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Friday, November 1, 2013

Re-reading George F. Kennan's Memoirs - Why is there nobody today to write The Long Telegram on Iran?



I cannot remember what prompted me to re-read George F. Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950 some forty yeas after I had read them the first time as a foreign student in the USSR. Perhaps it is my utter bewilderment and dismay as I watch the American foreign policy turn to Bizarro World and so I look back at the times when there used to be people who knew what they were doing. Kennan's memoirs remain as relevant today as they were then.   Kennan was often referred to by others as possessing a mysterious insight into world events. He really did have a gift and predicted things way before others did. 

I now regret that when I lived in Princeton in 1985 I never had the guts to contact him.  I was then fresh out the USSR and Yugoslavia, new in America,  but I am sure now that it could have been  an interesting conversation since he had also been US ambassador to Yugoslavia. He was then in his eighties



The fact is that one moves through life like someone moving with a lantern in a dark woods.  A bit of the path ahead is illuminated and a bit of the path behind. But the darkness follows hard on one’s footsteps, and envelops our trail as one proceeds. Were one to be able, as one never is, to retrace the steps by daylight, one would find that the terrain traversed bears, in reality, little relationship to what imagination and memory had pictured.     page 2      

On intellectual friendship, page 64:

Nikolai Bukharin once observed (at his final purge trial, I believe) that intellectual friendship was the strongest of bonds between men.      

On human beings in adversity, page  143:

The experience taught me something about the behavior of human beings in adversity: the untrustworthiness and failure of a minority at one end of the human spectrum; the rather passive response to leadership on the part of a majority in the middle; the extraordinary faithfulness, courage, and general excellence of a few. I came away with a new admiration for one portion of mankind, but a portion which, as I now recognized, would never be more than a minority. For the majority at the center, I felt a mixture of sympathy and solicitude. For the remainder there was only horror and repulsion.”    

On the Muslim world, page 194:

A population unhygienic in its habits, sorely weakened and debilitated by disease, inclined to all manner of religious bigotry and fanaticism, condemned by the tenets of the most widespread faith to keep a full half of the population--namely, the feminine half--confined and excluded for the productive efforts of society by a system of indefinite house arrest, deeply affected--and bound to be affected--by the psychological habits of pastoral life, which has ever been at variance with the agricultural and industrial civilization.      

On Congressmen  meeting Stalin, page 291:
I cannot recall the tenor of the discussion between the Congressmen and Stalin (the Washington archives, I am sure, would show it); but I have a vivid memory of our approach to this occasion. The interview was scheduled, I believe, for 6 P.M., in Stalin’s office in the Kremlin. Just prior to it was scheduled a visit of the congressional party to the Moscow subway system. Having seen the Moscow subway on a great many occasions, I decided not to accompany them on that last venture, but arranged to pick them up, at 5:30 P.M., at the exit from the Mossovyet subway station, where their tour was to end. I came there at a proper time and waited until well after 5:30. To my growing concern no Congressmen appeared. Inquiry elicited the information that the part was being entertained at “tea” somewhere in the bowels of the subway system.  I never discovered the premises in which this repast was being served, but frantic indirect messages finally brought my compatriots to the surface, at about ten minutes before six. To my horror I discovered that the “tea” served to them by their genial hosts of the Moscow subway had, like the tea in Novosibirsk, been not only of the nonalcoholic variety: varying amounts of vodka, depending on the stoutness of character and presence of mind of the individual concerned, had been poured into my charges while they were on the verge of their interview with the great Soviet leader.

We tore away, in two limousines, in the direction of the Kremlin, I riding in the front seat of one of the cars. As we approached the Kremlin gate, protected but what was the most vigilant and elaborate system of guarding  of any place in the world, I was horrified to hear, from the interior of the car behind me, raucous voice saying: ”Who the hell is this guy Stalin, anyway? I don’t know that I want to go up and see him. I think I’ll get out.” Elaborate arrangement had been made, including even the submission of every passport to the Foreign Office, to assure admission of the party to the Kremlin, and I knew that if anyone were missing, things would be royally gummed up. So I said with great definiteness: “You will do nothing of the sort. You will sit right there where you are and remain with the party.” There ensued the formalities at the gate. Doors were opened, identities were established,  seats were looked under. A car full of armed men was before us, and another one behind. Thus guarded, we drove off up the short incline to the heart of the Kremlin. At this point the same raucous voice became audible one more behind me: “What if I biff the old codger one in the nose?”  My heart froze.  I cannot recall what I said, but I am sure that never in my life did I speak with greater   earnestness. I had, as I recollect it, the help of some of the more sober   members of the party.  In any case, our companion came meekly along. He sat  in Stalin’s office at  the end of a long table, facing Stalin, and did nothing more disturbing than  to leer and wink once or twice at the bewildered dictator, thus making it possible for the invisible gun muzzles, with which the room was no doubt  studded, to remain sullenly silent.'"   
On Stalin, page 294:

Those of my colleagues who saw more of him than I did have told of being able to observe other aspects of his personality: of seeing the yellow eyes lit up in a flash of menace and fury as he turned, momentarily on some unfortunate subordinate; of witnessing the diabolical sadism with which, at the great diplomatic dinners of the war, he would humiliate his subordinates before the eyes of the foreigners, with his barbed, mocking toasts, just to show his power over them. I myself did not see these things. But when I first encountered him personally, I had lived long enough in Russia to know something about him; and I was never in doubt, when visiting him, that I was in the presence of one of the world’s most remarkable men – a man great, if you will, primarily in his iniquity: ruthless, cynical, cunning, endlessly dangerous; but for all of this -one of the truly great men of the age.     


(1) Our first step must be to apprehend, and recognize for what it is, the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity, and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual.

Why is there nobody today to write The Long Telegram on Iran? The point above applies perfectly. 

On his contribution in formulating the Marshall Plan – the note from George Marshall to Kennan from June 7, 1949, page 362  It is peculiar how someone's role in history is sometimes insufficiently  known -  Kennan’s contribution to the Marshall Plan; Leo Amery’s  help in drafting the Balfour Declaration



Dear Kennan: 
While I thanked you informally for your helpfulness in the doctoring for my speech for Sunday night I want to tell you more formally that I greatly appreciated the time and trouble you gave to the matter and the quality of advice you gave me. Incidentally, it was certainly very appropriate for you participate in the drafting of the speech since you performed a similar service, to a more important degree, in preparation of the initial speech two years before.
Faithfully yours,
          G.C. Marshall


Kennan’s clarification on what containment meant, page 381:

“The Russians don’t want,” I insisted,

   to invade anyone. It was not in their tradition. They tried it once in Finland and got their fingers burned They don’t want war of any kind. Above all they don’t want the open responsibility that official invasion brings with it. They far prefer to do the job politically with stooge forces. Note well: when I say politically, that does not mean without violence. But it means that the violence is nominally domestic , not international violence… not a military violence.
   The policy of containment related to the effort to encourage other peoples to resist this type of violence and to defend the internal integrity of their countries.

I tried then to explain ( I could have done it better ) that the article was in reality a plea – addressed as much to our despairing liberals as to our hotheaded right wingers – for acceptance of the belief that,  ugly as  was the problem of Soviet power, war was not inevitable, nor was it a suitable answer; that the absence of war did not mean that we would lose the struggle; that there was a middle ground of political resistance on which we could stand with reasonable prospect of success.