THE MARXIST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Charles Longford explains the confusion and demoralisation
that has followed America's Cold War triumph
America's Pyrrhic victory
Forty-six years ago, George F Kennan, architect of America's postwar foreign
policy, wrote a famous article, under the pseudonym 'X', entitled 'The sources
of Soviet conduct' (Foreign Affairs, July 1947). The article advocated
the containment of the Soviet Union in order to 'promote tendencies which
must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual
mellowing of Soviet power'. When the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 and,
along with it, the Soviet Union, it was with apparent justification that
many Western foreign policy experts congratulated Kennan for having finally
had his Cold War policy thoroughly vindicated.
- Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy,
George F Kennan, Norton, £16.50 hbk
- Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One-Superpower
World, Richard Nixon,Simon & Schuster, £19.99 hbk
- A Cold Peace: America, Japan, Germany and the Struggle for
Supremacy, Jeffrey E Garten,Times Books, $22 hbk
- The Consequences of the Peace: The New Internationalism and
American Foreign Policy, James Chace, Oxford University Press,
Kennan's new memoir Around the Cragged Hill provides a personal and
political insight into the man whom many regard as the sage of America's
post-Second World War foreign policy success.
The title comes from the poet John Donne's Satyre III --the image of Truth
standing on a huge hill, cragged and steep, about which he who would reach
Truth must go. In a lucid and patient response to scholars who he notes
have laboured to extract from his writings over the years 'something resembling
a coherent personal and political philosophy', Kennan circles around a variety
of topics that are important to him. Despite the fact that he has little
to say directly about the Cold War, his skirting of the craggy mountain
of America today reveals truths that many of his supporters will have difficulty
accepting. What Kennan exposes, in direct opposition to those who trumpet
the end of the Soviet Union as proof of American greatness, is that far
from scaling the heights of craggy mountains, America is stuck in a swirling
creek below without a paddle.
The man who is held responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Union is very
sombre about the America that won the Cold War. Forty-six years ago, in
the conclusion to his seminal 'X' article, Kennan described the Cold War
as 'a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations'.
Moreover, he argued back then that there was no cause for complaint:
'[The] thoughtful observer...will rather experience a certain gratitude
to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable
challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their
pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral
and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.'
However, 46 years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan's
conclusions belie any notion of America having successfully accepted its
weighty responsibility to history. Instead he concludes that the post-Cold
War era marks 'something close to a major crisis in the life of the nation.
In the question as to whether this deficiency can be corrected, it is nothing
less than the adequacy of our form of government to meet the unprecedented
challenges of the modern age that is at stake' (p248).
Kennan suggests that the 'major crisis in the life of the nation' today
is at least as great as that of the past. However, this time Kennan does
not tell Americans to thank Providence for providing them with such a historic
challenge. On the contrary, he emphatically rejects any and all 'messianic
concepts of America's role in the world: rejecting, that is, the image of
ourselves as teachers and redeemers to the rest of humanity, rejecting the
illusions of unique and superior virtue on our part, the prattle about Manifest
Destiny or the "American Century"'(p182). And to cap it all, the
architect of global containment ends by advocating a 'very modest and restrained
foreign policy....far less pretentious in word and deed than the ones we
have been following in recent years. It means, in particular, a rejection
of the tempting but fatuous assumption that we can find, in our relations
with other countries or other parts of the world, relief from the painful
domestic confrontations with ourselves' (p183).
According to Kennan, the 'painful domestic confront-ation' America has to
make will involve an attack on all the things that were supposed to make
America great: democracy, freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness.
Kennan's America is a nation fatally wounded by modern tendencies - unbridled
technology, the cults of consumerism and growth, by the proliferation of
cities, by the spread of bureaucracy, by the overfondness of bigness, and
by the overdoing of egalitarianism.
In his chapter on 'The addictions', Kennan castigates the national infatuation
with the car, television and advertising. Most American conservatives would
probably share Kennan's nostalgia for the past in which people lived in
the countryside, walked in forests, read books, travelled on railroads,
employed domestic servants and inhabited separate cultural and ethnic communities
(seeing no 'intrinsic virtue in the melting pot'). But it is when allotting
blame for the 'nation being seriously out of control' that Kennan says out
loud what most conservatives would prefer kept quiet.
