Tuesday, October 20, 2009

1947 - The Year Push Came to Shove

In 1938, the USA had no troops on foreign soil, no military alliances and roughly 150,000 men in uniform. . By 1959, the US would have 1400 foreign bases in 31 countries and by 1989, 1.5 million troops spread across 117 countries. It might be worth taking a look at how that came about and where it started.

George Kennan had fired the opening ideological salvo of what would come to be known as the Cold War with his "Long Telegram" in early 1946.  A series of diplomatic crises had erupted later in that year and each crisis was in turn supported by harsher and harsher rhetoric regarding engagement of the Russians.  These events would culminate in the unprecedented US support for the Greek government in the Greek Civil War.

Athens 1945

The Greek Civil War
Then in February 1947, Britain announced that they were pulling out of Greece, where they had been supporting a repressive monarchy and battling  left-wing insurgents since 1944.  Britain was flat broke and they could no longer afford to maintain their presence and operation there.

Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Harry Truman "You need to scare the hell out of the American people," and Truman obliged him, creating what has come to be know as "The Truman Doctrine."  Dean Acheson appeared in front of Congress in 1947 and called the situation in Greece "Armageddon."  Congress coughed up an unprecedented four hundred million dollars in aid for the Greek monarchy.

As George Herring points out in his magisterial "From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Policy since 1776, the actions the US took in Greece would set the tone for many future conflicts.  The US misrepresented what was going on in Greece, ignored the domestic roots of the insurgency and the authoritarian nature of the fascist regime and exaggerated the role of the Soviets.  They then presented the stakes as being the fate of the free world.   The conflict would result in the death of a hundred thousand people with five thousand being directly executed by the Greek government.  Eight hundred thousand refugees were created. 

The National Security Act of 1947

This led directly to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, which drastically reshaped American foreign policy.  Truman told the cabinet, "This is only the beginning..." and truer words were never spoken.

This act had three major components: the formation of the National Security Council, the creation of Central Intelligence Agency and the integration of all of the American armed forces under the Department of Defense.  This was no mere bureaucratic change: the US was establishing a permanent peacetime internationalist security apparatus, an astonishing change from what had existed prior to World War Two.

The Soviets and the Communist Conspiracy

At the close of World War 2, Stalin had three main objectives: 1) establish dominion over eastern Europe in order to maintain a buffer zone protecting Soviet borders; 2) wreak vengeance on Germany in partial compensation for the 27 million Soviets who died in WW2 and 3) establish control over Iran's oil fields and the Turkish straits in order to give the Soviet navy access to the Mediterranean.

Stalin was completely successful in the first objective, partially successful in the second and failed utterly in the third.

The Truman administration viewed virtually all global political events as a contest between the Soviet Union and the United States.  They saw communism as a massive worldwide conspiracy controlled by Joseph Stalin in Moscow and they interpreted every regional conflict as some diabolical machination of Stalin to extend his control over the world.  

This perception, while perhaps understandable in light of the uncertainties of the post-war era was frequently simply wrong. 

The Greek communists were receiving support from communists in Yugoslavia, but the Soviets were not involved.  Moreover, the Greek monarchy was a brutal, corrupt and repressive institution that probably needed overthrowing. 

Unfortunately, the Truman administration had no lens to view this situation other than the one that George Kennan had provided.  Communism was a monolithic force that must be stopped, no matter what.  This led the decision-makers to misinterpret the available data and more importantly, to miss opportunities that would present themselves because they were unable to see beyond the very narrow paradigm that they had locked themselves into.

Framing Errors. Sticky Memes and Cognitive Bias

Recent cognitive science research has confirmed what poets and artists (not to mention politicians) have known for millenia - the human mind craves narrative and loves a story.

To put it another way, we have an innate cognitive bias for the creation and protection of simple narrative schemas that help us understand objective reality.  The most successful works of art and the most successful politicians are masters at exploiting this.  Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell explored these ideas in detail in the 20th century and recent work in neuroscience comes at it from the opposite side but reaches many of the same conclusions.  The Hero's Journey.  The Hero and the Villain.  The Victim and the Victimizer. 

As humans, we are suckers for these types of simple narratives.  Unfortunately, George Kennan's Long Telegram established just such a narrative - itt was very simple, very compelling and almost impossible to amend once it had been established in the minds of the policy-makers, even when the data suggested that the paradigm was wrong.  Sticky memes persist even when there is no data to support them because they appeal to us  on a very basic level of our neural processing..

