Prophetic words on Russia from George Kennan a quarter-century ago

George Kennan was one of the most consequential American diplomats of the 20th century, widely credited as the author of the "containment strategy" for keeping communism at bay (and eventually defeating it under President Reagan) in the upheaval that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany and Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.  Kennan was also a scholar of Russian history, able to distinguish between elements of Soviet policy that descended from Russian history and those elements whose origin was communist ideology.

George Kennan in 1947.

In 1998, when Kennan was 94 years old and still brilliant, he gave an interview to Tom Friedman of the New York Times that now, in light of developments in Ukraine, seems prophetic.  After the fall of the USSR, a gigantic opportunity was blown, resulting in needless confrontation that has culminated (for now — a nuclear exchange is not unthinkable) in the proxy war in Ukraine between Russia and the U.S.

Because of its status as an historical document and because the words belong to Kennan, I am quoting extensively from the column that ran in the Times a quarter century ago:

... when I reached George Kennan by phone to get his reaction to the Senate's ratification of NATO expansion it was no surprise to find that the man who was the architect of America's successful containment of the Soviet Union and one of the great American statesmen of the 20th century was ready with an answer.

''I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,'' said Mr. Kennan from his Princeton home. ''I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.''

''What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,'' added Mr. Kennan, who was present at the creation of NATO and whose anonymous 1947 article in the journal Foreign Affairs, signed ''X,'' defined America's cold-war containment policy for 40 years. ''I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don't people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

''And Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we've just signed up to defend from Russia,'' said Mr. Kennan, who joined the State Department in 1926 and was U.S. Ambassador to Moscow in 1952. ''It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.''

Hat tip: Tom Lipscomb

Photo credit: Library of Congress, public domain.

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