Politics & Policy

The Liberal against Himself

From the December 22, 1956, issue of NR

Editor’s Note: To commemorate the life of M. Stanton Evans, National Review is republishing his first-ever article written for the magazine, in which he skewers the Soviet “expertise” of esteemed liberal diplomat George Kennan.

From his scholar’s chair at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., George F. Kennan — diplomat, strategist, historian — surveys the charred ruins of the Hungarian resistance. Respectfully at his knee, armed- with a tape recorder, sits reporter Joseph Alsop. The ensuing conversation, as transcribed in the Saturday Evening Post for November 24, 1956, adds up to this:

Kennan, as “our No. 1 Expert on Russia,” has known all along that satellite rebellions were going to take place, and actually predicted (in 1945) that they would. He now predicts still further uprisings, because “the same fundamental forces are at work throughout the whole area.” Reporter Alsop cannot get Kennan to say what these “fundamental forces” are. Aversion to “Russian rule” pops into the conversation — and then melts unobtrusively into something which might be aversion to Communism itself. The satellite peoples were irked because of “the failure to meet economic plans,” and — as Mr. Kennan almost, but not quite, gets around to saying — because Communism denies the elementary rules of ethics. The “events” in Hungary, Kennan says, “have grandeur, very great grandeur, because they are visible proof that certain principles, certain moral principles, really must be observed in the long run in the successful government of great peoples.”

It is reasonable to infer from this that Kennan thinks there is something wrong with Communism, and that he suspects a like belief among Hungary’s freedom fighters. He does not; however, actually say anything critical about Communism. “The Soviet Government” appears just about at the point where “Russian rule” drops. From here he glides back to the “fundamental forces” again, and the interview, with a warning that “timing” is a hard thing to predict, draws to a close.

The Oracle, of course, was ever thus. If you are certified as an Oracle, you can, look pretty good no matter which way things shake down. But Kennan, it develops, even in the fastness of his vague Expertise, can be surprised into saying something specific. When this happens, certain brash laymen will point out that the predictions of our “No. 1 Expert” have chalked up zeros across the board.

No ‘Finality,’ After All

Six months ago, George Kennan was telling the world that:

What we must recognize today, in the case of the satellites, is that evil, like good, produces its own vested interests. Where regimes of this nature have been in power for more than a decade, there can be no question of putting Humpty Dumpty [i.e., a relative condition of freedom] together again and restoring the status quo ante . . . there is a finality, for better or worse, about what has now occurred in Eastern Europe . . . Whether we like it or not, the gradual evolution of these Communist regimes to a position of greater independence and greater responsiveness to domestic opinion is the best we can hope for as the next phase of development in that area.

So said Keenan on May 3, 1956. Now, six months later (having seen the opposite happening) he adds that he knew there was no “finality” about those regimes at all. To the layman it seems clear that the Kennan of six months past had not the vaguest idea of what he was talking about.

In general, Kennan protects himself with what might be called “prediction in depth”—i.e., predictions of any number of contradictory “things, hung together in a meticulously loose style that leaves plenty of room” for maneuver. By paying out opaque, tentative statements, modified by other tentative statements, to which are added still other tentative statements, ad infinitum, Kennan can usually work around to saying just the opposite of what he appeared to be getting ready to say. The: whole is given a semblance of unity by extremely positive or “hard-headed” statements on matters that are either not in question (“there is no such thing as gratitude in international affairs”) or of no importance (“the collectives of the future will be voluntary cooperatives”).

Kennan’s talent for woolly verbalizing makes it difficult to challenge his opinions. But even when he flounders into a mistake of colossal magnitude (as above), he has another, and even better, line of defense — his reputation as an Expert. It is, thus, useful to explore the sources of this reputation and to inspect the kind of thinking that recommends “our No. 1 Expert” to his breathless following.

In 1952, Kennan, a career diplomat, served as American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Retired from that post, he went to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he is turning out a minute chronicle of Bolshevism in its formative years. (The first volume, entitled Russia Leaves the War, was published this year and was reviewed by former Ambassador William C. Bullitt in NATIONAL REVIEW of December 8, 1956.) But his expert rating predates even these somewhat less than spectacular achievements.

Kennan’s reputation is in large measure owing to a volume, published in 1951, called American Diplomacy. The peroration of this book consisting of two articles previously published in Foreign Affairs, sets forward the famous policy of Containment.

