APRIL 18, 1996
David Gergen, editor at large of U.S. News & World Report, engages George Kennan, statesman and writer on American diplomatic history that includes much about Russia and the former Soviet Union. He's the author of At A Century's Ending: Reflections 1982-1995.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Professor Kennan, you've been a significant leader in American diplomacy and intellectual life since the 1930's. So perhaps we could open, sir, as--with your book of reflections about American life in this century to talk a little bit about American foreign policy. Of course, you came into our consciousness for many Americans in 1947 when you were the author of so-called containment policy with regard to the Soviet Union, and yet you write in your book as a consistent theme that that, that that policy proposal that you made was misunderstood in our own government.
GEORGE KENNAN, Author, At A Century's Ending: Well, it certainly was, and it's my own fault that it was. It all came down to one sentence in the "X" Article where I said that wherever these people, meaning the Soviet leadership, confronted us with dangerous hostility anywhere in the world, we should do everything possible to contain it and not let them expand any further. I should have explained that I didn't suspect them of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn't think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, you intended then to have political containment--
GEORGE KENNAN: Exactly.
DAVID GERGEN: --of the Soviet Union, not military containment.
GEORGE KENNAN: Exactly. And I was moved to this largely by what was happening in, in Western Europe, but also what I have been able to observe, serving in Moscow until 1936, through the final two years of the war--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
GEORGE KENNAN: --and then brought home, because I had seen us make one concession after another to the Soviet leadership, which I didn't think it was necessary for us to make, and we were really misleading them because we catered so to them that we gave them the false idea of their own prestige.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. But you as a Soviet expert, as an authority who had lived there, found that you could not convince your own government.
GEORGE KENNAN: No, I couldn't. I could--I found it easy to convince them that this was a very dangerous group of men. But I couldn't persuade them that their aspirations were political.
DAVID GERGEN: And not military?
GEORGE KENNAN: And not military. They were not like Hitler.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Now in your book, you went on to argue, and I found this quite striking, that because of the containment policy, because what you believe is a misreading of Soviet intentions, we actually found ourselves in the Far East in a situation where we felt we could, we had to maintain a military presence in Japan, and in your opinion, that contributed to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The Russians needed to take Korea. If we were going to have Japan, they needed to take Korea.
GEORGE KENNAN: Yeah. I, I felt that we should have tried to negotiate with the Russians in a realistic way before we went about rearming the Japanese and building up our own forces there and concluding a treaty, which left our forces there indefinitely.
DAVID GERGEN: So in your view, though, we might have avoided a Korean War?
GEORGE KENNAN: I think we might have avoided it, and avoided the whole great Korean problem had we done this.
DAVID GERGEN: But did you--you wrote in your book that you felt that Vietnam also had its roots in the containment policy--
GEORGE KENNAN: That's right. And this was unnecessary. I don't--these are not my own ideas, but John Davies, who is a formidable expert on China's affairs, Davies always told us, don't kid yourself, Ho Chi Minh is a nationalist, not a Communist. Communists are going to try to use him but that he's too smart, and they can't do it.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. For my generation, it's a surprise to hear those interpretations because I learned growing up that the containment policy had been a great success, that--and I believed that we were right in Korea, and I believed we were right in Vietnam, but you're really arguing a very different perspective.
GEORGE KENNAN: It was a success in Europe.
DAVID GERGEN: Uh-huh.
GEORGE KENNAN: And it led to the possibility of a Marshall Plan.
DAVID GERGEN: All right.
GEORGE KENNAN: And by the time that was done, we had, we had really resisted any danger of a Russian political conquest of Italy or France.
DAVID GERGEN: But it over-militarized our response, in your judgment?
GEORGE KENNAN: That I'm sure is correct.
DAVID GERGEN: So--
GEORGE KENNAN: The real response was the Marshall Plan.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you this in terms of thinking back over then of that period of American foreign policy in the last forty or fifty years, one of the ironies here is that in an age of information you suggest we have too little wisdom.
GEORGE KENNAN: Yes, I do, and one of the things that bothers me about the computer culture of the present age is that one of the things of which it seems to me we have the least need is further information. What we really need is intelligent guidance in what to do with the information we've got.
DAVID GERGEN: There are echoes in what you're saying of Barbara Tuckman as she looked back over history, she wrote that book The March of Folly, and indeed, Robert McNamara in his most recent book has argued that Vietnam was based on some false understandings on our part or false wisdom on our part.
GEORGE KENNAN: It was. Well, it was--we look for general policies, very sweeping policies--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
GEORGE KENNAN: --in the world. And that isn't the way international affairs work. We ought to look at every problem on its own merits.
DAVID GERGEN: Um-hmm.
GEORGE KENNAN: I see a groping on the part of our people today. They say, well, the Cold War is over, but what's going to become the worldwide basis of American foreign policy now?
DAVID GERGEN: Yes.
GEORGE KENNAN: And they don't realize you can't confront it that way. This is a big world. It's a developing world. It's not a static world. It's full of different forces contending with each other. And we have to look at this every day and say what is in the first place in the interests of this country, but secondly, what is in the interest also of world peace and stability?
