Thursday, November 02, 2006

Misappropriating Munich

We had a roundtable at the magazine, co-sponsored by the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, with Jeffrey Record of the Air War College and Colin Dueck of George Mason University.

Record noted that presidents routinely invoke analogies such as Munich either to inform their own thinking about policy (usually to rationalize a particular course of action) or to mobilize public opinion, noting that in recent history the U.S. public could only be rallied to support a "war of choice" by comparing the threat to the one posed by the symbol of ultimate evil--Hitler--and characterizing other options as the equivalent of appeasement at Munich.

Dueck described analogies as cognitive shortcuts and pointed out how different schools of thought can draw different conclusions from analogies (e.g. is the lesson of Vietnam for Iraq to "win" or "go home"?) He also pointed out the very selective use of history. Most U.S. interventions over the last centuries have been failures; Japan and Germany were exceptions. Would the discussion about Iraq have been different if the primary analogy referenced had been Somalia or Haiti?

In the discussion, an interesting point that nowadays Munich is used as a way to shut down calls for negotiations or diplomatic action altogether; another poiont raised, was that the failure at Munich was not that of will but of lack of military power to oppose Hitler, and how in particular the British ruling class did not want to set priorities to conclude alliances (with Mussolini or Stalin) that might have contained Hitler during the 1930s.

A final note was that Record pointed out the enduring appeal of World War II--that we are now in our second president born after World War II with no living memory at all of the events yet how analogies drawn from this period continue to exercise such a spell on the U.S. imagination.

Of course, the main problem in the usual understanding of Munich is that it misses the fact that at the time His Majesty's Government was more interested in incorporating Nazi Germany into their "Cold War" against the Soviets than in opposing Hitler.

The following is from a delightful little book, "The British Case", published in November 1939, laying out the reasons for the British declaration of war against Germany:

"For all the other acts of brutality at home and aggression without, Herr Hitler had been able to offer an excuse, inadequate indeed,but not fantastic.  The need for order and discipline in Europe, for strength at the centre to withstand the incessant infiltration of false and revolutionary ideas - this is certainly no more than the conventional excuse offered by every military dictator who has ever suppressed the liberties of his own people
or advanced the conquest of his neighbors. Nevertheless, so long as the excuse was offered with sincerity, and in Hitler's case the
appearance of sincerity were not lacking over a period of years, the world's judgement of the man remained more favorable than its judgement of his actions.  The faint possibility of an ultimate settlement with Herr Hitler still, in these circumstances, remained, however abominable his methods, however deceitful his diplomacy, however intolerant he might show himself of the rights of other European peoples, he still claimed to stand ultimately for something which was a common European interest, and which therefore could conceivably provide some day a basis for understanding with other nations equally determined not to sacrifice  their traditional institutions and habits on the bloodstained altars of the World

The conclusion of the German-Soviet pact removed even this faint possibility of an honorable peace."

Lord Lloyd of Dolobran "The British Case" Eyre & Spottiswoode Limited. London, 1939, pgs 54-5, with a preface by Lord Halifax, the Foreign

In other words, as long as there remained merest, threadbare shred of a hope of a possibility of a chance that maybe, some day, in the course of time, Hitler would oppose the Soviets, appeasing Brit Cold Warriors were prepared to tolerate anything at all from Hitler.

Of course, this policy made preventing World War II a bit difficult.
It would help if people actually had some understanding of what the appeasers were afraid of.

They feared that confronting German revisionist demands over Czechoslovakia would lead to a war pitting Germany against Britain and France, in which Stalin could stand aside, watching his adversaries destroy each other -- creating the conditions for the expansion of Russian and Communist power.

Those in the German Foreign Office and military who were arguing that Britain should confront Nazi Germany were not telling the British that 'deterrence' could be guaranteed to work. Rather they were suggesting that it might create the conditions for a coup. Given Hitler's massive popularity, it was necessary to make plain to the German people that he was leading the country into a war which actually German public opinion did not want.

Obviously, this implied that confrontation involved the risk that the coup might fail, leading to war, or that it might produce civil war in Germany.

What the appeasers also believed was that the Soviet strategies of 'collective security' and the Popular Front were deceptive ploys whose objective was to produce just such a conflict.

Was this right? The argument that it was has been made in recent years by the Soviet defector V. Rezun, who wrote under the penname 'Suvorov', and a number of Western writers, notably Robert C. Tucker in his study Stalin in Power. The popularity of Rezun's work in Russia, among other things, provoked the Israeli historian Gabriel Gorodetsky to produce his study of The Icebreaker Myth (in Russian) and then his study Grand Delusion (in English). This argued that the 'appeasers' had in fact got things fundamentally wrong. In essence, it reworked what was the view taken by the German Moscow Embassy diplomats of the time -- that Stalin would have preferred to maintain the collaborative relationship with Germany established in the Weimar years, was forced into seeking alliances with the West because Hitler would not play ball, and was forced back into making terms with Hitler because he got no response from the British, the unilateral guarantee to Poland being a decisive moment.

The view taken by the British appeasers was also taken by many in the American Foreign Service, including the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union, William C. Bullitt, and also George Kennan, who was known as 'Bullitt's bright boy'. Robert C. Tucker was a colleague of Kennan's both in the American Moscow Embassy in the early Fifties and later at Princeton.

