At The Financial Times: George F. Kennan revisionism?

Political Observer comments.

Mr. Kuper has missed this issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies Volume 15, Issue 4 Fall 2013:

This issue takes a critical look at the Gaddis biography, as the preferred methodology for assessing the career of Kennan. Here is an excerpt of Anders Stephenson’s assessment:

Here lies the crux of the matter, and so of Gaddis’s ediªce as well. Everything turns on two issues. The ªrst is “the Soviet issue” itself. The divergence between Kennan and Lippmann on this matter in September 1947 hinges on the notion of “normality.” Difference is inscribed in the world, but in Kennan’s depiction as opposed to Lippmann’s the Soviet regime is and has always been abnormal, alien, and hostile, and now because of World War II was also dangerously placed: an abnormality piled on an abnormality, as it were. From the moment Kennan began seriously pondering the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and into the summer of 1948, he ultimately declined to recognize Moscow’s legitimacy as an international actor (he did not consider the Nazi regime, unpleasant and aggressive though it might be, equally beyond the pale until the war). The “Long Telegram” and the “X” article express this posture. Their speciªc accounts of the Soviet Union and its foreign relations are empirically wrong and strangely structured: wrong in denying that Moscow had ever made “deals” and compromises when in fact it had made a whole string of them, as Kennan well knew; strange in rooting Soviet policy wholly in domestic sources as though the outside world had no meaning except as a construction set forth to legitimate the regime at home. Astonishingly, the massive, near-death experience of the Soviet Union in World War II is almost entirely absent from the article. Suppose the United States had gone through a similar experience, the area between the Rockies and the industrial northeast had been essentially leveled by the Wehrmacht, 25 million had been killed, New York had been under siege for 900 days, and New Yorkers, the lucky ones, had been forced to eat rats while Washington was being bombarded. Can one imagine a persuasive postwar analysis of U.S. foreign policy that largely ignored such a sequence of events? I think not (and one can visualize the kind of security claims the U.S. government would have insisted on afterward). Yet, despite the antinomies and palpable errors of the “Long Telegram” and subsequent “X” article, they were received with a stupeªed sense of discovery, a discovery of “truth revealed.” Lippmann never fell into that trap, and Kennan himself, once confronted with the effects of the truth revealed, which is to say the Cold War, began to look for alternatives and ways to reconstitute some kind of diplomacy proper. The “normality” argument did not go away. It was famously resurrcted in 1967 by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in Foreign Affairs; and Gaddis reiterates it now again in celebrating the virtues of the Long Telegram. In fact, the Soviet Union proved remarkably orthodox in its devotion to power politics and classical European notions of international relations. What was really “wrong” with Iosif Stalin was, one might say, his abnormal “normality”—his hyper-realist reduction of all meaning to pure and ruthless interest. This was a man who had had The Prince translated for himself and then marked it up with care. Thus one might have chosen another basis for rejecting dealings with Moscow; for example, on ethical grounds: “this regime is a horrible dictatorship and, regardless of what we said and did during our wartime alliance, one must not accept such a regime qua regime.” This is a coherent position but notoriously difficult to maintain insofar as, typically, one has to distinguish this particular dictatorship by degree from others that are worth dealing with. Right-wing dictatorships aside, the ethical aspect as regards “Communism” was soon effectively discarded because of the need to support Josip Broz Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia. In treating this issue, Gaddis seems to favor the idea that “domestic” Communism was of no real (i.e., strategic) concern to the United States as long as it did not support Moscow and expansionism in foreign affairs. The effortless oscillation between quasi-realist pragmatism and Cold War ideology is in itself characteristic of the Cold War as actual geopolitics: “freedom, indivisible and sacred, will everywhere be defended by the Leader of the Free World, but it may be that we are not really capable of doing that so China (1948–49) will have to be written off, though we will not put it exactly like that and certainly not in public.”

These two long paragraphs point to what Mr. Kuper uses, both of the Long Telegram and the Mr. X essay, as the rhetorical frame, that just alludes to Kennan’s change of mind about the Soviets. Mr. Stephenson ends his review of the Gaddis biography with these paragraphs:

Gaddis, on reºection, might well have agreed with this and gone on to take the other side of the argument. What he does is less interesting and indeed a bit tiresome. Having said that Kennan was essentially right in 1946– 1947, he faced the task of ªguring out what to do with half a century’s worth of withering Cold War critique, which in effect repudiated his erstwhile position. The predictable solution is a bracketing operation of another order:

Kennan the Early Prophet eventually proved right in the Age of Reagan when containment ªnally brought to maturity the Soviet regime’s “seeds of its own destruction,” a regime that had been so alien to Mother Russia. Meanwhile, Kennan the Late Prophet lost his way amid his emotions, his often charming eccentricities, and his ªxations on cultural degeneration in the West, all of which prevented him, tragically, from reconciling himself to the Truth of Reagan. Kennan’s half-century of critique, then, can be safely quarantined within a realm of egocentric peculiarity. The truth of the Cold War is duly preserved. I myself happen to think that Kennan was quite right in castigating Reagan as an egregiously irresponsible ªgure, a ªgure who, like Gaddis himself, seems to have been surprised that Soviet leaders actually believed there was danger afoot when the United States moved massively to resurrect the Cold War in the name of erasing the “Evil Empire” and so brought the world yet again, unnecessarily, to the brink of nuclear liquidation.

Political Observer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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