A Prophet Lacking Followers

Robert Dallek has a pretty entertaining piece in Foreign Policy on the three common historical myths which tend to lure American heads of state toward disaster, again and again.  What’s interesting here is his argument that the ideology on Cold War Russia was often hijacked away from the very experts who formed the original ideas, such as George F. Kennan, leading to the creation of the “containment” myth and an over-reliance on military solutions to political and diplomatic problems.

From the start, however, containment was a contested doctrine. In his famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946 and “X” article in Foreign Affairs the next year, George F. Kennan, who headed the State Department’s new policy planning staff, counseled the White House to contain Soviet Russia’s “expansionist,” “messianic” drive for world control. Kennan later regretted having stated his views in such evangelistic language; it encouraged anti-communists to take his advice as a call for military as well as political and diplomatic action.

In fact, Kennan never believed that Moscow intended amilitary offensive against Western Europe. In his judgment, Soviet acts ofaggression would take the form of political subversion, calculated steps tobring pro-Soviet governments to power wherever possible as Moscow drove to winwhat it saw as the inevitable competition between communism and capitalism.Kennan’s formula for victory was economic aid fostering political stability incountries potentially vulnerable to communism’s siren song. He wisely describedSoviet communism as a system of state management and controls that wouldeventually collapse when its inability to meet consumer demands for the sort ofmaterial well-being and freedoms enjoyed in the West became evident.Accordingly, he vigorously opposed hawkish Cold War initiatives such as theestablishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, armed intervention inVietnam, and the development of the hydrogen bomb as needless escalations thatwould only ensure a harsh Soviet response.

Kennan was a prophet without a following — at least withinthe U.S. government. Secretary of State Dean Acheson told him to take hisQuaker views to a more hospitable setting than he could possibly find inWashington. Kennan found a home in Princeton, N.J., at the Institute forAdvanced Study, but vindication would not become fully evident until the closeof the Cold War. As his life ended in 2005 at the age of 101, he was convincedmore than ever that the tyranny of military containment had done little, ifanything, to assure America’s victory in that struggle. He saw the invasion ofIraq as another example of misplaced faith in a military solution to apolitical problem. In a September 2002 interview, a 98-year-old Kennandescribed Bush’s talk of a pre-emptive war against Iraq as “a great mistake.”

I don’t think that Dallek has to be too worried about Obama fearing the “appeasement” crown in the administration’s policy toward Russia.