DAVID GERGEN: If you bring that perspective to bear and you look ahead, now you've thought a great deal about the past, as you look ahead, what do you believe our agenda should be? What is our national interest in the next years ahead, the next couple of decades?
GEORGE KENNAN: Yes. Well, if we start from the other end, I would say that the--you do have a possibility of a global national interest that is in the environmental theater, and we should do all we can to try to convince ourselves and the rest of the world that we've got to stop abusing the environment of this whole planet. It's not just one person's, one country's problem. It's a universal problem today. That I feel very strongly about. Also, I think that we should recognize ourselves and should try to persuade others that war among great industrial developed countries in this age has lost its rationale. Nobody can win by it. The destructiveness of weapons is such that there are only losers out of any attempt to settle greatly the national problem by force--
DAVID GERGEN: How--do you believe we have the international organizations that are properly equipped to address the future?
GEORGE KENNAN: I am not sure about the--about the United Nations. I think that it's wrongly constructed these days and the international community is poorly put together, but I think that's not the main difficulty. I think the main difficulty lies really with the great powers and also, of course, with the terror, the potentialities for terrorism carried out by smaller--
DAVID GERGEN: When you say the difficulties of the great powers, what do you mean by that?
GEORGE KENNAN: Well, I hate to see us thinking about our relations with other countries, with Russia, with China, with Japan, in terms of who's going to have the greatest armed forces. There are more important things than that, particularly is this true with Russia. For goodness sake, a lot of people treat Russia as though this was Hitler at the height of his, his power.
DAVID GERGEN: Even now?
GEORGE KENNAN: Even now, and they forget that this is a country whose armed forces are largely in a shambles, that this is a deeply injured country that's in the process of change, where you could never do what Stalin did in the beginning of this war.
DAVID GERGEN: So you would build a set of relationship of cooperation on the environment--
GEORGE KENNAN: I wouldn't emphasize that business all the time. I think the effort to extend NATO to the borders of Russia is really a mistaken policy, a very dangerous policy and unnecessary. I think there are a great deal, many aspects of the relationship of Russia to the rest of the world, and for this country, which are not military--
DAVID GERGEN: Now, Henry Kissinger would argue that the Russians by historical nature are expansionists; they're materialistic; and that therefore one must be on their guard and build defenses.
GEORGE KENNAN: Well, I think that's a dangerous formulation, a dangerous way of thinking. There have been two great periods of Russian expansion into Western Europe. One was under Catherine the Great, and it lasted until the First World War. But that was--that was a policy of dynastic arrangements which didn't affect the people, the common people very much in any of these countries. The only question was who was their sovereign, and then, of course, there has been after and during and after World War II there was this other great expansion of Russia into areas of Eastern and Central Europe, but--
DAVID GERGEN: But you think those days are over?
GEORGE KENNAN: No, but I think we ought to be careful in judging them because we must remember that the Russian troops came into the heart of Europe with our full approval. What was wrong was not the fact that they came into it to complete the defeat of Hitler. What was wrong was what they did were the populations they overran when they remained there, and that was inexcusable.
DAVID GERGEN: But now that we've forced them out or they've been forced to withdraw because of their own internal problems, and containment, whatever form of containment, both political and military may have come at a price, but it seems to have worked, you would argue now as we enter the new century, a policy of containment ought to be replaced by one of cooperation with the Russians, wary cooperation?
GEORGE KENNAN: But we ought to be realistic in the dangers we're imagining ourselves to confront, and we shouldn't overestimate the military aspirations or the powers of other people. I don't think the Japanese want to attack anybody today. I don't think the Russians do. I can't vouch for the Chinese, because I don't know anything about China. But I don't think we need to be this alarmed with the Russians. My goodness gracious me, look at today what trouble they're having with Chechnya! Why in the world should they want to acquire 14 more and much more powerful Chechnyas? Nobody in his right mind would want to do this.
DAVID GERGEN: I can't resist asking you as a final question, Prof. Kennan, it's just absolutely remarkable. You're now 92-years-old. You've just come out with your latest book. Is there a secret here that you might explain to all of us?
GEORGE KENNAN: (laughing) How one can still write books at this age?
DAVID GERGEN: And be as, you know, as active and out there on the cutting edge.
GEORGE KENNAN: I've had a lot of luck, and I can't tell them all that every one of them is going to have the luck I've had. I've had luck in my experiences, in my--it seems to me in my origins, and in my life, and all this has helped, and all I can say to them is to try to lead a healthy life physically and to keep busy.
DAVID GERGEN: You think of the active mind. You've had a very active mind for so long, is that--
GEORGE KENNAN: I tell you, the mind is like any of the other muscles in the body. Unless it's used, it declines. And the hard, difficulty to overcome in getting older is to know in what degree you can tax your own powers and in what degree you mustn't try to tax them. In other words, if you, if you try to do too much, you make a fool of yourself. If you try to do too little, you stagnate and you go to pieces.
DAVID GERGEN: We will look forward to your next book. Thank you very much, sir.
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