The persistence of Kennan's narrative would have extremely grave implications for subsequent American foreign policy decisions.  It would cause the US to ignore friendly overtures from both Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh in the 40's and 50's, to misunderstand nationalist movements from Iran to Guatemala and to create the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever known,

Relevance to Today
So, who cares?  The Cold War is over and the US won.  That's the way that particular narrative wraps up.  

In fact, it's highly relevant to today because as we look back on the Cold War era, we can see very clearly how these framing errors caused us to radically misinterpret the available data.

Today, the US is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The policy decisions that led to these wars are beyond the scope of this essay.  However, the issue of the "framing of the narrative" is highly relevant.

Wars that started with highly specific goals (i.e., find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, destroy Al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan) have morphed, at least in the minds of some policy-makers, into a much larger conflict against "Islamo-fascism" and at least in certain quarters, against Islam itself, which is viewed as a diabolical and monolithic entity much like the "international communist conspiracy" was two generations ago.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "Other" Telegram - from Frank Roberts

Both Kennan's and Novikov's telegrams are widely known and much discussed.  Frank Roberts is much less so. Before getting into the details of Roberts telegram, let's take a moment and think about Britain's position at the end of the World War Two.

The above photo from the February 4, 1945 Yalta Conference is one of the more famous images of the 20th Century.  Looking at it 64 years later, what immediately jumps out at one is a simple question: what is Churchill doing there?

The simple facts of World War Two were that, for the most part, the US paid the heaviest price economically and Stalin paid by far the heaviest price in casualties.  Winston Churchill had pulled off one of the greatest political coups of all time.  Churchill had kept Britain in the game and at the table of power, as it were, long after Britain had ceased to be a major player.

The US had surpassed Britain economically in the 1880s.  The Boer War had been the turning point for Britain, accelerating the decline of the British Empire and World War One had effectively bankrupted the country. Post World War Two concessions would remove most of what remained of the British Empire and Britain would be displaced fully and permanently by the USA, which stood as the lone superpower in the post-war years. 

It was in this extremely dynamic atmosphere of post-war realignment that Roberts found himself writing the Foreign Office about how to handle the Soviets and his telegram has to be viewed in that context.

The Frank Roberts Telegram
Roberts was the British charges d'affaires in Moscow in 1946 and his telegram went out shortly after Kennan's.  Although there were many commonalities between the two documents, Roberts focused more on the constructive aspects that Kennan had only vaguely alluded to in the last few paragraphs of his document.  Roberts also called for British support of democracy and civil rights:
"At the same time we can offer civil and political liberties which are unknown in the Soviet Union and which would be the envy of its inhabitants... There is no chance of us seizing the initiative unless we are prepared to back some political doctrine as an alternative to communism.  The obvious choice is social democracy, but if we were to do this we might not commend ourselves to the Americans."
Reading this 63 years later, one is struck by how dead-on of an analysis this really is.  Britain was the odd man out at Yalta and was in the process of divesting its empire and retooling its society into the social democracy mold. Although Roberts' superiors back in London were arguably as fiercely anti-communist as Kennan's in Washington, the simple fact was proposing any kind of military counter-measures was simply out of the question for Britain in 1946.  Roberts makes many of the same points as Kennan (and indeed, Novikov), but he does so while simultaneously hedging his argument with statements like the following:

"Soviet Russia has reached a similar stage in development as revolutionary France when the First Empire had become solidly established.  Although Soviet Russia intends to spread her revolution by all possible means, world revolution is no longer part of the programme."

The difference between Kennan's and Roberts' telegrams is subtle, but I would contend, significant.  Both Kennan and Roberts believed Stalin to be a paranoid with malevolent intentions towards the West but Roberts suggested that it might just be bluster that could be better manipulated economically and politically than militarily.

For an in-depth discussion of these events, see A.W. Brian Simpson's "Human Rights and the End of Empire" from Oxford University Press.

The full text of the Roberts telegram is here:


Roberts was present at Yalta and some of his quite interesting recollections can be found here:

An excellent site of original Cold War documents can be found here:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Novikov Telegram

The Soviets were well-aware of Kennan's "Long Telegram" and in September 1946, they responded with a mirroring document of their own known as "The Novikov Telegram," which makes fascinating reading. Below, Novikov in 1945, from Life magazine.

Nikolai Novikov was the Soviet Ambassador to the United States in 1946-1947 and he prepared his telegram for Stalin and Molotov.  Although Novikov's telegram consciously mirrors the rather breathless and apocalyptic tone of Kennan's, he makes some interesting points.  

