85. Letter From the Ambassador to Yugoslavia (Kennan) to the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council and Counselor of the Department of State (Rostow)0

Dear Walt:

I am sorry to have been so long in acknowledging your letter of March 301 and in responding to your suggestion that I comment on the draft of the S/P paper on “Basic National Security Policy.”2 The present security regulations, which make it impossible to take work home in the evenings and difficult to get at materials for use in the office after hours, have complicated the performance of this sort of work.

Let me say first that from the technical standpoint, and speaking as one who once held your present responsibilities, I am full of admiration for this paper. I know what the preparation of such a document involves. I cannot recall seeing in the files of our Government a document of such scope remotely so well prepared: so lucid, so comprehensive, so well-written, and so well knitted together. I think you and your associates deserve warmest congratulations.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to advance the sort of comment you invite. When, a year ago last winter, I decided to accept the President’s invitation to return to Government, I did so in the awareness that my views on many problems of our relationship to the outside world were hopelessly remote from the concepts prevailing both in our public opinion and within Government. I also recognized that I had been [Page 286] largely unsuccessful in making my own positions understood or in winning support for them both in and out of Government in the years since World War II. The decision to return to Government in the capacity of Ambassador to Yugoslavia marked a deeper decision to abandon this struggle and to try to be useful in a practical way by working loyally within a framework of concept I could not personally share. In this I was guided by admiration and solicitude for the new president and by the recognition that, finding myself in so tiny a minority, I was quite apt to be wrong even where I could not myself perceive the error.

In my daily work here, it has not been hard to perform this act of detachment. Your inquiry now challenges me, however, on a plane so personal that there can be no escape into the official personality, and so broad that there can be no avoiding the underlying issues of public philosophy. The fact is that to take issue properly with your paper, I should have to write one equally long; and this, in the circumstances, is out of the question.

Let me therefore content myself with reminding you, first of some of the broader elements of my disagreement with outlooks and policies reflected in your paper. I shall try just to identify the issues, without arguing them. Here are a few:

1.View of Soviet intentions.

I have never been able to share the wide-spread view of Soviet intentions—a view which made the Stalin and the Khrushchev of the postwar era almost indistinguishable not only from each other but also from the Hitler of the Thirties. I have never believed that there was serious danger of an outright Soviet military attack on western Europe in the recent postwar period—of an attack, that is, that would not be associated with an advanced state of social and political disintegration in the area and could not be portrayed as auxiliary to a major internal social upheaval. I have thought it unlikely that such an attack entered into Soviet aspirations and plans. This being the case, I have never been able to agree with the almost universally held belief (first authoritatively enunciated, I think, by Churchill at Fulton) that only our atomic deterrent had restrained the Russians from launching such an attack.3 I have always placed more weight on internal economic and social stability in this and other areas than on military defense. This difference of interpretation has affected my attitude towards western policy on a host of occasions, and continues to do so.

Your paper, to be sure, does not wholly embrace the purely military view of Soviet intentions that prevailed in former years. It gives far [Page 287] greater recognition to prospects for infiltration, guerrilla warfare, use of disaffected local minorities, etc. In this respect, I welcome it as an important advance over earlier thinking. But the old concept shines through in a number of places, as for example on pp. 141-143.4

2. Military policy toward Europe.

It has been my belief that we should not settle for the indefinite communist control of Eastern Europe but should seek to create conditions in Europe which not only give maximum incentive for a gradual detachment of the Eastern European countries from their present exclusive tie to Moscow, but facilitate that detachment to maximum degree. For this reason I have disfavored putting major emphasis on NATO at the cost of the prospects for disengagement, and have felt that we should devise our undertakings in Europe, as was done in the case of the Marshall Plan, in such a way that they could attract and invite participation by the European countries without raising clear-cut issues with respect to their military and political ties with Moscow. With this in mind, I have questioned the soundness of the concepts on which NATO has developed. I would have preferred to see in effect a unilateral guarantee by the United States of the present NATO territory in Europe, rather than the present network of mutual obligation—a guarantee reinforced by a special relationship of military support by the United States for the Brussels Pact. Above all, I have never favored the admission of Germany to NATO, and the development of West Germany’s resources and territory as a major component of NATO strength. This, it seemed to me, was clearly in conflict with the goal of German unification, and was bound to make impossible for an indefinite period to come any withdrawal or even any real slackening of the Russian hold on the satellite area. The intensive rearmament of Western Germany meant, in other words, the affirmation and perpetuation of the division of the continent. This error, as I see it, has been and continues to be compounded by the rejection of the Rapacki concepts and by the development of West German and other continental territory as a base for nuclear striking power.5

3. Relation of Britain, U.S., and Canada to the Continent.

Your paper embraces the concept, arrived at in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s under the direction of Mr. Acheson, that European integration is to be pursued in an area that includes the United Kingdom, and that the closer association of the Western-Continental powers is to proceed in [Page 288] closest association with the Atlantic community as a whole. To this concept, our prestige has now been committed to a most unusual degree.

If you will glance at a Policy Planning Staff paper prepared, I believe, just at the end of 1949 and probably bearing a date in the first weeks of 1950, on the subject of European integration,6 you will see that this concept is diametrically opposed to the one I then favored, and still favor. The view I put forward at that time opposed pressing Britain into an association with the Continent. It favored the pursuit of integration—i.e., the bridging of sovereignties—in two groupings: the U.S., U.K., and Canada, on the one hand; the major continental countries, on the other. It recognized that Britain could be made a part of a continental grouping only at the cost of watering down the significance of the latter and preventing it from assuming a form sufficiently advanced to meet the requirements of the German problem. It has taken us a further twelve years of trouble to demonstrate something of the correctness of that prognostication; and we have not yet come to the end of that road.

The same PPS paper also warned, as I recall it, against any forms of economic association in Western Europe which would not be open, and attractive, for adherence by the Eastern European countries, and in such a way that adherence would not involve questions of Soviet military and political prestige. Today we have, in the example of the Common Market, precisely the situation against which I attempted to warn. It is an arrangement closely connected with the political and military institutions which have been evolved in Western Europe; and we ourselves are the first to insist that the privilege of association with it be denied to anyone not prepared to acknowlege this association as extending into the political field. Meanwhile, as was also predicted in the PPS paper under reference, we have provoked a major crisis in the relations between Britain and the Commonwealth, with the dreadful possibility that Canada itself will lose its internal and external stability, and that one of the deepest sources of our security in North America will thus be jeopardized.

Here again, as you see, we have very fundamental differences, and ones which involve the entire philosophy underlying your paper.

4. The weapons of long-range mass destruction.

For many years, I have advocated a policy designed to free us from all dependence on atomic weapons, as on other weapons of indiscriminate mass destruction, with a view to putting us in a position to seek, at the earliest possible moment and if necessary at the cost of some apparent risk, an agreement with the Russians for the total abandonment of the cultivation, maintenance, and use of this sort of weaponry. To this end, I [Page 289] have urged that we free ourselves as soon as possible from the invidious principle of “first-use” of atomic weapons, which I believe must lead inexorably to a nuclear catastrophe.

Your paper, while again marking a great progress over the concepts of earlier years, retains the principle of “first-use” and contemplates a continued U.S. dependence on atomic weaponry.

In addition to this, your paper reflects at many points (pp. 35 and 46, for example) the view that there could be a war fought with atomic weapons which would be less than wholly disastrous for us—that there could, in other words, be some pieces worth picking up for those who survived, and that this prospect ought to enter into our thinking and planning. I wholly disagree. As a historian, I confidently submit that if the western world is subjected for the third time in a century to a military holocaust even comparable in severity to those of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, we have had it. If it is a war with atomic weapons, I do not wish to see the result; and I would rather see my children dead than to have them experience it.

