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Contending with Kennan: toward a philosophy of American power.

In an article on the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in September, the historian Gaddis Smith quoted from a long report George Frost Kennan made to Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1950:

We cannot be too dogmatic about the methods by which local Communists can be dealt with. . . . Where the concepts and traditions of popular government are too weak to absorb successfully the intensity of Communist attack, then we must concede that harsh governmental measures of repression may be the only answer.

Such methods, Kennan continued, may be "preferable alternatives, and indeed the only alternatives, to further Communist successes." Calling this the Kennan corollary of 1950, Smith observed that it has run like a dark thread through more than a third of a century of American policy.

Only two weeks after Smith's essay appeared, The New Yorker published some "Reflections" by Kennan himself: two letters he had written to unnamed friends, one Russian, the other American. The contrast between these recent letters and the Kennan corollary of 1950 is striking. Now in his 80th year, Kennan has issued a plea for national self-awareness to help the two superpowers "avoid catastrophe." He urges his Russian friend to be wary of the Soviet "siege mentality" which, according to Kennan, has always distorted Soviet perceptions and afflicted their domestic and foreign policies. The American is pressed to rethink his perception of the Soviet Union as "the enemy," and to be suspicious of the American media for its portrayal of the Soviet Union in its "most terrible, desperate, and inhuman aspect."

As these letters and Smith's article indicate, Kennan, after five decades as a man of affairs, is still a considerable presence, at least in certain circles. They also, with their widely divergent points of view, remind us of the controversy that has bedeviled Kennan for much of his career. The problem, as Barton Gellman points out in his preface to Contending With Kennan, is that there are two George F. Kennans. In the 1940s and 1950s there was the Kennan of Smith's article--the practicing diplomat and cold-warrior who, in Gellman's words, "sounded alarms about the Soviets and plotted the strategy of 'containment.'" More recently, since the late 1970s, there has been the New Yorker Kennan--the dovish diplomatic historian whose writings consist mainly of old stories retold as contemporary lessons along with exhortations against nuclear arms.

According to conventional wisdom, the two Kennans are irreconcilabe, but Gellman argues that that view is simply wrong. "My point of departure," Gellman writes, "is that Kennan has intended to be consistent in what he wrote and said, and that his claim to consistency should be taken seriously by readers who wish to understand him."

Gellman meets Kennan on his own ground. Like Kennan's work, Contending With Kennan is an intellectual exercise, short on personal asides and psychological insights and long on critical analysis. The book centers on three themes: Kennan's view of contemporary America and the American national interest; the role of morality in Kennan's Weltanschauung; and Kennan's opinions on the use and abuse of American power, especially in relation to the Soviet Union.

Kennan came closest to defining his view of the national interest in the late 1940s, when he wrote that the fundamental objectives of U.S. foreign policy must always be "to protect the security of the nation . . . and to advance the welfare of its people." But that apparently simple and straightforward assertion is misleading. For Kennan has been uncommonly ambivalent about his own country and, at the same time, unusually broad-minded about others.

Although he is clearly a patriot, Kennan's attitude toward late twentieth-century Ameria is complicated. He is dismayed by "the obvious deterioration" of American life, and his despair is rooted in a general distress over the rapid disappearance of our natural resources, the crumbling of our traditional values and the tyranny of technology. He is equally disturbed by the incapacity of the American political system to generate a rational and consistent foreign policy. As Gellman puts it, "Democracy, from the operational standpoint, seems especially calculated to offend Kennan." Public opinion is simple-minded; Congress is clumsy; the Constitution needs revision; and good leadership can come only from an educated and well-practiced elite--in Kennan's view, a disappearing breed. "Here then," writes Gellman, "is Kennan's America: selfish, vulgar, mechanized beyond nature's recognition, materialistic, undisciplined . . . and getting worse." Of course, he is also contemptuous of those who describe the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

Kennan's position on the role of morality in world affairs is a logical consequence of his tendency to look at the world through gray-colored glasses. Since America is not all that good nor the Soviet Union all that bad, since international disputes are so complicated, so deeply rooted in historical ambiguities and uncontrollable forces, any attempt at moral judgment is futile. Since the moral questions are so difficult to resolve in international life, Kennan argues that our primary responsibility is to keep the world intact physically. It is to this end that our political and military strength must be addressed.

Kennan insists that even in the cold war era, he never intended the United States to employ military force except as a last resort, and then only by conventional means. After World War II Kennan sought a return to the multipolar balance that characterized the period before World War I. He has always insisted that the job of safeguarding Western interests in the world should not be ours alone but should be shared by America's allies.

Kennan's original view on the use of force was based on his conviction that the Soviet leadership was unwilling to risk all-out war. Thus, even in the eara of containment during the mid-1940s, Kennan urged, in Gellman's words, "considerable circumspection" about the use of arms. Today, Kennan's views are simpler. Calculations about Soviet intentions are, to him, virtually irrelevant: the certain catastrophe of nuclear war means that we must be willing to undertake a bold and sweeping departure from past practice. He has suggested, for example, that we propose to the Soviet government "an immediate across-the-boards reduction by 50 percent of the nuclear arsenals now being maintained by the two superpowers." As Gellman points out, Kennan has always distinguished between the use of force and the use of pressure, and "pressure" was Kennan's term for a whole range of foreign policy instruments, including political, psychological and economic measures short of war.

Gellman's book is welcome both as analysis and synthesis. I remain unconvinced that Kennan has, in fact, been "consistent in what he wrote and said," but I am equally unconvinced that that matters. Is it necessarily wrong, or bad, to see things in one light at 40 and in another at 70 or 80? In any event, if Gellman fails to make his case for consistency airtight, he is a skilled navigator of the tributaries of Kennan's political thought.

On only one count does Gellman miss the mark. He chides Kennan for sounding tired, for losing touch, for being pessimistic, especially about the West. He writes that three decades ago, Kennan already had his doubts about America's capacity to solve its urgent internal problems. "Now he doubts no longer: it cannot." And he concludes his book with the following reprimand:

Kennan's values are showing their years. . . . To ponder [restoring the past] is inevitably to tempt despair and to conclude, as Kennan essentially has, that the world is spoiled, like last week's groceries, and might just as well be tossed out with the trash. Surely, that is more crotchety than thoughtful.

To be sure, there is evidence in Kennan's own words for Gellman's assessment that he is an old man who has, by and large, given up on us: for example, in his statement that "this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope." And yet . . . Does someone who has thrown in the towel still write, as Kennan did recently in The New Yorker, "The faith is there. It has to be there, for it rests on a sense of relentless necessity as well as naive longing. Without it, this letter would not have been written." This is eloquent testimony to a hope that, although clearly dimmed, flickers still.
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Author:Kellerman, Barbara
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 15, 1984
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