do you say that?
GK: Because any advice that you give them is apt to turn out disastrously for them. As far as the Rhodesian whites and the South African whites are concerned, these people, it seems to me, have made their bed and they have to lie in it, and I wouldn’t really approve of this country trying now to tell them what to do. I don’t think we have the answers to their problems. It’s very dangerous to go on giving advice to people when you don’t have the answers.
MA: Do you think it reflects in any way our own domestic political concerns?
GK: Well, I have no doubt that it does, and this, of course, as you probably know, is a thing against which I’ve reacted very sharply for many years: the bending, that is, of American foreign policy to domestic political purposes. I think this is an abuse of the interests of our people as a whole, and it’s one of the worst habits that we have. It’s an abuse of our national interests, of our foreign relations, for the purposes of individual groups of Americans here. I just don’t believe in it at all. I wish this would stop.
MA: Let’s move from Africa to the Middle East, with the secretary of state. He is directly quoted as saying that the Middle East is ripe for settlement, but, he says, this doesn’t mean a Geneva conference is the best solution since, and this is the significant point, such a conference would only give the Soviet Union a free invitation to get involved in an area where it has been steadily losing influence.
GK: Well, Martin, this frightens me a little bit, this view. We haven’t liked everything that the Russians have done in the Middle East in recent years. In fact, I thought some years ago that their policy was extremely dangerous and extreme and bad there.
MA: Date that for me.
GK: That would have been in the period after 1955, when they were stirring up the Egyptians and the Syrians and all these others against Israel. But this is an area which is closer, far closer, to their borders than it is to our own. It’s an area in which they can hardly help but have interests, and the implications of the statement that you’ve just read are that we hope to exclude them totally from any involvement in the affairs of this area; and then we hope that we can get satisfactory solutions, from our standpoint, of the situation there. I don’t think this is fully realistic, and it seems to me it’s years since we’ve really talked about the main problems of the Middle East with the Russians; and I’m not sure that if we talked to them today we couldn’t perhaps arrive at some at least limited meeting of minds.
MA: Let me ask you this, if you think you could—do you think that we could, as apparently Dr. Kissinger thinks we could—arrive at a lasting Middle East settlement that would indeed exclude the Russians?
GK: No, I don’t. I think there would always be a great element of instability there. I am not convinced, you see, that Russian purposes and goals in the Middle East today are wholly different from our own. We, incidentally, today—as you see, I am sure, as clearly as I do—are not in a terribly good position to take the lead in solving the problems of the Middle East. Our very dependence on Arab oil constitutes a limit on our freedom of action of the most dangerous sort, and until we can free ourselves from that, I think we’re going to be in a very bad position to take the lead in solving these problems.
MA: Now, you know the new secretary of state designate, Mr. Vance, very well, and what would you suggest? I have a hunch that you’re going to be consulted by Mr. Vance. What would you suggest as an American initiative in regard to the Middle East, in regard to the Soviet Union? What could the president-elect do that would improve the prospects for getting along with the Soviets, the prospects for peace generally in the Middle Eastern area?
GK: Well, first of all, because I attach great importance to this, I think he should move smartly to correct the enormous error made by the last administration in permitting our dependence on imported oil, and on Arab oil particularly, to grow.
GK: Well, there are a whole list of things that can be done. Conservation, first of all; the development of alternative sources of energy…
MA: Like coal.
GK: And the others to which we have given nowhere near the research effort that we gave to the development of nuclear weaponry.
MA: Solar energy?
GK: Exactly. All these things—there should be a much greater research effort; but having done that, then I think we should try to enter into a reasonable communication with the Soviet government on the problems of the Middle East. We’ve both, I think, learned bitter lessons in the last ten or fifteen years; and perhaps we’re both today mature enough and realistic enough to realize that neither of us is going to make great gains in that area by the attempt to exclude the other entirely from its affairs.
MA: You would attempt to remove the Middle East from the US-Soviet relationship in terms of it representing in any way a possibility of confrontation?
GK: Exactly. I don’t fancy that either of us two great powers, the Russians or ourselves, either independently or together, can solve the problems of the Middle East. Only the people of that area can do it. But we can play either a helpful or an unhelpful part, and it will be a much more helpful one if we have some understanding between ourselves; and I’d like to see at least the possibilities of that probed before we assume that what we have to do is to get the Russians out of there and keep them out of there forever.
MA: Let’s move from the Israeli-Arab relationship, all the way through the Middle East to Iran. We are committed to giving, or selling, the Iranians enormous amounts of weapons. Should we continue with that? We are the chief supplier of weapons to the world, if you like. Should we continue with that? Ten billion dollars this year, I believe.
GK: It seems to me absolutely crazy. Anyone who thinks that these things are going to be used for good purposes, or thinks he knows they are, is making a very risky assertion. You know, we send these arms all over the world. We may think we know in whose hands they end up today, and that this is useful; but we don’t know in whose hands they are going to be tomorrow, and I think that this is an undesirable practice for the US. In the case of Iran, it’s quite mad—the quantities of arms we’re putting in there. And I would just raise the question: suppose the Russians, in the last two or three years, had given several billion dollars worth of arms to the Mexicans and had put several tens of thousands of instructors, semimilitary personnel, in there to teach the Mexicans how to use these arms, can you imagine the outcry that would have arisen in this country?