It is the appeasers view' which underpins Kennan's Long Telegram, which is a major reason why so many of it readers misunderstood that document, and why historians have found it so difficult to understand. It is necessary to understand this if one is to make any sense of the fact that from February 1947 onwards Kennan was arguing that Stalin actively would not have wanted to see a united communist Germany. When historians notice this -- and usually they simply ignore the evidence on the point -- they assume that this represented a repudiation of the fundamentals of the view expressed in the Long Telegram. It did not.

The German Moscow Embassy 'house view' was set out in English in 1953 in a book written by one of the veterans of the embassy, Gustav Hilger, in collaboration with the Sovietologist Alfred G. Meyer. Hilger is the subject of a recent paper in the Federation of American Scientists Programme on Government Secrecy series dealing with declassified evidence of American collaboration with war criminals.

Nobody in this Nazi-hunting enthusiasm seems to have bothered to reflect on the paradox that George Kennan in the memoirs described the German Moscow Embassy as 'at all times excellent'; while the 'house view' of the Embassy was essentially identical to that of contemporary analysts in the West like Nicholas Timasheff, who took a rather sanguine view of Soviet intentions. The view of Stalin's intentions taken by Kennan's friend and colleague Charles Bohlen, incidentally, was much closer to that of the Germans; as well as being close to that of Western military analysts of a later generation, like Raymond Garthoff and Michael MccGwire, who were sceptical of conventional wisdoms about the Soviet military threat.

Hilger's colleague Hans von Herwarth is also of interest: he betrayed the negotiations leading to the Nazi-Soviet Pact to Bohlen in early 1939, and the plans for Operation Barbarossa to the American Moscow Embassy, where Kennan then was, from August 1940 onwards. Compounding the ironies, Herwarth was a German Junker who was also quarter-Jewish. Alfred G. Meyer, whose account of his collaboration with Hilger in his memoir My Life as a Fish is available on the net, had two parents dead in the Holocaust and a brother who was a survivor of Auschwitz.

David Habakkuk
British appeasers were not all of one mind in the 1930s.

Appeasers on the left opposed both war and fascism, with self-cancelling results. Appeasers in the center or on the right divided into those whose motives were strategic (belief that Britain could not meet challenges from Japan, Italy, and Germany at the same time) or moral (conviction that Germany had been wronged in 1919). The strategic appeasers in turn split between anti-Americans, who wanted a deal with Japan, and pro-Americans, who did not.

The British faced two problems in the 1930s that are still problems for the United States today.

The first is a view of the world in empirical terms, with generalizations about the intentions of others arising from short-term experience. Although policy makers today are more sensitive to the threats posed by people who do not share this outlook, it is still difficult to act against threats until they become manifest. What is problematical about anti-appeasement today is not the flip from appeasement to its opposite but the tendency to judge the propriety of one or the other in the short-term.

The second and deeper problem is an unwillingness to rethink national ends when national means cannot sustain them. The situation confronting the British in the 1930s had an obvious solution, ie. jettison India and focus British power in Europe. But to abandon the empire was unthinkable in the 1930s; hence, the dilemma that British governments tried to manage by first seeking a deal with Japan, then with Italy, and finally with Germany. Fear of communism was a factor in British thinking but it was not primary; otherwise, appeasement would never have ended.

America today is trying to square the circle of continuing to be everywhere at once while refusing to make the military commitment necessary to support this position. The United States is now entering a long process in which it will probably rescale its ends and means. If this remains an empirical process, the adjustment will change constantly based on short-term experience.

The question that observers of the longer-term must address is whether the amplitude of gyration in US policy is increasing over time, and if so, why.
"Fear of communism was a factor in British thinking but it was not primary; otherwise, appeasement would never have ended."

Fear of Communism was indeed primary. That's why Chamberlain went to Munich, to lay before Hitler the concept of "Germany and England as pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism." Appeasement ended because the Hitler made a deal with Stalin rather than confine his ambitions to the East.
"Appeasement ended because the Hitler made a deal with Stalin rather than confine his ambitions to the East."

Chamberlain made the commitment to Poland in March 1939. The Nazi-Soviet pact was in August 1939.
The British were afraid of both the Soviet Union and Germany.

Rearmament started in 1934, focused on a possible war with Germany. Unlike German remarmament, which was premised on the notion that technology made possible short wars at low cost to the civilian population, British rearmament was carried out on the assumption that a war would be long. (Incidentally, in this respect, the neocon concept of war follows a long and disastrous German tradition of faith in blitzkrieg.) The Chamberlain government was concerned that the needs of rearmament be balanced against those of maintaining economic viability and sustaining social consensus.

For the all important air component, the planning assumption was a war in 1939. Had the British had a crash rearmament programme earlier, they would have invested heavily in obsolete biplanes which would have been easily shot of the sky.

An alternative strategy, of course, was to try and inveigle Germany and the Soviet Union into war. There is some evidence that Chamberlain's predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, took a complacent attitude to German ambitions in the East on this basis. The Chamberlain government believed the reporting out of Berlin by Sir Nevile Henderson, who was under the unfortunate misimpression that Hitler's aims were restricted to bringing ethnic Germans back into the Reich. Not entirely surprisingly, Stalin was inclined to interpret the British strategy that resulted from this misimpression as designed to precipitate a German-Soviet war.

During his period as ambassador in London in 1936-8, Ribbentrop grasped that the British would not give Germany a free hand in the East. Accordingly, on his return he became an advocate of cooperation with the Soviet Union. He took up the agenda of the German Ambassador in Moscow, Schulenberg, who believed that Stalin was becoming a good Nazi and advocated that the Soviet Union should be included in the Anti-Comintern Pact. Ribbentrop radicalised this agenda, envisaging that Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union would slake their thirst for territorial expansion by dismembering the British Empire.

The German invasion of the rump of Czechoslovakia demonstrated that Henderson had been wrong. At this point Chamberlain moved to containment of Germany, which led to the Polish guarantee. However, this was done with spectacular ineptitude, as Chamberlain did not grasp that the likely result would be German overtures to Moscow, and that a central goal of British strategy should be to prevent these succeeding.

Instead, British strategy worked both to exacebate Stalin's fears that the British were seeking to direct Germany East, and to deny the Soviets any real alternative to making terms with Hitler.

A corollary of the British assumption of limited German objectives was the assumption that Stalin did not have genuine reason to fear Germany, and that his protestations of alarm about German intentions were part of his deceptive divide and rule strategy. This was the assumption at the time of George Kennan, who as I pointed out in my earlier post, held essentially the appeasers' view of Stalin. Because he could not clearly articulate a view of Stalin's policy based upon the appeasers' view, his famous Long Telegram was a highly opaque document. It caused opinion in Washington to interpret Stalin's famous speech of 9 February 1946 as suggesting that the war with the capitalist world which according Marxist-Leninist was inevitable was a war with the United States.

This sophomoric error underpinned the whole 'containment' policy as it was developed in the Truman years, a policy which had only an indirect relationship to Kennan's ideas.

Because Kennan (unlike his erstwhile German Moscow Embassy colleagues) had difficulty accepting that Stalin had ever been afraid of Germany, he failed to anticipate that American strategy would resurrect in relation to the United States the kind of fears that Stalin had had of British policy. Hence Stalin moved from the (correct) interpretation that the Marshall Plan was intended to challenge his hold on Eastern Europe, to the (incorrect) interpretation that it was part of an American strategy geared to military 'compellence' or even unleashing a war.

Accordingly, the Soviet military began making contingency plans to eliminate American bridgeheads in Europe, generally recognised to be a basic requirement for Soviet planners in the event of war if they were to avoid being ground down by the massively superior military-industrial potential. Hopes for mitigating the disastrous effects of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe had then to be put on the back burner until a substantial section of the Soviet elite essentially lost faith in their own system, decades later.

Had the American elite not put their faith in an impassioned appeaser like Kennan, better outcomes might have been possible. Had they understood that there had been a case for appeasement, they might have understood what Kennan was saying. Had they understood what Kennan was saying better, they might also not have been so dumb as to fall for neocon claims that the retreat and collapse of Soviet power was a vindication of the strategy of 'containment' as set out in NSC 68 -- the document which applies the American elite's misunderstanding of Kennan to the realities of a bipolar nuclear world. And this acceptance of neocon claims is of course the background to the current disasters in American policy, both in relation to the Middle East, and also to Russia.

Perhaps the problem of the 'misappropriation of Munich' has more complex ramifications than were recognised at the National Interest roundtable.
"Chamberlain made the commitment to Poland in March 1939. The Nazi-Soviet pact was in August 1939."

The Soviet Union was looked upon as the main enemy by the British, and British offers to Germany continued after the Polish guarantee, which itself was shot through with loopholes and qualifications. Von Dirksen's (German Ambassador in London) cable of 24 July 1939 described how well German-British negotiations were going. Unfortunately for appeasing Brit Cold Warriors, all manner of wackiness ensued when Soviet intelligence decrypted this cable and Stalin could directly compare the forthcoming attitude the Brits were taking in their negotiations with Germany with the extremely grudging and reluctant attitude the Brits were taking with the USSR. Zachary Shore's "What Hitler Knew", Oxford University Press, 2005, covers this in a very interesting way.

And even the outbreak of the war didn't alter the threat perceptions of some. Here's the opinion of Chamberlain's personal private secretary, Sir Arthur Rucker, on 10 October 1939:

"Communism is now the great danger, greater even than Nazi Germany. It is a plague that does not stop at national boundaries, and with
theadvance of the Soviet into Poland the states of Eastern Europe will find their powers of resistance to Communism very much weakened. It
is thus vital that we should play our hand very carefully with Russia, and not destroy the possibility of uniting, if necessary, with a new German government against the common danger."

Here we see that Sir Arthur did not seem to be much impressed with the fact that a state of war had existed between Great Britain and Nazi
Germany for about six weeks. He still believed that the USSR was still a greater danger than Nazi Germany.
Is it so very surprising that even after the outbreak of war there were anxieties in Britain about the long-term implications of the extension of Soviet power as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact? After 1945, Soviet power was counter-balanced by American. But nobody could conceivably have anticipated that anything of the kind would happen in 1939. The American entry into the war, and the heavy emphasis on Europe in American war planning, were produced by Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war on the U.S.

It is also very much arguable that Churchill's strategy of 'absolute silence' towards the German resistance, and its more radical development in Roosevelt's strategy of 'unconditional surrender' were misconceived. Just as it might have been possible for the British to precipitate a coup attempt in late 1938, it might also have been possible to precipitate a coup attempt during the war.

Indeed, in November 1942 some of the deeply anti-appeasers anti-appeasers who had been coopted into British intelligence at the outset of the war, H.R. Trevor-Roper and Stuart Hampshire, had cottoned on the deep tensions between Himmler's SS and the Abwehr, which was actually a principal centre of the anti-Nazi plotters, in particular Hans Oster. Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, wanted to meet his British counterpart, Sir Stewart Menzies. Trevor-Roper and Hampshire's attempts to get the overture taken seriously came to nothing, not least because of the intervention of the spy Kim Philby.

