by Gilles d'Aymery
"We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. ... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity. ... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. ... We should cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."
—George F. Kennan, Policy Planning Study 23 (PPS23), Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1948
(Swans - March 28, 2005) You've all seen this quotation cited countless times on Web sites, listservs and other mailing lists, from the left to the right, and everything in between. Simply google George Kennan, PPS23, and you'll get an idea... Problem is, it's a truncated quotation, patched together from various parts of the original text with ellipses, and taken out of context. It is more than time to debunk this little assemblage. One should not have to resort to this kind of fabrication, either out of sloppiness or willfulness, to elaborate on conjectural analysis. To use and reuse this misquotation does a disservice to all. Please, people, can you check your sources?
George F. Kennan recently died (March 17, 2005). He was 101 years old. Kennan, whether one endorsed his view of the world or not, had a sharp and honed mind; he was a prolific writer with literary skills rarely encountered at foggy bottom (see "George F. Kennan on the Web"); and he was credited for having fathered the containment strategy of the former Soviet Union, which may be giving the man too much credit -- the entire US power apparatus was in the containing mode -- but it appears that Kennan did coin the word "containment" (though I can't certify this contention) and he wrote, aside from PPS23, two important secret (at the time) documents: the February 22, 1946 Telegram from Moscow and "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs under the name X -- documents that greatly contributed to shaping the US strategy after WWII. These documents have long been analyzed, discussed, parsed, deconstructed and interpreted by legions of historians and political pundits.
Mr. Kennan was a realist (and some suggest a pessimist) as opposed to faith-based neocon Wilsonianism. He eventually left the State Department to pursue a scholarly career at Princeton; was generally opposed to the Vietnam War; and even managed to express his dissatisfaction with Bush's Iraq crusade (again, he was a realist). Upon his death, obits ran large in the mainstream media as well as in the "alternative press" (honestly, I'm having a harder and harder time figuring out the alternatives offered by the majority "alternative press," but this is a story for another time...). Anyhow, the alternative press made ample use of this "quotation" (these are not scare quotes; simply the proposition that one can make up a "quotation" by assembling bits and pieces of what someone actually said, or wrote, in order to further one's line of thinking, a.k.a. ideological preferences according to one's frame of references).
Alexander Cockburn posits ("The Passing Show," AVA, March 23, 2005) that Kennan "will be best remembered for his self-consciously 'realistic' assessment in those postwar years, in State Department PPS23 that, [enter quotation]." In his latest Anti-Empire Report (#19, March 21, 2005) the ever-sharp Bill Blum has an entry on Kennan that includes the PPS23 quotation (see my Blips #15). Even Louis Proyect posted the NYT obit on Marxmail, beginning with the quotation... (See Marxmail archives.) The source is properly indicated, but then, how many people go the source...? And so like some kind of a meme, the "citation" propagates all over Cyberspace...and not just in Cyberspace...but in books, and special reports like that of John Pilger's "Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror." (I also have it gently saved somewhere on my local hard drive!)
Robert Buzzanco, Associate Professor of History (University of Houston, Texas), used a short excerpt of the quotation in "What Happened to the New Left? Toward a Radical Reading of American Foreign Relations," a Stuart L. Bernath Memorial Lecture Buzzanco delivered in April 1999 at the annual meeting of Organization of American Historians in Toronto. Says Buzzanco: "Speaking with a candor that was typical for him but rare for U.S. policymakers, George Frost Kennan admitted in 1948 that 'we have 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. . . . Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that [my emphasis, see infra] will allow us to maintain this position of disparity.'" He refers the quotation (footnote #43) to "Kennan in PPS23, 24 February 1948, FRUS, 1948, cited in John Hart, Empire and Revolution: Americans in Texas since the Civil War, (Berkeley, forthcoming)." (I haven't checked the source of John Hart's quotation...)
Buzzanco was taken to task for his lack of accuracy by various historians in a discussion on H-Net, in its diplomatic and international discussion list H-Diplo. It's a lively exchange on the various interpretations made depending on the accuracy and the context of citations used by scholars to make their points. You can follow the thread here:
Two (where the Kennan quotation begins to be discussed)
Three (more on accuracy)
Four (in defense of Buzzanco)
Five (the choice to include or exclude information)
Seven (of truncated quotations and historical standards)
Eight (hegemony or empire...what did Kennan mean?)
Nine (the question of intent and political activism.)
finally, Ten (citing Kennan extensively in order to reach a different interpretation.)
What did Kennan actually write? (Note, I've bolded the passages used in the quotation)
VII. Far East
My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. This applies, unfortunately, to the people in our country as well as to the Government.
It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.
Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.
This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.
Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. The greatest of the Asiatic peoples-the Chinese and the Indians-have not yet even made a beginning at the solution of the basic demographic problem involved in the relationship between their food supply and their birth rate. Until they find some solution to this problem, further hunger, distress, and violence are inevitable. All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.
In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic. We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on. It is my own guess, on the basis of such study as we have given the problem so far, that Japan and the Philippines will be found to be the corner-stones of such a Pacific security system and if we can contrive to retain effective control over these areas there can be no serious threat to our security from the East within our time. Only when we have assured this first objective, can we allow ourselves the luxury of going farther afield in our thinking and our planning.
If these basic concepts are accepted, then our objectives for the immediate coming period should be:
(a) to liquidate as rapidly as possible our unsound commitments in China and to recover, vis-à-vis that country, a position of detachment and freedom of action;
(b) to devise policies with respect to Japan which assure the security of those islands from communist penetration and domination as well as from Soviet military attack, and which will permit the economic potential of that country to become again an important force in the Far East, responsive to the interests of peace and stability in the Pacific area; and
(c) to shape our relationship to the Philippines in such a way as to permit the Philippine Government a continued independence in all internal affairs but to preserve the archipelago as a bulwark of U.S. security in that area.
Of these three objectives, the one relating to Japan is the one where there is the greatest need for immediate attention on the part of our Government and the greatest possibility for immediate action. It should therefore be made the focal point of our policy for the Far East in the coming period.
(You can read the original document, PPS23, FRUS, 1948, volume 1, part II, pages 510-529 on line at Why-US.org -- caution: these are gif files. I copied the text from Russil Wvong's Web site where I found a lot of leads, particularly the links to the discussion on H-Diplo, which I followed assiduously. While I part company with his criticism of Noam Chomsky, Mr. Wvong did much research on this particular misquotation and on Kennan's work.)
Notice that Prof. Buzzanco managed to have his truncated quotation incorrect, as he replaced which with that in his citation! (Did the change come from John Hart?)
Once the full quotation is read, one can engage in interpretating, parsing the text according to the historical context and one's own intellectual inclinations. (It is worth noting, especially in light of the current US strategy in the region -- e.g. pushing Japan to re-arm...besides encircling China, and supposedly wanting to elevate India to medium superpower status -- that Kennan's recommendation in regard to Japan has been followed almost to the letter for half a century, while his recommendation regarding Taiwan has been ignored.)
The issue here is not to defend George Kennan, or what he actually meant, but the accuracy of one's sources. While Kennan eventually regretted some of the positions he had taken and the strategies he had advised, one cannot forget that he initiated, or was an ardent proponent of, the covert operations launched by the CIA during the Cold War and thus carried a moral responsibility for the deaths or overthrow of many courageous leaders, from Iran's Mohammad Mossadegh to Chile's Salvador Allende... A brilliant thinker, blessed with the ability to doubt and acknowledge his mistakes, he was nevertheless a cold warrior, deeply conservative, and a supporter of the status quo. But there is no reason, besides sloppy research or willingness to assemble a "quotation" for ideological purposes (here, I'm convinced that it has more to do with the former than the latter), to misquote an author, any authors...
From what I've been able to establish, this misquotation originated with Noam Chomsky's 1993 What Uncle Sam Really Wants, a compilation of various talks and interviews Chomsky gave between 1986 and 1991. This worthy little book can be read in its entirety on line, and the quotation is found in the section entitled "The liberal extreme."
Chomsky used a similar but different, and shorter "quotation" earlier, in "American Foreign Policy," a talk he delivered at Harvard University, March 19, 1985. That time it read:
We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.... We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.... We should cease to talk about vague and..., unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Perhaps Chomsky found these quotations elsewhere, or they were handed to him by his assistant(s)...if so, I'll be glad to stand corrected. Meanwhile, that the good professor characterizes George Kennan an "incredible villain" is hyperbolically fine. He's entitled to his opinion (he also referred to Milosevic as a "major criminal"), and his analyses are always entertaining, challenging and often quite accurate, but to stitch together a few lines out of context to make up a "quotation" to further his case is a different story altogether. This kind of activity does a disservice to all of us because when repeated by trusting authors ("it comes from Chomsky...," an imprimatur for many) the users end up utterly discounted -- and their arguments rejected -- for lack of proper, well-researched, and correct references. (Though to be fair to Chomsky, it's the user's responsibility to check the primary source, and if necessary the secondary one, not Chomsky's responsibility...) It reminds me of one oft-quoted citation, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," by George Santayana, which when read in context means something quite different from what the quoters usually infer...
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
--George Santayana (1863 - 1952), The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
Those who cannot accurately cite their sources rapidly become irrelevant...but to the gullible, of which there are many.
People, check your sources! Then we can move on to changing the world...