FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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,

 

 

 

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
September 19, 2019
Richard Falk
Burning Amazonia, Denying Climate Change, Devastating Syria, Starving Yemen, and Ignoring Kashmir
Charles Pierson
With Enemies Like These, Trump Doesn’t Need Friends
Lawrence Davidson
The Sorry State of the Nobel Peace Prize
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Scourge in the White House
Urvashi Sarkar
“Not a Blade of Grass Grew:” Living on the Edge of the Climate Crisis in the Sandarbans of West Bengal.
Thomas Knapp
Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?
Dean Baker
Is There Any Lesser Authority Than Alan Greenspan?
Gary Leupp
Warren’s Ethnic Issue Should Not Go Away
George Ochenski
Memo to Trump: Water Runs Downhill
Jeff Cohen
What George Carlin Taught Us about Media Propaganda by Omission
Stephen Martin
The Perspicacity of Mcluhan and Panopticonic Plans of the MIC
September 18, 2019
Kenneth Surin
An Excellent Study Of The Manufactured Labour “Antisemitism Crisis”
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Crown Prince Plans to Make Us Forget About the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi Before the US Election
W. T. Whitney
Political Struggle and Fixing Cuba’s Economy
Ron Jacobs
Support the Climate Strike, Not a Military Strike
John Kendall Hawkins
Slouching Toward “Bethlehem”
Ted Rall
Once Again in Afghanistan, the U.S. Proves It Can’t Be Trusted
William Astore
The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Dave Lindorff
Why on Earth Would the US Go to War with Iran over an Attack on Saudi Oil Refineries?
Binoy Kampmark
Doctored Admissions: the University Admissions Scandal as a Global Problem
Jeremy Corbyn
Creating a Society of Hope and Inclusion: Speech to the TUC
Zhivko Illeieff
Why You Should Care About #ShutDownDC and the Global Climate Strike  
Catherine Tumber
Land Without Bread: the Green New Deal Forsakes America’s Countryside
Liam Kennedy
Boris Johnson: Elitist Defender of Britain’s Big Banks
September 17, 2019
Mario Barrera
The Southern Strategy and Donald Trump
Robert Jensen
The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis
Dean Baker
Health Care: Premiums and Taxes
Dave Lindorff
Recalling the Hundreds of Thousands of Civilian Victims of America’s Endless ‘War on Terror’
Binoy Kampmark
Oiling for War: The Houthi Attack on Abqaiq
Susie Day
You Say You Want a Revolution: a Prison Letter to Yoko Ono
Rich Gibson
Seize Solidarity House
Laura Flanders
From Voice of America to NPR: New CEO Lansing’s Glass House
Don Fitz
What is Energy Denial?
Dan Bacher
Governor Newsom Says He Will Veto Bill Blocking Trump Rollback of Endangered Fish Species Protections
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: Time to Stop Pretending and Start Over
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Inside the Syrian Peace Talks
Elliot Sperber
Mickey Mouse Networks
September 16, 2019
Sam Husseini
Biden Taking Iraq Lies to the Max
Paul Street
Joe Biden’s Answer to Slavery’s Legacy: Phonographs for the Poor
Paul Atwood
Why Mattis is No Hero
Jonathan Cook
Brexit Reveals Jeremy Corbyn to be the True Moderate
Jeff Mackler
Trump, Trade and China
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima’s Radioactive Water Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Democrats and the Climate Crisis
Michael Doliner
Hot Stuff on the Afghan Peace Deal Snafu
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail