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Kennan and Solzhenitsyn

Jordan Michael Smith has reviewed [1] Gaddis’ George F. Kennan in the new issue of TAC [2]. It’s a very good review, and Smith makes several valuable observations about how Gaddis and Kennan increasingly diverged from one another in their views in the last three decades. Smith points to the growing cultural pessimism of Kennan in his later years:

When the Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kennan lamented that they were only motivated by the “hopes of getting more jobs, making more money, and bathing in the fleshpots of the West … was this, over the long term, what we really wanted?”

Kennan had always been curmudgeonly, harshly critical of modern life and industrialization. But these views had once been outweighed by affection for American virtues and strengths. In his later years, there were only laments about the pornography, anti-intellectualism, and commercialism that characterize the contemporary West.

Why do I bring this up? Because I am struck once again how closely Kennan’s view of the U.S. and the West as a whole matched up with that of his occasional antagonist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When I received my copy of Gaddis’ book, I was curious what he had to say about the feud between the two men, because it still seems a little incredible to me that one of the foremost Russia experts in America should have been so much at odds with the great writer. After all, it was Kennan who once described Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” Gaddis cites this quote from Kennan, and then asks, “Why, then, was Kennan becoming less sympathetic to the Kremlin’s domestic critics as the attention they attracted, during the early 1970s, began to grow?” Gaddis explains Kennan’s increased support for detente policy during these years as the main reason, but also notes that Kennan came to see the people agitating on behalf of Soviet dissidents as dangerous opportunists:

Like John Quincy Adams, Kennan doubted the feasibility of trying to right wrongs committed by foreign governments against their own citizens.

Because the stakes in U.S.-Soviet relations were so high, agitating on behalf of dissidents had the potential to lead to disastrous outcomes.

When Solzhenitsyn passed away a little over three years ago, I had re-read his famous Harvard commencement address [3] and noticed [4] that he had singled out Kennan for special criticism. At one point, he named Kennan as an example of Western short-sightedness:

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: “We cannot apply moral criteria to politics.” Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute evil in the world. Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the scale and the meaning of events.

Unfortunately for Solzhenitsyn, this was a complete misunderstanding of Kennan. Indeed, in light of Kennan’s criticisms of Western moral decline, it is amazing to think that Solzhenitsyn once held Kennan up as an advocate of moral relativism. As I was discussing last week [5], there was a great difference between Kennan’s adherence to moral principles and his hostility to political moralizing designed to whip up the public to support confrontational and reckless policies. By 1978, Kennan was strongly committed to the idea of nuclear disarmament, which seemed disastrous to Solzhenitsyn. In the end, the two prophets ended up speaking past one another, and neither of them was ever fully at home in his own country.

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2 Comments To "Kennan and Solzhenitsyn"

#1 Comment By Jim Dooley On January 9, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

Solzhenitsyn was a Russian in exile. His ultimate concern was Russia and the ideology that he viewed as both incompatible and destructive of Holy Russia. I can understand, given the turmoil in the United States in the mid 70’s, how Solzhenitsyn might have found himself questioning the resolve of the US to stay the course in the Cold War. As I like to say, the 60’s bloomed in 1968; I’m not sure when it faded. Perhaps it is still fading. I would imagine that Solzhenitsyn’s and Kennan’s understanding of appropriate limits to US policy would naturally vary depending on circumstances. Circumstances allowed Kennan to be the more sober minded of the two, from our viewpoint anyway, but both could tell a cinder when they saw one.
I note that Bill Odom (RIP) had a congenial relationship with Solzhenitsyn. I would point out that he was an early and vociferous opponent of our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Odom understood the fundamental lunacy of carrying forward the Cold War metaphor as the governor of our policies in the Middle East. It is a lunacy that unfortunately seems to be untreatable.

#2 Comment By tbraton On January 10, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

I agree with Jim Dooley’s remarks, and I would point out the following paragraph from his 1978 Harvard Commencement speech:

“However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that the way should be left open for national, or Communist, self-determination in Vietnam (or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity). But in fact, members of the US antiwar movement became accomplices in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in the genocide and the suffering today imposed on thirty million people there. Do these convinced pacifists now hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American intelligentsia lost its nerve and as a consequence the danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your short-sighted politician who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. Small Vietnam had been a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if the full might of America suffered a full-fledged defeat at the hands of a small Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?”

As I recall, Kennan was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, while Solzhenitsyn probably thought the war should still be going on today. There is no doubt in my mind who I would want giving me foreign policy advice when it comes to the U.S. Vietnam was a war we never should have gotten involved in in the first place, and we now know that our entry was based on pure lies and deception (see Gulf of Tonkin Resolution).

Solzhenitsyn may have been a great man but strictly for Russian use. After all, he seems to have been uncomfortable with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (” This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very foundation of thought in modern times. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was born in the Renaissance and has found political expression since the Age of Enlightenment. It became the basis for political and social doctrine and could be called rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and practiced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of all.”).

He was apparently unaware that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the two documents which most formed the U.S., were essentially products of the Enlightenment. His relevance to the U.S. seems to escape me.