George Kennan, NATO, covert guerrilla warfare
Ever since Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine — hoping to solve all his grievances against America and NATO in one spectacularly dumb military op, as if that would turn Ukrainians into instant allies — the words of George Kennan have seen a resurgence. He’s being quoted all the time.
As I wrote in my last note, when the Clinton Administration suddenly started to push for NATO enlargement in the mid-1990s, he came out publicly and categorically against the plan. He called it “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era” and a decision that will almost certainly “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies” in Russia. Even a dolt like Thomas Friedman saw the smarts of this position and he interviewed George for a column in 1998 and gave the old man precious column space to rail against the expansionists — as Friedman recently reminded everyone in a surprisingly coherent and historically accurate op-ed.
George Kennan has long occupied a hallowed place in American politics. He didn’t have anything to do with it, but a lot of people here gave him credit for helping defeat the Soviet Union without getting the U.S. into a hot war. The idea is that it the USSR was contained into submission, all according to Kennan’s plan. So his opinion should have mattered a great deal to the establishment. But it didn’t. The triumphant hawks in the Clinton Administration decided they were going to push the issue through, and they even invoked Kennan’s name in support of the plan. NATO expansion was gonna be a kind of George Kennan Containment 2.0, they said. Except, as Kennan himself pointed out, it’s not clear what NATO in the 1990s was supposed to contain or defend people against. The original NATO was pointed at the Soviet Union. But communism was dead and Russia was viciously capitalistic and had no other ideology. On top of that, the country was plundered and impoverished with no designs on Eastern Europe. He was right, back then NATO appeared to be a purely antagonistic entity — meant to preserve Cold War divisions and inflame grievances.
What’s fucked, of course, is that now…all these anti-NATO arguments, no matter how sensible, are useless. What Putin did with his stupid invasion was invalidate retroactively the correct positions and predictions that people like Kennan made back then and to prove right the positions of all the worst people — the rabid neocons and Atlantic Council-type meddlers and expansionists, who’ve been escalating and heatings things up for years on Russia’s borders. As far as the popular discourse goes now, it no longer matters what caused who to do what: Putin attacked first and so Europe needs NATO now more than ever! It’s what everyone’s saying. Hell, it’ll be kind of funny if neutral Finland — a longtime NATO holdout — will finally join, too. That’ll be a laugh.
And that’s a massive downside of Putin’s war. He’s empowered all the worst people over here. They have the upper hand — more than ever before.
So no one listened to ol’ George back then. But don’t feel bad for him. One thing that people might not know about him was that he wasn’t just a nice elitist, racist diplomat who penned an influential article about the need to cordon off and strangle Soviet expansion. He was also deeply involved in the messy and ugly clandestine side of the Cold War. He was one of the key architects of America’s post-WWII covert action infrastructure, which ultimately came to be housed within the CIA and would go on to wage covert political and warfare, spread propaganda, bankroll paramilitaries and death squads, and do regime change all over the world. In short, he was a bloody and committed anti-communist — which, I guess, makes his opposition to NATO all the more valid.
I first became interested in George Kennan when I was writing Surveillance Valley, when I traced the origins of America’s “Internet Freedom” efforts — and the funding of services like Tor and Signal — back to him and his masterplan of how to contain and defeat communism. As I wrote in my book,
In 1948, George Kennan helped craft National Security Council Directive 10/2, which officially authorized the CIA — with consultation and oversight from the State Department — to engage in “covert operations” against the communist influence, including everything from economic warfare to sabotage, subversion, and support for armed guerrillas. The directive gave the CIA carte blanche to do whatever was required to fight communism wherever it reared its head. Naturally, propaganda emerged as a key part of the agency’s covert operations arsenal. The CIA established and funded radio stations, newspapers, magazines, historical societies, émigré research institutes, and cultural programs all over Europe.
Kennan was particularly excited about weaponizing all the disaffected anti-communist immigrants and exiles living DP camps in Europe after WWII, many of whom had just come off from collaborating with Nazi Germany.