Acheson Vs. Kennan

Russia, the Atom and the West.
by George F. Kennan.
Harper. 116 pp. $2.50.

Power and Diplomacy.
by Dean Acheson.
Harvard University Press. 137 pp. $3.00.


When, in the course of his lectures over the BBC last December, George Kennan proposed that “a general withdrawal of American, British, and Russian armed power from the heart of the Continent” might reduce the tensions between the East and the West and increase the chances that Europe’s fortunes might be worked out peaceably, his words had a sensational impact in the countries of the Western alliance and revived interest in, and won new supporters for, the idea of “disengagement.” They were received with less enthusiasm here, not only in the ranks of the administration but even within his own party. In particular, they brought forth a pungent rejoinder from Mr. Dean Acheson, who went so far as to accuse Mr. Kennan of failure to understand the realities of power.

Mr. Kennan’s lectures have now been published, and anyone who reads them will not find it difficult to understand why Mr. Acheson was so exercised. They are marked by the eloquence that has always been the distinguishing characteristic of Mr. Kennan’s writing, and which is particularly moving here as he warns of the terrible dangers that accompany every step we take in our foreign policy. But in cold print his proposals for disengagement are so vague that one is never sure exactly what it is he has in mind; they are often supported by nothing but his personal assurances that they will work; and they seem, indeed, calculated to encourage the remnants of isolationism in this country.

The best way of illustrating this point is to take a passage that is central to his argument. Mr. Kennan insists that we must get over the “obsession that the Russians are yearning to attack and occupy Western Europe.” The Soviet threat, he argues, is a combined military and political one, “with the accent on the political.” If there were no American or British troops in Europe, the “problem of defense for the continental nations would be primarily one of the internal health and discipline of the respective national societies, and the manner in which they were organized to prevent the conquest and subjugation of their national life by unscrupulous and foreign-inspired minorities in their midst.” To deal with this, militia units rather than regular military forces would suffice, for “it is on the front of police realities, not on regular military battlefields, that the threat of Russian Communism must primarily be met.” Now, there is something in this, of course; but, if we remember that in the one case where American troops were in fact “disengaged” from an area of strategic importance—that is, in Korea—the result was not internal subversion but Communist aggression from without, the argument is not entirely persuasive. It is rendered even less so when Mr. Kennan, having declared regular military units unnecessary, immediately suggests that the militia be trained so as to “prepare them not only to offer whatever overt resistance might be possible to a foreign invader but also to constitute the core of a civil resistance movement on any territory that might be overrun by the enemy.” The accent does not, in short, seem to be on the political at all; and, within the confines of one paragraph, Mr. Kennan appears to have reversed his position completely.



He continues with a mystifying passage in which he argues that the militia should be so disposed as to defend the country, not at the frontier, but “at every village crossroads.” “The purpose,” he explains, “would be to place the country in a position where it could face the Kremlin and say to it: ‘Look here, you may be able to overrun us, if you are unwise enough to attempt it, but you will have a small profit from it: we are in a position to assure that not a single Communist or other person likely to perform your political business will be available to you for this purpose; you will find here no adequate nucleus of a puppet regime; on the contrary, you will be faced with the united and organized hostility of an entire nation. . . .’” One wonders just what part of the world Mr. Kennan is thinking of. Is there the slightest possibility of any government in Western Europe being able in the foreseeable future to make such claims? A moment’s reflection on the present political situation in France, Germany, or Italy should be enough to show that there is not. Western Europe is not exactly crowded with village Hampdens; and, this being true, Mr. Kennan’s further statement, that he can give his “personal assurance that any country which is in a position” to speak to Moscow in the language suggested above “will have little need of foreign garrisons to assure its immunity from Soviet attack,” rather loses its force.

