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June 13, 2014 7:52 AM   Subscribe

George F. Kennan, bigot. David Greenberg reviews The Kennan Diaries in The New Republic and discovers that the father of containment hated everyone, but didn't hate everyone equally.

Kennan on Russia: "a filthy, sordid country, full of vermin, mud, stench, and disease.”

Kennan on anti-Semitism: "I have never been anti-Semitic... but I must admit that this episode brought me as close as I have ever been to becoming one.”

Kennan on genocide: “He half-converted me to his ‘extermination of the lower races’ idea...I cannot see why it is wrong in principle.”

Kennan on race: "We have a group of more or less inferior races.... No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young.”

Bonus:

Heather Hurlburt, Of Kennan, Racism, and Realism.

Jonathan Zasloff, George Kennan and the Environment: With Friends Like These…
posted by MisantropicPainforest (29 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
All standard 19th century thinking, as the article mentions. It takes a few generations for these viruses to be killed off but they still exist and can flare up again if allowed.
posted by stbalbach at 8:04 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


A good article. I grew up with an awe of Kennan (probably inherited from my father) that sorted ill with my general anti-establishment views, and was deeply disgusted when I started learning, some years back, about the kind of thing described here. He was a sorry excuse for a human being, and it's a damn good thing he never had actual power.

> Kennan on Russia: "a filthy, sordid country, full of vermin, mud, stench, and disease.”

Not really fair, since the next sentence is "But he also developed a love of it, and he immersed himself in its history and its culture," and Russians themselves (other than professional patriots) wouldn't have dissented from that description at the time, since (with the possible exception of "sordid," a term of vague condemnation) it was all unquestionably true, and continued being largely true until well after WWII. Russia had soul, but cleanliness not so much.
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


Here's the Google cache of that " Of Kennan, Racism, and Realism" article which is behind a paywall.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:28 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


That title is a bit uncharitable. The "Kennan, Racism and Realism" article however is quite good.

Actually its not very surprising that a brushed aside waspy Ivy League elitist like Kennan would have these views. I mean you are talking about a world that was still trying to find a model for posture amongst the future rulling classes well into the 60's. He would have come of age when the Eugenics movement was a very real thing. Hell Bingham was even a Prof at Princeton. This dude was running the Cold Spring Harbor labs until 1934.

These were repugnant views of the world, but I'm sure Kennan was hardly the only one who felt that way amongst the ruling elite.
posted by JPD at 8:39 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


All standard 19th century thinking, as the article mentions.

Kennan was born in 1904.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:43 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


It really persisted into the 30's at least. Especially the way in which Kennan's racism manifested itself.
posted by JPD at 8:46 AM on June 13


That title is a bit uncharitable.

The John Birch society is nodding it's head at the nursing home. The institutional memory of American conservatives is amazingly long.

The story of the American century is how the "liberal" architects of empire, like Kennan, were sidelined. I think it's even more interesting on the financial side, where Keynesian institutions, like the IMF, created to balance market failures eventually became enforcers of financial discipline. I think the culmination of this was the Bush/Cheney years where the political elite understood neither the financial nor military sides of the empire worked (the Bushies started out decrying the bailout of LTCM and ended up with Paulson's blank check.)
posted by ennui.bz at 8:48 AM on June 13


Its pretty much an ad hom unless you can link "Containment" to his racist views - which the fact that you can't really is pretty much the point of the Hurlburt article.

But hey what do I know. I'll be off having Port and Cigars with the Kochs.
posted by JPD at 8:55 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


In other words - there are very really good proper critiques of the foreign policy Kennan was one of the driving forces behind, but his own racism does not appear to be more than tangential to those critiques.
posted by JPD at 8:56 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


also, people like Kennan were flushed out of the system by bozos like the Dulles brothers. Kennan's bitterness is more than just a character defect.
But America was spared the full consequences of his uglier ideas because he always played a subordinate role to men who were superior politicians—superior in part because they had a greater love for the people of the United States and the people of the world: Franklin Roosevelt, Averell Harriman, George Marshall, Harry Truman, John Kennedy.

This is just totally misleading. The opponents of containment were always the reactionary conservatives. It was the election of Eisnehower/Nixon which changed the course. ( And, FDR didn't have much love for the Jews either. )

In other words - there are very really good proper critiques of the foreign policy Kennan was one of the driving forces behind, but his own racism does not appear to be more than tangential to those critiques.

the new republic is exactly the magazine where crypto-conservatives would try to tar an opponent with charges of anti-semitism. (that everyone is dead doesn't make the fight and the players in the fight any less real in the world of foreign policy.)
posted by ennui.bz at 9:01 AM on June 13


Even the Norwegians—of whom his wife was one—“for all their admirable characteristics ... have small regard for subtleties & refinement of thought.”