MA: I can imagine.
GK: Yes. Well, now, you see, this involves the principle whether we can ask the world to accept, and the Russians to accept, a complete double standard for us and for Russia. This is the question.
MA: You think we can’t.
GK: In the long run, I don’t think that it will wash.
MA: You mean we cannot impute to them bad intentions, impute automatically to ourselves good intentions, and expect that they will accept that.
GK: This cuts right to the heart of one of our practices that underlines our whole behavior in the armaments race. The people in Washington, the hardliners, the people from the Pentagon, say, oh, we cannot take account of Russian intentions; we can only take account of their “capabilities.” We must assume that they want to do anything nasty to us which they have the capability of doing.
But on the other hand, if you talk to these same people and say, well, shouldn’t the Russians be worried when we put these enormous arms into Persia, they say, oh, well, they should know that our intentions are good. Now again, we can’t have it both ways. If people in this world are only going to deal with capabilities and not intentions, think how we must look.
MA: Let me ask you this, Mr. Kennan. We’ve covered the Middle East and the arms, now we’re talking about conventional arms that we’re providing Iran. Let’s carry it beyond that. You’ve noted repeatedly in your memoirs a concern that I must concede I share, about the kind of world we could have for our children, the kind of danger that faces us all, if the United States and the Soviet Union are unable to do something to prevent, one, nuclear arms proliferation, and two, through the SALT talks that are now going on, to somehow cut down on our own nuclear arms race between each other. Would you recommend that to the presidentelect as a first priority?
GK: Certainly, as a matter of absolute first priority. I think what’s happening is dangerous in the extreme, and that we are very guilty of the state at which it has arrived today.
MA: Why guilty?
GK: Well, we have missed opportunity after opportunity, I think, to curtail, at least, this proliferation of arms and also the development of these fantastic amounts of overkill which both the Russians and ourselves now have.
MA: Can you be a bit more specific? You speak from a really expert knowledge.
GK: Well, not really, in the military field, but it’s perfectly evident that the numbers of nuclear warheads now present in our armaments, and to some extent or to a lesser extent in the Soviet armaments, are fantastically beyond anything that could conceivably be used for any good or constructive purpose in this world. This is just sheer nonsense. I suppose we have 25,000 to 30,000 warheads today. What in the world are we thinking of? My goodness gracious, we have 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe alone; I believe that the power of the weakest of those is three times the Hiroshima bomb. Now, what in the world do we think we are going to do with 7,000 of these things? I mean, ten or twenty of them would be enough to make a major catastrophe anywhere in the world. This is absolute fantasy.
MA: What would you recommend to Mr. Vance? What would you recommend to the president-elect? What could be done?
GK: In the first place, I have no confidence in the continuation of the SALT talks of the sort that we’ve had in the past. This whole business of “bargaining chips” in which we say, well, now we’re going to get a better weapon and then we’ll use this as a bargaining chip, and then we’ll get them to agree not to build this or that—this is all…
MA: You’re talking about the Backfire, cruise missiles…
GK: Yes, this is all entering into the realm of total confusion. It will take nothing less than a major gesture on both sides, involving a great deal of unilateral restraint on both sides, to get anywhere with this. We could perfectly well afford to say, as an initial pledge of goodwill: we are going to get rid at once, without any agreement with you at all, of 10 percent this year.
GK: Unilaterally. But for goodness’ sake, we have to act in a big way, we have to dismantle this. Martin, no one in the world, including our finest statesmen, including myself or anybody you want to name, or yourself, no one is good enough, wise enough, steady enough, to have control over the volume of explosives that now rest in the hands of this country. We’re all little people; we have our good days, our bad days; we make mistakes. These things shouldn’t exist at all.
MA: Midgets playing around with infinity, and…
GK: And that goes for us as well as for the others. And we’ve encouraged this; we are the ones who have taken the lead. We are the ones who originally adopted the principle of first use. The Russians the other day offered to get rid of it. I don’t know in what good faith this was; but it should have been explored, instead of thrown right out the window. I think that this principle of first use has lain at the heart of our mistakes for twenty-five years.
MA: You’re referring to the Warsaw Pact’s statement that they wanted us to renounce first use?
MA: That was made when Dr. Kissinger was at the NATO meeting. Is that it?
GK: Yes, and we immediately rise up in our wrath and contemptuously throw the whole thing out the window, and out of NATO immediately, without even having entered into any discussion with the Russians about this proposal; we immediately say, oh, no, we wouldn’t dream of accepting that—couldn’t accept it at all. I think this whole thing is terribly unsound, and this, incidentally, is one of our great problems. And one of the great problems for Mr. Carter, if he wants to do anything about this, is that we have got our allies locked into this, too, as well as ourselves. We can’t just act as a free agent. We have to talk with them first; we have to come to agreement with them. It’s not going to be easy.