Who knows? If the complacency of Chamberlain about Germany had not been replaced by undiscriminating Churchillian Germanophobia, a coup in Germany might have come earlier and been successful, avoiding the killing of many millions, and the domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviets.

A basic point to which I come back is that hindsight wisdom, because it makes incomprehensible the good as well as the bad reasons the appeasers had for what they did, also has made it impossible for Americans to understand the conception of the Soviet threat held by Kennan, who was, to be blunt, more of an appeaser than people like Halifax. He partially changed his mind because his German connections included some very courageous German anti-appeasers, notably Helmuth von Moltke and Hans von Herwarth. But the change of mind was very partial.
"Is it so very surprising that even after the outbreak of war there were anxieties in Britain about the long-term implications of the extension of Soviet power as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact?"

Its no suprise at all. Recall that the British began planning offensive action against the Soviets in November 1939, laying the foundations for "Operation Pike", the bombing of the Soviet oil industry in the Caucasus, even though British intelligence understood the Soviets to be a trivial oil supplier to Germany. The Standard Oil facility at Ploiesti was by far the biggest supplier of Germany, but no one was contemplating bombing that. It was Private Property after all! The refineries at Baku, being formerly private property, had no such protection in the eyes of His Majesty's Government.

It was not until 10 May 1940 that British threat perceptions were altered. And it took 10 Panzer Divisions lining up in the Ardennes to do that.
"He still believed that the USSR was still a greater danger than Nazi Germany."

If you reread the quote, you will see that Rucker refers to the need to support a post-Nazi German government, in relation to which the USSR could indeed have been a greater threat. But he does not say that Nazi Germany was a lesser danger.

British contacts with Germany continued after March 1939 but only as motions without substance. In June Ribbentrop tossed aside an unofficial British proposal through Adam von Trott for German withdrawal from Prague because it still reaffirmed the British commitment to go to war over Poland. After March 1939, the British never offered peace terms to Hitler that were acceptable to Berlin.

None of the German anti-Nazis, with whom British intelligence had contact after the war began, were willing to return the corridor to Poland. A return to the status quo ante was the minimum British condition for any peace.

Appeasement ended in 1939 because Hitler made the terms too difficult for Britain to accept, and eventually the Chamberlain government set aside its worries about a new world war (from which Russia could have emerged more powerful) in order to draw a line against further Nazi expansion. The British did not then cease to worry about Russia, but their apprehensions did not rescind their decision to go to war with Hitler nor cause them to seek peace terms that allowed Germany to retain territory acquired through war.
"If you reread the quote, you will see that Rucker refers to the need to support a post-Nazi German government, in relation to which the USSR could indeed have been a greater threat. But he does not say that Nazi Germany was a lesser danger."

Reread the quote, the very first line:

"Communism is now the great danger, greater even than Nazi Germany."

A "Post-Nazi government" was one from which Hitler personally had been excluded. Hitler, and Hitler alone, was now unacceptable to the British because he had signed a deal with Stalin.
David Habakkuk,

"Had the American elite not put their faith in an impassioned appeaser like Kennan, better outcomes might have been possible. Had they understood that there had been a case for appeasement, they might have understood what Kennan was saying. Had they understood what Kennan was saying better, they might also not have been so dumb as to fall for neocon claims that the retreat and collapse of Soviet power was a vindication of the strategy of 'containment' as set out in NSC 68 -- the document which applies the American elite's misunderstanding of Kennan to the realities of a bipolar nuclear world. And this acceptance of neocon claims is of course the background to the current disasters in American policy, both in relation to the Middle East, and also to Russia."

There are several ideas in the above paragraph that could benefit from further clarification.

1. "better outcomes might have been possible."

Could you suggest what some of these outcomes might have been?

2. "And this acceptance of neocon claims is of course the background to the current disasters in American policy..."

My impression is that neo-conservatives took some credit for the final years of containment against Russia but then abandoned containment in the 1990s as a model for dealing with Iraq.

Your points about Kennan are new to me. The diplomatic history of the late 1940s has long been overly stylized. The motives of those in the State Department who pressed for the NATO alliance over Kennan's opposition have long needed attention (the origins of NATO can be traced back to the Atlantic Unionist movement of 1939, but doing so raises some awkward questions about the fluidity of early US Cold War strategy that historians have tended to stay away from.) But I would think that the validity of Kennan's analysis of Russia in 1946-48 had more to do with his assessment of Soviet risk-taking than with any functional equivalence between appeasement in the late 1930s and the late 1940s. A state that accepts coexistence is a very different entity than one that does not.
The British planning for war against SU actually began in 1918 and was continued uabated for 21 years.

Example: the Tran Iranian railway that ran North-South from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. This was envisioned as the fastest way to attach USSR from the South.
Anonymous 10:35,

Sorry not to address the first sentence, which I took to be qualified by the later sentence calling for a new German government.

I am not aware that anyone at a senior level in London believed that a Nazi Germany headed by Goering or Himmler would have been less dangerous than a Nazi Germany headed by Hitler. British leaders wanted an anti-Nazi government in Berlin. Even then, the British were unwilling to discuss peace unless a new German government agreed first to return conquered territory, a condition no German official, Nazi or anti-Nazi, was willing to discuss in 1939-40.

