Nov 7, 2011

A review about a new book on George Kennan in The New Yorker

A long review of John Lewis Gaddis's new book on George Kennan is in the Nov 14 issue of The New Yorker.

The review starts off by establishing that Kennan did not much care for Americans (America yes, Americans no).  A number of examples illustrating how Kennan was a dick are included (this is not even the worst):

In January, 1944, when the end of the war was in sight, Kennan served in the American delegation to the European Advisory Commission, in London. Bohlen (who had been in Tokyo when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and was interned for six months) remembered Kennan returning to Washington “appalled by the behavior of American soldiers—their reading of comic books, their foul language, and their obsession with sex, among other things. He wondered whether the United States was capable of being a world power.”

Once we stipulate that Kennan had his flaws as a human being, we are able to get down to business.  A very good discussion of  The Long Telegram and "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" by "X" begins thusly:

In all his reports, Kennan’s repeated message to Washington was “Get real.” He didn’t just disapprove of idealistic policy talk. He deeply loathed it. Declarations about the self-determination of peoples or international economic co√∂peration—the kind of thing that Roosevelt and Churchill announced as Allied war aims in the Atlantic Charter—seemed to him not only utopian and unenforceable but dangerously restrictive on a government’s scope of action. If you tell the world that you are fighting to preserve the right of self-determination, then any outcome short of that makes you look hypocritical or weak. Concessions to Soviet national-security interests were going to be necessary in Eastern Europe; it was better to be frank about this, and to stop pretending that Moscow and Washington had the same goals and values. But for domestic political reasons the American government always wants to appear virtuous, Kennan thought; so it continued to call the Soviets comrades and allies even as they were clearly preparing to walk all over the Atlantic Charter.

(...)

Kennan was appalled when he read the draft of Truman’s speech [announcing the Truman Doctrine], 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. Lippmann wrote a book, called “The Cold War,” in 1947, attacking Kennan and containment, on the assumption that the X article, which appeared four months after Truman’s speech, was meant as a justification of the Truman Doctrine. Lippmann had got Kennan completely wrong. Kennan was so upset that he wrote Lippmann a long letter explaining his mistake, but could never bring himself to send it.


Reviewer kinda goes off the rails when he suggests that Kennan's requirement to have suicide pills on hand when stationed in Moscow was so that he could make an honorable exit if his compulsive womanizing were to be discovered.  (The real reason is doubtlessly more prosaic.)  And Gaddis, the author of the book, does not endorse the reviewer's theory on this.

As the exemplification of a realist in international relations, Kennan drew criticism easily:

[I]n 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn attacked Kennan, by name, for refusing to apply moral values to politics. “Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world,” he said.

Solzhenitsyn was right that Kennan was allergic to concepts that were important to Soviet dissidents, concepts like “human rights.” The reason Kennan considered the United Nations a bad idea was that it is an organization based on the pretense that every nation can subscribe disinterestedly to international legal principles—when nations are always, and rightly, interested primarily in preserving or extending their own power. He was horrified by the Nuremberg Trials. “Crimes against humanity” was just the sort of exalted legalism that he thought led to foreign-policy disaster. In any case, he believed that, once the United States accepted Stalin as an ally, it lost the moral authority to condemn Nazism. Kennan spent a good deal of his early life in Germany; in the two volumes of his memoirs, there is not a single mention of the Holocaust.

The review wraps up on a high note:

Still, buried within Kennan’s realism there is a moral view: that in relations of power, which is what he thought international relations ultimately are, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. They will do what the scorpion does to the frog—not because they choose to but because it’s their nature. They can’t help it. This is an easy doctrine to apply to other nations, as it is to apply to other people, since we can always see how professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It’s a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan’s great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists.

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