Containment, as everyone will recall, was a rough plan for stopping the Communists any time they crossed a certain line dividing our half of the world from theirs. The plan of confronting “the Russians with unalterable counter-force,” wherever they tried to hop over that line, was not mere eggheadery on Mr. Kennan’s part. At the time he thought it up he was the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. There was even one instance (Korea) in which Containment’s “counter-force” went into action.

‘De-Stalinization’ Speech

When the Soviet “de-Stalinization” campaign erupted last winter, Kennan came center-stage to declaim “the meaning of the change.” This he did in the form of a long speech (part of which has been quoted above). Since Kennan’s interview in the Post contains no policy recommendations whatever, this speech constitutes his most recent public venture in policy-thinking, representing something of a departure from American Diplomacy. It is therefore of importance in any attempt to understand George Kennan’s “thought,” and especially in an attempt to place his recent pronouncements in their proper context.

The treatment accorded to Kennan’s “de-Stalinization” speech also helps us to see how he keeps his Expert medal shined up. Four days after Kennan delivered his analysis in Pittsburgh, on May 3, Mr. James Reston briefed New York Times readers on the fact that Keenan was making the rounds with a “paper” (i.e., his speech), and that it was enjoying considerable private circulation. Thereafter, Kennan’s words began to get real mileage. In odd permutations, the speech appeared in The New Republic (June 11), The New Leader (June 18), and the old Harper’s (August). The text is never quite the same in these magazines, although whole paragraphs are identical; but surprisingly enough the central idea — which comes through with a clarity unusual for Kennan — remains the same in all the articles. The central idea is: “the Russians,” since the death and renunciation of Stalin, have “changed.”

Even in his more recent effort in the Post, Kennan sticks to this one. It is apparently the single idea that is lodged firmly in his mind. To reach this point he has to go through certain steps of analysis. If we follow him through these steps we see that, although he is faithful to himself on this point throughout 1956, he is not faithful to himself as of, say, 1947–52. This raises a question: If Kennan was an Expert in 1947–52 (as everyone says he was), and now is in fundamental disagreement with his position of that time, is he an Expert now? Conversely, if his Expertness is now conceded, could he have been an Expert then?

In American Diplomacy, Kennan makes some interesting comments about “the Russians.” “The Russians,” he points out, think differently from their enemies, the Captialists. In his opinion: a) Communists “are not likely to be swayed by any normal logic in the words of . . . bourgeois representatives.” And b) “since there can be no appeal to common purposes, there can be no appeal to common mental approaches.”

Thus Mr. Keenan as of 1947.

In his more recent incarnations, from U.S. News and World Report to The New Republic, Kennan has stressed the desirability of a rapprochement between the United States and Soviet Russia. In the last refurbishing of his views on “de-Stalinization” (in Harper’s), he admonishes Americans:

Let us not, after having criticized the Russian Communists all these years for being too totalitarian, pour scorn and ridicule upon them the moment they show signs of becoming anything else.

Keenan does not cite any of these signs but he more than makes up for that trivial omission with extra helpings of Expertise. As an Expert, Kennan demonstrates a) that the “normal logic” of Communist leaders is precisely the same as that of a representative Western mind (his own); and b) that, within the next ten years, the United States must make a strenuous effort to stop Communism in its tracks by appealing to “common purposes.”

Kennan informs us that Khrushchev and Bulganin, under Stalin’s rule,

lived not only in terror of their own lives they lived also in the constant fear that he, with his excessive violence and cruelty, would eventually wreck the Soviet regime and the world Communist movement itself.

How on earth (a layman might be tempted to ask) could Kennan know a thing like that? It does not seem likely that the Communist leaders would make Mr. Kennan, a man dedicated to preserving Western society, privy to their inmost thoughts. Kennan’s conclusions, therefore, must be based on inference. And, if he was right in 1947, how can he now accept such an inference, produced by his own “normal bourgeois logic,” as if it were a self-evident fact?

The Expert on B & K

However he manages the thing, Kennan does treat this self-condemned reasoning as fact, and proceeds to base all his Expert thinking on it. Because B & K are contrite about Stalin’s excesses, Mr. Kennan believes that Russia is troubled with “far less terror, internally.” “Relaxation of restrictions”; “greater liberality”; “more liberal attitudes”; “greater maturity, confidence, and courtesy” — thus Kennan characterizes various phases of Russian life and policy. His words make interesting reading alongside the dispatches which every day pour out of Hungary.

