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The Legacy of George F. Kennan, 1904-2005

George Orwell once wrote that every man’s life viewed from the inside is a failure. We are tempted to believe that George Kennan, who has died at 101, may have rendered a similar judgment on himself when he left this conscious life. The architect of America’s cold war doctrine of containment came long ago to repudiate the poisoned fruits of his inspiration a divided world, a militarized and cheapened culture, and $12 trillion flushed down the drain. [1]

Quite apart from recoiling at the consequences of his broad geopolitical conception, he came to regret the concrete outcomes of specific initiatives he once championed. Political warfare against the Soviet Union through covert operations was no brain wave of the plodding Truman, nor of flunkies like Clark Clifford; it was Kennan who proposed “the inauguration of political warfare” against the Soviet Union in a 1948 memorandum that remained top secret for almost five decades. “The time is now fully ripe for the creation of a covert political warfare operations directorate within the government,” he concluded.

This conception of Kennan’s left a slug-like residue through the decades of the cold war: Mossadegh, Arbenz, Lumumba, Diem, Allende. Some are convinced its backwash encompassed Dallas and Watergate. The most profound moment of the hearings of the Select Committee on Assassinations in 1975 was not Nelson Rockefeller’s theatrical brandishing of the James Bond-like poison dart gun, but rather Kennan’s melancholy admission that his political warfare idea was “the greatest mistake I ever made.” [2]

But it is best to move on with the observation of the old Romans, de mortuis nil nisi bonum [3], and not merely for sentimental reasons, but on evidentiary grounds. As a sensitive and reflective man, he was capable of learning. Although he was the archetypal cold warrior at the beginning, very early on he saw that intervention in Indochina was a losing proposition. By the early 1950s, he surmised that the French mission civilisatrice in Vietnam was failing; if the United States intervened, it would be defeated in turn. His memoranda were disregarded by John Foster Dulles and the rest of the American Century crowd. [4]

Above all, Kennan was a realist and a cultural pessimist, a combination absent from the cloud-cuckooland that is present day Washington. Oddly for the architect of the cold war, “USA Number One” was not in his vocabulary: in 1999, he concluded that “this whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable.” The Washington Post’s obituary asserts that he deplored the automobile, computers, commercialism, environmental degradation, and other manifestations of modern life, and that “[h]e loathed popular American culture.”

Was Kennan’s dyspeptic Weltanschauung appropriate? He made his mark in public life when America’s position in the world was so far above that of other nations as to be unchallengeable. The rest of the world had nothing remotely like the Willow Run plant or Henry Kaiser’s shipyards. America’s moral prestige, from 1945 through the joyous mob scene of President Kennedy’s Berlin speech, was like the Second Coming. [5]

But he saw, as the censorious guardian of an older tradition, that the nascent empire was antithetical to the old republic. A conservative of a type rarely seen these days, he believed in stewardship of the earth, and believed the country was “exhausting and depleting the very sources of its own abundance.”

As the United States stands at the brink of the Peak Oil phenomenon, that observation begins to sound like wisdom. The country is now Number One only in military spending, debt, and cultural frivolity. China and India each graduate three times the number of engineers Americans do. The United States now ranks 28 out of 40 countries in mathematical literacy. [6] China sits atop $610 billion dollars of U.S. debt. [7]

Most intellectuals are fated to molder away in cow state colleges, second hand book shops, and third rate think tanks. Like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and a handful of other bona fide thinkers, George Kennan made an outsized imprint on the world. His tragedy was that he came to regret his handiwork.

* WERTHER is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.

 

[1] The cost of military spending in the cold war in constant 2005 dollars; calculated from figures in Historical Tables, Office of Management and Budget.

[2] “George F. Kennan Dies at 101; Leading Strategist of the Cold War,” The New York Times, 18 March 2005.

[3] “Speak no ill of the dead.”

[4] The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam, 1973.

[5] Within a week of “the end of major combat” in the European Theater in 1945, a delegation of U.S. Senators rode through the rubble of German towns in open phaetons with no obvious security; a similar scene in 2005 in Fallujah or Ramadi, two full years after the putative conquest of Iraq, is unthinkable. One may also contrast President Kennedy in Berlin in 1963 with President Bush in the deserted and locked-down Mainz of 2005. Why have all the foreigners grown so threatening?

[6] “U.S. Students Fare Badly in International Survey of Math Skills,” The New York Times, 7 December 2004.

[7] “Coming to Terms with China,” by Tom Engelhardt and Chalmers Johnson,

 

 

 

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