Mr. X Marked the Spot


We could use another containment strategy, but George Kennan died

Yankee, go home: Kennan was only briefly U.S. ambassador to Moscow. That was in 1952 (above). After five months, the Soviets declared him persona non grata. But he’d already done his damage to them several years earlier as progenitor of the doctrine of “containment.”


TOO BAD THAT George Kennan, the famed “Mr. X” of last century’s Cold War, died before he could inspire a containment policy to stop this century’s homegrown empire-builders. Instead of the Soviets, we’re the ones who need to be contained, and later in his life, Kennan recognized that—or at least he said he did.

His ’40s ideas of how to contain the Soviet empire, set out in the “Long Telegram” and in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” a July 1947 Foreign Affairs article he penned as “Mr. X,” helped set in motion the Cold War. But subsequent generations of right-wingers went farther in their military blustering toward them there dirty Reds than Kennan would have.

In fact, Kennan became an opponent of the Vietnam War; he was a trenchant critic of American foreign policy after he formally exited the State Department more than half a century ago. Of course, he lived so long that he had plenty of time to perhaps try to rewrite some of the history that he had a hand in making.

That and other things about Kennan are abundant online. You could start with Wikipedia’s bio. Or, try the interesting and comprehensive page of links George F. Kennan on the Web, compiled by Vancouver, Canada, computer jock Russil Wvong.

First, though, read Condoleezza Rice‘s short, official statement released yesterday. It starts:

It is with profound sorrow that I learned today of the passing of George F. Kennan. I knew him, and I admired him as one of the greatest strategists in the history of American foreign policy. He had a profound influence on me.

Yeah, well, not enough of an influence.
Here’s a snatch of Kennan that Rice obviously doesn’t profoundly recall. Speaking about a particular war we were waging, Kennan once told a dinner crowd in Newark:

[N]o conceivable political outcome could justify the attendant suffering and destruction.

And that’s not the only way this effort has been unsound. It has also been unsound in its relation to our own world responsibilities and to our responsibilities here at home. It has represented a grievous disbalance of our world policy. It has riveted an undue amount of our attention and resources to a single secondary theater of world events. It has left us poorly prepared, if not helpless, to meet other crises that might occur simultaneously elsewhere in the world. And finally, it has proceeded at the cost of the successful development of our life here in this country. It has distracted us and hampered us in our effort to come to grips with domestic problems of such gravity as to cry out, as we all know, for the concentrated, first-priority attention of both our government and our public.

These are indeed grievous drawbacks to any sort of military effort. They were all clearly visible a long time ago. It did not take the agony and the grievous human losses of these past two to three years to make them evident to anyone who wanted to see.

Sounds like Iraq, right? Kennan was speaking about Vietnam.

He made those remarks at a February 1968 dinner introducing Eugene McCarthy, who was challenging an earlier warmongering Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennan’s little speech can be found in the New York Review of Books. It’s also excerpted in one of the best fairly recent pieces about Kennan, Ronald Steel‘s essay in the April 29, 2004, NYRB. (If you have to subscribe, don’t whine. The NYRB is must reading these days.)

Even the way Steel began his piece will give you more perspective on Kennan than you’re likely to get from most of the establishment media:

George Kennan, who recently celebrated his hundredth birthday, has been best known as the author of the containment doctrine—an ill-defined formula he proposed as a government official early in the cold war for confronting the Soviet Union with a vigorous American “counterforce.”

This is a great pity, for it is among the least of his accomplishments, and the one that most distorts the subtlety of his mind and the acuteness of his sensibility. Indeed it is one that he himself later denounced as being excessively focused on military rather than political containment.

Not that Kennan became a liberal hippie, y’understand. As Steel put it:

Certainly not a conservative in the way the term is today used in American politics, Kennan is a classic, organic conservative, the intellectual companion of such other historical romanticists as Ortega y Gasset and Spengler. What he deplores is the messiness and leveling of mass democracy, where the median is often the lowest common denominator. What he admires is order, tradition, and an aristocracy of taste and values. Naturally communism is even more abhorrent to him than mass democracy or untrammeled capitalism, for it compounds the sin of leveling by stifling expression.

That’s right. He was from the snooty class, perhaps, but he didn’t like the stifling of expression. Kennan fought fire with fire, not just with firepower, like the idiotic Bush regime. He was cunning and sneaky, as a diplomat should be. But he wasn’t trigger-happy and he spoke his mind—and Kennan had a mind from which to speak.

Steel reproduces (and so will I) a passage from a 1999 NYRB interview of Kennan by Richard Ullman. Here’s that snippet, from a conversation that took place just after Kosovo simmered down:

Ullman: The United States is these days the world’s only superpower. How long will this last?

Kennan: If you measure it only by military statistics alone, it could last, I suppose, for a long time. We have by the tail, after all, in the form of our Pentagon, a vast bureaucratic monster that we don’t know even how to cut down, not to mention to bring fully under control. But purely military power, even in its greatest dimensions of superiority, can produce only short-term successes. Serving in Berlin at the height of Hitler‘s military successes, in 1941, I tried to persuade friends in our government that even if Hitler should succeed in achieving military domination over all of Europe, he would not be able to turn this into any sort of complete and long-lasting political preeminence and I gave reasons for this conclusion. And we were talking, then, only about Europe. Applied to the world scene, this is, of course, even more true. I can say without hesitation that this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power.

Kennan’s breadth, of course, encompassed more than just the politics of politics. He was long a culture critic. I doubt that he ever pestered Jerry Springer for tickets—as the British are about to do. Here’s more from Kennan during the Ullman interview:

Ullman: It isn’t only our military power that makes us No. 1. For better or worse, our cultural impact is equally profound. The world flocks to American popular culture.

Kennan: This, alas, appears to be true. We export to anyone who can buy it or steal it the cheapest, silliest, and most disreputable manifestations of our “culture.” No wonder that these effusions become the laughingstock of intelligent and sensitive people the world over. But so long as we find it proper to let millions of our living rooms be filled with this trash every evening, and this largely to the edification of the schoolchildren, I can see that we would cut a poor figure trying to deny it to others beyond our borders. Nor would we be successful. In a computer age, it is available, anyway, for whoever wants to push the button and receive it. And so we must expect, I suppose, to appear to many abroad, despite our military superiority, as the world’s intellectual and spiritual dunce, until we can change the image of ourselves we purvey to others.

But is there a dunce cap big enough to fit on Bush’s swelled head?