For Kennan, the common element of all of America's difficulties is that
they are 'long-term problems rather than short-term ones'. It is the failure
of modern democracy, which he contends is ill-equipped to deal with long-term
problems because voters demand short-term benefits. He goes even further
in blaming what he calls 'unbridled free enterprise' and the indifference
of public authority to advertisers who have no 'public commitment, educational,
intellectual, aesthetic, or otherwise' (p159). Indeed, in his epilogue,
Kennan goes so far as to argue for 'limits...beyond which free enterprise
should not be permitted to go, and that it is the duty of the government
to make those limits clear and to insist on their observance' (p252).
This is a theme Kennan had begun to develop even before the Cold War ended.
In the spring of 1987, for example, he wrote in an article, 'Containment
then and now', that 'the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain
is, in some ways, ourselves' (Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987). In Around
the Cragged Hill, Kennan is less restrained. His solution is, as he
admits quite freely, 'unrepentant elitism' (p133).
'If we are to have a hope of emerging successfully from the great social
bewilderments of this age', he points out, (unlike last time when Americans
as a whole were urged to rise to the task), then 'the weight must be laid
predominantly upon the spiritual, moral, and intellectual shaping of the
individual with a view to the development of his qualities for leadership,
rather than on the prospects for unaided self-improvement on the part of
leaderless masses'. And it is within this elite that the material must be
found for Kennan's proposed Council of State - an advisory body drawn from
a national pool of outstanding persons, which would be charged with addressing
national problems freed from the exigencies of party or electoral politics.
Thus it could ensure that government followed through the resolution of
'long-term' problems, without worrying about public opinion.
Here Kennan presents the exact opposite of what his most fervent supporters
would have us believe about America's victory in the Cold War. Where people
like Arthur Schlesinger argue that American democracy and its free market
ethos destroyed 'Marxist totalitarianism', Kennan sees democracy and even
the market as the source of America's current problems. Far from presenting
these American institutions as universal for all to emulate, he calls for
their restriction. Where most establishment thinkers present the end of
the Cold War as a victory, Kennan sees it differently. He describes the
world which 'appears to be devoid of anything that could be seen as a major
great-power enemy of this country' as a 'problem for which few of us are
Kennan's fears about the lack of a worthy opponent for America are almost
as remarkable as his criticism of democracy and unbridled free enterprise.
Throughout the Cold War years, the world apparently lived under the threat
of nuclear annihilation. You might imagine that the lifting of this threat
to America would be welcomed with relief and celebration. Instead, Around
the Cragged Hill echoes with pessimism and disillusionment.
In attempting to describe the post-Cold War malaise of American society,
Kennan unwittingly puts his finger on an uncomfortable truth about American
capitalism and Western societies in general. What he describes is a slump-ridden
society which no longer has the Soviet system to look good against. Robbed
of the Soviet Union, America now has to stand on its own merits - an exercise
in which Kennan has revealed it to be severely wanting. His disillusionment
with American values, like his rejection of their universality and international
applicability, simply exposes the fact that whatever resonance they had
in the past relied upon the contrast with 'totalitarian communism'. The
problem for America today is not the advertising which Kennan lambasts,
but the loss of the Soviet system which acted as the best advert for capitalism,
endowing the West with much needed legitimacy.
Kennan's bleak vision reveals the embarrassing truth that the ending of
the Cold War has robbed America of a precious mechanism for promoting a
positive self-image. When Kennan discovers there is little to be positive
about today, this is not because he has not looked hard enough, or because
he has looked in the wrong place. It is because there is nothing inherently
positive about Western society. This is why Kennan can only see the end
of the Cold War as a problem. By exposing the malaise in American society,
America's victory has been revealed to have been a Pyrrhic one.
While Around the Cragged Hill concentrates on the consequences of
the end of the Cold War for America's domestic malaise, the ending of the
Cold War presents a similar problem for America's foreign policy today.
