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George F. Kennan, Secessionist?

For over seventy-five years Ambassador George F. Kennan, dean of the American diplomatic corps, American patriot, and Vermont aficionado, was at the cutting edge of American foreign policy.  With the publication of John Lewis Gaddis’s new book George F. Kennan:  An American Life (Penguin Press, 2011), Kennan’s name is once again on the national radar screen.  When George F. Kennan died on March 17, 2005, at the age of 101, few Americans were aware that he supported the peaceful break-up of the American Empire and the creation of a Vermont independence movement.

Although best known as the father of “containment,” the mainstay of American Cold War policy, Kennan first revealed his radical decentralist tendencies in his 1993 book entitled Around the Cragged Hill.  “We are…a monster country…And there is a real question as to whether ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.”  He also noted “a certain lack of modesty in the national self-image” of the U.S.  He proposed decentralizing the U.S. into a “dozen constituent republics” including New England, the Middle Atlantic states, the Middle West, the Northwest, the Southwest (including Hawaii), Texas, the Old South, Florida, Alaska, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  “To these entities I would accord a larger part of the present federal powers than one might suspect – large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.”

After reading Kennan’s final book, An American Family (2000), which describes the life of his family in Waterbury, Vermont in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I wrote to him in January 2001 and sent him a copy of my book with William H. Willimon entitled Downsizing the U.S.A. (1997), a book which unabashedly called for Vermont independence as a first step towards the peaceful dissolution of the Union.  His letter of 7 February 2001 was the first of ten letters and several phone calls which I received from him over the next two years.  In it he noted “the closeness of many of our views” and added, “we are, I fear, a lonely band…”  Kennan was a closet secessionist.

In a letter dictated to his secretary Terrie Bramley on 22 October 2001 Kennan responded to my proposal that Vermont join Maine, New Hampshire, and the Atlantic provinces of Canada to create a country the size of Denmark.  In this letter he said, “I see nothing fanciful and nothing towards the realization of which efforts of enlightened people might not be usefully directed.”  He concluded by writing, “I thought you, more than anyone else of my acquaintance, ought to know the direction in which my thoughts are leading in this late stage in my own life.”

On 1 May 2002 he wrote, “All power to Vermont in its effort to distinguish itself from the U.S.A. as a whole, and to pursue in its own way the cultivation of its own tradition.”  His most poignant letter, handwritten on 1 August 2002, said, “My enthusiasm for what you are trying to do in Vermont remains undiminished; and I am happy for any small support I can give it.”

In his last letter to me on 14 February 2003, two days before his 99th birthday and just prior to the war in Iraq, he expressed concern about the negative political impact that the war might have on the Vermont independence movement.  On this he was mistaken.  The war that began on March 19 of that year actually gave impetus to the movement which had been officially launched two weeks earlier and soon became known as the Second Vermont Republic.

Although I never heard form him again, George Kennan was a major source of inspiration for the Second Vermont Republic.  He provided valuable insights about the size of America, the degree to which it is centralized, and its tendency towards imperialism.  He also appreciated Vermont’s uniqueness—its history, its culture, and its size.  Above all, he gave us the courage to pursue the dream of an independent Vermont.  Unknown to him, he was truly the godfather of the Second Vermont Republic movement.  Maybe someday he will also be known as the godfather of the Second Vermont Republic itself.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.