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John Lukacs on George Kennan: The Conscience of America

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Consequently, one can fault Mr. Lukas for failing to examine the role that self-righteous possession of the bomb played in the Truman administration's attempt to confront the Soviet Union, especially given his opinion that "the American reaction in 1946-47 was not premature but overdue." [p. 96]

Beyond Kennan's own words about his role in arousing self-righteous anti-Sovietism, we also have a recent study by Mary Glantz (FDR and the Soviet Union), which asserts that, when one discounts the opposition by professionals in the State Department, "from 1943 to 1945…there was remarkable congruence in the most significant postwar aspirations of both the United States and the Soviet Union." [p. 153] Ms. Glantz concludes that, after the death of President Roosevelt, "the formulation and implementation of foreign policy reverted to the very bureaucracy Roosevelt had ignored and mistrusted for twelve years." [p. 177]

Moreover, although Mr. Lukacs certainly is correct to observe that, by 1948, Kennan's views "of the Cold War and the world were drifting away, more and more, from the main course preferred by others," [p. 99] in fact, as early as 1946-47, while teaching at the National War College, Kennan viewed the bomb's "recent use against Japan as a regrettable extremism, born of the bad precedent of conventional strategic bombings of the war just ended and of the military fixations to which that war had conduced." [Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion p. xiv]

Soon, Kennan would warn against "the militarization of 'containment;' against the permanent establishment of American military bases around the globe; against going beyond the 38th parallel in Korea; against the encirclement of the Soviet Union and attempts to overthrow its government." [p. 128] By 1952, he recognized the impending rise to power of Nikita Khrushchev, whose secret speech of 1956 led Kennan to consider how new leaders in the Soviet Union might bring "significant changes in the condition of the Cold War." [p. 136] (Such insights were reached at a time when most Sovietologists and military analysts were extolling the applicability of the bankrupt "totalitarian" model of Soviet politics.)

Increasingly, Kennan would excoriate the insatiable appetite of America's military-industrial-complex and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy it fostered - while simultaneously observing how seldom the buildups and shrill rhetoric corresponded to actual Soviet behavior. Moreover, he was struck by "that curious law which so often makes Americans, inveterately conservative at home, the partisans for radical change everywhere else." [p. 162]

Although the "collapse" of the Soviet Union proved that "the author of 'containment' had been right," [p. 151] Kennan spent much of the Cold War period attempting to prevent or correct many of the U.S. policy abuses committed in its name. For his efforts, no less a personage than Mikhail Gorbachev honored him by asserting: "Mr. Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be a friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you." [p. 151] One can only second Mr. Lukacs's observation: "That was George Kennan's apotheosis." [p. 151]

It was from such an exalted position that Kennan would demolish claims, made by Republicans, that the militarism of the Republican Party, especially under the leadership of President Reagan, had won the Cold War. Demolishing with impeccable wisdom, Kennan asserted: "the suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous political upheaval, in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish." [p. 181]

Unfortunately, such "intrinsically silly and childish" views were not only nurtured and propagated during the late 1970s and 1980s by America's neoconservatives and militarists, during the late 1990s they were repackaged for use against Iraq by a "profoundly shallow" (as Kennan called him) president, George W. Bush.

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In addition to Kennan, the world-class diplomat and Russia expert, Mr. Lukacs also finds Kennan to be a great historian. Thus, he devotes twenty pages to such significant books as, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, Russia Leaves the War, The Decision to Intervene, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin and two additional books, described by Mr. Lukacs as "magisterial;" The Decline of Bismarks's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 and The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War.

Yet, notwithstanding his many accomplishments, Mr. Lukacs's believes that George Kennan's most significant contribution to the world derived from his stature as "the conscience of America." [p. 152]

According to Mr. Lukacs, by 1953, Kennan came to conclude that the evils of American anticommunism were a greater danger to the country than communism. [p. 130] In fact, Mr. Lukacs found Kennan's opposition to American anticommunism of sufficient historical significance to merit the appending of Kennan's courageous 1953 speech at the University of Notre Dame to his book. It was during that speech that Kennan confronted the terrors of McCarthyism -- at a time when few were willing to challenge the great witch hunter. (That speech and its applicability the witch hunting practiced by would-be media McCarthyites today will be examined in Part Two of this article.)

Mr. Lukacs also take great pains to demonstrate that the rise of American conservatism since the 1950s "advanced together with the popular belief of American omnipotence, with the spreading of hundreds of American military bases all around the world, with the willingness to employ American military power halfway across it, with the sense of an American hegemony, moving inexorably and with few interruptions from the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon through Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush." Thus it seemed to be quite ironic that Kennan, "this profoundly conservative and traditionalist American found that his worst adversaries were American 'conservatives.'" [p. 131]

Yet, if one agrees with a few of Mr. Lukacs's definitions, conservative (especially neoconservative) opposition to Kennan becomes easy to understand. After all, Kennan was a patriot, not a nationalist: "becuase patriotism is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; because patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist; because patriotism is the love of one's land and of its history, while nationalism is a viscous cement that binds formless masses together. A patriot will be concerned with a nation's faults." [p. 132]

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In Kennan's view, American nationalism, if not the American mind in general, suffered from "a willful ignorance beneath which there was something worse, a kind of national self-adulation." [p. 153] Thus, in 1982, he felt it necessary to caution America's nationalists about the destructive effects of a nuclear war:

"[T]he readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings - against people whom we do not know, whom we have never seen, and for whose guilt or innocence it is not for us to establish - and in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and the perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has ever taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity - an indignity of monstrous dimensions - offered to God!" ["A Christian's View of the Arms Race," The Nuclear Delusion p. 207]

And in 1984, Kennan asked Americans to consider that the power of example is far greater than the power of a hypocritical commandment, instruction or order:

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)

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