NATO expansion a 'fateful error' Warning: One of the most respected authorities on U.S. foreign policy, George F. Kennan, says going ahead over Russian objections is a grave mistake.

Sun Journal

March 23, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

He helped set up the first U.S. embassy in the Soviet Union. During Stalin's purge trials, he whispered a simultaneous translation of the proceedings into the ear of the clueless American ambassador. Later, when he became ambassador himself, he discovered a KGB bug in the hollowed-out American seal on his office wall.

enormous sympathies. He was a man who saw things too deeply to join any political cause."

Calvin Coolidge was president when George Frost Kennan signed up for the Foreign Service. He was a young man from Milwaukee who had majored in history at Princeton.

After two years of watching the Soviet Union from the then-independent Baltic republics and two more years studying Russian language and history, Kennan reported for duty in the new Moscow embassy in 1933, shortly after the United States recognized the Soviet government.

He spent most of the next 20 years overseas, mostly in Russia; he and his Norwegian-born wife, Annelise, had four children. Finally, in 1952, he was appointed ambassador to Moscow.

After only five months, during a visit to Berlin, Kennan spoke bitterly to reporters about Soviet treatment of Western diplomats in the tension of Stalin's last years.

They were treated, he said, the way he'd been treated while interned by the Nazis a decade earlier, "except that in Moscow we are at liberty to go out and walk the streets under guard."

The Soviet newspaper Pravda, which had previously denounced Kennan as a spy and warmonger, now called him a "slanderer disguised as a diplomat." The Soviet government refused to let him return to his post.

After months in limbo, he retired from the Foreign Service and retreated to the Institute for Advanced Study. Except for 1961-1963, when he served as ambassador to Yugoslavia, Kennan has been writing and lecturing ever since, with Princeton as his base.

But it was the "X" article -- published anonymously because he was a State Department official, but with a style that quickly betrayed its authorship -- that made Kennan's reputation.

Titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," it explored Russian history and Marxist ideology in 15 erudite pages before recommending to the U.S. "a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

The article was prescient on the seeds of the Soviet collapse, virtually anticipating the phenomenon of Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But within a few years, Kennan was complaining that his idea of containment, meant as a political and economic policy, had been misunderstood as a military policy. He opposed the creation of NATO. He said nuclear arms should be viewed as only "a temporary and regrettable expedient." He proposed the simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet troops from Europe.

Ever wary of being seen as soft on Communists, former President Harry S. Truman dismissed Kennan's advice in 1958: "He made a good ambassador when he had someone to tell him what to do."

But the previous year his book of history, "Russia Leaves the War," had won the Pulitzer Prize, as would a volume of his "Memoirs" in 1967. His eloquence in a score of subsequent books cemented his reputation as a pre-eminent scholar of Russia and its relations with the United States, as well as a sometimes cranky critic of modern life, from the rise of the automobile to the decline of the domestic servant.

Zakaria praises Kennan as "brilliant and a beautiful writer" but says Kennan has always been "deeply uncomfortable with power and the exercise of power. Even when he provides the intellectual underpinning for a policy, he's often uncomfortable with its implementation."

Kennan's dispute with NATO enlargement is that it has no intellectual underpinning.

"I think it was a very poorly prepared, poorly thought-through plan that was never seriously discussed," he said last week. "We were just told that this decision has been made and it's irrevocable. That's no way to approach a momentous decision like this."

Fifty years ago, he had denounced Soviet ideology as "pseudo-science" and "fiction" that required an external enemy to justify dictatorship at home.

Now that the ideology has crumbled, he said, the NATO expansion could restore the external enemy and inadvertently erode Russia's nascent democracy.

"Russia is in a tragic situation, and I think its future is a toss-up," he said. "I rather expect that they will begin to settle down. But I see great danger if they're completely put at odds with the West."

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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