It is possible that Rucker was expressing his own private opinion that a Nazi state under someone other than Hitler would have been acceptable. But since there was no change in British actions to reflect Rucker's view, I don't think his view can be treated as the view of British policy.

Yes. But if these were contingency plans, they would be no different from the plans that all nations make.
A fascinating discussion but it comes back to a point raised earlier: for most Americans they know nothing of any of this and so they go with the "Munich-made-for-TV" version which is that weak idealists who abhorred war gave in to tyrannical dictators and this is why Bush cannot talk to Iran or North KOrea.
So let them have their wars: they will bleed themselves and their country and eventually will come back home chastised.

It is probably healthier for everyone in the long term to recognize his own limits; what goes for individuals goes also for nations.

Americans, speacially the Protestant variants, are so confident of their own righteousness (yes - really you have to understand this in religious terms) and the power of their country that only painful experiences abroad will disabuse them of their fantasies.

The rest of the world will prefer a chaistised US, as longs as the oil is flowing and the US and Muslims are in an interminable war other state actors are quite happy.
"Yes. But if these were contingency plans, they would be no different from the plans that all nations make."

No. Operation Pike (the Anglo-French plan for bombing the Soviet oil industry in the Caucasus.) certainly did not merely gather dust in some obscure staff officer's safe. It had the attention of politico-military decisionmakers of the highest rank, like Chamberlain, Daladier, Reynaud, General Newall (Chief of the Air Staff) and General Gamelin (French CinC). It was briefed to the Marshal Fevzi Cakmak, commander of the Turkish armed forces. It resulted in efforts to build airfields in eastern Turkey to support it. The British and French allocated bomber aircraft to the Middle East to execute it. French air forces in the Levant were ordered to prepare to commence operations against the Soviets by 15 May 1940.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans.

A recent treatment is:

Patrick R. Osborne, "Operation Pike: Britain Versus the Soviet Union 1939-1941" Greenwood Press, 2000.
"Americans, speacially the Protestant variants, are so confident of their own righteousness (yes - really you have to understand this in religious terms) and the power of their country that only painful experiences abroad will disabuse them of their fantasies."

I'm afraid they've got an inpregnable defense mechanism against learning from painful experience. Librulz.

You see, our foreign policy failures are due to traitorous Librulz who stab our gallant soldiers in the back.

Note that Librulz do not need any actual power or influence over our politico-military decisions in order to do so.
Anonymous 3:52,

Thank you for the reference. I found a review online of the Osborn book (below) and you are correct that Anglo-French planning for air strikes on Russian oil went beyond ordinary contingency plans.

But I wonder if this proves only that (for a few months) the British regarded Germany and Russia as two sides of the same coin, as Lord Lothian argued in his November 1939 Library of Congress address.
Anonymous 2:12,

Americans have been relying on the Munich analogy since Johnson invoked it in Vietnam. It is indeed a recurring theme in US foreign policy, although for how much longer is unclear.

There is a permanent problem in US foreign policy of keeping ends and means in alignment. The question is whether the amplitude of periodic disalignment is stable or increasing. If it is increasing, it will at some point displace Munich as the canonical disaster to avoid. One must hope that the trend, if there is one, does not wreck us before then.
david billington:

Clarification needs a bit of background.

A crucial text in regard to Kennan is an exchange of letters with the historian John Lukacs published in 1997. (George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944-6.)

To Lukacs, Kennan complains of what he describes as the way that many in Washington 'jumped quickly to the primitive assumption that the Soviet aim was to overrun the West German government militarily and then to replace the governments there, including the West German one, with communist puppet regimes.'

Explaining why this was a 'primitive assumption', Kennan goes on to comment that overrunning the West would have involved 'the unification of Germany under a single Communist government.' And this, he maintains, was 'the last thing Stalin would have wanted to bring about.' He further insists that his view of Soviet policy had not materially changed since 1945, concluding the exchange by insisting that he still sees 'no inconsistency between the views I held in 1945 and those I put forward in later years.'

A simple point follows from this. Either Kennan's claim that his views did not change has to be a misrepresentation, or Kennan's writings of 1946-8 must have given only an imperfect account of his real views at the time he wrote them. Cold War historiography is largely based, explicitly or implicitly, on the first interpretation. If one accepted the second, the whole history of the evolution strategy would need to be rewritten. There are also non-trivial implications for how the history of the evolution of Soviet Cold War strategy is to be written.

Can one dismiss the second possibility? I don't think so. The argument that Stalin would not have wanted to see major states remote from his borders go communist is made in Kennan's 1954 study Realities of Soviet Foreign Policy and his 1960 study of Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Daniel Yergin, in his 1977 study Shattered Peace, established that Kennan made the same argument in relation to Stalin's view of Germany in February 1949. The real bombshell came when in his 1989 study Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy Anders Stephanson established that Kennan suggested in February 1947 that Stalin preferred to see the Nazis rather than the Communists take power in Germany in 1931.

Was Kennan right? There are different elements. As to arguments about the Soviet military threat, the view that it was a mistake to see the evident Soviet capabilities threat in Central Europe as evidence of an intentions threat has been made by certain veteran Western intelligence analysts turned academics, specifically Raymond Garthoff and Michael MccGwire. The military logic is actually very simple. The military-industrial potential of the United States in the immediate post-war period was some six times that of the Soviet Union, but the United States, as a democracy, has difficulty maintaining ground forces in peacetime. Accordingly, in the event of war, if the Soviets are not to lose, they must prevent the effective deployment of American potential power in Eurasia. In a world without nuclear weapons, they can only do this by means of a rapid elimination of the bridgeheads on which American power can be deployed. Nuclear weapons, and even more thermonuclear weapons, open up the possibility of attacking American potential power before it can be remobilised. This is largely what the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950 is about.

