Friday, January 9, 2009

Kennan and Chomsky on Cold War Strategy

On page 27 of The United States and the End of the Cold War, Gaddis writes “George Kennan’s . . . conclusion that the United States should assign first priority to the containment of Soviet expansive tendencies. . . was based . . . on what he saw as the unique characteristics of the soviet state under Stalin’s rule. Because of its need for external enemies to justify its own domestic oppression, traditional diplomacy could never reassure the regime in Moscow about the intentions of other governments. The unimaginative bosses of the Kremlin needed excuses ‘for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for the cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for the sacrifices they felt bound to demand.’ Only by picturing the outside world as hostile could Soviet leaders sustain their own precarious legitimacy; nothing that the West could do would disarm their suspicions, nor was it worthwhile even to try.”

James Chase credits Kennan with creating the strategy that defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The strategy of containment achieved its goal; so anyone wanting to criticize any particular American act during the Cold War is going to have to take into consideration the fact that the strategy was a success. Perhaps this or that war could have been fought differently, but if it was to constrain the Soviet Union, then it supported the overall Kennan strategy.

Let us now turn to Chomsky where we find him saying something of an opposite nature. On page 24 of At War with Asia, he writes, “the primary technique of intervention [Chomsky’s euphemism for ‘containment’] is, quite naturally, war spending. Indeed, it is not easy, with the best will, to imagine other forms of government-induced production that will not harm but will rather enhance the interests and power of the private empires that control the economy, that are endlessly expandable, and that will, at the same time, be tolerated by the mass of the population, which has to foot the bill.

“The managers of the publicly subsidized war industries are pleasingly frank about the matter. Bernard Nossiter has published a remarkable series of articles in which he reports a number of interviews with representatives of this system of militarized state capitalism. Samuel F. Downer, financial vice-president of the LTV Aerospace Corporation, explained in the following words why ‘the post-war [i.e., post-Vietnam war] world must be bolstered with military orders’: ‘It’s basic. Its selling appeal is defense of the home. This is one of the greatest appeals the politicians have to adjusting the system. If you’re the President and you need a control factor in the economy, and you need to sell this factor, you can’t sell Harlem and Watts but you can sell self-preservation, a new environment. We’re going to increase defense budgets as long as those bastards in Russia are ahead of us. The American people understand this.’

“Of course, those bastards aren’t exactly ahead of us in this deadly and cynical game, but that is only a minor embarrassment to the thesis. In times of need, it is always possible to call upon Dean Rusk, Hubert Humphrey, and other luminaries to warn of the billion Chinese, armed to the teeth and setting out on world conquest.”


To put this in perspective, Truman was well on his way to “taking the peace dividend,” as our American isolationist inclinations tend us toward, but then he became convinced that Stalinist Russia was going to be a problem for us. But a lot of time passed before we began ramping our military up. I was in the Marine Corps from 1952 to 1955 and to the best of my recollection we used WWII vintage military equipment the entire time. My primary weapon was an M1, which is what Marines used throughout World War II. Chomsky hopes we won’t remember such things and will accept his assertion that we had imperial designs on the rest of the world and were anxious to build up our military to support those designs. What Chomsky asserts isn’t true. What is true is that we adopted Kennan’s strategy of containment, but we were very slow in implementing that strategy, especially when it came to improving our weaponry.

In regard to Downer’s comments, they represent his opinion, and it wouldn’t surprise me to have heard such comments around the water cooler when I was in aerospace. I probably did, but what Downer said was never government policy. Aerospace was not full of private empires. It was a high risk venture at every level. I was on several proposal programs where if our company lost the bid, I would have to look for work elsewhere in the company, or if I couldn’t find it (and I was one of the few who always did), I would have to leave the company and look for work elsewhere. Also, bear in mind that LTV no longer exists. Neither does the Douglas Aircraft company, the company I initially went to work for. Aerospace companies, like the individuals who worked at them, had to take chances, and when those chances failed, the companies went out of business, usually in the form of being swallowed up by some other company. Our business was not to establish policy or strategy but to make a profit for our company. LTV no longer exists, and neither does Douglas Aircraft or McDonnell Douglas because the competition for the defense dollar was fierce.

Now as to whether we needed our weaponry to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War, I would say again that this was our strategy and it worked. Having the best weaponry was part of that strategy.

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