Book Report: American Diplomacy 1900-1950 by George F. Kennan (1960)

I read this book, its ninth printing from 1960, starting in February. I got bogged down around the time where Mr. Kennan began discussing what to do about the Soviet Union since I know how it turned out, but I buckled down and finished it last week.

The book starts with a brief recap of some of America’s oversights and missteps in foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century, including the Spanish American War, missteps in China and the Orient (which is what they called Asia until 1960 or so), World War I, and World War II. It also proffers some plans for how to deal with the Soviet Union, including a brief history of Russian communism and its relationship to the native population.

Wow, it’s an intelligent book written by someone with a slightly different point of view, but I never felt like throwing the book. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the contemporary slums of political thought, but at no point did Kennan offend me with his politics. He explains his logic and frames his arguments on historical fact and his interpretation of him. One suspects one could have a discussion about the policies of containment versus confrontation without raising one’s voice–or maybe one could, if one remembered how gentlemen did it.

However, as a lifelong diplomat (and future ambassador to the Soviet Union), Kennan’s approach sees diplomacy as the end-all, be-all of international relations. As such, he would prefer that military force only be used at the behest of the diplomats and only as a sort of mailed-gauntlet slap at an international cocktail party. Undoubtedly, he would fit into the sort of philosophy that perplexes Mark Helprin:

If you must go to war, do not do so hesitantly, with half a heart.

Instead, the stiffening of sinews and making like tigers might offend Kennan’s sensibilities or protocols of restraint, but that’s the nature of war. It is a last resort, it is very bad, and it must be prosecuted to its end.

Kennan argues passionately for engagement and containment with the Soviet Union, which ultimately worked to end communism. However, one must ask upon reviewing Kennan’s lessons from this book, originally a series of lectures, can we apply these lessons and these techniques to current rivals or enemies–China and non-stated organizations formed around radical Islam and other aggrieved groups. I would hesitate in trying, for the Soviet Union was a Western power, based in Western thought and philosophy, which we can easily understand. Modern and future opponents are not.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I bought the book for a quarter at some yard sale or estate sale in the midterm past (probably after 2000). Occasionally I do try to elevate myself through reading, and this book helped.