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The X-Files

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Fill in the blanks here and you have the endlessly repeatable story of every single postwar crisis, real or imagined, that the United States has faced. "Saddam as Hitler" is scarcely the last appearance of the Munich analogy. Though it was ignored at the time, Kennan himself was not really appealing to the story about the 1930s or even talking much about the totalitarian threat to freedom. His comparison was actually negative in that Stalin, unlike Hitler, wasn't given to adventurism but was quite sensitive to material differences of power. Hence Kennan was optimistic, the West being objectively much stronger than the Soviet Union.

About the Author

Anders Stephanson
Anders Stephanson, the James P. Shenton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of, among...

That Kennan did not invoke the appeasement analogy perhaps owed something to the fact that he had had strong affinities for appeasement in the late 1930s. The chief reason, however, was that, as a conservative of the communitarian and sometimes authoritarian kind, he was suspicious of generalities, particularly historical analogies featuring "abstractions." He preferred particularities, or what he called "realities." Stalin was real. The apparatus he controlled at home and abroad was real. Communism, by contrast, was something else. Kennan was thus never a conventional anticommunist. He was against communism and fought communists, sometimes with means he would later regret. He certainly thought, at least for a while, that the Stalinist dictatorship should be fought fiercely in every conceivable way but open war. But he had no sympathy for the idea that the United States was engaged in a universal struggle against a singular, monolithic enemy called communism.

As with all ideologies and grand abstractions, however, he viewed communism as an illusion and a delusion. And the same held true, if not with the same degree of perniciousness, for the ideology of US universalism. As Kennan later put it, he did not find "any special universal virtues in our political system or our way of life." He considered it a product of unique historical circumstances, like its Soviet counterpart, and not to be applied formulaically across the universe.

Being ideologically anti-ideological, Kennan said more about Soviet ideology in his foundational texts than he usually did, much to his later regret. The notion of containment, nevertheless, was not really about ideology. His account of the Soviet Union had centered, as was his wont, on its alleged "nature" as a specific phenomenon. As was also his wont, the analysis was couched in a language seductively metaphorical and suggestive--a language whose sources of inspiration had little to do with the ideology of the embryonic cold war.

First, "containment" was the language of disease and disease control. Soviet communism was for Kennan "a malignant parasite." To prevent spreading infection and epidemics, one must initially diagnose the disease and identify the nature of the parasite--its developmental logic, so to speak--after which it might be isolated and encircled, its potential targets (suitably important ones) inoculated. Witness the Marshall Plan: Deprived of feeding grounds, the parasite would eventually die out or mutate into something essentially benign. Second, "containment" was the language of flood control, managing an overflowing river that threatened to invade every available opening and destroy everything in its way. The spatial imagery evokes dams, walls and physical obstacles. How Kennan's prescription would eventually serve to overcome these obstacles was far from clear, one reason he found himself attacked by strident cold warriors. Whatever the image, the fact remained that, for Kennan, Soviet policy was entirely a product of its internal nature, not of anything that the outside world--i.e., the West--might be doing politically. One does not negotiate with a parasite or an overflowing river: One acts energetically to stop them, in the event of a crisis.

The problem with this view, of course, was that the Soviet regime was none of those things. As Kennan himself would write (though after Stalin was gone), the Soviet leaders were "in the business of national power. They have inherited the governmental responsibility for a great state--one of the major traditional units in the contemporary international family--with its people, its history, its traditions, its aspirations, its prejudices, and its rivalries. Like others who are in business, they like to win friends and influence people." Decent relations between states, he now insisted, must "be dialectical ones, embracing contradictory elements," featuring both "pressure and conciliation," a willingness to defend as well as a willingness "to concede" and "to be generous." This was not the spirit of the global project of the United States known as the cold war.

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