From his analysis Kennan concludes (because B & K are so upset about all the bad things that Stalin did) that the Soviet Union is evolving into “something resembling a traditional authoritarian state, oligarchically governed.” And, Kennan asks, “What more do we want in three-and-a-half years?”

That question would be easier to answer if there were any reason to believe that the “liberalizing” Kennan so Expertly conjures has actually taken place, We have only his (and Khrushchev’s) Expert word for it — to set over against the bleeding corpse of Budapest. At any rate, Kennan caps this reasoning with a proposal that the United States should “assume that there will be peace”:

Let us set our sights by this assumption and proceed to the execution of that tremendous task that would lie before us—at home and abroad—even in a world wholly untroubled by the faintest, suggestion of another major war.

And what is this momentous task?

“This is the task of learning, and of helping others to learn, how man can live in fruitful harmony with the natural environment God gave him to live in.” Up to this point, Kennan’s program sounds like More Foreign Aid, preferably of the Point Four variety; but then he adds: “— and, what is even harder, how he can live in fruitful harmony with himself.”

Now if this talk of fruitful harmony means anything (and, of course, it must mean something, because Kennan is an Expert), it means that, by some unknown process, America will get into fruitful harmony with Soviet Russia. Kennan does not say how this can be done (in fact, he does not elaborate on his new program at all), but certain notions are necessarily contained in the concept of “fruitful harmony” itself. Namely, an appeal to common purposes or common mental approaches. Kennan confirms this interpretation of his project by saying:

If we were to follow this course for ten years, and if, at the end of that time, our Russian friends were still an ugly and dangerous problem to us, I would then be prepared to join in the demand that we despair of the prospects for coexistence, and cast about for more drastic and dramatic expedients.

Just Look Away

Thus, to replace Containment, the New Kennan evolves a Brand New Policy. He calls it handling “the Soviet problem by learning to look away from it.” He does not speculate on what the Communist leaders (from whose very minds, not two pages back, he has just emerged) will be doing while our gaze is steadfastly directed elsewhere, or just what the strategic position of the United States will be when at last, in a desperation shared even by Mr. Kennan himself, It resorts to more “dramatic expedients” than Looking Away.

In one article or another, Kennan offers various concrete proposals to implement Looking Away. For instance, the proposal (previously quoted) that the United States make up its mind that “there is a finality, for better or worse, about what has now occurred In Eastern Europe.” Then, with this common sense in its head, the United States (still implementing Looking Away) should accede in the entry of Communist China into neutral zones that “could eventually come to constitute a bridge” between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It apparently does not occur to Kennan that, since “the Russians” have become so “liberal,” they should be willing to let one of the countries they have enslaved serve as such a “bridge,” rather than requiring us to urge that role on our allies. Under Kennan’s policy of last May, however, finality of status pertains only to slave nations which can never become free. Free nations (especially those sojourning at Neutralism’s halfway house) always stand a good chance of becoming enslaved.

‘Mellowing Process’

Summing up his view of what has happened in Russia and what Americans should do about it, Kennan says: “. . . the changes that have recently occurred in Russia . . . represent, I think, the beginning of that mellowing process which overtakes sooner or later all militant movements. . . .” In the Mellow Era, he adds, officious Americans would have to drop their “hazy and exalted dreams of intimacy with other peoples” Why? Because “there are ways of looking at things and reacting to things about the Russian people which will always be strange to Americans and will always tend to arouse resentment if we become too closely involved in their affairs.”

Here, Kennan appears to be saying, Americans — dreaming their hazy dreams — might mistake the Mellowness rising from Lubianka prison for the smell of rotting flesh.

What, finally, is the Expert’s own judgment of this extraordinary performance? In a paragraph which he allowed to represent his views of 1952, Kennan wrote:

When there is something the Russians want from us, one or the other features of their [duplicitous] policy may be thrust temporarily into the background; and when that happens, there will always be Americans who will leap forward with gleeful announcements that “the Russians have changed. . . .”

So, we can happily finish on a note of agreement with Mr. Kennan.

— M. Stanton Evans, a longtime associate editor of National Review, was a journalist and author. This article originally appeared in the December 22, 1956, issue of National Review


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