Section 3 of the Novikov document is particularly interesting.  Novikov wrote:

"Obvious indications of the U.S. effort to establish world dominance are also to be found in the increase in military potential in peacetime and in the establishment of a large number of naval and air bases both in the United States and beyond its borders."

In the summer of 1946, for the first time in history of the country, Congress passed a law on the establishment of a peacetime army, not on a volunteer basis but on the basis of universal military service. The size of the army, which is supposed to amount to about one million persons as of July 1, 1947, was also increased significantly. The size of the navy at the conclusion of the war decreased quite insignificantly in comparison with war time. At the present time, the American navy occupies first place in the world, leaving England's navy far behind, to say nothing of those of other countries.

Expenditures on the army and navy have risen colossally, amounting to 13 billion dollars according to the budget for 1946-47 (about 40 percent of the total budget of 36 billion dollars). This is more than ten times greater than corresponding expenditures in the budget for 1938, which did not amount to even one billion dollars.

Along with maintaining a large army, navy, and air force, the budget provides that these enormous amounts also will be spent on establishing a very extensive system of naval and air bases in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. According to existing official plans, in the course of the next few years 228 bases, points of support, and radio stations are to be constructed in the Atlantic Ocean and 258 in the Pacific. A large number of these bases and points of support are located outside the boundaries of the United States"

Novikov goes on to point out that Britain is completely dependent on the United States, that the US's new interest in the Middle East comes at Britain's expense and that the US is clearly trying to gain control of the oil resources of the Middle East under the pretext of supporting Zionism (this was immediately before the creation of the state of Israel).

After noting aggressive US actions in the Middle East, China, the Mediteranean and elsewhere, Novikov observes:

"The basic goal of this anti-Soviet campaign of American "public opinion" is to exert political pressure on the Soviet Union and compel it to make concessions. Another, no less important goal of the campaign is the attempt to create an atmosphere of war psychosis among the masses, who are weary of war, thus making it easier for the U.S. government to carry out measure for the maintenance of high military potential. It was in this very atmosphere that the law on universal military service in peacetime was passed by congress, that the huge military budget was adopted, and that plans are being worked out for the construction of an extensive system of naval and air bases."
Comparing the Kennan and Novikov Telegrams

Novikov's document was consciously written as a response to Kennan's telegram.  Like Kennan, Novikov was writing for his boss and calibrating his text to his boss's worldview. Novikov mixes an extremely clear and prescient analysis of the then-current global political situation with a somewhat alarmist view of American military expansion.  That said, many of Novikov's remarks seem dead-on 63 years later.

The fact was, in the post-WW2 environment, the US had an enormous power advantage over the rest of the world.  In the years immediately following World War Two, the US account for 50% of world GDP - an astonishing fact.   

Whereas Kennan's telegram was primarily a psychological exegesis on the Soviet character, Novikov tended to deal more with physical facts.  Joseph Stalin was much more interested in hard details - how many troops, how many tanks - than in theoretical psychological portraits or ideological musings.  Stalin had famously responded to a warning that he was about to have conflict with the Pope with the dismissive question "and how many divisions does the Pope have?"  Like Kennan, Novikov wrote in a language that his boss could understand.

Conversely, Kennan's telegram was intended for Harry Truman, a president with no foreign policy experience who held an extremely simplistic and Manichean view of the world, quite different from F.D.R.'s more nuanced view.  Kennan had to know how his telegram would be received by Truman. Although the immediate effect of "The Long Telegram" was to boost Kennan's career - he was immediately recalled back to Washington and made the first director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, he would soon be replaced by hardliners who had an even less nuanced view of the world.  The problem was, Kennan had framed the debate and there would be no backtracking from the baseline that he himself had set. 

Kennan drew on his 13 years in the Soviet Union as a Russian specialist to draw a psychological portrait of the Russians that, arguably, still dominates the American interpretation of Russian motivations to this day, nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Novikov is basically saying, hey, look around us, the British are out of the picture and the Americans are everywhere and they're still enlarging their military. He generally refrains from Kennan's attempts at nation-state psychoanalysis.

Although Kennan was a product of the "hard realist" school of foreign policy, his telegram is remarkable for what it doesn't say.  He overstates the role of Marxist dogma and essentially ignores any Russian national security interest in protecting their borders that would have existed in Moscow in any case, irrespective of ideology.  Everything is interpreted in the context of a massive communist conspiracy aimed at global domination abetted by a Russian tendency towards psychosis.  Kennan also overstated Russian political and economic strength vis a vis the US's, which made the situation appear very dire despite the obvious facts to the contrary.