5. Political philosophy, and its relation to policy toward the underdeveloped countries.

Your paper is deeply imbued with a relatively optimistic view of the sources of human behavior. This permits you to see such things as national independence, individual freedom, industrialization, high living standards, social justice, and restraint in foreign policy as all fusing into one harmonious whole. This view, I suspect, is drawn from the example of our own society; and one could argue that such inference was not wholly unwarranted, though here, too, I should have doubts. It is, in any case, a view which, when applied to the great mass of humanity, I cannot share. The ability to harmonize these various elements into the political life of a state is something which, if it exists at all, seems to me to be peculiar to peoples who have had their origins on or near the shores of the North Sea; and here I must attribute it not to any inherent superiority but to the favorable effects of climate and to a fortunate discipline of experience running back over the centuries. This being the case, I cannot expect this example to be readily or generally imitated elsewhere. The various features of civilization to which I referred seem to me to be as a rule in conflict, rather than in harmony, in the affairs of men. Such conflicts exist even in the highly advanced nations, where they are only successfully contained, not resolved. There is often, for example, a conflict between social justice and individual freedom, between egalitarianism and true liberty, between freedom for the nation and freedom for the individual, between democracy and national restraint.

You look on the various forms of authoritarianism and despotism, oligarchical and autocratic, as abnormalities—as something to be overcome by better living standards and enlightenment. I, on the contrary, [Page 290] see such forms of government as a part of the natural state of mankind; our system, rather, is the exception and the abnormality. I reflect, furthermore, that some of the most hideous manifestations of modern totalitarianism have come in some of the most highly industrialized and best educated countries. I am therefore skeptical of your whole thesis. I suspect rapid social change itself to be the deepest cause of the political instability and violence. For this reason, I expect no good to come of the sort of precipitate development which you so warmly embrace, particularly in an environment where population growth is to be permitted to run rampant, with all that that implies. Whether absence of encouragement on our part would steady these people down and temper the demand for earlier industrialization, I doubt; but I still think it irresponsible of us to encourage them along this path. By advancing along it ourselves, we have only landed ourselves—as I shall have occasion to say presently—in problems to which we see no answers. How can we, in good conscience, impel others in the same direction?

You have a vision, in particular, of a humane Africa, divided into God knows how many independent states, all with neat borders, U.N. membership, and all the other trappings of sovereignty on the western pattern, and all thrusting happily ahead into the nirvana of an industrial civilization. I see ahead in this area, no matter what we do: primarily childishness, bewilderment, inexperience, violence, racial hatred, and internecine strife of every sort, the repetition (but in an era of devastating weaponry and population explosion) of the long ordeal of political experience out of which the public order of Europe has been bred. I cannot agree that it will always be compatible with the safety of our country to increase the industrial strength of these peoples, to put weapons into their hands, to discourage violence among them, to encourage their proliferation. Divided and weak, they are no menace to us. Given strength, God knows what they will do. I wish them no harm. I would not see us move to injure them. But I regard our American people of this mid-century, with all their faults, as almost the only truly good-humored, well-meaning, and enlightened people of this age in their attitude towards others. The peoples of the southern continents, in particular, have, as I see it, no real belief in world brotherhood, and no spontaneous sense of restraint in world affairs. Aside from what they think they may get out of us at the moment in the way of immediate one-sided aid, they would witness without a quiver of pity or regret the greatest catastrophe of our civilization that the mind could conceive; and most of them would be happy to be in at the kill.

In such circumstances, we should have a policy towards these people, as I see it, devoid of illusions about their probable future, devoid in particular of any fond belief that they are going to grow in our image, based rather on the recognition that their advance to literacy and [Page 291] national consciousness is going to release the most explosive and dangerous forces conceivable, and on a determination to keep ourselves out of the way of these forces and in a position where they cannot damage us.

All this may, of course, involve aid, given for tactical reasons, at one point or another; but then, please, aid without illusions, without false hopes, with clear eyes and the coldest sort of calculation. Perhaps this view is conditioned by a failure to share the great concern so many people feel over the expansion of Russian or Chinese influence into Africa in the absence of major American counter-effort. It is true that this gives me little concern. I think this cauldron of Africa can accept and consume all the manpower and resources the Russians and the Chinese want to ship into it, and that they will have no more profit than we would have by their effort to remake it in their own image. Their ideas of civilization will be just as irrelevant to the approaching chaos of that continent, it seems to me, as will be ours.

