The Policy Predicament: Containment
After the Second World War, the world was in disarray; many European and Asian countries were crippled and suffered from one of the most damaging wars of world history. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) had performed an intrinsic role in subduing the Nazi Germany dominion, and merged much of Eastern Europe and Asia into its satellite empire. This “iron curtain” that was founded on the ideals of Bolshevism and communism started an episode of history that challenged the military power, economic presence, and political security of the United States. George F. Kennan, an introverted and wise historian and diplomat, took charge of U.S. foreign policy in the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department and National Security Council, and became the architect and “global planner” of strategic “containment” during the late 1940’s. Professor Wilson D. Miscamble sets the stage of Kennan’s instrumental feats of negotiation and rationale in George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy (1947-1950), and succeeds in showing how Kennan’s actions determined American foreign policy and “gave form and meaning to the [containment] doctrine” for the rest of the Cold War.1
George F. Kennan was born in 1904 and had developed a “natural facility” for languages and a love for Russia through his childhood. Although he had superior diplomatic skills and important knowledge of Russian culture and politics, Kennan suffered through years of ambiguity until his publication of his Long Telegram, which stated that the Soviets had a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity…[and were] highly sensitive to the logic of force.”2 This new idea of American foreign policy to the Soviets, as also stated in The Psychological Background of Soviet Foreign Policy anonymously written by Kennan (Mr. X), called for more active “firmness” against the Soviets. Kennan’s career is summarized by his actions to draft and execute policies that supported post-war Europe, calm tensions in the Mediterranean, create an international alliance system that countered Soviet incursions, decide the division of Germany, check the Soviet influences in Eastern Europe, control relations with China, protect Japan, Korea, and Southeastern Asian countries from the “domino effect,” challenge Soviet power, and change foreign policies during the Cold War.
The Marshall Plan was the first step to reconstructing Europe after the devastation of WWII; it offered economic aid and U.S. intervention to restore the health of Europe. Kennan realized that its purpose was not to “‘remake Europe in an American mode,’ but in response to American pressures in the West, Europeans [would create] their own solutions…[to] encourage the development of…forces resistant to communism,” while also protecting American economic interests and sustaining the balance of power.3 With backing from this plan, Kennan continued with the crisis in the Middle East, namely in Greece, Italy, and Palestine. Greece was the home to communist insurgents, to which Kennan responded to with American troops and economic aid sanctioned by the Marshall Plan, and by 1949, Greece was liberated from possible Soviet intervention. Italy was ruined economically and politically after the fall of the fascist regime, and vulnerable to communist cults and Soviet takeover; Kennan proposed the automatic institution of pro-democratic efforts by the CIA and immediate economic support from the U.S. The final crisis of the Mediterranean was the Palestine partition conflict, in which Jews and Arabs desperately fought, that was exploitable by the U.S.S.R. Kennan had to act quickly; he did not support partition, but the advantages of supporting partition included not only consolidation of U.S. influence over Israel and Palestine, but also beneficial oil markets for the U.S. By 1949, NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was formed as an alliance based on similar “understanding backed by power, money, and resolute action.”4 NATO became Kennan’s nightmare, because it actually disturbed European reconstruction and started the militarization of containment, as opposed to the political or economic containment that Kennan desired. Although Kennan mostly dealt with foreign policy, he also was involved in the division of Germany between the four powers in 1945; he supported the reunification of the German state but separation of spheres of influence to quench the Soviet motivations, but unfortunate circumstances dejected “Program A” and supported the partitioning of Germany, followed by the troublesome “Iron Curtain” that benefited the Soviets more than the Europeans. Kennan’s affairs in Yugoslavia and Albania proved interpretable. Josip Broz Tito’s split with Stalin put Yugoslavia into speaking terms with western powers, which delighted Kennan; this trend of Titoism, the breaking apart of communist satellite states from the U.S.S.R., was an opportunity for Kennan to ally with Yugoslavia in order to uproot the Soviet system and place NSC and PPS “political warfare” to eradicate satellite states altogether; “fostering Communist heresy among the satellite states…[and] encouraging non-Stalinist regimes” is salutary to the end of Communism because “the real enemy in the short term,…[is] Soviet power and expansionism.”5
Besides Kennan’s “vortex” in European affairs, Asia was another conundrum for Kennan to solve. The Open Door Notes gave America spheres of influence in China, and during WWII, China was traumatized by a civil war between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and Communists under Mao Zedong. Kennan pushed an isolationist view toward China because it was “not key” in American security. On the other hand, Kennan also rationalized to “exploit the rift…between the CCP and U.S.S.R.…within and outside of the communist structure” to separate the economic and political gap between China and the U.S.S.R.; the “litmus test” of China inclined toward communism, but not Sovietism.6 In Japan, Kennan pursued a conservative stratagem of reconstructing post-atomic bomb society, integration of a democracy and alliance, and protection from Soviet expansionism. Other policies focused on minor containment of southeastern Asian radicalism in Vietnam, the Philippines, Siam, and India to prevent the “domino effect” of communism in Asia.
