George Kennan
George Kennan; drawing by David Levine

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,1 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 the Executive branch, who…had exclusively the national interests at heart.” No doubt they did, although history has rendered a different verdict on both their wisdom and their intentions.

In Kennan’s journalistic efforts, as distinct from his sober historical studies, the scholar is continually vying with the misanthrope. When he writes about the Soviet Union, Kennan is analytical and detached. His reasoning, even where one does not agree with it, compels respect. But when his mind wanders beyond the tidiness of intellectual discourse into the messier subject of politics, when he is forced to take into account such factors as public opinion, pressure groups, and emotional commitments to values different from his own, he begins to lose his detachment.

In dealing with the foibles of democracy, the multitudes of the Third World, the follies of mankind in general, his elitism becomes cantankerous and dyspeptic. Certainly there is plenty to criticize in the way we Americans conduct our foreign policy. But where critics like Tocqueville and Lippmann examined the drawbacks of majoritarianism analytically, Kennan merely complains that he finds it annoying. He is interested not so much in explaining as in lecturing, and seems to take pleasure in provoking those whose opinions or whose manners he finds distasteful: thus his intemperate attacks on the student protesters during the late 1960s, and in this book his contemptuous dismissal of the Third World, with its rhetoric, its self-serving accusations, and its seemingly unsolvable problems.

About halfway through this alternately irritating and sensible book, Kennan addresses himself to the problem he knows best: relations with the Soviet Union. Here he offers calm and reasonable advice. Examining various agitated warnings that the Russians are engaged in a vast military build-up that will shift the nuclear balance overwhelmingly in their favor, he finds neither evidence for alarm nor reason to assume that Soviet intentions are aggressive. Instead of trying to outpace the United States, he argues, the Russians are merely continuing their military program at the rate that was previously established, while the US—as a result of inflation, post-Vietnam retrenchment, and an oversupply of weapons in some areas—has cut back somewhat. There has been no erosion of American strength, or any evidence that the Soviets intend to go beyond “equivalence” to seek “superiority,” whatever that might mean. Similarly, in the efforts of the Soviets not to let American dominance of the seas go totally unchallenged, or in their desire to curry favor in the Third World by aiding revolutionary movements, he finds no particular cause for alarm; indeed, as he points out, the USSR has “nothing comparable to the far-flung network of military and naval bases that the United States has maintained across the world for most of the time since World War II.”


Far from the monolithic military juggernaut evoked by the opponents of arms control, Kennan sees the Soviet Union as very much on the defensive: plagued by dissidents and economic breakdowns at home, trying to maintain its tenuous security position in Eastern Europe, hostile to the rise of independent Communist parties in the West, and threatened militarily and ideologically by China. Just as China’s growing power and independence have challenged Moscow’s pretensions to speak for the world communist movement, so has Peking’s rapprochement with Washington heightened Russia’s fear of encirclement. The view from Moscow—with unrest in the satellites, insubordination from other communist parties, a hostile Chinese army along the world’s longest land frontier, and a nuclear arsenal outnumbered two to one by that of the United States—is, as Kennan argues, very different from what it seems from Washington.

The idea that the Soviet bureaucracy, absorbed with problems of economic development at home, and confronted abroad by the global network of American power, is eager to invade Western Europe is, in Kennan’s words, “too bizarre to be credible.” Russia’s recent dabbling in southern Africa may be explained, he suggests, more by Chinese taunts than by the belief that it has much to gain by supporting the notoriously ungrateful Third World insurrectionary movements. Even if we take Angola into account, he points out, “recent Soviet efforts along this line would appear to have been on a scale hardly comparable to our own, and no greater than those of the Chinese.”

Specifically Kennan urges a unilateral reduction of 10 percent in the US nuclear arsenal as a sign of good faith at the stalled SALT talks, the cessation of all nuclear testing, and an acceptance of the Soviet proposal to ban the first use of nuclear weapons. On the question of Soviet dissidents he warns that too much pressure may force the Kremlin to crack down, for fear that its own legitimacy may come into question. But isn’t that what the US wants, the overthrow of the Soviet regime? Not, he says, if we stop to think about it. There is no democratic shadow government in Russia waiting in the wings to take over, in fact no conceivable regime that would allow Eastern Europe to fall into hostile hands or the US to organize and police the world unchallenged. Almost any government likely to replace the current Soviet leadership, with its stable bureaucracy and cautious policies, would be far more threatening to us than what we now confront.