It was inevitable that the collapse of the Soviet Union would provoke a
debate in the West about the implications for the future of international
relations. It was inevitable, too, that the debate would be most sharply
focused in America, the leader of and inspiration behind the postwar Western
James Schlesinger, former secretary of defence and CIA director, has written
that 'with the end of the Cold War...the United States has lost the magnetic
north for calibrating its foreign policy' ('Quest for a post-Cold War foreign
policy', Foreign Affairs, Vol72 No1, 1993, p17). Schlesinger was
highlighting the fact that not only America, but the whole Western world
had lost its foreign policy. The problematic question posed by these events
was more than simply how to establish a new 'magnetic north for calibrating
foreign policy', but what position an economically weakened America would
occupy in any New World Order.
It is the quest to find the new 'magnetic north for calibrating foreign
policy' which has come to occupy the minds of America's foreign policy experts,
policy-makers and academics. Jeffrey E Garten, a managing director of the
Blackstone Group who has held senior posts in the Nixon, Ford and Carter
administrations, argues in A Cold Peace, for example, how easily
serious frictions can arise between Germany, Japan and the USA and how difficult
it will be for them to retain their cooperation in the absence of the Cold
War. 'The roots of the world as we have known it are being pulled up', resulting
in 'the forces of divisiveness, not of cooperation...gaining momentum' (p45).
While he sees little hope for Japan or Germany taking responsibility for
international affairs, which by default allows America to retain its global
position, Garten, like Kennan, believes the priority is for America to deal
with its domestic economic weaknesses and social problems. But while Garten
can easily assert that a strong America at home will renew America abroad,
he is as silent as the other experts on the question of how the decades
of capitalist stagnation in the USA can suddenly be reversed.
In The Consequences of the Peace, Professor James Chace of Bard College,
the former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, recognises that America
can no longer insist that the world takes orders on how to run the global
economy, nor impose an international Pax Americana. He sees a new
global balance of power coming into being, within which America would have
to abandon any pretence to being the only superpower. Chace's call for a
new 'American internationalism' ends up with a similar message to that of
Kennan and Garten: that America's ability to play an essential leadership
role in the New World Order will depend upon repairing its economy. But
just how that can be achieved remains as elusive as ever.
Former president Richard Nixon, on the other hand, has little doubt about
America's role in the world. He sees international conflict remaining a
fact of life which by definition gives America its global duty. Being the
most powerful military power on Earth means America will continue to have
a leadership role. Where Chace, Garten and others see economic revival as
part of America's future security, Nixon insists that the goal of US policy
must now be the expansion of freedom. Invoking that which Kennan explicitly
rejects, Nixon argues that
America now has 'a moral imperative to use (its) awesome capabilities as
the world's only superpower to promote freedom and justice'. A Nixon-style
'moral' foreign policy would mean a bullish assertion of American power
in thethird world, such as you might expect from the man who carpet-bombed
Vietnam and Cambodia in the name of freedom throughout his ill-fated presidency.
Seize the Moment illustrates one of the more confusing aspects of
America's foreign policy debate - the ease with which people switch from
dove to hawk and back again. Nixon's own foreign policy under Henry Kissinger
was famous for its pragmatism. In contrast to the Kennedy and Johnson years
of hawkish challenge to the Soviet bloc, Nixon pursued a policy of detente.
Today, however, Nixon sounds uncharacteristically principled for someone
who was forced out of office for bugging his opponent's offices in the 1972
elections. Kennan, meanwhile, along with many conservatives, now counsels
a more cautious foreign policy, while younger liberals are at the forefront
of demands for a pro-active foreign policy, a 'New Internationalism'. Beneath
the policy confusion lies a real uncertainty about America's role in a post-Cold
In fact the malaise is even worse. As the protagonists in the debate have
attempted to discover something that will cohere the international system
and give America a leading role within it, so further divisions have appeared.
What began as a triumphant discussion about America's ascendancy has produced
bitter acrimony and an end to the old anti-communist consensus.
Kennan and his colleagues will find that the absence of the Stalinist system
in 1993 makes all attempts to regenerate American foreign policy elusive.
What Around the Cragged Hill shows is that America and the West only
temporarily resolved the malaise within their own societies when they could
rely upon their sworn enemies' system to give them some purpose. These books
should be read by those who are concerned about the dangerous drift of international
relations, and who wish to gain an insight into the depth of the problems
facing the Western elites today.
This is a book you cannot put down. Despite Tony Parker's off-putting description
of himself as a 'middle-class English agnostic pacifist', his chosen style
of letting his 64 interviewees tell their own stories makes for a powerful
read. Parker's professed aim is to counter the inaccurate media coverage
of Northern Ireland by allowing the ordinary people of Belfast to have their
voices heard 'for the first time'.