The last episode of Kennan’s renowned influence is based upon the counteroffensive against Soviet antagonism and control, the Korean War, and the future of American foreign policy. When Soviets exploded their own atomic bomb in 1949, American national security was jeopardized; against domestic reforms, increased defenses, and greater investment in NASA and scientific research into the H-bomb, Kennan denounced the idea of a “Hot” War, and tried to engage in diplomacy to counteract the direction of militarization. The new plan, NSC-68, called for a new “big stick” policy backed by the H-bomb and economic control, “consistent with progress to achieve our fundamental purpose…to [build up]…strength of the free world” to contain the Soviet enemy firmly by using “what is necessary to deter an aggressor from waging a war.”7 Unfortunately, the U.S. chose a militaristic route of NSC-68, and again Kennan was dismissed for the worse. North Korea and the outbreak of war in 1950 brought Kennan back to the rescue, who supported negotiation, aggressive containment, and limited war to check the Soviet influence into North Korea. When the U.S. crossed the 38th parallel, against Kennan’s advice, the war reached a stalemate, greatly reducing the chance to keep the U.S.S.R. out of Korea; “the [U.S.]…wanders in a labyrinth of ignorance and error and conjecture,” as Kennan asserts, proceeding to call to attention the importance of containment over the motivation of America.”8 Kennan looked for a détente and a battle of endurance with the Soviet Union; this new outline of American foreign policy, in which the U.S. does not change it role in the world, became the “long perspective on American interests in foreign affairs” for future policies conducted against the Soviets, Vietnam, and Middle Eastern nations in the second half of the 20th century.9
Throughout Kennan’s extensive career, he was the opposite of what most history books say of him; he neither supported an aggressive containment doctrine on the globe nor represented the “architect” of containment. George F. Kennan was a man that embraced policy and diplomacy to its finest extent, as he wanted to move “beyond containment” and contribute to the essence of American foreign policy.10 Depending on what benefited U.S. motivations, protected national security, and closed the tide of communism, Kennan acted to fight the immediate threat with policies that prevent future threats. Kennan lived on the opposing side to understand how to deal with the enemy, analyzed the backwards sections of the Marshall Plan, controlled global affairs on multiple fronts with an emphasis on containment and practicality, played the role of the decisive thinker, and became the conservative in a liberal atmosphere of chaos. Kennan successfully organized a group of elite thinkers in the Policy Planning Staff and improved the performance of the State, thus changing the theme of American foreign policy. It is truly probable that, had Kennan gotten his way around things, the modern world would have been very different. Miscamble states that the “United States [should] develop its foreign policy pragmatically in a more deliberate case-by-case manner and in light of a clear assessment of international developments…[meaning] that the U.S. should not delude itself that it can or should quickly reformulate the role it must play in the world.” Kennan’s legacy outlasted his failures in that he “grasped realities” in foreign policy to solve the most challenging puzzles of diplomacy.11 Miscamble serves to highlight Kennan’s achievements in foreign policy rather than his purpose as a politician and the distance between his choices and that colored by the term “containment.” His actions for America supported the health of the nation, not the opinions of the people or the distractions of international affairs, and he supported aggressive peace over limited war.
Wilson D. Miscamble wrote this work based on his prior knowledge of American history and foreign politics, and George F. Kennan was a standing figure in this arena. Miscamble strives to put the facts first, so that his “work…is one which grows ‘organically from the evidence’ and which consequentially speaks with the authenticity of the past.”12 This assertion is primarily true, in that he analyzes Kennan’s actions and beliefs to a personal level, garnered from many interviews with Kennan and his Policy Planning Staff, and tests the validity and effectiveness of the Kennan administration to the ramifications of history and to John Lewis Gaddis’s book, Strategies of Containment.13 But his weakness is found in his lack of knowledge about the Truman administration or the socio-economic conditions of national affairs with respect to the government and the people. The 40’s and 50’s were an age of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, which have forced the government to take active use of the CIA and stay inconspicuous to the population; Kennan’s truthful and practical actions were disgusting to public opinion. Also, Miscamble ties together his research in a book of fair Cold War complexity and policy definition, but does not have the power to comprehend Kennan as a characteristic individual that has biases of his own, consistently talking about Kennan compassionately and positively. Written in 1992, George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950 is critically affected by the results of the Cold War, as Miscamble gives Kennan outstanding credit for the end of the Cold War and the evolution of international relations. With Kennan’s policies prevalent in Nixon and Reagan’s Chinese and Russian peace talks, related to Kennan’s salutary preservation of both nations, Miscamble may have been affected by the spur of the moment, the fall of Soviet Russia and the toppling of the Berlin Wall, situations that could drastically affect the purpose of what he tries to convey in his account of Kennan. But all in all, this account of George F. Kennan is detailed and accurate to a substantive point, giving the reader the necessary understanding of 1940’s foreign policy.
