Thursday, February 16, 2012

Did containment pull the world "back from the brink of nuclear destruction"?

Added 2/19: Two other relevant items: here and here.

Readers of this blog -- all one-and-a-half of them -- may recall that I earlier made some reference to Gaddis's biography of Kennan (and reported briefly on a talk that I heard Gaddis give about the book). Since then I have had a chance to half-read half-skim Kissinger's very long review of the book in the NYT Bk Rev (which contained some sonorous generalizations and, while saying admiring things about Kennan, argued that his effectiveness as policymaker/diplomat was undercut by his "innate perfectionism" [something no one would ever accuse Kissinger of, I think]).

I also printed out but never properly read Louis Menand's review of the book in The New Yorker (to which a commenter here had earlier taken exception).

Just now I ran across another, shorter review of the book at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) blog (this review in turn references Kissinger's and Menand's reviews and also a review by Fred Kaplan in the NYT, which I haven't read). All this throat clearing is a preface to saying that the NBCC review, by Mary Ann Gwinn, opens this way:

The best biographies teach signal lessons about the mysteries of human nature. Here’s one of my favorites: even great men and women are to some degree, as we all are, at war with themselves.

George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis is the story of just such a conflicted man, an American diplomat who by turns inspired, exasperated and appalled his superiors, never held high office and hated the necessary insincerities of the diplomatic trade. And his brilliant strategizing arguably kept the Soviet Union and the United States from going to war with one another in the chaotic years after World War II, pulling the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction.

Did the containment doctrine really pull "the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction"? This seems to me dubious (to put it mildly). Gwinn apparently got this from Kaplan, who writes that Kennan's strategy, which (don't forget) was implemented in ways of which Kennan disapproved, "arguably prevented World War III." Well, "arguably" is a nice word. I use it myself quite a lot. But it may be cracking under the strain in this context.


hank_F_M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hank_F_M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
e julius drivingstorm said...

Since I only read your blog half of the time...

Anyway, there was probably an honesty to "Mutally Assured Destruction" from the get-go up until the Cuba Misslie Crisis.

It makes sense that some enhanced back-channel diplomacy at that point may have allowed the US to save face on the grand stage while the Kremlin was able to laud throwing our missiles out of Turkey through Tass, etc., keeping there own homies from being too disappointed.

There's probably no overt evidence of such backroom cooperation but wouldn't it be disappointing to think that leaders of both sides were too stupid to be able to talk candidly with each other about how best to diffuse a situation that "duck and cover" tactics were obviously inadequate to the consequences? I'm kinda busy right now but, just my opinion, I think Kennan may have gotten himself into that kind of loop and stayed in it for the rest of his life.

LFC said...

My post was rather cryptic, but your reference to MAD gets at what I was hinting, namely that the two sides were never really at the brink until, arguably, the Cuban Missile Crisis.