Toward the Soviet Union Kennan urges understanding of its anxieties and a less hysterical view of its intentions. Toward the agitated Western European countries he favors patience and a reaffirmation of their links to NATO, although he would jettison Greece and Turkey, which he thinks never belonged in the Atlantic alliance in the first place. Toward the rest of the world his formula seems to be: only disconnect. Problems with Panama? Abandon the Canal. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. Restore links with Havana? No hurry. A plague on all the Cubans. The exiles have “whipsawed us on more than one occasion,” and should be scuttled. The wretched Castro has, after all, for years “poured vilification on our heads” and has been “bitterly committed against us in world politics.” That Castro, fighting off US attempts to assassinate him, strangle the Cuban economy, and invade his country, might have had some cause for anger is not mentioned. Latin America, in any case, is afflicted with what Kennan detects as a “certain tragic quality,” and should be left to its own devices: “We have no really vital interests in that part of the world.” Nor anywhere else, it would seem, except for Western Europe, Japan, and Israel.

Kennan is particularly impatient with what Lyndon Johnson used to call those “piddly little piss-ant” countries that give the US a hard time, such as North Vietnam, which “consistently, unscrupulously, and with passion, misrepresented the motives and nature of our intervention in Vietnam.” Although the US, as he says, “miscalculated” on Vietnam, it learned its lesson: “We found that the venture could not be carried to completion as we had conceived it…took cognizance of our lesson, pocketed our losses, and retired.” That being the case, he finds “surprising the level of interest in the affairs of that area still manifested by portions of the American press.”


Kennan has little interest in the Third World and even less sympathy. Most of the underdeveloped countries, he asserts, are backward, ungrateful, and have little business being independent in the first place, and he deplores the “reckless squandering” of “unlimited sovereignty and independence” on such entities. There is little the US can do for them, other than channel some aid through the UN, and virtually nothing that most of them, the OPEC states excluded, can do to harm the US. Instead of cadging money from the guilty rich in the industrialized nations, they should, he suggests, follow the example of his own great-grandparents, who turned the wilderness of Wisconsin into a paradise by the “old-fashioned American virtues of thrift, honesty, tolerance, civic discipline and hard work.” That Chad or Bangladesh may never be transformed into Wisconsin, no matter how many American virtues are emulated, seems not to have occurred to him.

One can understand Kennan’s impatience with romanticizing the Third World, and with the eagerness of many liberals to deplore oppression in rightist dictatorships while proclaiming the “historic necessity” of leftist dictatorships like China. This double standard is indeed insupportable, and Kennan is right to criticize it. But in his irritation he takes a surprisingly naïve view of American involvement in the Third World. Kennan would have us believe that the United States sets up embassies (and CIA stations), trains the police and army, and send parcels of economic and military aid out of a neurotic desire to be loved or, as he says, from an “inner insecurity.” Toward black Africa particularly, we are told, “official Washington had been acting under the influence of some sort of massive guilt complex, or feeling of moral inferiority.” By backing Tshombe in Katanga? Propping up Haile Selassie? Supporting Holden Roberto’s rebels in Angola? Funneling some $2 billion to Mobutu in Zaire? Hardly evidence of mere “inner insecurity.”

Has it not occurred to Kennan that the infusions of American money and arms to various Third World satraps, almost invariably right-wing dictatorships, may have been designed not to assuage liberal guilt or from a compulsion to be loved, but to gain economic and political influence? Many of the regimes in power in the Third World may be no more oppressive than those the guerrillas themselves would impose. But to maintain that American policy is motivated by a desire to “correct and improve…misgovernment” or by a misplaced guilt syndrome is to ignore the fact that a sizable number of the world’s worst dictatorships—Iran, Chile, South Korea, the Philippines—are nurtured and sustained by the United States. Some are even creations of that foreign policy elite whose supposedly unpolluted vision of the “national interest” Kennan praises and would preserve from contamination by a self-serving Congress and an ignorant public.

