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From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
But it is not unusual—indeed it is often customary—for fine minds to be misunderstood. And while you may have been the architect of the policy of containment, the building contractors have not paid sufficient attention to your advice thereafter. But to show this would carry us well beyond 1947. What I wish to insist upon here (and perhaps elicit a final comment by you about it) is your consistency. It has been questioned by many people. Here is the George Kennan who before 1947 is so extremely wary of the Soviets, indeed, an Architect of the Cold War, and soon thereafter the same George Kennan, during more than forty years, criticizes the anti-Soviet gestures and policies and the ideology of successive American governments as unrealistic and extreme. For forty years you were on occasion attacked and vilified, less from the left than from the right, by so-called conservatives—many of them ex-Communists—who referred to you as a man of illusions, of being unrealistic, at times even unpatriotic. I have, and always had, an answer to these fools. It may be summed up in a sentence that John Morley once wrote about Edmund Burke: “He changed his front; but he never changed his ground.” Like Burke, you have never been an ideologue. Unlike so many public figures (including certain Presidents, alas), you represented not ideas but principles. And those principles of yours rested not only on your knowledge of the world and of its history but on your deep concern with the inevitable limits of what this country can, or ought, to do.
So let me conclude this correspondence with two questions. The minor one is this: That a postwar conflict of interests between the United States and the Soviet Union could hardly have been avoided is obvious, but did not the sharpness of the confrontation arise from a reciprocal misunderstanding? By 1947 both the American government and a considerable portion of the public seemed to believe that having enforced Communist rule on Eastern Europe, Stalin was ready to advance into Western and Southern Europe, as was not the case. Conversely, Stalin believed that the Americans, having acquired their domination in Western and Southern Europe, were about to challenge his sphere of interest in Eastern Europe, which also was not the case. I wonder whether you see that in this way.
The other question: What were the sources of the previous (and successive) misunderstandings? Were they not the national inclination to think principally in ideological ways? Was this not the main reason, too, why you were often misunderstood by people who ought to have known better? Is there not a lesson latent in this, even now when we are facing a very different world, with very different dangers? All through your life you have been consistent in being aware of the limits—and consequently of the proper purposes—of the role of the United States in the world. These limits were not, and are not, imposed upon us merely by material conditions. You have been a consistent idealist and a realist, which is not at all contradictory but the best possible combination, since the opposite of the idealist is the materialist, not the realist.
Eastern European regimes had many reasons, beyond just the ideological ones, for apprehension about their eastern neighbor.
A question you would like me to answer, if I have understood you correctly, was whether the Cold War was not the reflection of misunderstandings on both sides of the intentions of the other side, each ascribing to the other the intention to try to solve the division of the European continent by military means.
The answer is: Yes, of course, these military fears existed. On neither side were they justified.
Our fears of a Russian onslaught on Western Europe flowed in part from the rigidities of the American military mind (and others like it among our Western European allies), which yielded readily and extensively to the congenital military propensity to exaggerate the strength of any possible opponents while ascribing to them only the darkest of intentions. In addition to this there was the fact that we came out of World War II with a great military establishment that now had no visible major opponent. There was, I fear, something of this in the image of the Soviet Union that established itself in the American military establishment in the immediate wake of the Second World War and found its expression in the assumption that the Soviet leaders were determined to conquer Western Europe and establish subservient Communist regimes throughout it. This image promised to fill the vacuum just referred to, and to give it a new purpose, a new function, even in a sense a new legitimacy, to the greatly swollen military-bureaucratic establishment with which the end of the war had left us.