Novikov, although correctly assessing the geo-political facts of 1946, which clearly showed the United States emerging into super-power status, also viewed the United States' dominance as part of a larger plan for total global domination - an exact mirror of the Kennan worldview.

Kennan would later spend the next 50 years (literally - he lived to be 101) asserting that he had been misunderstood.  Perhaps.  The problem is, he set the tone, not only for US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, but for a certain approach to foreign policy that remains popular to this day. Moreover, he provided a somewhat dubious intellectual foundation (i.e., the Soviets are crazy and can't be reasoned with) that would be exploited and enlarged by his successor as director of Policy Planning, Paul Nitze and Secretaries of State Acheson and Dulles.

We're seeing some of this same hyperbolic and rather breathless rhetoric, i.e., "they are impervious to reason" being applied to Iran and North Korea today.  

NEXT: The British Perspective and Frank Roberts Telegram

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lessons of the Cold War - George Kennan

I've been reading a lot about the Cold War era in American foreign policy lately.  My interest is partly historical but primarily in how and what we might learn from the Cold War to avoid making the same mistakes again in the current "War on Terror."

There are a lot of interesting ideas and people to discuss in this era but I think it's only reasonable to start with George Kennan, arguably the 20th century's most important diplomat, the author of the "containment theory" and one of the key thinkers at the time of the origins of the Cold War.

George Kennan and "The Long Telegram"
Most historians view the diplomatic cable sent by George Kennan from Moscow, commonly known as "the Long Telegram", as the founding document of  the Cold War. In February 1946 when he sent the document in question, Kennan was Deputy Chief of Mission (in other words, the number two diplomat) in Moscow, serving under Ambassador Averell Harriman. 
Exactly why "The Long Telegram" came about is a matter of some dispute.  One story is that it was personally requested by Harry Truman who was seeking a more hawkish interpretation of Russian behavior.  Another story says that it was sent in response to a request from the Treasury Department, puzzled by the Soviet Union's refusal to join the I.M.F. (which had been created at Bretton Woods two years earlier).  Regardless of the cause of its creation, Kennan sent a 5300 word telegram which became an instant hit with the hard-liners back in Washington and established his reputation as a big-time thinker in terms of US-Soviet relations.  In this message, Kennan stated, among other things, that the Soviets were "impervious to reason."

The following year, in July of 1947, Kennan published a major redraft of the "Long Telegram" in Foreign Affairs with the title  "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" which was signed by "X" and laid out his theory of "containment" in more detail.

Both of these documents are fascinating reading and would be the basis of American foreign policy vis a vis the Soviet Union for the next forty-three years, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. They are both relatively short and well worth reading and the links above lead to the full text originals.

The National Security Act of 1947
Kennan's arguments would become the theoretical foundation of the Truman Doctrine and lead directly to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, which merged the War Department and the Department of the Navy into the Department of Defense, created the C.I.A. and the National Security Council.  Depending on your point of view, this was either the first step towards America's predestined role to become the lone post-World War Two superpower or the beginning of a permanent state of war and an official policy of imperialist expansion (see "Vidal, Gore" for more on that).

Kennan's "Long Telegram," in effect, laid the foundations for the creation of the national security state in America.  Kennan went on to play a very major role in the Truman administration, with the apogee of his career occurring in 1947-48 under Secretary of State George Marshall, when he became the first Director of Policy Planning at State and was a key architect of the Marshall Plan.

Unfortunately, George Marshall was not well and he was succeeded as Secretary of State by Dean Acheson in 1949, when Truman's second term began.  Although Acheson was also a believer in the policy of containment, he took more of a "cafeteria approach" to Kennan's work, saying of him:
"his recommendations were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not have been sound; but his predictions and warning could not have been better."

Kennan resigned in late 1949 and was replaced by Paul Nitze, who would go on to be the primary author of N.S.C. 68 the following year, which resulted in a tripling of the military budget and the creation of what Dwight Eisenhower would later term "the military-industrial complex."  More on that later.

Although he would never reach the heights of influence he had previously had in the 1946-1948 era, George Kennan went on to have a long and distinguished career, as a statesman (Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later Ambassador to Yugoslavia), as an academic at The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and as an author (winning The National Book Award, The Pulitzer Prize, The Bancroft Prize and The Francis Parkman Prize). He also spent most of the rest of his life claiming that his original ideas had been misinterpreted and hijacked by certain people (cough, cough, Paul Nitze) who had an interest in massively enlarging the role of the military in American life.

