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The Great Foreign Policy Fight
For forty years George Kennan and Paul Nitze, architects of our foreign policy under nine Presidents, have squared off over Russia, the atom bomb, arms control—everything except their respect and affection for each other
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
In the “X” article Kennan likened the dynamics of Soviet power to a “fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal” and whose “main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power.” Elsewhere he compared Soviet behavior to that of a toy automobile, a weed, and a growing oak. Its expansionist tendencies stymied, Russian communism would, Kennan predicted, either collapse or undergo a vague “mellowing” that might itself so transform the Soviet state as to make it no longer a danger to the West.
“To avoid destruction,” Kennan had written in Foreign Affairs , “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Kennan’s peculiarly metaphorical language and his evident desire to win a large audience for his views inevitably meant that containment became—as indeed it was seemingly meant to be—all things to all people. The problem with containment was immediately evident to its critics, if not yet to Kennan. The journalist Walter Lippmann, concerned with the potential military costs of containment, branded it “a strategic monstrosity.” Acheson, the chief architect of the administration’s emerging hard line toward Russia, concluded even more bluntly that Kennan’s “recommendations—to be of good heart, to look to our own social and economic health, to present a good face to the world, all of which the government was trying to do—were of no help.”
Nitze, too, was acutely aware of what containment lacked. Nitze remembers how Kennan once told him that two highly mobile divisions of Marines would, in Kennan’s view, probably be enough to meet the military requirements of containment. Nitze genially informed his friend that he thought this idea “nonsensical.” It was an aberration that Nitze later attributed to Kennan’s peculiarly academic cast of mind: “I don’t think that George understood anything about what the military requirements were to accomplish a given task.… It wasn’t something which was in his field of expertise.” Kennan, Nitze thought, was simply unwilling “to face up to the means to accomplish his own ends.”
The fact that Kennan did not consider the role that force or the threat of force might play in containing Russia seems a remarkable omission, given the state of the world in 1947. But his failure even to mention the atomic bomb in the context of containment was a gap of monumental proportions—particularly since the United States then had a monopoly on that weapon.
For Kennan it was a deliberate omission, not an oversight. His first memo on the subject of nuclear weapons, sent from Moscow just after Hiroshima, had contained the entirely unnecessary advisory that Truman not share the bomb with the Russians. After that Kennan rarely mentioned the bomb in dispatches, except to discount its effect upon diplomacy.
Over the years, Kennan’s views on the uselessness of nuclear weapons in diplomacy would remain remarkably consistent. In a 1979 letter to the author, Kennan confirmed that he “instinctively rejected (and continued to do so in the ensuing years) all the various calculations being advanced about the place of the weapon in our policy and strategy.” He “deplored all the talk about [nuclear weapons] and particularly any attempt to base strategy and defense planning on their possible use” and felt that our policy on the bomb should be that “we assumed that no one in his right senses would ever seriously contemplate the further use of weapons of this nature, and that the less they were talked about as something the use of which was even thinkable, the better.”
Washington, however, was not even remotely prepared to view the specter of a Soviet bomb with Kennan’s degree of equanimity. Since Hiroshima, the Truman administration, perhaps more out of necessity than choice, had come to rely increasingly, in both its military and its diplomatic strategy, upon the stockpile of the weapon that we alone had. A month before Kennan’s “X” article appeared, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had unanimously agreed that the bomb was the “one military weapon which may for the period until Russia obtains it exert a deterrent effect upon her will to expand.”
As author of the document that the government had suddenly seized upon as a kind of Rosetta stone for interpreting Soviet behavior, Kennan, ironically, found his own words being used to defend a policy he opposed. At meetings of the Policy Planning Staff, Kennan was often in the minority—the foremost critic of what containment had become. Privately he lamented the “divergences of basic outlook” he now had with the administration over the bomb, the creation of NATO, and the remilitarization of Germany. But he was powerless to resolve them.
Like one who has unwittingly loosed a juggernaut—or created a Frankenstein—Kennan increasingly tried to distance himself from the doctrine he had given name to. “I’m afraid that there has been a grievous misinterpretation of the term ‘containment,’ as I first used it,” he wrote an analyst at the RAND Corporation. “It was never meant as exclusively, or even primarily, a military concept.” In lengthy memos to Acheson, Kennan likewise complained of the “military preoccupation” of American foreign policy, admitting his “uneasy feeling” that the country was “travelling down the atomic road rather too fast.” We were, he cautioned the administration in 1949, “in danger of finding our whole policy tied to the atomic bomb.”