George Kennan on the decline of American power

“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” President Obama said recently in a New Yorker interview. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson responded "... a George Kennan is exactly what he needs: someone with the regional expertise and experience to craft a credible strategy for the U.S., as Kennan did when he proposed the ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.”

Kennan was, Ferguson says, "... the late American diplomat and historian whose insights informed the foreign policy of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on.” He was a legend in the foreign policy establishment, none more highly regarded perhaps since Franklin.

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And today in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, another scholar asks, “What would Kennan say to Obama? Possibly Obama might rediscover his wisdom.

But I think it unlikely. Not long after 9/11, a very few of us in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine wanted to know what Kennan thought of our claim that America’s external expression had overreached its natural limits. We thought we might return to “cultivate our own garden.”

Thomas Naylor, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University living in Vermont, had been writing to Kennan. Naylor saw Kennan as "... a staunch advocate of the peaceful dissolution of the American Empire and of the fledgling Vermont independence movement.”

Between Feb. 7, 2001, and Feb. 14, 2003, Naylor received 10 personal letters from Kennan and several telephone calls.

Late in October 2001, Kennan wrote to Naylor:

“I write to say that in the idea of three American states ultimate independence, whether separately or in union, I see nothing fanciful, and nothing towards the realization of which the efforts of enlightened people might not be usefully directed. Such are at present the dominating trends in the U.S. that I can see no other means of ultimate preservation of cultural and societal values that will be not only endangered but eventually destroyed in an endlessly prolonged association of the northern parts of New England with the remainder of what is now the U.S.A.”

To be successful, Kennan warned, changes of this nature must proceed in close companionship with comparable developments in the minds and customs of the peoples in whose lives they are to take place; and such changes take time and patience.

Kennan first revealed his radical decentralist tendencies in his 1993 book Around the Cragged Hill, said Naylor, citing this passage:

“I have often diverted myself, and puzzled my friends, by wondering how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment. ... To these entities I would accord a larger part of the present federal powers than one might suspect—large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.”

On May 1, 2002, Kennan wrote to Naylor: “All power to Vermont in its effort to distinguish itself from the USA as a whole, and to pursue in its own way the cultivation of its own tradition.”

And on Aug. 1, 2002: “I continue to be of poor and deteriorating health, and too much should not be looked for from me. But my enthusiasm for what you are trying to do in Vermont remains undiminished; and I am happy for any small support I can give to it.”

Quigley is a prize-winning writer who has worked more than 35 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and reviewer. For 20 years he has been an amateur farmer, raising Tunis sheep and organic vegetables. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and four children. Contact him at quigley1985@gmail.com.