That the governing regimes of the Third World are, for the most part, neither democratic, morally pure, nor particularly friendly to the industrialized West needs hardly to be underlined. Many of them are brutally repressive, and in their drive for development they can be as oblivious to Western standards of political civility and human dignity as they are toward Western “love.” Western radicals and even many liberals have excused this as being the price that must be paid for ending exploitation and creating a just society. Revolution, it was said, would bring about a “new man” and a “new order.” Often the “new man” turns out to be the old Adam, and the “new order” the substitution of colonels and bureaucrats for the old ruling class. Despite an obligatory revolutionary rhetoric, the Third World is composed largely of neocolonial or semicolonial regimes dedicated to the power and enrichment of an administrative “new class.”

This is the conclusion expressed by Gerard Chaliand in his important and timely analysis, Revolution in the Third World. A Paris-based journalist who has taught in the United States, Chaliand has lived with guerrilla groups in Africa and Asia, known such leaders as Che, Ben Bella, Nyerere, Toure, and Cabral, and has written several books on the subject, including a study of the peasants of North Vietnam. Having strongly sympathized with aspirations of the Third World insurrectionary movements, he feels angry and betrayed. His book, however, is not a complaint but an attempt to understand why the promised revolutions, once having attained statehood or the expulsion of a privileged oligarchy, failed.

With a few important exceptions, the Third World independence movements have not resulted in revolution, that is, in the fundamental restructuring of the social order, Chaliand charges, but rather in “the rise of a social stratum, originally petit bourgeois, which uses its possession of modern knowledge, and its control of the State and the nationalized sector of the economy, to turn itself into an administrative bourgeoisie.”

Only a few communist states, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, have moved beyond the mere installation of a state-controlled economy to attempt a fundamental reordering of the social structure. But if Chaliand admires some of their accomplishments, he admits that even these regimes “bear only a scant resemblance to the Marxian model,” and that “no one yet has managed to pull off a national and social revolution that was not bureaucratic.” In a highly critical examination of the Soviet model, Chaliand demonstrates that productive relationships do not change merely because the state takes over management from private owners, but only if the workers assume control of the nation’s life. This has not happened anywhere, not even in Vietnam and China, which he holds up as examples of the class struggle in action. The relative success of the social revolutions in these countries he relates not only to their special situation after World War II but to their long-standing political and cultural traditions, which the revolutionaries could draw on and transform.

By contrast, national revolutions that are not also social revolutions—such as those in Egypt, Algeria, and Peru—bring a new class of administrators to power, but do little to improve the lot of the masses. Nor are they likely to, since the preservation of the privileges of the “new class” is one of the cardinal aims of the nationalist regimes. That this is also the objective of such self-styled “communist” regimes as that in the Soviet Union, Chaliand fully acknowledges.

The same factors that inhibit any significant redistribution of wealth and power also stand in the way of economic development. Development aid for the Third World goes only to the most modern elements of the economy. Even a vast increase in national income does little or nothing to improve the lot of the poorer classes, as the Brazilian example shows. To attack joblessness, increase the income of the poorest part of the population, and make the institutional reforms necessary for the redistribution of economic power would be to undertake a social revolution which most elites of the Third World would never tolerate.

Nor is overcoming underdevelopment simply a question of the rich providing “aid” and the poor becoming thrifty and industrious, as conservatives like Kennan would have it. Development, Chaliand argues, is not an economic problem to be solved by injections of capital, but a political problem that can be overcome only by “putting an end to dependence itself and to the structures of the dependent relationships.” That neither the Third World elites nor the industrialized nations are likely to attack those structures may be safely assumed.

Third Worldism, with its proclamation of the invincibility of guerrilla warfare, turned out to be a myth. It preached the revolutionary potential of the masses and the vulnerability of the industrial countries to radical regimes that would stop the pillage of Third World resources. In many, the so-called revolutionary elites easily accommodated themselves to Western pressures, the masses were skeptical of the foreign radicals who came to speak in their name (as the pitiful experience of Che in Bolivia testifies), and it has been the conservative regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia that have put the economic squeeze on the West. That the transfer of wealth from the industrialized nations to the oil-producing states has not improved the lot of the Third World populations need not be underlined. That it will lead to a more just or equitable international order can also be questioned.2 Meanwhile, in the name of the revolution, a “new class” of bourgeois administrators rises from the ashes of the old ruling class, aping its manners, frequenting its discothèques, and joining its renamed clubs.