6. Multilateral diplomacy.

The view put forward in your paper of what we should seek in the way of a role of the UN in international life is, in general, far closer to my views than that which was entertained in Washington in earlier years. I still have certain fundamental differences, however, with the general tendency of your paper (or do I mistake it?) to seek multilateral channels of diplomacy wherever possible in preference to bilateral ones. Insofar as problems of security are concerned, in the face of the bloc, I am skeptical of the utility of collective and multilateral arrangements, in many instances. I suspect that we lose more, by such arrangements, in the way of promptness and flexibility of action and privacy of decision than we gain in the way of added military and political resources.

My main divergence, however, from the concept put forward in your paper, relates to what can be done in the field of universal international action. Here, I see possibilities which do not seem to me to be recognized in your paper. The target of action ought to be, I think, those aspects of human activity by which the integrity and hopefulness of our national environment is being, or might be, adversely affected—such as, for example, contamination of the atmosphere and of international waters in one way or another, use of outer space, development of Antarctica, manipulation of weather conditions, etc. Here, it seems to me, there is not only an opportunity but a need for an actual narrowing of the concept of international sovereignty, a concept which has been so grievously distorted in this century, and so unwisely and lavishly bestowed on immature political entities.

I have little confidence in multilateral associations based on the principal of unanimity, or even of majority decisions, among a large number of nations which retain, in relation to the matters under discussion, the full prerogatives of absolute sovereignty. In the first case, that of [Page 292] unanimity, the necessary decisions will not be taken; in the second case, they will not be enforced. I am impressed with the advantages, illustrated by the European Iron and Steel Community, of the transfer of sovereignty in the sense of the resigning of actual power of decision within a limited area to an international body. Governments, by and large, are timid and fearful of responsibility. They will happily submit to dicta by an international body having genuine authority, even in instances where, if they had been asked to share responsibility for the decision, they would have been unwilling to do so. I would like, accordingly, to see the establishment of international authorities with real power to do such things as to control all use of outer space, to lay down and to enforce rules for the preservation of the cleanliness and resources of the oceans, to say what can and what cannot be done in the way of pollution of the atmosphere, to administer the Antarctic, etc.

7. The domestic base.

Underlying my misgivings about policy toward the underdeveloped areas are certain fundamental doubts which I have about the trend of our society, and particularly about the concepts which are outlined on pages 208-216 of your paper. These doubts go very deep. I can do no more than to touch on them here. They are the ones that cut to the heart of the whole question of the desirability of a high degree of industrialization, urbanization, and complexity in a society. I can only say that I have come, over the years, to question the absolute application of the principle that the best way to have things done is the way that is mechanically most efficient and involves the least use of human labor. I do not think this is necessarily true, and I have come to feel that the goal of economic and technological policy within a society should not be just to discover the most efficient way of doing things, in terms of human labor output, but rather to discover the ways of doing things which are most beneficial to people themselves, which may be a quite different thing. For this reason, I think that arbitrary decisions ought to be made, of a type that we have never as yet contemplated: decisions as to where to pause on the path of higher industrial efficiency, and what sort of mechanical devices, affecting the patterns of human life, to select among a choice that is now overwhelming in variety. I think, in other words, that what our society now has to ask itself is: What is the good life? How is it led? How is it best encouraged? And I think that we may find that the answers to these questions are wholly different from those which are being automatically produced by a policy of giving free rein to the compulsions of technological efficiency.

In strongest contrast to the authors of your paper, I fail to see any conclusive advantage in the principle of economic growth; on the contrary, I see great dangers in it. I am unable to perceive that a society which is able to discover its deepest values only in a process of constant quantitative [Page 293] multiplication—in a state of instability, that is—is the best society. I would admire more a society that can achieve a state of equilibrium in material and quantitative terms and can seek its development in terms of the improvement and enrichment of the individual human experience.

