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The X-Files

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What had been appealing and resonant initially about Kennan's analysis was not so much his concept of containment as his depiction of the totally unalterable enemy, in relation to which all conciliatory moves would be at once useless and immoral. Little attention was paid, then or since, to the essentially amoral character of his images. Despite his reference to Soviet "fanaticism," one could hardly blame a parasite for being a parasite or a river for overflowing. These were objects, threatening objects to be sure, in line with the objectified Soviet regime, but objects nonetheless as opposed to moral agents. To neutralize them seemed an almost technical matter, a matter of detached analysis, clarity, science, engineering, efficient professionalism, preferably carried out (he implied) by competent people such as Kennan himself, far from the madding crowd and the messiness of domestic politics. If this aspect was not really noted, critics did begin to quarrel with the allegedly passive aspect of containment as strategy. From the standpoint of the cold war consensus, the problem was that containment might well just leave the evil empire in place.

About the Author

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

As was stated implicitly in NSC 68--the powerful 1950 summa of cold war thinking in the Truman Administration--and explicitly by containment's Republican critics, this strategy seemed to mean an unacceptably long moment of waiting for Godot while letting the evil forces roam pretty much freely within their confines. Hence the clamor in the early 1950s for "rollback," a supposedly active policy of muscular confrontation. In practice, however, Republicans and Democrats alike followed Kennan's erstwhile precept. The fundamental reason was simple. Containment may have been based on faulty premises, but as it was appropriated into a universal division of good and evil, its "positive" side--the prophylactic building of a global, anticommunist system led by the United States in the name of "the free world"--turned out to be immeasurably more important than the "negative" need to destroy Moscow in the name of rollback.

The project of eradicating evil turned out to be more important than actually achieving it. Indeed, it was precisely because it was wrong that containment worked so beautifully as cold war policy, the essence of which was to render unshakable the US commitment to globalism. Containment, meanwhile, did not destroy the Soviet Union but rather maintained it. Kennan's actual policy of mutual withdrawal from central Europe (a notion initially borrowed from Walter Lippmann) would have changed the Soviet Union long before that change came to pass.

Throughout the 1950s, Kennan derided the "triumphant and excited and self- righteous anti-communism" and the "image of the totally inhuman and totally malevolent adversary." By the end of the decade, his concrete policy positions (on Germany, nuclear weapons, recognition of interests) seemed closer to Moscow's than to those of his own government. Ultimately, despite an emphatic sense of citizenship, his allegiances were civilizational rather than national, to "the West" rather than to the United States. And by this time he had begun to see the Soviet Union as part of the "conservative-authoritarian" tradition he thought had been "the norm" in the West during the Christian era, not at any rate a state "hideous in the sight of God." Nationalism was by contrast one of his civilizational targets. He despised Wilsonian notions of self-determination along with the related principle of national sovereignty. "Could anything be more absurd," he asked, "than a world divided into several dozens of large secular societies, each devoted to the cultivation of the myth of its own unlimited independence?" The "world," at any rate, was not the site of an all-encompassing struggle between the free world and communism. It was precisely such mistaken cold war notions, Kennan thought, that were turning the world into a potential burial ground.

For Kennan, then, the world was never dichotomous. It was a myriad of discrete entities, different in nature, most of them best left alone and not very important anyway (one reason he found the Vietnam War monumentally wrongheaded). What mattered, civilizationally, was that none of the major industrial regions/power constellations ever went to war against one another, nuclear weaponry having made war unthinkably destructive. Kennan's model was shaped by what he considered the crucial calamity of the twentieth century, a century he experienced almost in its entirety, namely World War I. And behind that implosion lay the nascent nationalism of industrializing, urbanized economies in the late nineteenth century, the emergence of easily roused "masses," standardization and fake egalitarianism, the advent of cancerous growth and a whole series of other ills.

Thus, first within the Truman Administration and then, after 1950, as a vocal public intellectual, Kennan came gradually to sense (if not entirely to see) the scope of his dissent. Amid the phantasmagorical world of the cold war, with its global interventionism and nuclear fixations, he turned his diagnostic attention increasingly from the Soviet Union to the United States and its ills. It was tragic, he came to think, that the United States should have been thrust into a position of international leadership, a position for which this immature power--"one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin"--was decidedly unqualified. On the domestic side, he had nothing but disdain for "the American Way," especially its mass culture: advertising, televised inanity, automotive fixations, secularism, fragmentation, lack of deference and so on. Profoundly conservative in the old European sense, Kennan was able to identify with a range of remarkably disparate political forces, from Salazar's authoritarian rule in Portugal (and his colonial rule in Africa) to Norwegian social democracy to (briefly) the Stevensonian wing of the Democratic Party in the 1950s to General de Gaulle. Particularism aside (any given approach works where it works), what was common across this peculiar spectrum was Kennan's commitment to order, hierarchy, stability, difference, clarity, expertise, beauty, style and small-scale community. Like many conservatives who deplore the vulgarity and excess of capitalist culture (modern or postmodern), he did not and could not raise the issue of capitalism as such. Confronting questions of economic structure always threatened to turn class into a problem of political power rather than something to be neutralized within an "organic" hierarchy.

As the 1960s faded, however, Kennan found himself oddly at one with a good deal of the surviving left, not least in his fiercely eloquent denunciations of Reagan's resurrection of cold war politics and massive expansion of the military in the name of total victory. Even earlier, when he had been chastising with prodigious venom the radical student movement of the 1960s, he did not hesitate to condemn the signature style of US politics in the world: "the hearty bombast, the banging of the chauvinistic bell, the measureless national self-congratulation, the huffy assertions of suspicion and truculence directed to the outside world, and the ritualistic invocation of a pious anticommunism to justify anything for which a more meaningful argument might seem too subtle or too difficult." That he should have ended his century expressing contempt for the hypocrisies of the current officialdom is entirely fitting.

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