George Kennan died Thursday at 101. We dipped into the NR archives for commentary on his public career and thinking. This is an “On the Right” column William F. Buckley Jr. published January 3, 1978.
It is a rule at the Council on Foreign Relations that one may not write about what any member says at one of its meetings . My rule is to obey rules of organizations of which I am a member, but the esteemed Michael Novak, professor of humanities and newspaper columnist, has now written about a speech by George Kennan delivered to the Washington branch of the CFR and, accordingly, the speech becomes public property . It is a remarkable document .
Not at all easy to paraphrase. But definitely worth trying. Henry Kissinger remarked privately, 20 years ago, that the premier ambiguists in public life in America were Adlai Stevenson and George Kennan. Mind you, this was said about Kennan only ten years after he wrote his famous article, signed only “X”, which articulated the doctrine of containment . That article became the spinal column of western policy.
It is now his thesis, though that may be too formal a word for it, that at this moment in history the world is bedeviled not so much by the Soviet Union as by the adamancy of some of its critics, notably Americans. And he speaks not of the Curtis LeMay school of foreign policy (“bomb them back to the stone age”). Although he did not mention any names, he is really speaking about such men as Paul Nitze, and George Ball, and Henry Jackson–what one might think of as the Dean Acheson school of foreign policy.
These men and others like them, reasons Kennan, are responsible for a sclerotic mind set in the formation of foreign policy. If it were not that we continue to think of the Soviet Union as Stalin’s country, we would move with greater spontaneity in our relations with it. We would recognize that the present leaders of Russia are truly conservative men, that the old revolutionary elan is gone, and that our programmed reflexes are quite simply ill-considered, inappropriate to the task of bold experimentation with the view to taking the opportunities at hand.
Opportunities to do what? Well, Professor Kennan is not specific here. But one gathers that, for instance in the matter of the SALT talks, Mr. Kennan considers that all this fussing about whether we can move this weapon from here to there, about whether we have engaged in symmetrical responses to the development of this weapon’s system or that one–all such talk, in Kennan’s view, is a kind of eristic militarism that binds down the intellectual faculty, preventing u s from the fruitful explorations we should be undertaking.
Now don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Kennan–the ambiguist–tells us : he has a very high regard for the conventional people, he knows they are well-motivated, that they are skillful in the pursuit of their professional concerns etc. etc . . But–I think it would be fair to summarize–he is saying they are faintly . . boring ; really . . . .not very useful these days .
Now George Kennan is influential for, among other reasons, he is a very brilliant man, of unimpeachable integrity . He has nothing of the Byzantine . Messrs .Evans and Novak have recently written, after closely examining the firs t military budget of President Carter, that Carter is much more a George McGovern in matters of national defense than he is a Henry Jackson. Yet it was only five years ago that George McGovern’s defense policies were rejected with some emphasis. What makes them defensible today?
Indeed, what is it that is conservative about the leadership of the Soviet Union that could not also have been said to be conservative about the leadership of Joseph Stalin? Stalin always withdrew under pressure. But even Stalin did not exact, in behalf of a postwar military machine, anything like the sacrifice currently being made by Soviet citizens who although they live with a per capita income one-half the size of our own, spend twice per capita what we do on their military.
George Kennan seems to feel that the moment has come for demarche. What will he say if in the next period the conservatives in the Kremlin get in the way of a settlement in the Mideast, practice a little irredentism in Yugoslavia, and crank up the war machine in North Korea? That the United States failed in its great opportunity to grow weaker faster?