When George F Kennan was named director of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (PPS) in 1947, he had little knowledge of, or interest in, the Far East. Kennan’s diplomatic experience was limited to Eastern and Central Europe and Russia. His influence in policy-making circles in Washington stemmed from his authorship of the “Long Telegram” from the US Embassy in Moscow in February 1946, and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the journal Foreign Affairs (using the pseudonym “X”) in 1947.
In those two works, Kennan provided the rationale for the US post-World War II policy of containment, which he explained as the
adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.
The policy was “designed to confront the Russians,” he wrote,
with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.
US Secretary of State George Marshall created the PPS in 1947 to institutionalize long-term global thinking and planning within a bureaucracy that too often approached the world region-by-region and country-by-country. Marshall chose Kennan to direct the PPS because of his diplomatic experience, intellectual independence, and his ability to write with nuance and clarity.
As Paul J Heer notes in his meticulously researched and well-crafted book Mr. X and the Pacific, Kennan had briefly ventured into East Asia policy analysis while lecturing at the National War College in 1946. Kennan’s directorship of the PPS coincided with the last years of the Chinese Civil War, the US occupation of Japan, the outbreak of the Korean War, and the beginning of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Kennan, the author contends, played a “profoundly influential role” with respect to US policy towards China and Japan. His views on Korea and Vietnam, however, fell mostly on deaf ears.
Heer, a former intelligence analyst with the US Central Intelligence Agency who teaches at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, traces Kennan’s initial views of East Asia to the influence of John Van Antwerp MacMurray, who served as US Minister to China from 1925 to 1929, and who in 1935 wrote a seminal memorandum entitled “Developments Affecting American Policy in the Far East.”
MacMurray believed that Japan, not China, was the most consequential nation in East Asia and that war between the US and Japan would be inevitable unless the US discarded its emotional attachment to China and recognized the limits of American power to influence developments in the region.
Kennan read MacMurray’s memorandum in the late 1940s and called it “extremely thoughtful and prophetic.” He later wrote to MacMurray and praised the memorandum as
an extraordinary work of analysis and insight … [that] … has done a great deal to clarify my own thinking on Far Eastern problems.
What Kennan admired most about MacMurray was his unsentimental, unemotional, strategic approach to the world.
Kennan’s contemporary “mentor” on East Asian affairs was John Paton Davies, one of the State Department’s “China hands” and a PPS colleague. Heer calls Davies one of the “scapegoats for the supposed ‘loss of China’” because of his controversial recommendations for cutting-off aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) and collaborating with the Chinese communists. Davies, according to Heer, thought that a communist victory in China’s civil war was inevitable and that US policy should seek to exploit the tensions that were sure to arise between Stalin and Mao.
Kennan believed that the United States had no vital interests in continental East Asia, including China, Korea, and Indochina. Instead, as MacMurray envisioned, Kennan thought Japan should be the cornerstone of US policy in the region, with US forces based offshore on the Ryukyu Islands and, perhaps, the Philippines. Kennan’s approach today would be called “offshore balancing”; then it was called “perimeter defense”, and it relied on naval and air power to preserve and protect US interests in the region.
Heer notes that Kennan applied containment very narrowly in East Asia, which explains his views and policy positions on China, Korea, and Vietnam. Indeed, Kennan began distancing himself from containment as implemented by the Truman administration not long after his “X” article appeared in Foreign Affairs. He agreed with some of columnist Walter Lippmann’s criticisms of containment, which Lippmann published in book form under the title The Cold War. Kennan opposed the formation of NATO and called for a unified and neutral Germany. When Marshall was replaced as Secretary of State by Dean Acheson, Kennan’s influence within policy-making circles waned.
Kennan later said that he intended containment to be effected primarily by political instead of military means, forgetting perhaps his repeated use of the word “counter-force” in the “X” article.
The United States, according to Kennan, had neither the need nor the capability to contain communism in East Asia. He did not believe that China would long remain subservient to the Soviet Union, and he viewed Korea and Vietnam as outside America’s defense perimeter.
Yet, he initially supported President Truman’s military response to North Korea’s invasion of the South (though he opposed US forces operating above the 38th parallel), and later supported early US efforts to maintain the independence of non-communist South Vietnam for reasons of “credibility” and “prestige” (though he later became an outspoken critic of the war).
Heer is critical of Kennan for not resolving this
tension between his assessment of what was strategically important to the United States and his simultaneous view that US credibility and prestige should not be compromised.
But this is not a resolvable dilemma. Credibility and prestige in international relations are amorphous concepts, but they are real and they matter. Kennan to his credit understood that.
He also understood and often emphasized the limits of American power, especially in East Asia. “Kennan understood,” Heer writes,
that one of the key challenges was recognizing and acknowledging the real and potential limits on US interests, influence, and leverage in the region.
As Heer notes, Kennan was not always right about East Asian political developments, but he used his formidable analytical skills and unsentimental approach to world affairs to develop a strategy for dealing with the region and its peoples.
Containment worked better and was less costly in lives and treasure in Europe than in Asia. Kennan deserves some credit for the policy’s success in Europe and some blame for its failures in East Asia.
Today, East Asia and the Pacific are once again at the center of world affairs. Paul Heer’s insightful look into George Kennan’s views of the region during the early years of the Cold War can help us better understand and cope with the geopolitical challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.