I am particularly concerned about the principle of unlimited economic “growth,” because it involves precisely those features of our contemporary American civilization which give me greatest concern: the progressive over-crowding and urbanization of our territory, the reckless plundering of its resources, and the increasing contamination of its natural elements. All these things are connected with population growth and industrialization. There can be no question but that our form of society is immensely wasteful in terms of natural resources, and essentially unstable just from this standpoint alone. As for population growth, this is not just, or even primarily, a question of feeding people: it is a question of how such things as privacy and access to nature are to be preserved in a crowded and heavily urbanized society. I should have been inclined to regard 150 million as a maximum desirable size for our population. When it gets beyond 200 million, the effects—I am sure—will be appalling. I view this prospect with dismay, not just from the standpoint of what will happen to the land and the water and the air and the minerals, but also from the standpoint of what will happen to the human soul and to the capacity for citizenship; for I regard a certain connection with the land, with growing things, and even with animals, as essential to spiritual health in the case of the great majority of people.

As for the specific reasons which the paper states for maintaining a high growth rate, I would only say the following:

Other countries expect to get along, and to maintain their security somehow, with a far smaller flow of resources than that which we are contemplating. I see no great virtue involved in being the world’s strongest country in a material and military sense, if this goal is to be pursued at the expense of the deeper human values.
I do not see a flow of endlessly increasing resources as related to an improvement in the standard of living. To look at things this way is to accept the most vulgar and wasteful concept of what compromises the good life, and to insist that people lead lives of appalling complexity and artificiality.
I see no reason why a country must be in a state of explosive and unnatural expansion in order to play a decent role in world trade. Again, countries far smaller than ours make perfectly respectable contributions in this field. If the developing countries over-produce, I fail to see that it is our responsibility to assure that they can unload this over-production on us. So far as unemployment is concerned, the paper rests on assumptions which I simply cannot accept. I think the real problem of chronic unemployment in our country is very small indeed and could be easily solved. [Page 294] What we call “unemployment” is simply a condition we have created by definition; and what it refers to is primarily people who, in the face of the fact that the government is willing to pay them for doing nothing, prefer not to work at all rather than to accept the opportunities for employment open in our society. We do ourselves the deepest damage by the semantic confusion we produce when we speak of having several million “unemployed”, because the condition of these people is wholly different from that which most of the world’s people picture when they hear that word.

The above observations are simply suggestive of the extent to which my own thinking has departed from that which is not only reflected in your paper but is already accepted by a large portion of our intellectual community. Having had your position in previous years, I am well aware that every paper of this nature has to constitute, to a large extent, a compromise between the private thinking of the individuals who draft it and that which will find useful acceptance in wider circles. I do not mean, therefore, to criticize or to assign blame when I point out these differences. To be useful and to find acceptance, any paper would have to bow to the spirit of the time and embrace many of the elements which yours does. It is I who am out of step; and it is a good thing that it is you, not I, who occupy the chair in which you now sit. If I am to make my peace with my fellow-countrymen, intellectually, it will have to be in a different way, and in a different forum. I say these things merely to point out why it is difficult for me to comment as you have asked me to do.

[Here follow Kennan’s comments on individual passages of the paper.]

  1. Source: Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 69 D 121, BNSP 3/26/62. Secret.
  2. Not found.
  3. Reference is to the March 26 draft; see Document 70.
  4. Reference is to Winston Churchill’s address delivered in March 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.
  5. These pages deal with alliances, including CENTO, SEATO, and ANZUS.
  6. In a separate letter to Rostow, also dated May 15, Kennan enclosed an expansion of his views on Germany, NATO, and disengagement. (Department of State, S/P Files: Lot 69 D 121, BNSP 3/26/62)
  7. Reference is uncertain. Kennan was Director of the Policy Planning Staff, March 1948- January 1950, and Counselor, August 1949-July 1951.