In a 1996 interview with CNN, Kennan said:

"distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War."

Although some will undoubtedly find these comments somewhat self-serving, they have, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the added advantage of being true.  I don't think there's any doubt that Kennan's arguments were distorted for all the wrong reasons.   Kennan was rightly regarded as a genius and the most important US diplomat of the 20th Century.

The Anchoring Bias in The Long Telegram

There is a cognitive bias that is variously known as anchoring bias or focalism (in psychology) and framing (in economics) whereby human beings are sub-consciously prone to fixating on both numbers and points of view and once fixated, are quite difficult to dislodge from that position regardless of the facts.

The way this works is pretty simple.  Basically, our minds tend to fixate on whatever we hear or see first.  Once that "anchoring point" is in our head, it's stuck in our head as "an anchor" that - knowingly or unknowingly - becomes the basis for further decision making.  This number can be relevant to the specific issue under discussion or it can be irrelevant.  It makes no difference.

This is also one of the reasons that propaganda is so effective (e.g., "but what about his birth certificate!") even if the anchor is unreasonable or illogical.
In the case of Kennan's "Long Telegram," in the course of a very long and erudite, if staccato, 5000 word history of Russia, Kennan used the specific phrase "impervious to reason."  This phrase appears one time and one time only, but it's the phrase that's quoted in virtually every article on Kennan and it's the phrase everyone remembers.  For better or worse, it's the phrase that stuck.  Towards the end of the "Long Telegram," Kennan says the following:

"(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqu├ęs. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit--Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies."
Wow!  That's pretty amazing stuff, particularly when its coming from a man generally recognized as the father of the Cold War.  In other words, the best way to fight communism is to keep our own house in order to prevent the communists from ever getting a toehold in the first place.  This philosophy would be put into practice in the Marshall Plan two years later, when the decision was made to focus on fighting the Soviets economically and politically rather than militarily.

The real point is this.  Kennan was a brilliant man and a Russian specialist who wrote an incredibly dense content-rich 5300 word memo with one phrase that became the anchor point for an entire generation of cold warriors, even as they misunderstood and misapplied it for their own purposes.  In my view, Kennan was a first-rate thinker surrounded by second-rate thinkers (at best) who only grasped the crudest parts of what he was trying to convey.

As Albert Einstein once said about common misunderstandings regarding the Special Theory of Relativity, "The problem is now everybody thinks everything is relative."  In the case of Kennan, he said the Soviets were "impervious to reason," so it must be true.   It became the "anchor" that the latter stage arguments would be built on and it would go in an entirely different direction than Kennan had recommended.

Next: The Novikov Telegram

Many of George Kennan's articles are archived and available online at Foreign Affairs.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Speech I Heard and the Speech I'd Like to Hear

"Damaged Child, Oklahoma" 
Dorothea Lange, 1936

I watched Obama's speech to Congress last night and I thought it was very good.  He was interrupted by some heckling by a Congressman from - where else -  South Carolina, continuing their illustrious 220 year historical tradition as the US's "problem child."   

As usual Obama was calm, focused, articulate and presidential.  Like I said, it was a very good speech.  But what I'd really like to hear is something a bit different.  

FDR's October 31 1936 Madison Square Garden Speech

FDR gave this speech to a packed house at Madison Square Garden near the end of the 1936 presidential campaign on October 31, 1936.  He was running for a second term and the election was only a few weeks away.  For four years, FDR had been the subject of the most vile propaganda from the Republicans who, then as now, had no alternative ideas whatsoever.  They said he was "insane," that he had syphilis, they called him a class traitor and said it was "the Jew Deal."   

By the time of this speech, FDR decided to take the gloves off and deal with their hatred and incapacity to govern head on.  This is the famous "I welcome their hatred" speech.
Full text and audio of the actual speech here and an excerpt below:

"For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

"For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace‹business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

"They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

"Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me and I welcome their hatred.

"I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master."
Basically, when he gave the above speech FDR just decided what the hell - if they want a class war I'll give 'em a class war.  Here were the election results a week later:

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cool Links of the week

Some of the more interesting websites that I've come across this week.  This week's picks all focus (in different ways) on the methodology and politics of information processing.

Really funny faux-propaganda posters here:

An interesting demographics site edited by Joel Kotkin, urban theorist and author :

An education-oriented site about African-American history with photos and video:

This is an extremely cool site, set up for teachers with a focus on critical thinking and interpreting the media. Way cool, with teacher's guides presented as downloadable PDFs. 

This site is new but looks promising, focusing on trends and news relating to information design:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day!