Monday, October 15

Tear-Styned Letter

[Text of the Telegram here. Text of the more-widely read parsing for Foreign Affairs here.]

VIA Roy, where my comment threatened to match the 8000 (not 5000) words of George Kennan's Amazing Telegram, Mark Steyn:
Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter in the last years of the Cold War, posed an interesting question on “The Corner” the other day. He noted that on February 22, 1946, a mere six months after the end of the Second World War, George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat in Moscow, sent his famous 5,000-word telegram that laid out the stakes of the Cold War and the nature of the enemy, and that that “Long Telegram” in essence shaped the way America thought about the conflict all the way up to the fall of the Berlin Wall four decades later. And what Mr. Robinson wondered was this: “Here we are today, more than six years after 9/11. Does anyone believe a new ‘Long Telegram’ has yet been written? And accepted throughout the senior levels of the government?”

Answer: No. Because, if it had, you’d hear it echoed in public — just as the Long Telegram provided the underpinning of the Truman Doctrine a year later. Kennan himself had differences with Truman and successive presidents over what he regarded as their misinterpretation, but, granted all that, most of what turned up over the next 40 years — the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, Soviet subversion in Africa, and Europe, Grenada, and Afghanistan — is consistent with the conflict as laid out by one relatively minor State Department functionary decades earlier.

Interesting that Grenada, our historic reenactment of D-Day which was spoiled when Castro could muster only 82 engineers to play the part of Festung Europa, makes the cut but Korea, the first large-scale blunder of the Truman Doctrine, does not. Nor does our non-action in the Chinese civil war, which led to domestic recriminations about who had "lost" China--to the Soviets, who were presumed to be pulling the global strings at that point.

Neither had much to do with the Soviets, and nothing to do with the imaginary Peter the Great Meets 'Marxian' Ideology fantasies of the Cold War warriors (Truman was a devotee of the "political testament of Peter the Great", a sort of Protocols of the Elders of Zion for Russophobes). The Vietnamese had managed to fight against colonizers (it is, basically, their history) for the previous century without any help from the Russians; it was forthcoming only after the US managed to get itself bogged down (thanks, in no small part, to that influential telegram). I get tired of having to type this every few weeks; it'd be nice if Steyn and his ilk could crack a book for once. Soviet "subversion" in Africa pales in comparison to a century-and-a-half of Western European colonial machinations, and, anyway, buttressing your point by claiming they were doing exactly what we were doing, except on the other side, simply reveals a design flaw. They were doing the same thing we're doing in Afghanistan as well--by which I mean "fighting as Islamic insurgency", not "losing".

We might, then, recklessly offer that the Nostradamus aura of the Long Telegram owes rather more to the wishful interpretations of believers than the text itself. Sorta like, oh, Nostradamus.

We might also look at the claim that Kennan disagreed with successive administration over what "he regarded" as misinterpretation. Kennan parsed the telegram for Foreign Affairs at the urging of James Forrestal, with the intention of bringing the Evil Empire argument to the public at large. Anonymously. The reader can see what subtleties Kennan himself erased. As usual--as it is today--the public wasn't being asked to weigh in on the issue. It was being asked to close its eyes and sign a check.

As for the substitution of military for economic confrontation, that is not a matter of "misinterpretation". It's a matter of the government--beginning with the Truman administration--doing as it pleased, doing what drew the most power--and was most financially rewarding--to the people doing the deciding. Kennan's telegram didn't convince anybody. It covered them.

(Here's another little item you can look up: US military doctrine of the 1950s never envisioned a Soviet military juggernaut rolling to the Channel. We knew that the Soviet manpower and economic base was staggered by WWII and would be a generation in recovering, and that our conventional forces would have been enough to push them back to their borders if the need arose. And, as the Telegram makes explicit, we knew whose side history was on, and it wasn't Stalin's. Presumably Steyn thinks keeping this fact from the American people, the better to have them willingly foot the bill for clinically insane levels of conventional and nuclear forces, the better to "contain" what was not going anywhere even had it wanted to, is another admirable Cold War accomplishment. In which case I suggest we send him a bill for his share.)

