Sorting through Words of Cold War Diplomat, Seeking context.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Sorting through Words of Cold War Diplomat, Seeking context.(BOOKS)


Byline: Charles Lichenstein, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

INTERVIEWS WITH GEORGE F. KENNAN

Edited by T. Christopher Jespersen

University Press of Mississippi, $35, 174 pages

REVIEWED BY CHARLES LICHENSTEIN

George F. Kennan has spent the greater part of a long (98 years and counting), productive (several books of classic stature and innumerable articles), and uncommonly worthy life denying he said what he said or meant what most of us believed he meant fully half-a-century and one Cold War ago.

He was (or so it seemed ) an early and ardent proponent of a "firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies," to "confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point." His long "Telegram of February 1946" from Moscow - where he was serving as first secretary of the U.S. Embassy - and its later elaboration in Foreign Affairs review - published as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" by a pseudonymous "X" in July 1947 - were road maps that guided generations of Americans and nine U.S. presidents through the perils of the Cold War, to a victorious conclusion, by no means preordained, in 1991. Or so we have thought.

Road maps indeed. For that, lasting credit to George F. Kennan. But it was the muscular diplomacy of Harry Truman and most of his successors, the necessary combination of negotiation and overwhelming military strength - and the will to use it, as Ronald Reagan so brilliantly demonstrated throughout the endgame of the 1980s - that ultimately turned back "the Kremlin's implacable challenge to American [and Western] society" and rewarded "the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended [the American people]to bear." All of the quotations are from Mr. Kennan, as of 1946/7. It was Norman Podhoretz who recently extrapolated them into a post-9/11 "call to arms" in his powerful 2002 Boyer lecture at the annual celebration of the American Enterprise Institute.

And that of course is the present point. Whatever Mr. Kennan did or did not mean, whatever he did or did not intend by that historic essay of 1946/7, his words give rise to vast consequences - then (in the case of Soviet imperialism) and now again perhaps (in the case of radical Islamism's attack on America and, wider still, on Western Civilization).

Patient diplomacy is admirable - but by itself never is sufficient. Its fatal deficit is that, oftener than not, there is no endgame. Negotiation leads to more negotiation, compromise of principle - the defense of freedom, for example - to no discernible principle at all. Opportunities for final or even for proximate victory are lost. True enough, from the onset of the Cold War to the implosion and literal disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no direct confrontation between us and them, and for that, diplomacy was in some part responsible. But the costs and the death toll were horrific nonetheless. …

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