The more difficult claim is the claim about Germany. If one takes for granted that Kennan in 1946-8 was arguing that Stalin's policy was inspired by ideological messianism, then it follows logically that his argument that Stalin would not have wanted to see a united communist Germany represents an abandonment of the fundamentals of his interpretation. However, try rereading his writings with the help of the exchange with Lukacs. The actual interpretation he is presenting in 1946-8 -- in the Long Telegram of 22nd February 1946, the July 1947 X-article, and the August 1948 NSC 20/1 paper -- is an argument about the use of ideology to legitimise a tyranny. It follows from the logic of this argument that Stalin would need to profess adherence to the truths of Marxism-Leninism, whether he was a true believer, a candid cynic, or someone in the intermediate state that Kennan in the Long Telegram called 'self-hypnotism'. Accordingly, at a crude level, Stalin's ideological pronouncements are of limited value as evidence of his actual thinking.

What we know however is that Stalin's strategy in the immediate post-war period was to retain the Popular Front. As evidence of his long-term intentions, that fact was insignificant, precisely because, if one takes into account the strategic realities, Stalin had every incentive in the immediate post-war period to 'appease' the United States. He wasn't very good at it, for various reasons, including one's of personality: a bit like the Corleone family trying to be friendly, perhaps! But the evidence is I think clear that he was trying, until he became convinced by the Marshall Plan that the Americans would not accept a spheres of influence arrangement.

In the Long Telegram, Kennan conflated the actual Soviet propaganda position at the time with that which had been taken in the period before Hitler's consolidation of power -- when the chief priority had been an all-out attack on 'social fascism'. Anders Stephanson pointed out that as an analysis of Soviet public positions the much-praised Long Telegram is simply and fundamentally wrong. But Stephanson, though a very clever man, is too academic. He prefers to indict others of ignorance, rather than exploring the possibility that they may have been devious. And, like so many others, he is incapable of understanding what the appeasers were concerned about. The more plausible interpretation is that Kennan in the Long Telegram was restating the central assumption of the appeasers that the Popular Front was a deceptive ploy, and expecting that Stalin would abandon it, now that the intended result -- Germany and the Western powers destroying their own power in a protracted war -- had been achieved.

When Stalin failed to abandon the Popular Front, the question that Kennan asked himself was not whether he was wrong in thinking that Stalin had been engaged in a cunning strategy of divide and rule. It was whether, rather than an unsuccessful attempt at communising Germany, Stalin in 1931 had been content to see Hitler take power, because this suited the aim of precipitating a new war between Germany and the Western powers. This was however a traumatic thought for him, because it implied that not simply liberal opponents of appeasement, but conservatives who had thought Hitler the lesser evil, had been among Stalin's dupes. And it is clear that Kennan had been just such a conservative.

Because Kennan could not be candid to an audience most of whom took for granted the folly of the appeasers, the Long Telegram was opaque. As a result, it was possible for Nitze and James Forrestal to see it as confirming their (incorrect) assumption that the war which Stalin considered inevitable was with the United States. The natural conclusion -- that 'deterrence' requires the ability to defeat the Soviet Union -- was spelled out in the memorandum prepared for Truman by Clark Clifford and George Elsey in September 1946. NSC 68 is already latent in the Clifford-Elsey memorandum.

This provides some background -- even if an inadequate one -- to responding to your request for clarifications.

1. In response to the so-called 'war scare' of the spring of 1948, different people went in different directions. One direction, encouraged strongly by the British, led towards NATO. Kennan's preferred direction was towards negotiations, based upon a reunified and largely demilitarised Germany. This disagreement is usually misunderstood, because people will not grasp first, that the military dimension had already become crucial in American thinking about the Soviet Union, and secondly, that Kennan suspected that Stalin did not actually want to see a united communist Germany.

Had the Forrestal/Nitze misinterpretation not become ingrained, it is possible that the Americans might have negotiated seriously over Germany, avoiding the division of Europe. Similarly, the advocacy of serious negotiations by Churchill after Stalin's death, and by Kennan in 1957, might have produced a European settlement. There is an interesting recent article by William Pfaff on possibilities of disengagement in the mid-Fifties. But as so often, Pfaff heroworships Kennan without understanding him.

2. As to the neocons. A number of points. Neocons have treated 'Islamofascism' as a kind of new version of the Communist threat, which is again a new version of the Nazi threat. If the equation of Stalin and Hitler collapses, that view collapses. Neocons have also interpreted the motives of the 'Islamofascists' in terms of an argument about determination to destroy the subversive challenge of freedom which comes out NSC 68. A lot more could be said about its origins. In brief: the whole history has been confused by Kennan's disingenuous claim that his strategy was non-military and self-evidently defensive.

One effect is that United States has ended up attempting to use familiar solutions to deal with new problems. To send an army trained to fight the Soviets in the Fulda Gap into Iraq is an act of monumental folly -- which is also cruel not only to the people of the country, who have to live with the monumental devastation caused, but also to the American soldiers send to fight an unwinnable war for which they in any case not been trained.

