Friday, March 09, 2007

Kennan misconstrued (again)

Brad DeLong dredges up a 2002 post in which he disabuses Max Sawicky of his impression that George Kennan in a 1948 policy assessment for the State Department was advocating a policy of imperialism in Asia:

The well-meaning and honorable but naive and somewhat gullible Max Sawicky has been duped. He trots out a paragraph from George F. Kennan's 1948 Policy Planning Study 23:

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction...

and calls it:

...a confession of original sin in U.S. foreign policy, from 1948 to the present. (It is from a memo that was originally classified.) In this light, both 'our' (i.e., the State's) motives and our deeds become problematic, don't they?

But those who have led the Rt. Hon. Mr. Sawicky to this quotation have carefully kept him from seeing it in its context.

If you look at all of Policy Planning Study 23--or even at section VII: Far East--and think what was going on in Asia in February 1948, when the document was written, it rapidly becomes clear that "sentimentality and day-dreaming" means "placing a high value on the alliance the U.S. had with Chiang Kaishek," and "altruism and world-benefaction" means "sending U.S. troops to China to die and U.S. atom bombs to China to go BOOM! in an attempt to stop the forward march of Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army."

Those who have led the Rt. Hon. Mr. Sawicky to this quote intend for him--intend for you--to believe that Kennan's call for the rejection of "sentimentality and day-dreaming... altruism and world-benefaction" was a call for U.S. imperial domination over Asia.

It wasn't.

It was a call for the U.S. to withdraw, militarily and diplomatically, from Asia; to base its security on the Philippines and Japan; and to leave Asia to the Asians. For, as Kennan had written much earlier in Policy Planning Study 23, " ...The use of U S. regular armed force to oppose the efforts of indigenous communist elements within foreign countries must generally be considered as a risky and profitless undertaking, apt to do more harm than good."

You can argue that Kennan was wrong in seeking a withdrawal of U.S. influence from continental Asia in 1948. You can't--honestly--argue that Kennan was advocating a policy of forceful imperialist world domination.

Notice the qualifier “forceful” and the use of the term “world domination,” which I don’t think anyone in the 20th Century besides Hitler really had in mind.

DeLong then quotes Kennan more fully from Policy Planning Study 23, but I think the passage supports Sawicky’s point better than DeLong’s:

We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on. It is my own guess, on the basis of such study as we have given the problem so far, that Japan and the Philippines will be found to be the corner-stones of such a Pacific security system and if we can contrive to retain effective control over these areas there can be no serious threat to our security from the East within our time.

Only when we have assured this first objective, can we allow ourselves the luxury of going farther afield in our thinking and our planning.

If these basic concepts are accepted, then our objectives for the immediate coming period should be:

(a) to liquidate as rapidly as possible our unsound commitments in China and to recover, vis-à-vis that country, a position of detachment and freedom of action;

(b) to devise policies with respect to Japan which assure the security of those islands from communist penetration and domination as well as from Soviet military attack, and which will permit the economic potential of that country to become again an important force in the Far East, responsive to the interests of peace and stability in the Pacific area; and

(c) to shape our relationship to the Philippines in such a way as to permit the Philippine Government a continued independence in all internal affairs but to preserve the archipelago as a bulwark of U.S. security in that area.

Even though at that precise moment American power relative to the rest of the world was probably at its peak, security was much more a legitimate concern for the U.S. then than now. The U.S. had just come through a devastating war against people with bona fide aspirations of world domination and would soon find itself under the very real threat of being wiped out completely. Kennan had a difficult needle to thread, and he saw further than most. At the time, his policy memo was likely a sober, relatively sane proposal to butt out of Chinese affairs. (Too bad Truman hadn’t been listening very closely and shortly thereafter embroiled the country in the Korean meatgrinder.)

But I can’t read phrases like “if we can contrive to retain effective control over these areas there can be no serious threat to our security from the East within our time” or “we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on” and see anything other than a calculated policy of imperialism. And of course “continued independence in all internal affairs” as far as the Philippines (and Taiwan and Korea) was concerned meant “giving corrupt dictators a free hand so long as they mouth anti-Communist platitudes.” I shudder to think what Kennan or others in his day had in mind about the "luxury of going farther afield," but it was a proposal that George W. Bush gladly took up. DeLong argues persuasively that Kennan's position was the lesser of two evils. But the optimist in me says our future holds better than simply “less evil.”

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