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 communiqués. 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.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff; interesting blog on the long telegram. I'd add that the containment strategy and subsequent Cold War was inevitable given the horrific nature of the Soviet empire under Stalin.It didn't really matter whether Kennan initiated the containment strategy or not because the result would have been the same. The Soviets had to wall off their empire from the West to keep from losing all of their people, likewise the communist propaganda machine had to keep their oppressed peoples ignorant of the true conditions in the Western Democracies. Thus isolation and political competition would have happened as a result of the differences between the 2 systems of governance.


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