This article begins with these words:
Winston Churchill was rebuked as a warmonger when he tried to alert the United States to the immense danger of the Soviet Union with his “Iron Curtain” speech. In March 1946, the USSR was still America’s heroic ally; Stalin was the benign pipe-smoking Uncle Joe who had valiantly defeated the Germans, thereby sparing countless American boys an early death.
But this wilful ignorance was best captured in another call to arms that also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year: that of George F Kennan’s “Long Telegram” on the sources of Soviet conduct, which was received by the State Department in February 1946. Written by Kennan under the pseudonym ‘Mr X’, the Telegram was an attempt to bore through the layers of ignorance, foolish optimism and disinformation spread by local Communists and Soviet sympathisers. He hoped to mobilise his fellow foreign service officers in the State Department and their chiefs, and through them the press and then Congress, to “contain” the further spread of Stalin’s power across Europe. Kennan had to estrange the USSR in order to make his colleagues and the wider world see its threat.
Today, foreign policy leaders have attempted to exhume the memory of Kennan’s Long Telegram to evoke comparisons with our own confrontation with the Communist Party of China. I had a few conversations with George Kennan in 1973-74, and while I do not recall him as much given to humour, I am pretty sure that he would have found the comparison risibly absurd.
Take the influential Atlantic Council’s “Longer Telegram”. It mournfully begins by asserting that the United States “has so far had no… strategy with regard to China. This is a dereliction of national responsibility”. That is total nonsense: the one problem the Trump administration did confront systematically was China’s aggression abroad and repression at home, to such good effect that the Biden Administration reaffirmed every single one of his policies on China.
Kennan would also have ridiculed the very first operational recommendation: “US strategy and policy toward China must be laser-focused on the fault lines among Xi and his inner circle.” Back in 1946, the inner politics of Stalin’s court were totally secret and the same is true of Xi’s party today — with total centralisation very few protagonists are in the know, and they all have better ways of committing suicide than to talk.
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