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Heeding George Kennan's Wise Advice

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A version of this article also published in Consortium News

I can't remember how many times I have said that the U.S. military adventure in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.

The reaction I frequently encounter includes some variant of, "How can you blithely acquiesce in the chaos that will inevitably ensue if we and our NATO allies withdraw our troops?" While the "inevitable chaos" part is open to doubt, the question itself is a fair one.

By way of full disclosure, my answer is based largely on the fact that I asked the equivalent question 43 years ago regarding a place named Vietnam. Been there; done that.

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As a young Army infantry/intelligence officer turned junior CIA analyst in 1963, I was given responsibility for reporting on Soviet policy toward China and Southeast Asia and was just beginning to get a feel for the complexities. My degrees were in Russian studies; I knew something about Communist expansion, but very little about Vietnam.

I should have listened to my brother Joe at Princeton, who tried to help me see that it was mainly a civil war in Vietnam, that the Vietnamese had ample reason to hate both the Russians and Chinese (and now us), and that the "domino effect" was a canard.

Joe was openly impatient to find me such a slow learner -- so susceptible to the Red-menace fear mongering of the time.

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Enter George Kennan

If my studies of Russia and of U.S. foreign policy had given me an idol, it was George Kennan, former ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and to Yugoslavia, and author of the successful post-war containment policy vis-Ã-vis the Soviet Union. He returned to the Princeton campus in 1963.

Early in the Vietnam War, I was delighted to discover one Sunday morning that Kennan had written a feature article on Vietnam for the Washington Post. Good, I said to myself, Kennan has finally ended his silence. Surely he will have something instructive to say.

What Kennan wrote on Vietnam was not at all what I expected. Ouch; an idol turns out to have clay feet, I thought. Had Kennan not heard of the dominoes? I am embarrassed to admit that it took me another year or so to see clearly that Kennan was, as usual, spot on.

It was Dec. 12, 1965, and there it was on the front page of the "Outlook" section -- George Kennan calling for a major reality check on our involvement in Vietnam, and arguing for what he called a "simmering down" of our military adventure there as "the most promising of all the possibilities we face." He wrote:

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"I would not know what 'victory' means. ... In this sort of war, one controls what one can take and hold and police with ground forces; one does not control what one bombs. And it seems to me the most unlikely of all contingencies that anyone should come to us on his knees and inquire our terms, whatever the escalation of our effort. "

"If we can find nothing better to do than embark upon a further open-ended increase in the level of our commitment simply because the alternatives seem humiliating and frustrating, one will have to ask whether we have not become enslaved to the dynamics of a single unmanageable situation -- to the point where we have lost much of the power of initiative and control over our own policy, not just locally but on a world scale."

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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