MA: Don’t you think that we have a real problem, in that our allies in Western Europe and NATO people in general feel that you must always have in reserve the nuclear weapon as an equalizer?
GK: Yes. You know, the Western Europeans have suffered now for decades under a conviction which no one apparently can drive out of their minds, a conviction that the Russians are dying to attack Western Europe, and that if it were not for our nuclear weapons they would long since have done it, that this is all that—to use the common word—deters them from doing it. Now, the Russians are not perfect. The Russian regime is also a complicated regime. There are a lot of people in there who are not our friends, a lot of people whose intentions I would not trust. But nevertheless, they are not mad. It’s my own judgment—I think it would also have been the judgment of most people who’ve known them well—that there’s probably never been a time, since 1948, when they have seriously contemplated or wished to carry out an invasion of Western Europe. They have troubles enough at home. They have troubles with the area which they already control in Eastern Europe; I don’t think they want more. I don’t think this is a rational action for them. Yet the Western Europeans all believe it. You can’t get them to stop it.
MA: I must lead you back to the article that you signed as “X” in 1948, for Foreign Affairs, in which you were the author of the theory of containment, in which, in essence, you proposed a policy which was then adopted, which initiated, if you like, the Cold War, and in which your major concern was always to face the Russians, to confront the Russians with positions of American and Western strength to stop their possibly aggressive and expansionist intentions. Have you changed your mind that much? You seem to have come 180 degrees from that thinking.
GK: Well, I would hate to be a person who never did change his mind, but I don’t think I’ve changed it that much. That article was written, and these things said, in a time of great instability in Europe in the wake of World War II. You remember, it was actually 1947, not 1948—you remember what a difficult winter that was, and how much uncertainty there was in Europe. Nobody knew then whether the French and Italian communists would take over. Nobody knew whether Berlin would survive. At that time, I felt there was a real danger of a sort of a political collapse of Western Europe, and I wanted to persuade people at home that we had to support—we had to give assurance and confidence—to those people who wanted to resist communist political pressures. I did not view it as a military problem. It’s always been interpreted the other way ever since, you see. This is an old argument. I’ve been asked a thousand times about this, and all the young scholars, the revisionists, today keep charging me with having advocated exactly the policies toward Russia that I am now opposing.
MA: Tell me, then, is it now your feeling—from what you said, I gather that it is—that we need not regard the Russians any longer as committed to a policy of aggressive expansionism and to the domination, the communist domination, of the world?
GK: You know, you always have to differentiate when you talk about people, between what they theoretically think would be just dandy, and what they really expect to achieve in the near future. I’ve often used the example of the businessman who would love to make a million dollars, but he’d be very happy if he could cover his debts for the next two months. Now the Soviet Union remains ideologically committed, surely, to a communist world. But they live in a real world and their real hopes and plans and their real actions have to be geared to their real possibilities. They stand in a state of transition, still, from the great original ideological fervor of the Lenin period to the inheritance of the situation of a regular, normal great power, put it that way. And I think they’re very far along on this. I wouldn’t be too worried about the ideological challenge. It hasn’t been too important; and today, with questions being raised about the Italian and French communist parties, they’re not the same communist parties we were facing in 1947.
MA: Let me lead you to Communist China, the emergence of another enormously powerful communist state, and again with nuclear weapons, and you made the observation that we should avoid, as you put it, intimacy with China. That intrigued me. What did you mean by that?
GK: I think that the Chinese, in a way, have had our number for several decades back. They manipulate us with the greatest of ease. Americans very easily fall into the error of thinking that they understand the Chinese and have an intimacy with the Chinese. I have great suspicion of that view. My colleague, Chip Bohlen, used to say about people who said they understood Russia, that these were famous last words, like drinking doesn’t affect me, and I think this is even more so with China. I think the Chinese are very different people from ourselves. I have no disrespect for them. I think they’re probably, man for man, the world’s most intelligent people, very imaginative, a talented and great people; but I think also that they don’t particularly like foreigners. I don’t think they’re terribly interested in us, and I think they’re capable, along with their great delicacy of behavior, of great ruthlessness when you least expect it of them. I would feel that Americans ought to be very careful in their dealings with them.
MA: Mr. Kennan, we’ve both about a minute, in which I want to ask you to put on your statesman’s hat and ask if you feel that American foreign policy has been sufficiently committed in recent years to a concern for morality and principle.
GK: This, too, is an old argument. I have often been accused of advocating an immoral foreign policy because I didn’t put morality in the international sense at the basis of it. I think that what we have to be concerned with, Martin, is to meet our own standards of morality, and not try to apply them to the rest of the world.
MA: Have we?
GK: No, I don’t think we have. I must say that I think we let ourselves get led into the area of total confusion in the sort of things that the CIA did in their covert operations, and we have, in many ways, let down our own traditions in recent years. I don’t think we did it with sinister intent, but I think we did.
(This interview appeared on “Agronsky at Large,” a program of WETA/26, the Washington, DC, public television station.)
January 20, 1977