August 23, 2002
Max Sawicky Has Been Duped!

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 in the context in which Kennan was writing, "sentimentality and day-dreaming" was code for "placing a high value on the alliance the U.S. had with Chiang Kaishek," and "altruism and world-benefaction" was code for "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."

How is it that a paragraph in which Kennan argues for the withdrawal of U.S. power from continental Asia is now being trotted out as a clarion call for the establishment of malevolent U.S. imperial domination? I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But do go and read all of Policy Planning Study 23, or at least click on the "MORE" button at the bottom to read the part of the document on Asia.

VII. Far East

My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. This applies, unfortunately, to the people in our country as well as to the Government.

It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.

Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.

This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising “leadership” in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.

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.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. The greatest of the Asiatic peoples—the Chinese and the Indians—have not yet even made a beginning at the solution of the basic demographic problem involved in the relationship between their food supply and their birth rate. Until they find some solution to this problem, further hunger, distress, and violence are inevitable. All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to “be liked” or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic. 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.

Of these three objectives, the one relating to Japan is the one where there is the greatest need for immediate attention on the part of our Government and the greatest possibility for immediate action. It should therefore be made the focal point of our policy for the Far East in the coming period.

Posted by DeLong at August 23, 2002 04:12 PM | Trackback

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Comments

Having read Kennan's report, my immediate reaction is "They don't make them like they used to". But more reasonably, is this fair? obviously we have to distinguish between the idiots who are currently running the country, and the equivalents of George Kennan writing secret policy documents that we won't see till fifty years from now.

So what is it, Brad? Based on your experience (though I guess you never had Top Secret clearance) do you have faith that there are smart people inside State with a pretty good idea of the nature of the real world, the realities of both soft and hard power, future environmental issues, where the Chinese are headed in technology etc, who are synthesizing all this to put together a coherent plan for the future. (Meaning, of course, that with luck in two more years we can boot out the current crop and start implementing such a plan.) Or are we doomed, with the top minds at State so deadened by politics that they see everything in terms of three-month time frames?

Posted by: Maynard Handley on August 23, 2002 06:12 PM

Hrummph hrummph. I notice you neglect the bit about "we got all the money, let's keep it that way." I look forward to hearing the benign explanation of that too. It would help me when I retire each evening, lulled to dreamland by the roar of F-16s overhead.

Posted by: Max on August 23, 2002 06:23 PM

Well, yes. But Kennan's argument is "we keep the money by *not* dropping atom bombs on Mao and *not* getting involved in a land war in Asia." And Kennan's argument is that all of the nice idealistic things are fine outside of Asia--that it is only in Asia that Realpolitik must triumph over Idealpolitik.

Kennan's paragraph is not the clarion call for imperial Realpolitiker overstretch in the interest of money-grubbing empire that certain betes noires claim that it is...


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 23, 2002 08:04 PM

I'm with Max. Since I'm a paranoid fanatic (trademark) that doesn't necessarily help Max much.

But Kennan's hyper-realistic reason for withdrawing from China can easily, on the face of the text with no reinterpretation or spinning at all, function as a justification for our supporting death squads and the like for several decades in Latin America, our support for a massacre of supposedly-communist Chinese in Indonesia in the sixties, and so on.

Kennan ultimately opposed to Vietnam war for the same realistic reasons, and at the time, drug-addled as I was, I thought he was a good guy.

Since then stuff has also come out about his concerns about the darker races taking over the US, etc.

So anyway, Max is right, though I hope the guy finds other defenders than me.

Posted by: zizka on August 23, 2002 08:22 PM

Kennan explores the yin and yang of Dirty Harry's realpolitik. "A man's got to know his limitations" versus "A man's go to do what a man's got to do".

Kennan called it wrong in several major particulars. Transjurisdictional violence did not play a major role in regulating population amon the Asiatic peoples; keeping a hand in the Two Chinas seems to have yielded on balance more liberties than constraints; and several political economies developed along lines less than fully alien to our understanding.

Of course the conceit that molding the whole globe to our liking would be wise use of our extraordinary endowments is a familiar temptation, and Kennan gets this right, whatever his ethical frame of reference. History is The Trickster, as always.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on August 23, 2002 10:05 PM

There is the homely maxim that a simple explanation beats a complicated one. In this case, your explication sounds like people finding crucifixion symbols in Hemingway. I believe you on the context for the final part and China. But the first bit -- the words between 'Furthermore' and 'security' -- is just too obvious. This was a classified document. Why speak in code?

"Kennan's paragraph is not the clarion call for imperial Realpolitiker overstretch in the interest of money-grubbing empire that certain betes noires claim that it is... "

It will do until something better comes along.

Baaa.

Posted by: Max on August 24, 2002 10:05 AM

Kennon was simply urging a disengagement from continental Asia for strategic reasons. I see nothing more, nothing sinister. Containing the spread of communism by maintaining strength in Japan and the Philippeans was quite reasonable in 1948.

Posted by: on August 24, 2002 10:26 AM

Thanks, Brad, for pointing this out. I've heard this quote before, and always sensed a disconnect between it and other things Kennan said later. Had I been alive in 1948, I would have been closer to Kennan's position than to that of his opponents.

Aside from being couched in the slightly more racist context that was still common in 1948 but almost unspeakable after 1968, there's not that much to object to here. Yes, he talks about keeping the wealth disparity, but his chosen method for doing that is not to flaunt the disparity but to be very quiet about it. I don't think he'd be a free-market evangelist today.

Let's put it this way: if he were alive today he'd be a strong opponent of the "Bush Doctrine,"
war with Iraq and all that other crap.

Posted by: Steve Cohen on August 25, 2002 04:39 AM

I want to mention something else. Kennan writes: "arrangements whereby a union of Western European nations would undertake jointly the economic development and exploitation of the colonial and dependent areas of the African continent".

Significantly, when Noam Chomsky cites Kennan (in World Orders Old and New, for instance) he only mentions the word "exploitation", and not "economic development".

Of course, looking backwards, we can only observe that there was not much economic development in Africa, and much exploitation.

So what was is? Was Kennan really proposing the exploitation of Africa by Europa, with a little help from the US?

Posted by: Ivan janssens, Belgium on August 27, 2002 03:26 AM

In fact Kennan is alive today (he's 98), and he has spoken against the Bush Doctrine and war with Iraq, in a recent interview with the New Yorker.

Regarding the "economic development and exploitation" of Africa: Anders Stephanson discusses this in Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy. The proposal was studied for a year and a half, then dropped -- the Western European countries were in no shape to contemplate any kind of major effort in Africa, whether exploitative or not. (In Kennan's defense, Stephanson notes that Ernest Bevin made a similar proposal.)

For more of Kennan's writings, see George Kennan on the Web.

Posted by: Russil Wvong on October 15, 2002 10:06 AM
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