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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kennan lives on

Do you know of George Kennan? He is one of the fascinating figures of the 20th century, but those of us who admire his life and work fear that he will be forgotten in this new century. That would be a shame because his insights into the American character still ring true today. In our age of renewed American militarism and distortions of the threat of terrorism, Kennan’s voice needs to be heard anew.

Kennan was most known for being the architect of the “containment doctrine” at the start of the Cold War and then later for his fierce criticism of American foreign policy when it used the fear of communism to justify military expansion worldwide. His was an anticommunism grounded in history, including the ironies of American history.  He lived a long and rich life, dying in 2005 at the age of 101. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading the great John Lukacs’ brief book on Kennan. Here are some of the gems from the book. Those in bold are quotes from Kennan himself, the others are Lukacs on Kennan:

“As early as in 1946 there were instances when he [Kennan] warned not only against the then remnant American illusions about the Soviet Union but against the extremes of the ideology of anticommunism…He warned against the militarization of ‘containment’; against the permanent establishment of American military bases in the middle of Europe and elsewhere on the globe…he saw anticommunism becoming identical with American patriotism—or, indeed, substituting or even replacing the latter.” (128)

“[P]rinciples and ideas are not the same. More than one hundred and fifty years ago Metternich wrote in a letter that while an idea is a fixed gun capable of striking error along one fixed line, a principle is like a gun mounted on a revolving platform, capable of striking error in any direction.” (129)

“I tremble when I see this attempt to make a semi-religious cult out of emotional-political currents of the moment…designed to appeal only to men’s capacity for hatred and fear, never to their capacity for forgiveness and charity and understanding.” (130)

“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130)

“[Kennan] was not a patriot and not a nationalist: because patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist; because patriotism is the love of one’s land and of its history, while nationalism is viscous cement that binds formless masses together. A patriot will be concerned with his nation’s faults.” (132)

“The readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings—against people whom we do not know, whom we have never seen, and whose guilt or innocence is not for us to establish—this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity—an indignity of monstrous dimensions—offered to God!” (150-151)

“Unlike many Americans, George Kennan did not believe that the United States was A Chosen Nation of God, that its people were A Chosen People, or even the Last Best Hope of Mankind; but he believed that there is something unique in the history of every nation, including his own” (153)

“One day—not now—when in the midst of a world ruled by Mechanism the last vestiges of the old humanism will have vanished, a few, young rather than old, American men or women will stare at [Kennan’s] words and see…that this man was, once, a conscience of America.” (154)

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