There are however other effects. The influence of the Wohlstetters, who were essentially disciples of Nitze, is I think central to thinking of figures like Wolfowitz and Perle.

One could also discuss the generally catastrophic nature of the policy pursued towards the former Soviet Union from 1989 onwards. In part this too reflects the assumption that change in the Soviet Union was purely a response to American 'strength' and 'will'. Its effects are being seen in the steady consolidation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization.

As to Operation Pike etc. It is certainly absolutely correct that the British almost bungled their way into fighting both the Germans and the Soviets, with Churchill incidentally in the lead. Having failed to anticipate the Nazi-Soviet Pact, they then assumed the Pact was firm, which it quite patently was not. In their readings of Soviet policy, the British were certainly inept. However, I reiterate that one should not simply discount the validity of fears that a protracted war between German and the democracies would open the way to Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe.

a brief attempt at clarification.

There are several ideas in the above paragraph that could benefit from further clarification.

1. "better outcomes might have been possible."

Could you suggest what some of these outcomes might have been?

2. "And this acceptance of neocon claims is of course the background to the current disasters in American policy..."
"But I wonder if this proves only that (for a few months) the British regarded Germany and Russia as two sides of the same coin, as Lord Lothian argued in his November 1939 Library of Congress address."

Considering that Operation Pike was at an advanced stage of development while no remotely similar attack on Germany was being contemplated, I'd say that there was a difference between who the Brits were at war with, and who they wanted destroyed.

And it wasn't just the Brits. Daladier's fall was precipitated by the failure to take advantage of the Soviet-Finish war to go to war against the Soviets.

In that debate, Laval speechified thus:

"There is no doubt you had in Finland an almost miraculous opportunity to vanquish the Soviet Union. You let it slip by. France weeps for it! Her heart bleeds!" Osborne, pg 115.

These were strong words for a guy who in September 1939 voted against the credits to finance France's participation in a war against Germany...

Henri de Kerellis, the only right-wing French Senator to vote against ratifying the Munich Pact, was not favorably impressed by "...those who had not wished to die for Danzig but who now wished to die for Helsinki. Those who insisted that one could not fight 65 million Germans alone could now fight a Russo-German combination of 245 million. Those who preached immobility behind the Maginot Line now pleaded to have an army fight near the North Pole."

But then, anticommunist Western Cold Warriors are like that. And obviously, their strategic acuity hasn't gotten any better since.
"One could also discuss the generally catastrophic nature of the policy pursued towards the former Soviet Union from 1989 onwards."

Absolutely. And remember the firestorm of outrage here in the West when Putin called the breakup of the USSR "a catastrophe". But considering that if the birth and death rates of the last years of the USSR had continued to this day, the combined population of the Soviet successor states would be about 30 million higher than it now is, with the impact of reduced birth rates and increased death rates being roughly equal.

I think "catastrophe" is a pretty good word for something like that.
David Habakkuk,

Thank you for the detailed and interesting background. I have two questions/comments.

Regarding outcomes, if Kennan believed that Stalin opposed a united communist Germany after 1945, it is difficult then to see how Kennan could have had much faith in the stabilizing effect of a demilitarized united Germany. A demilitarized united Germany was essentially what emerged from the 1919 settlement. Did Kennan dispute the lesson about how to deal with Germany after 1945 that other Western leaders drew from the failure of 1919?

I would also ask if Soviet intentions after 1945 really had no connection to their military capabilities. Stalin rejected a US proposal to internationalize nuclear weapons and without the sine qua non of denuclearization I don't think Soviet proposals to demilitarize Germany can be taken at face value. If Stalin had opposed a united communist Germany in 1931, it would seem to me additional reason to doubt the sincerity of Soviet proposals to demilitarize and unite Germany after 1945. Stalin was responsible for unifying Ukraine and he would surely have supported a unified Germany but only if it was firmly and fully under Russian control. This doesn't prove that he intended to expand, but I don't think the blame for what happened can be placed entirely on the West.

On the neo-conservatives today, they do depict radical Islam, communism, and fascism as different forms of the same problem. But I'm not sure Hitler and Stalin have ever been truly equated because of the difference in the degree to which each threatened the existing world order. The question today is whether the ability to meet different challenges has been impaired by invoking the same rationale to meet each one.

My point about neo-conservative strategy is that against the USSR, there was a match between US means and ends, while in the current struggle there is a spectacular mismatch. The Munich analogy doesn't really explain this.
Anonymous 4:00 AM,

"Considering that Operation Pike was at an advanced stage of development while no remotely similar attack on Germany was being contemplated, I'd say that there was a difference between who the Brits were at war with, and who they wanted destroyed."

From September 1939 to May 1940, most of the British army was in France and nearly all of the RAF was in Britain. The strategy was to wait for a German attack, not launch an offensive, but British deployments clearly point to Germany as the main enemy.

The planning for Operation Pike is interesting for what it reveals about British and French intentions toward Russia, and it brings out how the Allies could have blundered if the planned attack had taken place. But in the larger context of overall British and French military deployments, it is hard for me to see Operation Pike as anything more than a sideshow (that fortunately never occurred).
David Billington,

There are two many complexities to go into adequately here.

In answer to your first question, Kennan's preferred solution to the German problem was quite different from that of his colleagues. Its fundamentals derived from ideas which were being developed within the so-called Widerstand -- the resistance to Hitler in the German bureaucracy and military -- at the time when Kennan was stationed in Berlin in 1939-40. Helmuth von Moltke, one of the principal theorists of the Widerstand, is the object of perhaps the most obviously heartfelt expression of intellectual indebtedness in the whole of Kennan's memoirs.

