George F. Kennan on the Escalation in Afghanistan

In January and February 1966, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, J. William Fulbright, held a series of televised public hearings to discuss the deepening military involvement of the United States in Vietnam. Fulbright summoned to testify three pro-Administration witnesses (Secretary of State Dean Rusk, AID Administrator David E. Bell, and General Maxwell D. Taylor, Ret.) and two non-Administration witnesses (Lieutenant General James M. Gavin and Dr. George F. Kennan, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union). An abridged transcript was published under the title The Vietnam Hearings (Random House, 1966).

Historians have been struck in particular by the prescience of Kennan’s warning against the use of American arms to prop up a government that lacks the popular support to defend itself. In the comment reprinted here, prompted by a question from Senator Frank Carlson (R-KS), the only changes necessary for a translation to the present war are to substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam, and to substitute the Taliban for the Communists. ~DB

from Testimony of the Honorable George F. Kennan, Thursday, 10 February 1966

SENATOR CARLSON: This morning you stated in response to a question, and this is not an exact quote but as I took it down, “We cannot order the political realities or views of other nations by our military power.” Would you want to elaborate a little on that? If we are not going to do it by military power in this age when we are confronted with nations who seem to respect only military might, what can we do?

KENNAN: I am talking about the internal affairs of other peoples here, and about the—our entering into those internal affairs and deciding what sort of political conditions shall prevail, and this gives me opportunity to say something that I feel very strongly about. When it comes to helping people to resist Communist pressures of all sorts—whether you call them aggression or whatever you call them—it has been my conviction for many years that no assistance of this sort can be effective unless the people themselves have a very high degree of determination and a willingness to help themselves. The moment they begin to place the bulk of the burden on us, I think the whole situation is lost. So strongly do I feel about this that I have often said publicly that the only people worth helping in this world are the people who say, “We propose to survive whether you help us or not, and just because you don’t help us doesn’t mean we are going to go under. It means that we are going to fight to the last ditch anyway but it may be a little easier if you help us.”

Now, the people who take that standpoint, there is something you can latch onto. But I am extremely suspicious every time I hear it said that “If you Americans don’t give us more than you have given us or if you slacken your efforts on our behalf, we will become fainthearted, and then what will become of you?” And I think there is only one answer to this, and that is, “Whatever becomes of us will not be as bad as what becomes of you yourselves if you become fainthearted.”

In other words, I do not believe in the possibility of helping people when it comes to problems that are partly problems of their internal political life, unless they themselves have a very high degree of determination and of internal self-discipline; and if things have deteriorated so far in these countries that they can’t mobilize this sort of public morale and determination, I don’t think any foreign force can put it into them. I think, then, the entry of a foreign force into the situation confuses it and creates new confusing elements which make it all the more difficult, and I think this is what has happened inVietnam, and I have seen it happen in other situations in history.

22 thoughts on “George F. Kennan on the Escalation in Afghanistan”

  1. So, the imperial god helps those who help themselves, huh?

    Why an ostensibly anti-imperialist website would be propping up the reputations of one of the world’s arch-imperialists is a bit bewildering.

    1. The point in this post is not to endorse everything George Kennan ever said and did, "propping him up", as you said, but to use a specific statement from an inarguably brilliant man, whether or not we agree with all of his politics, to shed light on the present folly in Afghanistan, putting it in a historical context. If one is serious about the struggle this web site is engaged in, quoting a source such as Kennan is perfectly legitimate if it's purpose is consistent with an anti-war thesis. There are quotes on this web site's quote page by many generals and politicians taken from across the pages of history. Most were butchers by our standards, but the pearls of wisdom, when taken together, form a fabric of concensus on the insanity of war. I don't think it profitable to censor these sources for the sake of ideological purity.

  2. Nice Post John, Also, If Kennan had had his way, not only would we have avoided the waste of lives in Vietnam, but Iraq and Afghanistan also.

    1. Yes, that's a good point. George Kennan, if his advice had been followed, would have kept the US out of the Vietnam war. Also, during the run-up to the Iraq war, when the nation was being bombarded with jingoistic pap, he called the efforts of the Bush thugs to link al Quaida with Saddam Hussein: "pathetically unsupportive and unreliable". So yes, the present quagmires would also have been avoided. Would to god we had such "arch-imperialist's hands on the levers of power today!

