George F. Kennan: What We Can Learn from HimHistorians in the News
THE DEATH last week of George F. Kennan concentrates the mind. The great American statesman was 101 years old. His longevity was second to his influence, though, and a chorus saluted him as the father of ''containment," the foundational idea of US Cold War thinking. But Kennan always insisted that his famous formulations -- the Long Telegram and the ''Mister X" article -- were misunderstood. His warnings about Soviet intentions and ideology, he said, were meant as a call to political action, not military build-up. The threat was less the Red Army than the discontent of impoverished peoples who might turn to Communism.
Beginning almost 50 years ago, Kennan decried the American emphasis on war-readiness at the expense of diplomacy and economic development. Across the US reliance on a massive nuclear arsenal that prompted Moscow to reply in kind. The waste and dangers of the arms race were unnecessary. The arc of Kennan's life suggests that American responses to the Soviet Union could have gone another way. What would the world be like today if his views had prevailed?
The civil war on the Korean peninsula would not have been magnified into a transcendent East-West clash, licensing the permanent Stalinism of the north.
Washington would have seized the diplomatic opportunity offered by the death of Stalin, supporting the emergence of reform-minded leaders in Moscow before the arms race began in earnest.
The United States would have refrained from testing and deploying the hydrogen bomb, with notice to Moscow that such grave escalation to a genocidal weapon would take place only if the Soviets went first.
The revolutionary movements of the Third World would have been seen as rejection of colonialism and normal nationalism instead of as global conspiracy centered in Moscow.
There would have been no American war in Vietnam.
The US crusade for ''freedom" would have been mitigated by a sense of modesty, with respect for the differing political impulses of other cultures.
Washington would have remained faithful to the post-World War II American sponsorship of structures of international cooperation, centered in the United Nations.
How we remember the past determines the shape of the future. If Kennan's life reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about the militarized confrontation of the Cold War, it can also help us see an alternative to the belligerent course now being set by Washington. Here is what a Kennan-like preference for political and diplomatic responses over military ones would mean today ....
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