Which would bring us up-to-date.
Why can’t we do that today?

Well, one reason is we’re not really comfortable with ideology, either ours or anybody else’s. Insofar as we have an ideology it’s a belief in the virtues of “multiculturalism,” “tolerance,” “celebrate diversity” — a bumper-sticker ideology that is, in effect, an anti-ideology which explicitly rejects the very idea of drawing distinctions between your beliefs and anybody else’s.

Less sentimental chaps may (at least privately) regard the above as bunk, and prefer to place their faith in economics and technology. In Britain in the 1960s, the political class declared that the country “needed” mass immigration. When the less enlightened lower orders in northern England fretted that they would lose their towns to the “Pakis,” they were dismissed as paranoid racists. The experts were right in a narrow, economic sense: The immigrants became mill workers and bus drivers. But the paranoid racists were right, too: The mills closed anyway, and mosques sprouted in their place; and Oldham and Dewesbury adopted the arranged cousin-marriage traditions of Mirpur in Pakistan; and Yorkshire can now boast among its native sons the July 7 London Tube bombers. The experts thought economics trumped all; the knuckledragging masses had a more basic unease, convinced that it’s culture that’s determinative.

So then here's the thing: maybe you "less sentimental chaps" could stop cleaning your guns (both literal and metaphorical) long enough to look up, take note of how badly you and you alone have fucked this up, and try to construct an argument instead of flinging around pathetic crap like "waaahh, the bad multiculturalists won't let us win". In the days following 9/11 your boy had a 90% approval rating, and even if a lot of that was wishful thinking it's still higher than Tolerance is ever likely to score. Plenty of us asked at the time to hear even a bald-faced propaganda War on Terra version of the Long Telegram, but none was forthcoming. That was a choice, not an oversight; you wanted partisan advantage, you wanted a war or wars to reshape the Middle East in your ideological image, you didn't want imput from traitors. And you knew the public wouldn't buy it had it been explained ahead of time, in the same way that an earlier generation bought the Evil Empire argument but largely rejected the specifics of Korea or Vietnam. The difference is that this time anyone with any honest sense of history knew the name of the game before the whistle blew, and this time there was no pretense that The Enemy had anything like equal military footing or constituted a global threat. You didn't make the argument because you couldn't, and, most of all, because you didn't want to. And now that it's been exposed as vaporous, and poorly managed into the bargain, you decide maybe you'd like a do-over. It's a measure, sir, of the results of sixty years of phony history that we now can ask, without a trace of humor, "You and whose Army?"


dms said...

Okay, this is rather embarrassing, but I know nothing about history. It's never been my strong suit, and whenever I studied history, US mostly, the class never made it to the 20th century. So, my question/request is: could you recommend a couple of books I could read (the ole history for dummies routine) that might provide a good foundation?


Porlock Junior said...

Thanks for the pointers to the Cold War Liberal Bible, which of course one had heard of but never come anywhere near reading. Never realized how completely different in organization and address the FA "parsing" of it was.

This is good, from the telegram:
"For it, the vast fund of objective fact about human society is not, as with us, the measure against which outlook is constantly being tested and re-formed, but a grab bag from which individual items are selected arbitrarily and tendenciously to bolster an outlook already preconceived."
Almost seems familiar somehow, though "quote mining" hadn't been officially named back then.

This analysis of all that the Soviet Empire was going to do because of its internal structure is rather different from his other famous passage, which I quote on the notion that comments are a good place to drift off topic. Here, then, is the other half of the foundation of the Cold War:

"...we have about 50% of the world's wealth buy 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."

Memorandum, Feb. 24, 1948; in Department of State Publication 8849, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, Volume 1.

In the good old days, right-wingers at least had the brains to understand the closing of that passage; and the pride to scorn (most of the time) to make a cover story for their policies by blathering about bringing democracy to poor oppressed places.

BTW Kennan did not at all like the idea of getting dragged into the "Palestine controversy" to the detriment of smooth relations with the locals who were sitting on so much oil.