  3. Implicit in Kennan’s testimony is the understanding that you shouldn’t fight for a country that can’t–or won’t–fight for itself.

    Take Vietnam. By the end of the 1960s, the U.S. had more or less taken over the fighting. The ARVN was corrupt, cowardly, and inept. The Thieu government was corrupt and authoritarian.

    Vietnam was essentially a beef between the Vietnamese–Ho Chi Minh’s boys in the North, and Thieu’s boys in the South. No reason for American involvement–let ’em duke it out.

    What should America do today? Get the hell out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and cut Israel from America’s apron strings.

  4. We should never have gone into Vietnam – their people wanted US out just like they wanted the French and the Japanese out. The generals were WRONG then and the generals are just as WRONG now in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We have attacked, invaded, and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan while killing hundreds of thousands of people in those two countries that did NOT attack nor threaten the US. We hung Nazis at the end of WWII "for waging aggressive war" – which is exactly what the US has been doing. It is way past time that we cut off ALL aid of any kind to the Zionist regime in Israel – and throw ALL of the Zionist Neocons out of the Government – and bring the troops home from both Iraq and Afghanistan. NO one came over here to interfere with our Civil War – we need to stay out of the civil wars of other countries.

  5. Kennan, in his written and spoken words relating to foreign policy, always went to the reality of the situation in the context of the consequential and essential interests of the United States, rather than the wishes, hopes, vanities and exaggerated fears of political leaders, pundits and a largely ill-informed electorate. It is not simply that he spoke the truth as he saw it, but that the truth, to him, did not involve currying favor with the highest power or first accepting a sophistic and often popularized template of a given situation before pressing his argumentative acumen into service. It was his bracing honesty, broadly speaking, that brought about his eventual departure from government in 1950, after 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. I have no doubt he would have said essentially the same thing about Afghanistan today as he did about Vietnam. We sorely need individuals of Kennan's intellect and integrity in influential positions of government today, but to our shame, we hardly seek them and, in any case, would be disinclined to keep them at the first whiff of iconoclasm.

  6. There was a better voice than that of George F. Kennan who described what America’s foreign policy should rightfully and forever be – it was the voice of John Q. Adams. Read carefully his words of eternal wisdom: “wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart (the heart of the American people and their government), her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” (Continued in next post)

  7. “She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit…. America's glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.” The founders of America, though they were imperfect, were wise, just and honorable men when compared to that abominable, criminal gang of liars, thieves and murderers who rule over us today.

  8. The US has always wanted and supported corrupt and authoritarian governments so to have a ready made excuse for when things do not go as planned(blame the natives),to divert the attention of the American public away from the consquences of the the actions that their government has taken and its illegality.

  9. But but but, isn't Gen. Stanisurge McChrystal some manner of military genius? And the Petraeus? Seems that's what the Obama is saying. Wait, maybe the Obama is saying "trust me." Or some crap like that there. The Obama has learned to speak out both sides of the military/industrial complex's mouth. America is incapable of learning the lessons of history. Hmmm, maybe just too lazy to try?

  10. Regarding Kennan and a reference alleging him to be an "arch-imperialist" – I propose that argument should be reconsidered given the history of the times. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, for clarity after the fact can make a fool appear brilliant. I do remember those wonderful moments during grammar school in my youth, going through a daily exercise of cowering under my desk while air raid sirens blared, preparing us innocent waifs for a nuclear strike. There is a yawing gap that defines the difference between a "Cold Warrior" and "Arch – Imperialist".

    An "Imperialist", "arch" or otherwise, does not propose that his own country be reduced in size. Think "Articles of the Confederation". Kennan considered the U.S. to have well reached ungovernable status according to republican principles. Leviathan had arrived, and in his opinion it should be, well, the "Union" un-preserved so to speak. Think secession given regional interests and commonality without a Lincoln stepping in and slaughtering free men for their exercise thereof.

    Imperialist that isn't. Kennan's thoughts should be well considered.

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