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Lessons for Today from the Cold War

Foreign Affairs magazine has an article on the relevance of the Cold War for today’s foreign polcy challenges. In a review of a biography of diplomat and historian George Kennan, Kennan: A Life between Worlds, by Frank Costigliola, Fredrik Logevall says:

Some of us wondered whether Kennan was quite as important to U.S. policy during the early Cold War as numerous analysts made him out to be. Perhaps, we thought, he should be considered an architect of American strategy, not the architect. Perhaps the most that could be said was that he gave a name—containment—and a certain conceptual focus to a foreign policy approach that was already emerging, if not indeed in place. Even at the Potsdam Conference in mid-1945, after all, well before either the Long Telegram or the “X” article, U.S. diplomats understood that Joseph Stalin and his lieutenants were intent on dominating those areas of Eastern and Central Europe that the Red Army had seized. Little could be done to thwart these designs, officials determined, but they vowed to resist any effort by Kremlin leaders to move farther west. Likewise, the Soviets would not be permitted to interfere in Japan or be allowed to take control of Iran or Turkey. This was containment in all but name. By early 1946, when Kennan penned the Long Telegram from the embassy in Moscow, the wartime Grand Alliance was but a fading memory; by then, anti-Soviet sentiment was a stock feature of internal U.S. policy deliberations.

In the months thereafter, Kennan, now director of the newly formed Policy Planning Staff in the State Department, began to decry the militarization of containment and the apparent abandonment of diplomacy in Truman’s Soviet policy. He pushed for negotiations with the Kremlin, just as Lippmann had earlier. His influence waning, Kennan left the government in 1950, returning for a brief stint as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 and later, under President John F. Kennedy, a longer spell as ambassador to Yugoslavia.

Costigliola says little about Kennan’s analysis of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam (he was less dovish in 1965–66 than Costigliola implies) but a great deal about his loathing of the student protesters—with their “defiant rags and hairdos,” in Kennan’s words—against the war. 

’s collapse, in 1991, brought Kennan little cheer. For half a century, he had predicted that this day would come, but one finds scant evidence of public or private gloating, only frustration that the Cold War had lasted so long and concern that Washington risked inciting Russian nationalism and militarism with its support for NATO expansion into former Soviet domains. The result, he feared, could be another cold war. In the fall of 2002, at the age of 98, he railed against what he saw as the George W. Bush administration’s heedless rush into war in Iraq. The history of U.S. foreign relations, he told the press, showed that although “you might start a war with certain things on your mind . . . in the end you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.” It dismayed him that the administration seemed to have no plan for Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and he doubted the evidence about the country’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. For that matter, he argued, if it turned out Saddam in fact had the weapons or would soon acquire them, the problem was in essence a regional one, not America’s concern.

All the while, Kennan condemned what he saw as the abuses of industrialization and urbanization and called for a restoration of “the proper relationship between Man and Nature.” In the process, Costigliola convincingly argues, he became an early and prescient advocate of environmental protection. And all the while, his antimodernism showed a retrograde side, as he looked askance at feminism, gay rights, and his country’s increasing ethnic and racial diversity. Maybe only the Jews, Chinese, and “Negroes” would keep their ethnic distinctiveness, he suggested at one point, and thus use their strength to “subjugate and dominate” the rest of the nation. Costigliola comments acidly: “Kennan was aware enough to confine such racist drivel to his diary and the dinner table, where his adult children squirmed.”

But as a critic of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, in the Cold War and beyond, Kennan had few if any peers. For he grasped realities that have lost none of their potency in the almost two decades since his death—about the limits of power, about the certainty of unintended consequences in war-making, about the prime importance of using good-faith diplomacy with adversaries to advance U.S. strategic interests. Understanding the growth and projection of American power over the past century and its proper use in this one, it may truly be said, means understanding this “life between worlds.”

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