- May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast,
Tony Parker, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hbk
The polarisation of Belfast society is clear. Everyone identifies themselves
in relation to the national question. People live in Protestant or Catholic
areas. Many Protestants profess never to have met a Catholic and vice versa.
In his introduction Parker describes the tell-tale signs: 'Someone who's
given his dog a Scottish name is bound to be a Protestant...someone pressing
you to convey the positive side of life in Northern Ireland is probably
There's plenty here to assist those who see the war as a conflict between
British imperialism and Irish national liberation. Not least the admissions
by Loyalist paramilitary groups that they regularly receive information
and weapons from the British security forces and the statement from the
Royal Ulster Constabulary that they are engaged in a war. One IRA volunteer
tells Parker, 'you don't join the IRA for the same reasons soldiers join
your army, like a settled career, good money and good housing. Those are
the things you give up when you join the IRA'.
'Everyone's a story, eh Tony, aren't they for sure?', asks Eamon Collins,
a republican. 'And depending on who's telling it, it'll look different in
different ways.' Collins' comment sums up the problem with Parker's book.
It cannot see the wood for the trees. Concentrating exclusively upon individual
experiences, taken out of their wider context, leaves the substantial questions
about the causes of the war and the potential resolutions unanswered.
Giving a voice to both sides of the divide does little to shed light on
the causes of division or indeed the means of overcoming it. The British
media's enthusiastic reception for Parker's book reflects the current vogue
for presenting the Irish War as a religious feud defying rational explanation.
Veteran anti-war campaigner Noam Chomsky's Rethinking Camelot demolishes
the myth that president John F Kennedy would have pulled America out of
the Vietnam war but for his assassination in 1963. The myth of Kennedy's
secret wish to end the war was the story of Oliver Stone's three hour-long
paranoia epic JFK. In Stone's telling America's Central Intelligence
Agency got wind of the president's plans and had him killed.
- Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War,
and US Political Culture, Noam Chomsky, Verso, £9.95 pbk,
JFK summed up the nostalgia for a lost idealism of the Kennedy era,
thwarted by the conspiratorial efforts of America's military-industrial
complex. If only Kennedy had lived, the argument goes, America would have
been saved the anguish and lost innocence of the Vietnam War.
Chomsky traces back the origins of the withdrawal myth principally to Democratic
Party historian Arthur Schlesinger who, in his 1978 biography of the late
president's brother Robert, has John Kennedy taking advice from Douglas
MacArthur that it would be a '"mistake" to fight in South-east
Asia'. As Chomsky points out, this was a judgement that Schlesinger did
not advance in his memoir of John Kennedy's administration, 1000 Days,
where we read '1962 had not been a bad year:...aggression checked in
Vietnam'. And this was a description of America's escalation of the war
Chomsky meticulously traces the actual policy statements of the Kennedy
administration to show that there is no evidence of any secret plan or even
desire on Kennedy's part to withdraw. On the contrary all evidence points
to a determination to pursue whatever course was necessary to win.
Most pointedly Chomsky overturns the traditional view of the war as being
led by the military and opposed by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party
and the media. Rethinking Camelot provides ample evidence that the
media and the Democratic Party were overwhelmingly in favour of escalation
at a time when many military advisors, like MacArthur, counselled caution.
Only after the Viet Cong's spectacular successes in the Tet Offensive of
1968, when it seemed that the Americans would lose, did the media and the
liberal wing of the party criticise US involvement. Until that point, liberals
like the Kennedys and Arthur Schlesinger, as well as the US press corps,
outstripped even the generals in their demands for a decisive victory in
'We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change
were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance
of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much.'
- The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving
Radicalism, Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook, Vintage, £5.99
With that thought, former radicals Jeremy Seabrook, a contributor to the
New Statesman and Society, and Trevor Blackwell adopt the mantle
of conservatism. Indeed they criticise conservatives for having sold out
to change, disrupting ordinary communities in the name of economic progress.
'We are all abused children', they write, 'injured by the longing for permanence,
stability and continuity, whereas our experience is all of separation, dissolution
Cut the apron strings, you big sissies.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993