Mr. Kennan never makes entirely clear the extent of the area which he believes should be evacuated by American and British troops; and at times it almost seems as if he is thinking of a total American disengagement—a withdrawal not only from the European continent but from other areas of conflict as well. Early in this book, he makes the curious statement: “To my own countrymen, who have often asked me where best to apply the hand to counter the Soviet threat, I have . . . had to reply: to our own American failings, to the things we are ashamed of . . . to the racial problem, to the conditions in our big cities, to the problems of education and environment for our young people. . . .” Coupled with his surprising lack of enthusiasm for American economic aid to undeveloped areas, this lends an unfortunate—and surely unintended—isolationist flavor to parts of his argument. It is probable that what he really has in mind is the withdrawal of troops from Central Europe alone, the clearing of an area like that delineated in the Rapacki plan. Assuming this, is it not also true, however, that once an American withdrawal began, even from this limited area, the pressures at home and abroad would mount until it was total? And, once it was total, would it not be final? And who would benefit from that? Even if the Soviets withdrew within their own boundaries, they would not have far to travel to return; and they would not even have to return to bring pressure to bear upon their Western neighbors, who would no longer have NATO to protect them. For there should be no doubt that, if the United States withdrew its forces from Europe, NATO—already weak—would collapse.



The differences between Mr. Kennan’s approach to these matters and Mr. Acheson’s have been made clear in the Secretary’s recent attacks upon the whole idea of disengagement; but they are to be seen also in the lectures which Mr. Acheson delivered last October at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and which have now been published under the title Power and Diplomacy. In this volume, Mr. Acheson operates on the assumption that no trust can be placed in Soviet restraint or Soviet promises. “All that the Soviet regime can accomplish in Europe, without risk, it will attempt.” “One cannot,” he adds, “argue with those who believe otherwise, so strong is the will to believe. But since Hungary the number of these must be small.” What this means, of course, is that we must continue to show the Russians that we are determined to oppose any aggression on their part; and this necessitates our patching up the wounds of Suez, redoubling our efforts to advance the unification of Western Europe, and maintaining, and increasing, our military strength. Mr. Acheson is no happier than Mr. Kennan about our increasing reliance upon nuclear arms, and his doubts extend to tactical nuclear weapons and to atomic sharing; but he is insistent that the Western countries can afford to build conventional forces strong enough to increase the ability of NATO to discourage Soviet aggression.

When he talks about NATO, moreover, the former Secretary of State—unlike Mr. Kennan—thinks primarily of its military potential and believes that its future effectiveness will continue to depend upon the actual presence of American troops in Europe and upon the inclusion of German contingents. The neutralization of Germany—which is always considered the central part of any disengagement scheme—he regards as an illusion. History has no examples of a power as great as Germany forswearing foreign political ambition; and a reunited Germany that started its existence as a neutral state in a continent from which the Americans and the British had disappeared would probably end by succumbing to Soviet pressures and blandishments. But this need happen, Mr. Acheson suggests, only if we abandon the policy which we have followed since 1947. There are aspects of that policy, of course, that are in need of improvement. Mr. Acheson argues in favor of a much more ambitious program of foreign aid than we have in the past been willing to support and of an increased awareness of the benefits that can accrue from really large-scale assistance to countries like Brazil and India. Unlike Mr. Kennan, who seems to be worried by the lack of gratitude we receive for our aid, Mr. Acheson insists that our central concern should be to create an operating economic system for the non-Communist world, and that this involves swallowing our irritation over Mr. Nehru’s foibles and getting on with the job.

It should be clear that the basic difference between these two books is one of mood. Mr. Kennan seems to be disillusioned by the inadequacies of our policy and appears to feel that only a radical change in direction can avert disaster. Mr. Acheson is willing to admit the desirability of amendment and the necessity of greater effort; but he is confident that the road we have followed is the right one and that it should be followed further, despite the risks ahead. One cannot guarantee favorable results, but “on the other hand, those who insist on basing foreign policy on sure things are likely to end up with no policy at all. . . . The development of productive power in the non-Communist world, with complementary efforts to increase all that makes for political cohesion, is the course most likely to bring about a workable international system and a stable power relationship. The probability of achieving all this, given full endeavor on our part, ranges from fair to excellent.”



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