[George] Kennan’s policy was based on the idea that we must “regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner in the political arena.” — Walter Lippmann
What President Truman accomplished in the 1940s and 1950s with the help of men such as George Kennan was to jettison the historic idea of isolationism and to gain widespread acceptance for the policies of a national-security state. That signal change is now rarely debated, just as few people challenge the ideas of the welfare state. Empire is now “a way of life,” wrote historian William Appleman Williams in 1959 in his book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.
Those changes dramatically transformed the political landscape in America. Both major political parties, no matter how much they criticized each other then and since, are fully committed to the garrison state, now in place for the last 65 years. Almost all major political figures in post–World War II America not only accepted the garrison state, they also used it to further American “interests.”
Yet the road from isolationism to garrison state followed a strange, ironic path in the case of Kennan.
George Kennan was an obscure State Department official in Moscow in the 1930s and through most of World War II. A specialist in Soviet affairs, his State Department writings and complaints about Stalin were dismissed by amateur diplomats such as U.S. ambassador Joe Davies, the author of Mission to Moscow — a silly book with inscribed photos from Stalin and a Soviet prosecutor. Davies insisted that the Soviet show trials of the 1930s were fair. He sent out Kennan, his translator, for sandwiches during trial breaks.
Yet by the end of the war and for about five years after World War II until he was exiled to academia in 1950, this ex-sandwich order-taker was arguably the most important foreign policy advisor in the Truman administration. He became the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. His quick rise was based on two signal documents, a long telegram from Moscow in 1946 and a subsequent article in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine. Those documents were the basis of the containment doctrine adopted by Truman.
Kennan’s words were seized upon during a time when the Soviet Union’s supreme leader, Joseph Stalin, was making postwar speeches in which he said that capitalism and communism were enemies and could never be reconciled. Yet that was the kind of Stalin speech that had been standard before the Soviet Union’s World War II alliance with the Americans.
Kennan’s writings, which had been ignored for years, were suddenly closely read by policymakers, including the president. They used his writings to transform America into a garrison state by the early 1950s. The new order would eventually be accepted by both major parties. That’s when the philosophy of isolationism fully expired, with the United States taking on the role of confronting the Soviets everywhere around the globe.
“It will be clearly seen,” Kennan wrote in 1946, “that the Soviet pressure against free institutions of the Western World is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” Kennan’s ideas were mostly accepted by subsequent administrations.
Yet ironically, Kennan, in the first volume of his memoirs, later disowned a large part of U.S. foreign policy. “Much of it,” he wrote, “reads exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.”
Kennan, one of the intellectual godfathers of the garrison state, believed that many of his ideas were distorted to justify alliances, huge military budgets, and interventions around the world with little or no strategic import.
Kennan later said he thought the United States should confront the Soviets in only five strategic points around the world. He conceded that his writings were not clear on that point and were used as a rationalization for interventions all over the world.
Kennan opposed NATO and National Security Council Paper 68 (NSC-68) and criticized many of the principles of Truman Doctrine, all of which we will review in this series. He opposed the Vietnam War and called for nuclear disarmament. The irony is that, by the 1990s, he came to believe that the isolationist tenets of John Quincy Adams, albeit with certain adjustments, “are entirely suitable” and “greatly needed as a guide for an American policy in the coming period.”
Also toward the end of his life, Kennan tried to persuade George W. Bush — a man he called “extremely shallow” — not to go to war against Iraq. But the damage had already been done 60 years before.
American elite policymakers embraced the ideas of the Truman Doctrine, NATO, and the National Security Act of 1947 (which created the National Security Council and the CIA), even though most Americans then or now know little of the National Security Act or the Truman Doctrine or a myriad other creations of the warfare state that have become a permanent part of our society.
NSC-68, along with sweeping changes outlined in the NATO charter and in the Truman Doctrine, was a watershed. After World War II, America indeed went abroad in search of “monsters to destroy,” from the Near East to Korea to Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan.
NSC-68 became one of documents that justified a state of permanent war or near war. It was initiated by the first modern Defense secretary, James Forrestal, just after World War II. It was Forrestal who coined the term “semi-war.”
The term is defined as a “condition in which great dangers always threaten the United States and will continue doing so into the indefinite future,” according to Andrew Bacevich, a former career military officer and author of the 2010 book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
Semi-war, Bacevich adds, means the nation faces the prospect of hostilities “beginning at any moment, with little or no warning. In the setting of national priorities, readiness to act becomes a supreme value.”
Kennan, in the 1970s, attacked the concept of semi-war. He complained that the overemphasis on military policy combined with a view that one could never effectively negotiate with the Soviets were two of the great mistakes of foreign policy.
It resulted, he warned, in the “extreme militarization not only of our thought but of our lives that has become the mark of our postwar age. And this is a militarization that has profound effects not just on our foreign policies but also on our society.”
It also had another danger, according to Kennan:
It has led to what I and many others have come to see as a serious distortion of our national economy. We have been obliged to habituate ourselves to an expenditure annually of a great portion of our national income on the production and export of armaments, and the maintenance of a vast armed force establishment — purposes that add nothing to the real productive capacity of our economy, and only deprive us every year of tens of billions of dollars that might otherwise go to productive investment.
Yet supporting the military-industrial complex became the dominant political strategy in post–World War II America. Major candidates rode the issue to power. Accepting the leviathan became a way of demonstrating to mainstream media, an accomplice in the garrison state, how serious they were about national-security issues.
Sen. John Kennedy, successfully running for president in 1960, argued there was “a missile gap.” The United States, he claimed, was falling behind the Soviet Union and must expand its military faster.
Yet White House aide and Kennedy family historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his book A Thousand Days, later conceded it was a canard. He says that Kennedy’s Defense secretary, Robert McNamara, in “a candid background talk to newspapermen, was ready to dismiss the gap as an illusion.”
Therefore, a superfluous military buildup in Kennedy’s presidency went ahead, as it had in Truman’s and Eisenhower’s. There had been so many scares followed by military buildups in post–World War II America that Eisenhower would publicly warn about “a military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address. Nevertheless, Eisenhower did little to dismantle it.
Ronald Reagan in 1980 also rode to power on the specious claim that the United States was a crippled giant that needed a 1,000-ship navy. The Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) — a 1970s committee many of whose members would serve in the Reagan administration and some of whom had worked on NSC-68 — argued that the Soviet Union had a first-strike nuclear capability. The CPD claimed that the Soviet Union could impose nuclear blackmail on the United States. It was a dubious claim, given that the United States retained a triad of nuclear capabilities, including land- and sea-based strike forces. And it had been so for decades following World War II.
The sky is always falling.
But, as we will see in this series, the claims of pending doom worked again and again. Those claims were overdone, enabling the garrison state to grow relentlessly in war and peace no matter how baseless or overblown the threat, creating a spiral of useless defense spending, wars, and near-wars. Even when a threat was exposed as a hoax, the budget increase was never reversed. The same had occurred in the 19th-century British Empire, as detailed in Richard Cobden’s masterful pamphlet The Three Panics.
The change to an American leviathan to combat the supposedly monolithic threat was also the result of the Truman Doctrine, which was born out of the containment idea. Truman, in a famous speech to Congress in 1947, succeeded in spooking the nation. He persuaded the country that the Soviet Union, with all communist countries united behind it, was moving toward world domination. Both were absurd claims, as we will see.
But how could the president sell them?
Truman would have to make an overwhelming case that America and most of the world was threatened. He needed a set of principles, a doctrine, to guide the nation. What he got was a doctrine that would outlast his administration and the enemy it was designed to confront.
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).