Tag Archives: George F. Kennan

July 1, 1947 (a Tuesday)

George F. Kennan in 1947, the year the X Article was published.

On this date, the chairman of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department, George F. Kennan, using the pseudonym “Mr. X,” published an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the July edition of Foreign Affairs. The article focused on his call for a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union and established the foundation for much of America’s early Cold War foreign policy.

The article was a polished version of a 5,500-word telegram Kennan had sent on 22 February 1946 to the State Department, when he was the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow. Years later in his memoirs, Kennan mocked his “sermon,” saying he reread the telegram with “horrified amusement.” He also claimed that it sounded like “one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution.” But in 1946, when he wrote it, he believed every word.

The telegram warned Washington that, “The USSR still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.” Kennan went on to say, “we have a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” Kennan argued that the solution to dealing with the Soviets was to contain them. Just six months after the USSR and America had fought on the same side in World War II, the telegram contributed to the chilling of relations between the two countries and the onset of the Cold War.

In the article for Foreign Affairs, Kennan argued that to meet the Soviet threat the U.S. should employ “a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

The Pentagon (January 2008)

However, Kennan believed that the Soviet Union posed a political and not a military threat. And so he argued against a build up of nuclear arms, which he believed would only serve to fuel an extremely dangerous arms race. Kennan also opposed the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the decision to send UN forces across the 38th parallel during the Korean War. And after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in August 1949, Kennan argued against a crash program in the United States to build a hydrogen bomb.

By the time Kennan left the Policy Planning Staff in late 1949, his views on the Soviet Union diverged widely from those of the Truman Administration. The Berlin blockade seemed to belie his insistence that the Soviet threat was primarily political, and both the public and Congress were calling for a more aggressive approach towards the USSR.

During the Eisenhower years, Kennan became an outspoken critic of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy towards the Soviet Union. He complained frequently that the U.S. had failed to take advantage of the liberalizing trend within the USSR following the death of the country’s longtime leader Joseph Stalin. And Kennan was also a prominent critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Vietnam, he would say, “is not our business.” He argued that the escalation of the war made a negotiated settlement much less likely.

But, ironically, it was Kennan’s article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 that has been used (or misused) in determining much of U.S. foreign policy during the following decades. “My thoughts about containment” said Kennan in a 1996 interview to CNN, “were of course 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.”

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January 17, 1961 (a Tuesday)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office (29 Feb 1956)

On this date, President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the threat of a “military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address to the Nation:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. . .

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together [emphasis added].

Perhaps the most stubborn misconception about the phrase “military-industrial” is that it began life with an attached third term that was excised prior to the speech’s delivery, usually either the word “congressional” or the word “scientific.” However, the historical evidence for both claims is essentially nil – there is no extant draft of the speech that contains any other version of the phrase except the one we know today. The Eisenhower Library has posted online a draft of the speech dated nearly a month before it was delivered, and the phrase military-industrial complex is intact, just as in every other draft. Moreover, a speechwriter staff memorandum dated 31 October 1960 — before the speech had even been drafted — referred to the “war based industrial complex,” very close to the phrase Eisenhower eventually said out loud.

A few months ago, the son of Malcolm Moos, a journalist and academic who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, came across among his deceased father’s papers a batch of folders marked “Farewell Address.” He sent the boxes off to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Texas. As archivists began to go through the papers, they discovered twenty-one previously unknown drafts, as well as memos and research materials that had long been missing from the record of one of the twentieth century’s most important speeches.

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Some historians have regarded the Farewell Address as an afterthought, hastily composed at the end of 1960 as an adjunct to the 1961 State of the Union. Others have regarded it as the soulful expression of an aging President who was determined to warn the American people of dangers ahead. But the Moos papers make clear that the address, far from being an afterthought, was among the most deliberate speeches of Eisenhower’s Presidency. Regarded in his day as inarticulate and detached, Eisenhower in these papers is fully engaged, grappling with the language of the text and the radical questions that it raised.

Notable in view of events that have occurred since Eisenhower’s address, George F. Kennan wrote in his preface to Norman Cousins’s 1987 book The Pathology of Power:

Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.

Furthermore, U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history. Here are some excerpts from an article entitled, “Why military spending remains untouchable“, written by Andrew Bacevich and posted by Mother Jones on 28 January 2011:

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War – this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.” . . .

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. . . .

The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate “military supremacy” into meaningful victory. . . .

Yet the defense budget — a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought — remains a sacred cow. Why is that? The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable . . . . [T]hat protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers:

Institutional Self-Interest: . . . within Washington, the voices carrying weight in any national security “debate” all share a predisposition for sustaining very high levels of military spending for reasons having increasingly little to do with the well-being of the country.

Strategic Inertia: In a 1948 State Department document [Memo PPS/23], diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership. . . .

The effort [to maintain this disparity] has been a largely futile one. . . .

Yet . . . the pre-existing strategic paradigm stubbornly persists; so, too, as if by default do the high levels of military spending that the strategy entails.

Cultural Dissonance: The rise of the Tea Party movement should disabuse any American of the thought that the cleavages produced by the “culture wars” have healed. The cultural upheaval touched off by the 1960s and centered on Vietnam remains unfinished business in this country. . . .

In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. . . .

Misremembered History: . . .American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it – or at least discredited it. In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label “isolationism.” . . .

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors – institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history – insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny.

Suggested reading:

  • Andrew J. Bacevich. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company, 2010).
  • Memo by George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff. Written 28 February 1948, Declassified 17 June  1974. George Kennan, “Review of Current Trends, U.S. Foreign Policy,” Policy Planning Staff, PPS No. 23. Top Secret.  Included in the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, volume 1, part 2 (Washington DC Government Printing Office, 1976), 524-525.
  • James Ledbetter. Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
  • Jim Newton, “Paper Trail: ‘Ike’s Speech’,” The New Yorker, 20 December 2010, p. 42