The X-Files

The X-Files

An Obituary.


Born in 1904 during Teddy Roosevelt’s first Administration, and dead on March 24, 2005, under a very different kind of Republican rule, George Kennan took his last stance as a public intellectual when he was about to turn 100. The issue was the impending invasion of Iraq. Kennan considered it ill advised. The official justifications for war struck him as flimsy, the servile reaction by the leadership of the Democratic Party “shabby and shameful.” When Colin Powell traveled up to Princeton later to pay homage on Kennan’s hundredth birthday, the Secretary, though doubtless aware of these views, nevertheless saw fit to liken the Iraqi operation to containment.

Till his dying days, Kennan could not get away from supposedly having been the “architect” of containment, the master signifier and reference point of all US foreign policy since the beginning of the cold war. He was 42 in 1946 when he wrote (or rather dictated) the so-called Long Telegram in Moscow, the text that, along with the famous “X-Article” in Foreign Affairs the following year, came to establish rigidly the official view of the Soviet danger and, putatively, the containment doctrine designed to deal with it. I doubt he imagined that he would live nearly another sixty years; and I am quite sure he didn’t think he would have to spend a good number of them regurgitating what he really meant and didn’t mean by “containment.” Kennan considered Powell an honest person, and the latter may actually have believed what he said; but his remarks must have perturbed the old man then, as they might perturb Powell now (then again, probably not). Containment was Kennan’s claim to fame and his everlasting curse.

Whatever the meaning of containment, a “doctrine” it was decidedly not: Kennan would recoil at the congenital US affinity for “doctrines” to be applied across the geopolitical board. Containment, by contrast, was a simple answer to an altogether too simple analysis of what the Soviet Union was all about. Kennan argued that Moscow, for specific historical and ideological reasons, was inherently expansionist and utterly inimical to the West, indeed to all forms of power not under its own control. To placate or “deal” with this regime, as Franklin Roosevelt had tried to do, was hopeless and counterproductive. The Soviet Union and its allies could only be contained, stopped in their tracks, thwarted in their natural logic of expansion. The regime should be treated as a pariah, not just as a hostile but recognizable political competitor. Real diplomacy and negotiation were counterproductive until, in effect, the Soviet Union ceased being the Soviet Union.

The decisive aspect of these two texts (whose internal contradictions and errors I leave aside) was precisely Kennan’s prescriptive refusal to deploy the traditional means of diplomacy in relations with Moscow, his insistence that nothing serious could be achieved by way of negotiation on fundamental issues of mutual concern until the entire nature of the regime had changed. I take this to be the decisive aspect of the cold war as well, the aspect of warlike hostility under formal conditions of peace that made the conflict a cold war as opposed to a nasty but essentially traditional conflict of international relations. In my view, this posture fundamentally shaped US foreign policy until the early 1960s, when the Cuban missile crisis, the Sino-Soviet split and other factors rendered it largely obsolete. Kennan’s responsibility for the cold war, it would seem, was thus far from negligible. Perhaps Powell had a point?

Not quite. Kennan’s ideological frame, even in 1946-47, was not that of the cold war as it came to be played out, which is why he found himself already breaking with the emerging orthodoxy in 1948, opposing as he was by then the militarization of the conflict (NATO) and advocating a deal with Moscow on German unification. That he was painfully unsuccessful in both cases had to do with the fact that his views had been inserted, quite plausibly, into a crusading, universalizing ideology of good and evil to which he did not adhere. More particularly, “the refusal” of containment made perfect sense within the now common-sensical truth about what had gone wrong in the 1930s and brought about World War II–namely, that the democracies had disgracefully appeased the totalitarians while the United States had done nothing at all. The same mistakes, assuredly, would not now be made with regard to the Soviet Union and international communism, the one remaining enemy.

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.

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.

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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