George Kennan: The Perils Of History

George Kennan: The Perils Of History

There is more than manner and know-how in Mr. George Kennan’s urbane style; he also is a nineteenth-century statesman, and his political wisdom comes from the school of Castlereagh and Talleyrand. He does not just disagree with this or that particular line of the State Department; he denounces the totalitarian traits which have tainted the policies of the most democratic statesmen in the twentieth century—such as the Treaty of Versailles, the policy of Unconditional Surrender, the moralistic view that all people on our side are saints, all on the other sinners, the willingness to put up with the threat of nuclear war, and the obsession to hold outlying positions.

Mr. Kennan spreads before us the nostalgic view of the “balance of powers” and of a multi-national universe, free from arch-enemies and undying alliances. He thinks that having to deal with Khrushchev and Mao simultaneously makes things much easier for us than having to deal with Stalin alone; any other view is “simpliste.” One could not agree more— but the question is not whether the view is simpliste but whether world affairs have been reduced to a twopower struggle. We all wish it had not, and Mr. Kennan’s efforts to restore a multi-lateral universe have endeared him to the small nations in particular.

Mr. Kennan once formulated the so-called policy of containment. This policy called for political remedies against communist penetration; but if words have meaning, it also implied the engagement of aggressive forces at the point of friction. Though the NATO alliance was born out of this containment thinking, Mr. Kennan later repudiated this meaning. But in all his extensive writings he has failed to state how his interpretation of “containment” applies, for instance, to the coup of Prague.

In Realities of Foreign Policy, written six years after that event, he pokes fun at “another view which would hold Moscow responsible for all Communist activity everywhere” and goes on to explain that Soviet penetration is made possible by “weakness and illness of a given society,” and to conclude that “containment is basically a problem of … our relations with the peoples of the non-Communist world.” Well, the historian Kennan knows that in 1947 Czechoslovakia was part of the non-Communist world, and our relations could have been quite helpful, had not a telegram from Moscow forbidden Masaryk to accept Marshall aid. Nor was the “given society” sick. In the forthcoming elections the Communists anticipated a resounding defeat; it was precisely for this reason that Moscow—not to be held responsible for Communist activity everywhere—despatched Zorin to Prague personally to engineer and to supervise the coup of February 1948.

Nor was containment an answer to the civil war in China. On the other hand, there was no sicker place in the world than Berlin, but we succe...