The Magazine

Truman Defeats Kennan

The lines are drawn for the postwar world.

Oct 23, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 06 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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The First Cold Warrior

Harry Truman, Containment,

and the Remaking of

Liberal Internationalism

by Elizabeth Edwards Spalding

Kentucky, 336 pp., $40

In June 1941, just after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, Senator Harry S. Truman commented: "If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances. Neither of them think anything of their pledged word."

The sentiment was common at the time. Nonetheless, it would haunt Truman after he unexpectedly became president on April 12, 1945, and found himself forced to deal with a Soviet nation that had become an important and oft-sentimentalized wartime ally. In later years, a generation of New Left historians would cite Truman's off-the-cuff remark as evidence of a reactionary and mean-spirited attitude that led to a long, needless Cold War. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding sees Truman's words as evidence of his insight: Her assertion that he was "the first Cold Warrior" is meant as a tribute. He was, she believes, the authentic author of containment.

Most of us probably think containment was developed by George F. Kennan a year or so after the end of World War II--first in a "long telegram" from the American embassy in Moscow, then in the anonymous "X" article ("The Sources of Soviet Conduct") for Foreign Affairs about a year later. Spalding reminds us that the containment Kennan, a classical "realist," advocated would have been weak and ineffectual. The containment that Harry Truman implemented--based on ideological politics and a "universalist" doctrine--was robust, got the job done, and stemmed directly from Truman's innermost convictions.

Foreign policy realism, once a doctrine of arch-conservatives such as Metternich and Bismarck, has been in bad odor among American conservatives for a generation now. Spalding is one of many intellectuals on the right who have found forceful advocacy of democracy at once exhilarating and effective. They contrast what they believe to be the defeatist compromising of realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to Ronald Reagan's blunt ideological Cold War-ending rhetoric. In this book, Kennan is a proxy for Nixon and Kissinger, Truman a proxy for Reagan.

The author, a political scientist trained in foreign policy, international relations theory, and political thought, concentrates on the intellectual basis of the Cold War. Her central concern is an implied contest of ideas between Truman and Kennan. Truman prevails as surely and as surprisingly as he prevailed over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948.

George F. Kennan, who died last year at the age of 101, was for a half-century a hallowed name among scholars of American foreign relations. Cousin of an important late 19th-century writer on Russia, educated at Princeton, trained to be a Russian specialist in the Foreign Service of the 1920s, he was minister-counselor at the American embassy in Moscow by the end of World War II. A "long telegram" he sent from there to Washington in February 1946 provided a new and much-needed paradigm to an American foreign policy establishment befuddled by manifestations of discord and hostility from the Soviets.

The Soviet Union, motivated by a combination of ideology and historic Russian expansionism, Kennan asserted, was implacably expansionist and irredeemably hostile to the Western world. Unlike Nazi Germany, however, it had no timetable. "Impervious to logic of reason . . . it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does--when strong resistance is countered at any point."

Read by administration officials from the president on down, the telegram was the catalyst for a policy of containing Soviet ambitions, primarily in Europe and the Middle East. A little over a year later, President Truman asked Congress for a package of aid to Greece and Turkey, both threatened by Soviet designs. He also proclaimed the Truman Doctrine: "[I]t must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

Kennan, by then back in Washington and head of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, approved of the aid program. His concern, which remained private until he left the Foreign Service, centered on Truman's doctrine. He later wrote that it "placed our aid to Greece in the framework of a universal policy" and established an open-ended commitment. What Truman saw as a ringing endorsement of democratic self-determination, Kennan envisioned as a millennial declaration that severed necessary and inevitable relationships between ends and means.