George F. Kennan, 1904-2005
George F. Kennan died March 17 at age 101. He has been among my intellectual heros since I first read his works in 1969 when I studied American diplomatic history in college. His ideas about containing Soviet Communism, written in the late 1940's, were still relevant as the United States (and I personally) wrestled with the war in Vietnam. Kennan was anti-Communist–he well understood the need to keep Communism and Russian power from threatening western democracies–but he also understood Russia and her leaders. Although he is remembered for containment, which became the hallmark of post-World War II American policy, his ideas were implemented selectively by a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations. His call for diplomatic and economic engagement was largely ignored in favor of military confrontation. So too, was his warning about the limits of containment:
To oppose efforts of indigenous communist elements within foreign countries must generally be considered a risky and profitless undertaking, apt to do more harm than good.
Twenty years later, his words and ideas made much sense to me as I watched the Vietnam war tear two nations apart. How I wished then that my country had been smart enough to listen to the one American who truly understood diplomacy, the Russians, the Soviet Union and the strength of indigenous movements. Had our leaders listened to all that George Kennan had to say at the dawn of nuclear age, we might well have avoided a deadly fight against Vietnamese nationalists who quoted Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx. George Kennan’s insight, understanding and logic showed me how intelligent and informed foreign policy can secure the nation’s interests. Vietnam showed me how disastrous foreign policy can be.
Vietnam was a product of the cold war resulting from America’s emphasis on military confrontation with the Soviet Union and all its “allies”. Rather than containing Soviet power and engaging the Soviets with diplomacy and economic cooperation, America challenged Communism wherever it arose. It was an expensive undertaking that required an enormous support infrastructure. This infrastructure consumed vast public resources that flowed to ever more specialized industries which, in turn, developed their own interests and influence on policy in order to keep resources flowing their way. The National Security Act of 1947 gave birth and purpose to the military industrial complex. Less than a decade later a Republican ex-general, President Dwight Eisenhower, began his first term warning about the loss of resources for human needs to militarism and war. Eight years later, he ended his second term warning about the growing influence of the military-industrial complex . Just as Kennan’s advice was ignored, so too was Eisenhower’s. The military industrial complex continued to thrive until the 1990's when the Soviet finally collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions, as Kennan predicted in 1947. Without a global superpower opponent, the military industrial complex lost its raison d’etre.
Kennan’s wisdom and the military industrial infrastructure come to mind as I contemplate BushCheney’s Global War on Terror. Once again, America is choosing a military model for dealing with the world and once again, the military-industrial complex consumes a growing share of America’s limited resources. Barely a decade after the the cold war’s end of, it has found a new mission, new opportunities in the global war on terrorism. Once again, America addresses a problem through military means that are not always appropriate or effective. But ineffective as these means may be, they are profitable and hard to stop once started. New reports indicate that the US is planning even more ambitious military adventures despite the high cost fiasco that is our policy in Iraq. More war. More Death. More loss.
George Kennan was a man who well understood the world of his day and the men who led it. He saw the need for both strength and cooperation in guiding America safely into a new and dangerous world armed with nuclear weapons. I wish America could summon his wisdom in as we dealing with international terrorism at the dawn of the 21st Century. I know it would be more effective and far, far less devastating to all concerned.
Thank you, Ambassador Kennan, for your ideas. They have served me well in understanding the world these many years.