If the notion of invincible guerrilla warfare is a myth, if most nationalist movements evolve into neocolonial bureaucracies, if the power of the state is enhanced without reducing the disparities of wealth and power, if many Third World intellectuals are, as Chaliand says, “nothing but bootblacks, hack propagandists for whoever is in power,” if even those few communist dictatorships where the class structure has been profoundly changed are, as he admits, still authoritarian, what is left for a radical socialist?

Chaliand himself asks the question: “If the essence of politics is domination, is the aim of socialism—the abolition of conflicts and the end of history—a dream worth defending?” Yes, he says, not because it is likely to be achieved, but because it offers a chance of reducing some of the worst disparities. Since privileged bureaucracy is the prevailing rule of social life, infecting even the few truly revolutionary regimes, redistribution of power to the masses can take place, he suggests, only if members of the bureaucratic elite are willing to commit class “suicide.” The power of the bureaucracy must be checked through mass organizations. In other words, a permanent Cultural Revolution. It is not a very appealing prospect.

The utility of Chaliand’s book lies not in its prescription for the true, if infinitely distant and forever ephemeral, social revolution, but in his demystification of the “people’s wars” that have so attracted Western intellectuals over the past two decades. The fact that his gloomy conclusions may seem to confirm some conservative prejudices does not detract from their importance. If Third Worldism is indeed a myth, as the evidence amply demonstrates, it is up to radicals like Chaliand to say it openly. The ironical triumph of “people’s wars” does not mean an end of exploitation, but simply a minor redefinition of its terms. As the international oil companies have demonstrated, the exploitative cake can be shared with newcomers simply by making it larger. Third World elites can, at a price, be co-opted, and the demands for social equality, which were central to the goals of radicals like Che and Cabral, whom Chaliand so admires, can often be transposed into international claims for more equal shares among national governments. Demanding the equality of states internationally becomes a method of defusing internal claims for the equality of men.

But has that not been one of the major functions of the nation-state as we know it: to deflect internal conflicts outward into international ambitions, and to legitimatize the power of a ruling class, whether it be hereditary or bureaucratic? That what has happened in the First and Second Worlds (ours and the communists’) is now being repeated in the Third should not surprise us. Perhaps what is remarkable is that internal social revolutions did manage to take place in Cuba, Vietnam, and China, notwithstanding the varying successes and failures of these dictatorships now.

Yet if rule by a privileged class of bureaucrats has come to be a condition of social life, can a bureaucracy still act for, as well as in the name of, the masses? Should bureaucracies be judged as valid and legitimate to the degree they enlist mass support? Chaliand might seem to suggest they should, but his emphasis on bureaucracy can be mechanical. If the price of enlisting the masses is the suppression of political dissent, as seems to be the case in the examples Chaliand cites, that is a very high price indeed. Such repression, obviously, is a phenomenon in elitist national dictatorships such as Algeria as well as in China. Without a tradition of constitutional liberties, that repression can be ruthlessly severe, and the masses are never asked whether it is a price they are willing to pay. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question to the hungry. But it is not irrelevant for those whose critical views are suppressed, especially in countries which have achieved a certain stage of development. When the question of bread is answered, the question of political freedom becomes more urgent. One wishes that Chaliand had addressed himself to this problem as well, for it is no less crucial than social “participation,” economic development, or bureaucratization as a measure of the validity of Third World “revolutions.”

It is curious that Chaliand and Kennan, starting out from such different positions, holding such conflicting values, are in agreement that the problems of the Third World can be resolved only within the cultures of the individual nations themselves. Where Chaliand is obsessed by the outcome, the latter is indifferent. For one it is the end of a dream, for the other an irrelevant distraction.

The Third World myth has played itself out, a phenomenon, as Chaliand has said, “born of the crisis of Stalinism and fed by the policy of peaceful coexistence.” There will probably be no more Vietnams, that is, no more successful insurrectionary struggles with mass participation and support, fed by a common cultural heritage and a history of colonial domination. The historical conditions were unique and are unlikely to be repeated. Southern Africa is not Vietnam; the ultimate results there are unlikely to be noticeably different from those which have taken place in the rest of the continent.

As the new elites entrench themselves in power it becomes clear that the Third World offers neither the prospect of mankind reborn, as some once thought, nor a serious threat to the West’s predominance, as some would now have it. Rather it has provided new candidates for the club. In their ambitions we should have no trouble recognizing our own.

This Issue

July 14, 1977