January 22, 2012


John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011) ("[Kennan] was now approaching Acheson's view that every thing was at risk: the danger, though, was not from rotten apples but from cultural despair. The first barbarians to sack Rome had not held it; nevertheless the blow had begun the end of the roman empire. There was no reason to assume that Europe, 'as we know it--and as we need it--would ever recover from . . . even a brief period of Russian control.' Floodwaters always receded, but was that a good reason not to build dikes? To abandon Europe would be to sever the roots of culture and tradition, leaving the United States with fewer safeguards against tyranny than one might think: 'The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us. It is only the cheerful light of confidence and security which keeps evil genius down at the usual helpless and invisible depth. If confidence and security were to disappear, don't think that he would not be waiting to take their place.' Retaining their freedoms in a hostile world would require Americans, therefore, 'to whistle loudly in the dark.' That might not be enough to save them." Id. at 263. The debacle of the 2000 Presidential election, the events of September 11, 2001, the two failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the assaults on civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11, the bursting of the real estate bubble and the Great Recession of 2007-2008 and its slow and weak recovery (if it is a recovery), have all shaken the American confidence and security. Is a totalitarian waiting in the wings? Would Americans willing embrace their own dictator-saviour? There is a totalitarian in all of us, or at least the desire for the totalitarians solutions to our cultural, political. and economic problems. "The danger for Americans lay less in another Pearl Harbor [or another September 11?] than in what they might do to themselves because they feared one. For confronting totalitarians [terror?] required, in many respects, emulating them. The leader who would attempt this 'must learn to regiment his people, to husband his resources, to guard against hostile agents in his midst, to maintain formidable armed forces in peacetime, to preserve secrecy about governmental decisions, to wield the weapons of bluff and surprise, to wage war in peacetime--and peace in wartime, can these things be done without the selling out the national soul?" Id. at 416. For "Kennan's National War College Lecture on December 21, 1949, . . . [h]is topic that day was a question: 'Where Do We Stand?' The answer, Kennan told the students, depended on where 'you think we have come from, and where you think we are going.' Finding it required to remedying an inattention to history--the tendency to view all problems 'as though the world, like ourselves, had been born only yesterday.' " Id. at at 371. Also see, Henry A. Kissinger, "Mr. X," NYT Book Review, Sunday, 11/13/11.).