Hey, I represent that remark!
posted by fraxil at 9:20 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Wow, what an asshole. Sad that there used to be so many assholes. Sad that there are still lots of assholes.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:22 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


As if foreign policy "realism" weren't enough of a reason to be not-particularly-fond of Kennan...

If anything, I find advocacy of a pure form of foreign policy so-called realism to be at least as objectionable as most forms of racism.

That having been said, I don't think most people who advocate so-called realism--which would more accurately be called something like "foreign policy amoralism"--are actually pure "realists"/amoralists. I think they just invoke the view on an *ad hoc* basis to argue against things they don't think we should do.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:39 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


FoF-

I think it would be useful to distinguish between Realism in foreign policy and Realism in international politics--the former Kennan and many statesmen practice, but the latter is a scholarly enterprise that is certainly not amoral.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:42 AM on June 13


I don't want to seem like a racist, but I hate when people come to work with a cold.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:47 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Kennan was born in 1904.

People born in the 20th century still held 19th-century beliefs well into and through the 20th, and as experience has shown, people are still holding onto 19th-century beliefs in the 21st.
posted by blucevalo at 9:48 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


> his own racism does not appear to be more than tangential to those critiques.

So we shouldn't mention it?
posted by languagehat at 10:43 AM on June 13


It was always my understanding that Kennan did not remotely favor the hyper-militarist sort of containment the US ended up embracing. He was certainly against the Vietnam conflict (and late late in life spoke out against the invasion of Iraq).
posted by raysmj at 10:50 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


For the record, I remember being struck by his writing, in his "American Diplomacy," about how America needed to lead by example rather than via military power, in part by ridding itself of crime and porn. I was thinking, Porn? OK. So not surprised to read about the preoccupation with porn here. I'd read about the sympathies for fascism previously. In any case, it's notable that he left the bigotry out of his talks and writings clearly meant for publication in his lifetime. Either he knew the beliefs were socially and professionally unacceptable, and best kept private, or knew on some level that they were just wrong. I would guess only the former.

The author of this piece, however, writes a piece praising LBJ as liberal hero, and LBJ's own occasional bouts with bigotry and misanthropy, misogyny, etc. are kinda sorta extremely well documented.
posted by raysmj at 11:07 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I spend most of my working day with the late 40's/50's US foreign policy establishment (specifically intelligence & navies). I'm really surprised this is news to anyone; those people were racist as all heck. It wasn't subtle, it wasn't hidden. Even the most liberal of 1950's American politicians tended to harbour patronising and insensitive views of non-white, non-Xian people. They were also virulently homophobic, horribly sexist, unspeakably ablest, and so on.

I don't think it made them arseholes. It totally would have, if they held such views today. But there's been half a decade and more of education and social change since then. They were thinking, as normal people do, within the conventional wisdom of their time. Going against the conventional thinking of your society is hard, which is why we celebrate those who fought against injustice as visionaries ahead of their time. Think about it: if people couldn't be judged on the basis of their society, then abolitionists, freedom riders, etc, wouldn't be judged the heroes we agree them to be, but rather normal people doing the only decent thing in the face of intolerable provocation.

Not that this makes old racist views in any way good or acceptable. But we have to separate the views from the people who held them, and judge those people in the context of the age in which they lived.

So, on the one hand, this is kind of a non-story.

On the other hand, it's a very interesting story. Why? Because racism is complex and subtle, and understanding it is essential to understanding their world view. Articles like this give us a window into the kind of work that historians do on a daily basis.

Throughout the modern era, foreign policy has been mediated by racism (among other 'isms'). If we want to understand this foreign policy, then we have to understand these racist ideas, so that we can see how they effected the mindset of the people who held them. For example, we can't understand British attitudes to decolonisation unless we understand a) the racist ideas they held about Indians and Africans and b) how they had different racist ideas about Indians as opposed to Africans. Those ideologies, twisted and wrong as they were, are key in understanding the policy differences between British colonial regimes in each place.

