George Kennan prefaces his remarkable memoirsfootnote1 with an exemplary self-critical account of his background and early environment, with its attendant psychological effects. Historically and socially, George Kennan was an ‘outsider’, ill at ease in the 20th century, and ill at ease with its ideas, particularly marxism (‘something to which I could not relate myself personally either by my own experience or by that of the family’). One of the two influences behind his decision to go to Princeton (which he lived through in a state of almost permanent psychological depression) was Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. From Princeton he moved into the newly established Foreign Service. After an abortive attempt at leaving it, he embarked on a career as a Russian expert, first from outside the Soviet Union, and subsequently in Moscow, whither he travelled with Bullitt, the first American ambassador, immediately on the reopening of relations between the USA and the USSR. Bullitt seems to have been one of the few American officials for whom Kennan had genuine respect; even Radek and Bukharin used to drop by the embassy to talk to him in the early days. Later Kennan had to serve under less estimable figures, such as Mr Bert Fish, a political appointee from Florida, who was head of the Lisbon mission in 1942. Fish lived in his bedroom, and had not had one single meeting with the Portuguese leaders since his arrival. Kennan pressured him hard to meet Salazar, particularly because of the American need for bases in the Azores, but Fish could not be moved. ‘Ah ain’t goin’ down there and get mah backsides kicked around . . . He’s too smaht for me.’ Caught between an ignorant and unpredictable State Department on the one side and equal hazards such as the oss scheme to organize a revolt against Salazar in the Azores, Kennan makes planned diplomacy sound like a non-stop nightmare. Weeks after the Tehran Conference the American delegation to the European Advisory Comsion in London had not been told what had transpired at Tehran.
What is so odd about the book is that, though Kennan blatantly despises much of American policy, he never once broaches the question of what American aims are. American policy and its agents are frequently criticised, but it is always assumed implicitly that America is fundamentally right: this is not challenged once. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, although Kennan admits to great sympathy with the Russian people and all that, is automatically assumed always to be wrong and its policy evil. The two main theses of Kennan’s book are that America should use her power scientifically and that she should never have compromised herself so far with the ussr. ‘Never did I consider the Soviet Union a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country.’ Keanan was against the Nuremberg trials, and against Russian participation in them: ‘to admit to such a procedure a Soviet judge . . . was to make a mockery of the only purpose the trials could conceivably serve, and to assume, by association, a share of the responsibility for Stalinist crimes.’ The core of Kennan’s ideological outlook is best seen in his description of the formulation of the Marshall plan. This was conceived scientifically as a means of applying America’s superiority—viz. her great wealth—directly on the Soviet Union’s weakness—her lamentable economic condition after the war—in order to affect the political superstructures. The Marshall Plan was a challenge to ‘competition’, ostensibly on a basis of equality, but in fact in conditions of extreme inequality. Kennan knew that the Russians could not accept this kind of challenge on the terms laid down by the us; their reaction he calculated would be defensive, and would take such forms as attempting to safeguard the East German regime by isolating West Berlin, and abandoning compromise in Czechoslovakia. This would both put socialism as an ideology in a bad light in the Western countries, and create more difficult conditions for the actual construction of socialist societies in the East, by thrusting them into an artificially selfcontained group cut off from free intercourse with the rest of the world (p. 379, 401). Kennan was, of course, too clever. Official Washington was unable to appreciate that the Berlin and Prague events were defensive reactions to a successful American initiative. The misfit diplomatic genius had set off the inexorable dialectic of ignorance and thuggery which soon produced the abomination of nato—America’s crude defensive reaction, Kennan suggests, at a time when no such defensiveness was called for. This highlights the underlying contradictions which Kennan never tackles: not only what were America’s motives, but also what were the effects of her actions? This side of the equation of cold war competition is simply evaded—yet it is essential that it be filled in because, as it stands at present, Kennan’s case is a cold war argument—America v. Russia. The struggle should be waged scientifically, he says, because America (despite what it thinks) is vastly superior to the ussr in everything that counts. But her superiority, other than in firepower, is never defined. Russia emerges as a loathsome enemy, America as a mass of bumbling officialdom. It is a curious position for one so intelligent, depending as it does on an almost purely negative standpoint. This is a position rather akin to that of Walter Lippmann: America is assumed to have a right to intervene wherever she can do so successfully and without over-extending herself, but is rarely praised as a civilization. Kennan was against the Truman Doctrine because (unlike the Marshall Plan) it was an unscientific, openended commitment. He has recently come out for Eugene MacCarthy, with a critical position on Vietnam—on the grounds that it is an unscientific application of American power. At least this avoids the maudlin moralizing of American liberalism, but it is important to realize that this stance can at no point rejoin any socialist critique. On the contrary, were American politics run by people such as George Kennan, and not Wilbur Mills, Dean Rusk and Mendel Rivers, the road to socialism, particularly in Europe, would be even more arduous than it is today.