- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

Edited by T. Christopher Jespersen
University Press of Mississippi, $35, 174 pages

George F. Kennan has spent the greater part of a long (98 years and counting), productive (several books of classic stature and innumerable articles), and uncommonly worthy life denying he said what he said or meant what most of us believed he meant fully half-a-century and one Cold War ago.
He was (or so it seemed ) an early and ardent proponent of a "firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies," to "confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point." His long "Telegram of February 1946" from Moscow where he was serving as first secretary of the U.S. Embassy and its later elaboration in Foreign Affairs review published as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" by a pseudonymous "X" in July 1947 were road maps that guided generations of Americans and nine U.S. presidents through the perils of the Cold War, to a victorious conclusion, by no means preordained, in 1991. Or so we have thought.
Road maps indeed. For that, lasting credit to George F. Kennan. But it was the muscular diplomacy of Harry Truman and most of his successors, the necessary combination of negotiation and overwhelming military strength and the will to use it, as Ronald Reagan so brilliantly demonstrated throughout the endgame of the 1980s that ultimately turned back "the Kremlin's implacable challenge to American [and Western] society" and rewarded "the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended [the American people]to bear." All of the quotations are from Mr. Kennan, as of 1946/7. It was Norman Podhoretz who recently extrapolated them into a post-9/11 "call to arms" in his powerful 2002 Boyer lecture at the annual celebration of the American Enterprise Institute.
And that of course is the present point. Whatever Mr. Kennan did or did not mean, whatever he did or did not intend by that historic essay of 1946/7, his words give rise to vast consequences then (in the case of Soviet imperialism) and now again perhaps (in the case of radical Islamism's attack on America and, wider still, on Western Civilization).
Patient diplomacy is admirable but by itself never is sufficient. Its fatal deficit is that, oftener than not, there is no endgame. Negotiation leads to more negotiation, compromise of principle the defense of freedom, for example to no discernible principle at all. Opportunities for final or even for proximate victory are lost. True enough, from the onset of the Cold War to the implosion and literal disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was no direct confrontation between us and them, and for that, diplomacy was in some part responsible. But the costs and the death toll were horrific nonetheless. (Try telling Cubans and Salvadorans and Nicaraguans, or Angolans and Ethiopians and Somalis, or Koreans and Vietnamese, or Afghans, that the war of 1945-to-1991 was a "cold" one.)
The cumulative price paid by the captives and the "clients" of the "evil empire" generations of blighted lives, the joys and rewards of normal human existence lost forever is simply incalculable.
So, reading these "Interviews with George F. Kennan" exemplar of diplomacy practiced at its highest is a doleful exercise. The span of years is 1956 to 1996. The earliest interview, with Joseph Alsop for the Saturday Evening Post, is invested with an eerie sort of triumphalism: as if the Hungarian revolution of 1956 somehow marked the "inevitable" collapse of Soviet domination in occupied Eastern Europe. Given time, to be sure, all might have come out right; but in the long run we're all dead anyway. For the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956, it took 33 more bleak and bitter years. And not just all those years. Ultimately, it was the unrelenting pressure of the massive Reagan arms buildup and the promise of more to come with missile defense systems in combination with the courageous indigenous forces in the field empowered under the Reagan doctrine that drove the sclerotic Soviet military-industrial complex over the brink. Not to a futile war. But to collapse and defeat.
In a 1982 U.S. News and world Report interview, Mr. Kennan rather petulantly asks, "besides, who is refusing to negotiate the Soviet Union or us?" In a classic expression of hope over experience, he goes on to assure his anonymous interviewer that "they [the Soviets] would not be all that unreasonable."
What he neglects to note is that, precisely in 1982, arms control negotiations had been broken off because of Soviet intransigence, that President Reagan had signaled U.S. readiness to resume when and if a mutually beneficial deal were on the table, and that by 1985 Mr. Kennan of course could not have known this but certainly might have had the strategic insight to predict it with Pershing II's and Cruise missiles deployed in Western Europe, the Soviets did return to the Geneva talks and did agree on the removal of all intermediate missiles from all of Europe, both east and west. Which had been President Reagan's negotiating position from the start.
There is a lot to be said for revisiting this record of opportunities foregone and those successfully exploited, although it must be added that the editor, T. Christopher Jespersen, is not an especially helpful guide: His selections lack all relevant context. Post-9/11, with Mr. Podhoretz's call-to-arms resonating, authentic history does have its uses.

Charles Lichenstein is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and served as deputy ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration.

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