Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Menand Remembers Kennan

George F. Kennan
Pinnacle of Power
1952
Photo: AKG Pressebild-Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

Another fascinating article on George Kennan appeared recently´╗┐, this one in The New Yorker, written by Louis Menand and titled "Getting Real: George F. Kennan's Cold War" (November 14, 2011), and it's even longer than Kissinger's article, or seems longer, and provides a fuller view of Kennan's life. Unlike Kissinger, Menand isn't concerned with defending his own legacy, for he never served in government making policy at the pinnacle of power. He's a Harvard professor of literature, not a political scientist. But he offers an interesting point about Kennan as the author of America's "Containment Policy" -- Kennan resented the attribution despite his seminal "Long Telegram" and his follow-up article, signed "X," published in Foreign Affairs:
Kennan's second major Cold War treatise [the first being the "Long Telegram"] was the 1947 article for Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." The essay began as a paper written for Forrestal. In many respects, it was an eloquent re-statement of the Long Telegram, and it is famous for a single sentence: "It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

This gave a name to American Cold War policy, and, with a few tweaks and many exceptions, what Kennan had called "containment" remained American policy until the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever there was "Communist aggression," the United States pushed back. As long as the Communists remained in their box, the United States did not (except rhetorically) seek to intervene. And, as Gaddis says, even Reagan, despite talk of liberation and "rollback," stayed largely true to containment policy.

The article was signed with an "X" because Kennan did not want it to seem that, as a State Department employee, he was stating policy, but his identity was quickly revealed, and for the rest of his career he was known as the author of containment. He had reasons to resent this.

Menand explains the reasons underlying Kennan's resentment:
[A]s someone who proposed policy rather than administered it, Kennan was susceptible to the standard fate of policy intellectuals. Either he could get credit for providing a rationale for what was already the government's de-facto policy or his recommendations could be harnessed to purposes he did not endorse.

Kennan's fate was to have his idea of containment conflated with the Truman Doctrine's promise in March 1947 of military aid "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This might sound like containment if the outside pressure were Soviet Russia, but Truman made a general call to arms, and that was apparently not Kennan's intention:
Kennan was appalled when he read the draft of Truman's speech, and for the rest of his life he protested that he had meant containment to be a policy of selective confrontation, and its means to be diplomatic and economic, not military. But he was construed otherwise.

One wonders if Kennan doth protest too much. Knowing Russian history as well as he did and having had personal experience of the Soviets from his time in the diplomatic service in Moscow, did he really believe that diplomatic and economic confrontation alone would contain the Soviet Union? Absent the back-up threat of military confrontation? Diplomacy without strength offers merely a comforting blanket woven of words in a Hobbesian world of naked power, and economic sanctions alone would make a Bolshevik laugh. Kennan must have known these things. Perhaps he would not have pressed military confrontation in places like Vietnam, but one wonders if his resentment had less to do with foreign policy disagreement and more to do with the doors that closed him off from the corridors of power.

Kennan's life was no tragedy, but he did suffer the melancholy consequences of having been at the pinnacle of power and influence relatively early in his career, only to see his personal influence decline as he drifted further and further from the center of power in a long life of protest, like the anonymous voice in T.S. Eliot's poem Prufrock: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

Kennan lived to be 101 and died in 2005.

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