The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age, by George F. Frennan. New York: Pantheon Books. 208 pp. $1395.
George F. Kennan has held sensitive and distinguished posts and has won his share of honors in the 31 years over which the contents of this book were written. he served as the US ambassador to the Soviet Union and held other State Department posts; has been a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; and has received two Pulitzer Prizes for books on US-Soviet relations as well as the Albert Einstein Peace Prize.
This is a selection of Kennan's writings extending from 1950 to 1981. The pieces are concerned with current political issues and are mostly taken from lectures and speeches addressed to the general public.
No matter how ephemeral the occasion of his writing, Kennan always writes for the ages. The early pieces have lose none of their cogency with the passage of the years. With astonishing foresight, Kennan fromulated and answered in the 1950s the questions which are still at the center of our concern. His writing are vibrant with an unresolved tension between his passionate faith in man and his exasperated despair over mankind's foolisness.
There are two main themes, the nature of Soviet society and the nature of nuclear weapons. Kennan's view of Soviet society is based on long and intimate contact with Soviet bureaucracy and with ordinary Soviet citizens. He sees the individual human beings behind the facade of ideology. He is constantly fighting against the tendency of Amewicans to oversimplify and dehumanize their adversaries.
For Kennan the Soviet Union is, first of all, a great and complicated assemblage of peoples burdened with a harsh historical heritage. Like other societies, it is more deeply concerned with its own internal problems than with the problems if the world outside; it sees itself as far more threatened than threatening; it is struggling unsuccessfully to deal with problems of alienated youth and rigid bureacracy in a time of rapid econoimc change.
Kennan is well aware of the unpleasant characteristics of the Soviet state, the paranoid secretiveness, the intolerance of dissent, the self-righteous rhetoric, the casual cruelty, the glorification of military strength. Yet he bids us look behind these harsh realities.
He sees the Soviet leaders as a group of elderly and conservative men, whose chief ambition is to push the Soviet Union along the path of economic progress which the communist ideology promises to bring about. To accomplish this task, the leaders, have only three tools, the authoritarian party apparatus, the overcentralized bureaucracy, and the armed forces.
THe party apparatus and the bureaucracy are celarly indequate for the direction of a modern industrial economy. Of all the institutions of the Soviet state, the armed froces stand highest in technical competence, in morale, and in genuine contact with the masses of the Soviet population.
The army in the Soviet Union is, as the French army was in the time of Napolion, the poor man's university. It is no wonder that, in the eyes of the ordinary Soviet citizen as well as in the secret corridors of the Kremlin, the armed forces command a disproportionate share of power and prestige. The massive accumulation of Soviet weaponry arises from this internal ascendancy of the armed forces, not from any plan of foreign conquest.
Kennan sees Soviet society as conservative but very far from static. He sees great historical changes occurring beneath the rigid surface of the system. A few months ago he said to me in the course of a casual converstion, "It is odd that I have been worrying for 50 years, for all of my professional life, about the strength of Soviet society. And now I am worrying about its weakness. I begin now seriously to worry that the whole thing may disintegrate."
He takes very seriously the recent evidence of social decay in the Soviet Union, the rise in drunkenness and in infant mortality, the prevalence of bribery and corruption, the loss of a sense of purpose among the children of the elite. he sees great and possibly disastrous changes ahead if the processes of decay continue.
He looks back at the events of 1917, when the American people joyfully welcomed the collapse of the czarist empire and was surprised to see it replaced by the far more vicious tyranny of Lenin. he sees the American government now ignorantly harassing the present Soviet regime, careless of the possibilty that this comparatively benign group of leaders will in their turn be replaced by something worse.
Kennan criticizes strongly the excessive attention paid in America to Soviet exiles and dissidents. It was the Russian exiles who inflamed American opinion against the czar's governemtn in the years leading up to 1917. The recent wave of exiles is having a similar effect on Soviet-American relations today.
Kennan believes that attempts by the American government to pressure the Soviet Union into more humane treatment of dissidents are likely to counterproductive.
The other half of Kennan's afrument concerns nuclear weapons. Here Kennan has been equally farsighted. In 1950 he formulated the view which he has steadily maintained ever since, that the decision of the American government to rely upon the first use of nuclear weapons as a defense against nonnuclear attack was a fundamental mistake. He predicted accurately that the firstuse policy would stand in the way of any serious effort to bring the nucleat arms race under control, would prevent any military disengagement of Soviet and American forces in Europe, and would in the end deprive us of any possibilty of using military strength to achieve reasonable political purpose.
For many years Kennan was a voice crying in the wilderness, alone in his consistent opposition to the first-use policy. Recently a number of public figures have joined him. Both in America and in Europe, more and more people ar coming to understand that the first-use policy is incompatible with any coherent strategy of national defense. It will be a long time befor the policy if officially abandoned. Whatever progress we are making in that direction is due almost entirely to Kannan's leadership.
The nuclear delusion, the phrase Kannan chose for the title of his book, means the belief that nuclear weapons are usable as other weapons are usable. This delusion is an essential part of the firs-use policy. According to Kennan, as soon as the Soviet Union had acquired a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons to balance the American stockpile, the weapons on both sides ceased to be usable for any rational purpose. They are, in fact, no longer weapons but only instrument of suicide.
Their existence poses a greater danger to American national security than any possible nonuclear threat. The only rational strategy for the United States is therefore to deal with nonnucleat threats by means of nonnuclear weapons, and to seek agreement with the Soviet Union and other nuclear powers to do away with nuclear weapons altogether.
Kennan is hopeful, and with good reason, that the Soviet government would be willing to go far in nuclear disarmament, if the US were sincerely committed to this course of action. Both in the official pronouncements of the Soviet government and in the private converssations of Soviet citizens we find reiterated a desire for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Only if we negotiate seriously and in good faith can we find out whether this desire is genuine.
Kennan has no hope that much of value can emerge from arms-control negotiations conducted in the style of the SALT talks, with each side striving only to retain a maximum of weaponry for itself while putting its opponent to the maximum disadvantage.
As he says, such negotiations "are not a way of escape from the weapons race; they are an intefral part of it. Whoever does not understant that when it comes to nuclear weapons the whole concept of relative advantage is illusory -- whoever does not understant that when you are talking about absurb and preposterous quantities of overkill the relative sizes of arsenals have no serious meaning -- Whoever does not understand that the danger lies, not in the possibility that someone else might have more missiles and warheads thatn we do, but in the very existence of these unconscionable quantities of highly poisonous explosives, and their existence, above all, in hands as weak and shaky and undependable as those ourselves or our adversaries or any other mere human beings: whoever does not understand these things is never going to guide us out of this increasingly dark and menacing forest of bewilderments into which we have all wandered."
Underneath of melody of Kennan's flowing prose we hear from time to time these deep organ tones of moral indignation, moral indignation that is in the end the only human force stong enough to save us from our follies. For 35 years he has been telling us that our readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings is not merely a military miscalculation and political mistake but an insult to manking and to God. Now, a long last, the world is beginning to listen to him.