Reviews of Miscamble’s work point to strengths and flaws that constitute the author’s research. Walter L. Hixson states the value of the research as a culmination of “Kennan’s influence on postwar U.S. policy,” and that “policy formation…and measuring Kennan’s overall influence provide the focus to [his] research.” But Hixson also mentions the lack of attention given to an “overall understanding of Kennan and the early Cold War.” In being conservative and avoiding “grand interpretive assertions,” Miscamble misses Kennan’s own motivations and beliefs, while not giving an author’s interpretation of Kennan’s effectiveness in diplomacy. “There is no glue to hold this rich, detailed study together.”14 Another critique comes from Stephen Pelz, who judges the study descriptively. He comments about the multitude of achievements by Kennan as a diplomat, saying, “Dr. Kennan had the right medicine for this political disease.” The doctrine of containment is strictly interpreted as the idea of “patient diplomacy rather than rigid deterrence,” and Kennan is shown to have out-predicted the Stalinist regime and its effect on the U.S. Pelz concludes that this work is “a useful contribution to the debate over [the influence of] Kennan and the history of the Cold War.”15
This particular account of George F. Kennan puts in perspective the actions of one man and his effect on the world stage. The history of the Cold War and American intentions are “founded on a ‘dangerous misreading’ of the personality, intentions, and political situation of the Soviet leadership,” a completely true statement.16 Kennan understood the gravity of the situation when he applied his policies to the various aspects of checking said power, and analyzing the position that each nation takes on the board; every choice he made rose to counteract the opposition to create a status quo that would be impervious to Soviet interruption. Kennan and his P.P.S. were definitely influential in the business of the government and of global politics, whether they affected the choices of Marshall, Truman, Davies, or any other participant of U.S. security and policy; G.F.K.’s plans changed what would happen to the timeline of histories all over the globe and his influence elicited responses that ultimately reflected the policies of the P.P.S. and the NSC. Miscamble righteously validates Kennan as a wise and significant factor in the history of American foreign policy, who altered the understanding of the late 1940’s and Cold War into a vision without the premise of containment and with the application of rationality salutary to the United States, while demonstrating noteworthy effect on the history of the world.
Miscamble clearly presents his opinion that the 1940’s were a watershed of diplomatic world history, with George F. Kennan as its prophet. Kennan’s reputation of “America’s Global Planner” suggests the fact that he was in touch with the crucial period leading up to the Cold War after WWII. The 1940’s are a decade of constant chaos and reputable change; the switch in the balance of power, the psychological effects of the Holocaust, and the political tensions of the world put the order of the world in a vulnerable position. And even more importantly, the choices made during this time period, from the division of Germany to the partition of Palestine, prove eminent in the present day. Miscamble modestly realizes that the problems solved in Kennan’s time are ever more important in national development, and driven by “the endeavors of policymakers.”17
More than 50 years ago, a talented diplomat by the name of George F. Kennan tied the loose ends of the relations between powers with objective to “fix what needed to be fixed.” Now, we live in a post-Cold War world continuing the legacy that George F. Kennan had left for us, swimming in the infinite cycle of challenge and response. “There seems no second-level State Department official…who could match…[Kennan’s] contribution.”18
1: Miscamble, Wilson D. George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy: 1947-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1992. Xiv.
2: Miscamble, Wilson D. 26. From Kennan, George F. Long Telegram. Unspecified Publication Information, Feb. 22, 1946.
3: Miscamble, Wilson D. 73, 74. From George F. Kennan to Lyon, Oct. 13, 1947.
4: Miscamble, Wilson D. 114. From Ernest Bevin, NATO Drafter, to Sec. of State Marshall, Unspecified Date.
5: Miscamble, Wilson D. 206. From PPS/59, “United States Policy Towards Soviet Satellite States in Eastern Europe.” 137.
6: Miscamble, Wilson D. 229. From U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Economic Assistance to China and Korea, 1949-1950 (Washington, D.C., 1974), 30-41.
7: Miscamble, Wilson D. 310-312. From NSC-68 of Jan. 31, 1950.
8: Miscamble, Wilson D. 327, 329. From George F. Kennan and (Acheson Papers) Letter to Dean Acheson, Dec. 4, 1950.
9: Miscamble, Wilson D. 351. From Thomas H. Etzold. “Organization for National Security, 1945-50.” Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-50. New York 1978. 22.
10: Miscamble, Wilson D. 346. Statement by Secretary of State James Baker, Jun. 20, 1989.
11: Miscamble, Wilson D. 357.
12: Miscamble, Wilson D. xiii.
13: Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
14: Hixson, Walter L. Pacific Historical Review. California: University of California Press, Nov. 1993. Vol. 62, No. 4, pp. 521-522.
15: Pelz, Stephen. Reviews in American History. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Dec. 1994. Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 711-716.
16: Miscamble, Wilson D. 20.
17: Miscamble, Wilson D. 357
18: Miscamble, Wilson D. 342
Author Biography
Dr. Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble was born on July 23, 1953 and has been a professor at the University of Notre Dame ever since 1988. After he received his doctorate in history in 1980, he pursued many political/governmental and historical research occupations, writing George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy (1947-1950) based on his study of US foreign policy in WWII.