As I always tell my students: anybody who uses the phrase 'simple racism' is selling something. Racism is complex and nuanced, filled with contradiction, and often very different from modern racist ideas. The serious student of modern history, especially in the international arena, must develop a serious interest in period racisms. Is it distasteful? Always. Traumatic? Sometimes. A necessary component of historical analysis? Undoubtedly.
posted by Dreadnought at 11:15 AM on June 13 [13 favorites]


He would have come of age when the Eugenics movement was a very real thing.

The last compulsory sterilization by the Oregon Board of Eugenics, for example, which had been renamed to the "Board of Social Protection", was in 1981, easily half a century after the 1930s when Kennan would have reached the age of majority (2002 article):
Victims and a coalition of 17 social and professional organizations have sought an official state apology since July.

They seek acknowledgment of a little-known chapter of Oregon history when more than 2,600 residents were sterilized between 1917 and 1981, most of them in state care.

Among them were children who were living in state institutions because they were unwanted, people who had epilepsy and wayward teenage girls.



Oregon initially used its eugenics laws to punish homosexuals. The state also favored castration over vasectomies, and the Legislature did not abolish the Board of Eugenics until October 1983.



Evidence of the law's effect has been difficult to obtain because medical records are confidential and the records of the Board of Eugenics, which ordered the procedures, and its successor, the Board of Social Protection, were lost or destroyed.
Googling turns up at least one thread on Stormfront complaining about it being stopped.

From 2006-2010 there was a program of "voluntary" sterilizations of female prisoners, mostly of Mexican descent, in the California prison system.
posted by XMLicious at 2:51 PM on June 13


(...oops, that would be the 1920s when he would've reached the age of majority.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:03 PM on June 13


I always felt ambivalent about his legacy. On the one hand, the policy of containment possibly helped avert a disaster, compared to hardliner alternatives. But it also led to things like the Vietnam War.
posted by thelonius at 4:38 PM on June 13


I'm really surprised by the reactions I'm seeing here. I don't particularly care if Kennan was alone in his views, or if such views were the style at the time.

His views with regard to both race and gender seem utterly abhorrent, and it remains upsetting that Kennan, and others who shared his views, influenced and instituted public policy. Even if they were smart enough to keep said views out of their professional writings. And even though there are almost certainly bigots still shaping public policy today.

As goes Kennan's views being a product of the 19th century, when he himself was a product of the 20th: a wiser man might have learned the error of his ways. Kennan did not. Not everyone, on the eve of World War II, "wrote in favor of taking the vote away from immigrants, women and blacks." And few people in the 1990s referred to "Clinton’s relationship to his Jewish girl intern.”

Yes, terrible things like eugenics persisted well into the 20th century. They were able to, in part, because of a failure to challenge norms, and to call bigotry for what it is.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:48 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


IMO, we shouldn't even consider eugenics to be a thing that ended in the 20th century.

I take note of how late in history government-directed sterilizations have occurred because I've had otherwise-rational people suggest to me on multiple occasions during this century that Octomom or people on welfare with a certain number of children should be sterilized, apparently unaware of the history that sterilizing undesirable populations evokes.

In one case it was actually a gay relative of mine who proposed this, evidently without being cognizant of the fact that gay people were one of the groups to whom sterilization policy was applied, right here in the U.S.
posted by XMLicious at 7:36 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


IMO, we shouldn't even consider eugenics to be a thing that ended in the 20th century.

Hell, there's an OKCupid question along the lines of "would the world be better off if stupid people weren't allowed to breed?", and the answers to that are far from a unanimous "no".
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:18 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I'm really surprised by the reactions I'm seeing here. I don't particularly care if Kennan was alone in his views, or if such views were the style at the time.


The dude has been dead for ten years and I think everyone posting and likely reading this thread agrees his views were abhorrent. It just doesn't particularly matter if you don't think the policy he promulgated was inherently racist.

So we shouldn't mention it?

No problem with mentioning it - but a post about a guy who stopped playing an active role in US Foreign Policy 60 years ago and who died ten years ago that begins with the title "George F. Kennan, Bigot" goes beyond that a bit yes?
posted by JPD at 8:26 AM on June 15


Everybody knows about his curriculum vitae; not enough people are aware of his bigotry, which, I'm sorry, was extraordinary even by the standards of his day (no, kiddies, not all of your grandparents despised black people and Jews and American democracy and thought inferiors should be sterilized). If you think it should be relegated to a discreet footnote, we'll just have to disagree.
posted by languagehat at 8:50 AM on June 15


I wasn't aware of it. Thanks for posting this, MisantropicPainforest.
posted by homunculus at 5:46 PM on June 15


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