He Saw the Soviet Collapse Coming


September 05, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- At a time when the Bush administration and Western leaders are arguing about the character of Boris Yeltsin and the other figures emerging in what used to be the Soviet Union, and hoping to influence the upheaval there, advice from the man who foresaw the collapse of the U.S.S.R. 40 years ago deserves attention.

George Kennan was the young charge d'affaires in America's Moscow embassy in 1946 who wrote the ''long telegram'' that galvanized U.S. resistance to the Soviet postwar challenge and set out the principles for a policy of communism's ''containment,'' pursued by the United States during the four and a half decades which followed. He wrote the following in 1951, in the quarterly, Foreign Affairs.

'' . . . when Soviet power has run its course, or when its personalities and spirit begin to change (for the ultimate outcome could be of one or the other), let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of 'democratic.' Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.''

It remains sound advice. It reflects, however, a policy outlook that has always met with difficulties in the United States, because it renounces activism and counsels patience. Mr. Kennan was in trouble with the American political class all his professional life because he was, as he said, a ''gardener'' rather than a ''mechanic.'' He believed in the need to plant, cultivate, weed wait, in the relations of states and the political development of nations. ''Mechanics'' believe in action and intervention, in order to fix, build, reconstruct and if necessary, to destroy.

Henry Kissinger was much more to the American taste than George Kennan, even though Dr. Kissinger was the European-born Harvard theorist with a German accent (and a thoroughly American thirst for celebrity), while Mr. Kennan was a shy and introverted Midwesterner of Ulster Presbyterian origins, an American puritan.

Dr. Kissinger believed in action and spectacle: war, Christmas bombings, invasions (of Cambodia), dramatic secret/unsecret diplomacy (the China opening, the Paris Vietnam negotiations), coups d'etat (the Greek colonels), all with plenty of publicity. None of it came to anything useful; indeed, ever since, the United States has been engaged in undoing some of the worst consequences of those years. But it pleased at the time.

Mr. Kennan, meanwhile, was out of favor and left the Foreign Service in 1953 to write on Soviet-American relations at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He was unenthusiastically called back by the Kennedy administration to be ambassador to Yugoslavia, for two years.

He was scorned as a ''theologian,'' in the policy community jargon of the Kennedy and Johnson years, when he objected to America's course in Vietnam. In the 1970s and 1980s, neo-conservatives attacked him for advocating ''mere containment.''

However, it was George Kennan who all along was right small consolation though that may have been, during the years in which he feared that his beloved United States was wasting itself in self-indulgence and illusions about Russia and the irreversibility of totalitarianism.

He had held that the West would only ''win'' the Cold War by remaining faithful to its best self, and that totalitarianism was not only reversible but ''a disease to which all humanity is in some degree vulnerable.'' He never lost faith in the capacity of the Russian people to reawaken to that capacity for greatness their civilization had demonstrated.

Of communism, he said: ''There can be no genuine stability in any system which is based on evil and weakness in man's nature which attempts to live by man's degradation, feeding like a vulture on his anxieties, his capacity for hatred, his susceptibility to error, and his vulnerability to psychological manipulation. . . .

''(T)he day must come soon or late, and whether by gradual process or otherwise when that terrible system of power which has set a great people's progress back for decades and has lain like a shadow over the aspirations of all civilization will be distinguishable no longer as a living reality, but only as something surviving partly in recorded history and partly in the sediment of constructive, organic change which every great human upheaval, however unhappy its other manifestations, manages to deposit on the shelf of time.''

He was right. In this, his 87th year, George Kennan has the right to reflect, as few men can, that history has justified him.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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