A central concern of Moltke and other Widerstand theorists was with the transcending of nationalism. What Moltke envisaged was a united Europe, in which Germany would be split up, to avoid the problem of its excessive preponderance. There was also a strong religious element in the thinking of the Widerstand, reflected in Kennan's suggestion in his 1951 America and the Russian Future article that the 'spiritual distinction' of American civilisation would be crucial to the outcome of the Cold War. This clearly harks back to his quotation earlier in the paper of a remark made by Moltke in a letter smuggled through to a British friend during the war, that the reestablishing of the 'picture of man' in the hearts of his fellow citizens would be crucial to the restoration of Europe. Moltke was I think bilingual, but because he came back to Christianity as a result of his experience of Nazism, he translated the German world 'Bild' as 'picture', while the usual British word is 'image'. What he is referring to is the 'image of God in man' -- that is the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

People will turn Kennan into a conventional 'realist' -- but again, they prefer to stick a straitjacket of familiar concepts onto him, rather than reading what he wrote.

The vision of a kind of resurrected Holy Roman Empire, a new 'Reich' purged of its associations with German nationalism, was supposed to provide a new focus for German aspiration. A European recreated on the basis of the nation-state, Kennan feared, would encourage a revival of German nationalism. If in addition to this it appeared to be the West, rather than Stalin, who was standing in the way of German nationalist ambitions, this Kennan believed would play into Stalin's hands, as he thought that the Versailles settlement had played into Soviet hands, creating incentives for German-Soviet collaboration.

As Stalin's policy. First, Kennan's view that Stalin did not want a united communist Germany, I am suggesting, was not one that he held in 1945, but one he came to between the Long Telegram (February 1946) and the drafting of the X-article, about a year later. It was his response to the realisation that Stalin was not planning to abandon the Popular Front. Second, I was not taking a view on whether Kennan was right. I think it is likely, ironically, that Kennan exaggerated Stalin's Machiavellianism.

As to possibilities, the question is not what Stalin would have liked, but what he could have been brought to accept. The solution he ended up with -- the incorporation of by far the larger part of the military-industrial potential of Germany in an American-dominated alliance -- was something of a disaster from the Soviet point of view, and Stalin might have sacrificed a great deal to avoid it. Doubtless Stalin would have by far preferred a Germany he could control, but the Soviet strategy at the end of the war was for electoral politics in Western Europe, not coups d'etat. Electoral politics in a united Germany would, I think, have been far more likely to deliver a Westward leaning Germany than one oriented towards the Soviet Union.

As to the Baruch Plan, if you look at it more closely I think reasons will be apparent why even a leader less suspicious than Stalin would have been sceptical.

A crucial point is the misunderstanding of Marxism-Leninism. What the doctrine actually implied was not that the internal dynamics of capitalism made war with the United States inevitable, but that it made inevitable one of a range of kinds of war, including both a unified capitalist coalition against the Soviet Union, and an intracapitalist war into which the Soviets might be drawn. The political moral was that one should exploit divisions between the capitalists. But had this been correctly appreciated, it might have been grasped that the theoretical assumptions opened up room for American diplomacy. For in terms of the theory, it was very much in Soviet interests to attempt to maintain some kind of modus vivendi with the United States.

I think Anonymous is right that the Soviets had rather good reasons to suspect the British -- and this applies both to Stalin's discounting of British warnings in the summer of 1941, and, although to a lesser extent, to suspicions of British intentions after 1945. But Roosevelt had managed what, given Stalin's deep-rooted suspiciousness, was a quite remarkable feat. Essentially, the Red Army had broken the Wehrmacht, paving the way for American global hegemony. But Stalin appears to have thought the relationship with the United States could continue in the post-war world, leaving a good deal of room for manoeuvre for American diplomacy.

I certainly would not place all the blame for what happened on the West, by any means. (I am a conservative liberal, who more or less imbibed anti-communism with his mother's milk!) I do however think that a widespread tendency since the retreat and collapse of Soviet power has been to assume that the ghastliness of the Stalin regime implied there were no alternative outcomes. There has also been a continuing tendency to ignore some of the more problematic elements of post-1945 Western policy, such as the exploitation by both Americans and British of Germans and German collaborators who had been involved in Hitler's war of annihilation in the East.

Again, Kennan was crucial in this. It is somewhat difficult to work out what he thought he was playing at. My own suspicion is that he may have been engaged in an equivalent of the strategy bin Laden has practised so successfully against the United States -- looking to provoke catastrophic overreactions which would cause an enemy to self-destruct. And this was also, I think, part of what Kennan hoped to achieve with the offer of Marshall Plan aid to Eastern Europe. The violent Soviet reactions, however, helped produce NATO, which destroyed Kennan's strategic conception.
David Habakkuk,

It will be interesting to see if historians of the future take a greater interest in the paths not taken in the late 1940s. I hope you publish your own findings in some form.

Regarding the Baruch Plan, I don't think the technical problems would have been insurmountable if the political will on each side existed to make it work. Technical flaws are almost always manageable if the political level of trust is there. In the late 1940s, it wasn't, at least on the Soviet side.
I think a better historical analogue for the current situation of US is Spain between 1619-1649. Except that we have no one like Olivares in sight.
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