George Kennan was the State Department official in part responsible for the Cold War and adopting a position of containment rather than direct military engagement or alliance with post-World War II Communism and the Soviet Union. Generally, I think this was the right call, since the world didn’t blow up and everyone didn’t end up Communist by the end of the Twentieth Century (I don’t think those were foregone conclusions). He died in 2005, at 101. He tended to be pessimistic about the ability of US policy to advance high-minded ideals, stating that the “tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable.” Prior to interjecting himself (at first pseudonymously) in opposition to Truman’s Soviet policy, he was just an unknown Deputy Chief of Mission, but the public as well as the movers and shakers seemed to think, at least in the late 40s, that his knowing something about Russia and Russians meant that he should be listened to, even if they quickly twisted his logic of “containment” to apply to stumbled-into wars in East and Southeast Asia and an escalating arms race he never intended. The following quote was probably intended to be a rebuke to McCarthyism, but it would seem to have some relevance to the last several weeks:
A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all. And a ruthless, reckless insistence on attempting to stamp out everything that could conceivably constitute a reflection of improper foreign influence in our national life, regardless of the actual damage it is doing to the cost of eliminating it, in terms of other American values, is the one thing I can think of that should reduce us all to a point where the very independence we are seeking to defend would be meaningless, for we would be doing things to ourselves as vicious and tyrannical as any that might be brought to us from outside.
This sort of extremism seems to me to hold particular danger for a democracy, because it creates a curious area between what is held to be possible and what is really possible — an area within which government can always be plausibly shown to have been most dangerously delinquent in the performance of its tasks. And this area, where government is always deficient, provides the ideal field of opportunity for every sort of demagoguery and mischief-making. It constitutes a terrible breach in the dike of our national morale, through which forces of doubt and suspicion never cease to find entry. The heart of our problem, here, lies in our assessment of the relative importance of the various dangers among which we move; and until many of our people can be brought to understand that what we have to do is not to secure a total absence of danger but to balance peril against peril and to find the tolerable degree of each, we shall not wholly emerge from these confusions.
-Radcliffe Commencement Address (16 June 1954)