At the end of World War II, militant hawks wanted the West to pivot to a direct major confrontation with the Soviet Union. Instead, the Cold War stayed cold. Why?
In 1946, our Treasury Department requested an analysis of Soviet perspectives. Since Ambassador Harriman was away, deputy chief George Kennan responded with “the long telegram” that brilliantly outlined a strategy for handling diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Navy Secretary James Forrestal was so impressed that he brought Kennan back to be head foreign affairs at the National War College.
By 1948, Secretary of State George Marshall had Kennan head the brand new Policy Planning Staff, a high-level government think tank. Kennan realized that the punitive war reparations imposed at the end of World War I led to the rise of Hitler, and that path should not be taken again. Kennan became the intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild a devastated Europe.
The basis for Cold War containment came from his in-depth knowledge and experience with the Soviet peoples. He advised against any total war scenario. Under attack, a people will unite under the most despised despot. But let the Soviets get embroiled in little uprisings and the people will be disgruntled with their leadership. Simply: “limited wars against Russia damaged the regime in power more than did total wars.” Under Truman, Eisenhower and later Presidents, Kennan’s policy prevailed.
Why am I discussing history in an education column? With some Kansas universities closing down their foreign language programs, I am concerned that we may no longer produce such wise men.
The young Kennan graduated from Foreign Service School in 1926 and served in Switzerland and then Germany where he studied the history and politics of Eastern Europe and Russia. He mastered Russian, German, French, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, and Norwegian.
Kennan was then assigned to a series of critical posts from Latvia to our legation in Prague. When the Czechoslovak Republic fell to Nazi Germany, Kennan was assigned to Berlin and was interned in Germany for six months after the U.S. entered the war in 1941. When released, he was posted to Lisbon and then to London before Harriman called him to serve in Moscow.
Today, many Americans think that every country needs to be “just like us.”
But Kennan knew that democracy cannot be exported: “national strength is a question of our internal strength, of the health and sanity of our own society.” He felt that “America could not and should not attempt to tell other people how they should live their lives—Americans’ moral responsibility was for their own lives.” The only way we influence others is by example, not by preaching or military coercion.
When asked how to counter the Soviet threat, he replied that we had to first look to “...our American failings, to the racial problem, to the conditions in our big cities, to the education and environment of our young people, to the growing gap between specialized knowledge and popular understanding.” In 1952, he wrote in the New York Times: “Let us not attempt to constitute ourselves the guardians of everyone else’s virtue; we have enough trouble to guard our own.”
Lee Congdon’s biography of Kennan, subtitled “A Writing Life” describes why we should pay attention to the founder of this school of political realism. Kennan was expert with prose, but he had to suppress beliefs he knew would be unpopular and would have undermined his career. Kennan advocated for professionalism in politics—the need for statesmen of proven ability and judgement to be shielded from the whims and pressures of public opinion and the vulgar requirements of seeking elected office—he saw this as a weakness of democracy.
Kennan felt that liberty “possessed a value only in a well-ordered society. Otherwise, it degenerated into license.” But he realized that if he publicly discussed the shortcomings of our democratic system, he would be charged with supporting tyranny.
Now that we face total governmental dysfunction, Keenan would have some allies today.
Perhaps with the “right” to vote, comes our “responsibility” to be better-educated.
Kennan died in 2005. At the Institute for Advanced Studies are engraved these words by Kennan: “True scholars often work in loneliness, compelled to find reward in the awareness that they have made valuable, even beautiful, contributions to the cumulative structure of human knowledge, whether anyone knows it at the time or not.”