IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Never A Man For Causes

George F. Kennan is known as a realist, and has an honored place in the canon, but he is clearly a realist of a different kind. His sensibility toward the use and abuse of power was vastly different from that of Machiavelli; Kennan winced at the methods Machiavelli approved.

How Kennan went from being one of the hardest of the hardliners to being king of the doves is a fascinating story in the history of American foreign policy, especially so considering the fact that he didn't change all that much in his basic convictions. You can begin to trace the complicated evolution of Kennan's thought, and reflect on the meaning of realism, in the first volume of his memoirs, an extract of which appears below.

We find Kennan in the summer of 1944 describing his return to the Moscow embassy and feeling great oppression over the restrictions on his contact with ordinary Russians. Kennan, like all foreign diplomats, was “viewed with suspicion and held at arm’s length from Soviet citizens” by the secret police, but he got about town by pretending he was nobody. He reports an extended dialogue with a Soviet acquaintance in which Kennan implores, fruitlessly, for a less maniacally closed society. The Russian parts with a warning: (886 words)

“We are being very successful these days, “he said. “The more successful we are, the less we care about foreign opinion. This is something you should bear in mind about the Russian. The better things go for him, the more arrogant he is. That applies to all of us, in the government and out of it. It is only when we are having hard sledding that we are meek and mild and conciliatory. When we are successful, keep out of our way.”

* * *
On another Sunday morning in that same summer of 1944 I had the unpleasant experience of standing at the curb on one of the great boulevards near Spaso House [the ambassador’s residence] and watching the passage of some fifty thousand German prisoners in process of being marched several miles across town from one railway station to another. The object of the operation was plainly to make a spectacle of the men before the population of the city. 

It was a hot day. The rays of the sun were already dancing over the vast expanse of asphalt which the boulevard presented. The men, presumably just out of freight cars, were obviously exhausted and — I have no doubt — hungry. They were marched, purposely, at a fast clip. Now and then, mounted Soviet guards — members, apparently, of the border and internal guard units of the police establishment — rode their horses brutally into the rear ranks of the densely arranged units, forcing the men to stumble about and to run on the double quick. Occasionally, one or another of them fainted and was hauled off to the gutter, to be picked up afterward. 

It was not a very great brutality, as brutalities of war go. The Germans, God knows, had done many times worse, and on a scale far greater, with the Russian prisoners taken in the first summer of the war, permitting hundreds of thousands if not millions to die of hunger and exposure in the stockades, and then mistreating the survivors in a thousand different ways. Even compared to the fate that awaited these same German prisoners when they arrived at their unknown destinations, for hard labor or confinement, the ordeal they were now undergoing on the boulevard was, I suspect, a minor one. 

Still, I came away from the sight shaken, saddened, and unsatisfied. These prisoners were young men — many of them no older, surely, than our college students. Five years ago, when the war began, they had been mere boys. Each had a home and a mother somewhere; and not even the strongest revulsion to the Nazi system could let one forget that many of these homes must have been decent ones, marked by affection, tenderness, and a genuine political helplessness, if not innocence. How these young men would have behaved had they grown older and achieved personal power and responsibility, no one could tell. But surely they had never been consulted about the great issues of this war, still less about the abominations of the Nazi system. Their presence at the front was not their doing. As front line fighting men, it was not to be assumed that they had been prominently involved in the beastliness perpetrated by the Gestapo, the SS, and the punitive police detachments in the rear of the German lines. Was it right, then, I asked myself, to punish them all for the acts of a government to whose power their fathers had consigned them already as children and whose policies they had never had the faintest opportunity to oppose? Was brutality ever sanctioned, or sanctionable, as a measure of revenge? If one fought against an enemy ostensibly because of his methods, and permitted oneself to be impelled by the heat of the struggle to adopt those same methods, who, then, could be said to have won? Who was it, in this situation, who had imposed his methods on the other? Whose outlook could be said to have triumphed? 

I recognized, at that moment, that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war — and always would. I had my moments of indignation, many of them; the days, in fact, were seldom without them. Wherever I lived — in Berlin, in Moscow, in Washington —the evidences in the daily prints of hypocrisy, of deliberate falsehood, of vindictiveness and pettiness of spirit, had never failed, and never would fail in the future, to send me into elaborate physical heavings, and mutterings of outraged sentiment. The family came to know these unfailing symptoms. But it was primarily against people's methods rather than against their objectives that indignation mounted in such moments. Objectives were normally vainglorious, unreal, extravagant, even pathetic — little likely to be realized, scarcely to be taken seriously. People had to have them, or to believe they had them. It was part of their weakness as human beings. But methods were another matter. These were real. It was out of their immediate effects that the quality of life was really molded. In war as in peace I found myself concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it. Whatever such an outlook implied — whether weakness of character or qualities less reprehensible (and on this question there will never, I am sure, be wide agreement) — I was never a man for causes.

 * * *

George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), pp.197-99.