The product of a war of emancipation from one of the most powerful European states, and a nation that identified itself as the embodiment of universal right, the United States always had a problematic relationship with the reigning world order, alien, different, and European as it was. The United States was, however, able largely to escape the ill effects of that system, indeed paradoxically to profit from it by being allowed, as it happened, the luxury to develop its rapidly expanding continental space in geopolitical seclusion. This experience, wholly unlike that of the Soviet Union (and its czarist predecessors), lacked sustained dialectical interaction with powerful enemies. The United States, then, could afford to conceive of itself as a privileged place singled out by history to demonstrate the proper principles of humankind as such. Affirmation of that truth was of course continuously to be found in the phenomenal material progress visible throughout. It was really only through Woodrow Wilson's intervention in World War I and his ambitious attempt to restructure the old European order afterward that the United States was momentarily forced to reflect on what a properly "American" alternative to the given international order might look like. As it turned out, Wilson's project of law, discussion, arbitration, and self-determination in the interest of humankind was rejected at home and fared little better abroad than Lenin's contemporary counterpart. What followed instead, eventually, was the fascist challenge. Thus, in 1941 both of the two continental powers that had tried to maintain distance from the lethal center of world politics for most of the 1930s suffered fascist attacks, surprise attacks, without previous declarations of war.
A vital precondition for the Cold War was the diverging conceptions of what the ensuing, common war against fascism was ultimately about, in particular what sort of peace the colossal effort was to achieve. When the Soviet Union went from being a wartime ally of the United States to a postwar adversary (1945–1947) and then to a mortal enemy (1947–1963)—or, to put it differently, when a hot war against fascism became a Cold War against communism—the quite specific way in which Franklin D. Roosevelt (and to a lesser extent his auxiliaries) had grappled with the issue of war and peace in the world and the international role of the United States was transplanted, with important modifications, to his successor. This in turn allowed the previous understanding of fascist aggression to be superimposed on its allegedly similar communist counterpart. We will pursue this changing trajectory from Roosevelt to Harry S. Truman (and his administration) by also including a reflection on the person who provided much of the raw material for the new Cold War analysis of the Soviet Union and whose writings also inspired Lippmann to name the international condition a "Cold War," namely, George F. Kennan. What will be of particular interest is the "rejectionist" aspect common, on different grounds, to Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennan alike: the notion, in short, that the enemy had no legitimacy because it in turn not only failed to recognize the legitimacy of others (especially the United States and the West) but was itself by nature bent on world conquest. This was an enemy, therefore, that had to be eradicated by a struggle to the death or (in Kennan's case) cast out of the international community so that it would eventually wither away.
Geopolitical noninvolvement was popular in the United States during the 1930s. No one was more keenly aware of this than President Roosevelt. By 1935, however, it was becoming impossible not to worry about the deteriorating international climate. Roosevelt began to take special note here of the rapid proliferation of aggression carried out, technically speaking, below the level of outright, declared war. Using the naval war of 1798 against France as historical reference, the administration introduced the term "quasi-war," which Roosevelt deployed specifically to illustrate the difficulty in maintaining the old, sharp distinction between war and peace. In his famous "Quarantine" speech of October 1937, he spoke of "times of so-called peace," and by the outbreak of the world war in September 1939, he had come to view this condition of mounting aggression quite specifically as a problem of international "lawlessness." Accordingly, he saw the advent of generalized war as a result of already existing gangsterism, enormously magnified and intensified, to be sure, but long rampant. Dealing with such a phenomenon was not war as traditionally conceived but essentially a "policing operation," albeit a huge one. To conduct that endeavor on traditional principles of recognizing the legitimacy of the enemy was palpably absurd. From the beginning, it was now apparent, the fascist regimes had unleashed their illegal aggression with the utmost contempt for international law and order. The distinction between war and peace, it was clear to Roosevelt, meant nothing to them. As he declared at a moment in July 1941 when the United States was still officially at peace with Germany, "the only peace possible with Hitler is the peace that comes from complete surrender."
The polarity of gangsterism and law, then, made retrospective sense of the events of the 1930s. Less obviously, it also allowed conceptually for the inclusion of the defensive Stalinist dictatorship in the camp of good, good being understood negatively here as not bad. The Nazi surprise attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 probably confirmed for Roosevelt that the aspect of "dictatorship" did not in itself provide any precise gauge of what that regime would do in the international arena. Some dictatorships, though not perhaps proper admirers of "law," might indeed favor order, and without initial order in the sense of stability and international respect, there could be no ensuing institutionalization of civilizing law. Thus, on closer inspection Roosevelt's polarity turns out to harbor an important temporal dimension: while fascism/gangsterism could only disastrously lead to death and destruction, the powers of caution and order overall might, if nurtured in appropriate ways, evolve into something recognizably closer to home. There was, then, a civilizational potential here to be realized, given enough time and resources. The precondition was complete and utter destruction of gangsterism. It is in this light that one can understand Roosevelt's attempt to treat Stalin as a member in good standing in the association of orderly forces. This Rooseveltian posture must not be mistaken for any standard version of U.S. "legalism" or utopianism. Order, the essence of law, was always much more important to him (as it had been to his predecessor and relative Theodore) than the formal, procedural aspects. One recalls the court packing scheme of 1937, an ill-fated attempt to alter the political complexion of the Supreme Court and illustrative of Roosevelt's deeper attitude toward supposedly sacrosanct institutions of law. His explicit vision of a postwar world dominated by four great policing powers may be read in similar ways. It is not farfetched to detect in this concept of pacification and order a suitably updated Progressivism of the early 1900s, Roosevelt's own formative era.
In the event, Roosevelt's formula for all this, "unconditional surrender," performed a range of services from his viewpoint: it was an absolute precondition for the future construction of a reasonable world order; it offered the simplest possible platform for the wartime alliance; and by subordinating everything to the military objective of defeating the enemy it allowed for the postponement of sticky geopolitical issues such as territorial demands and exclusive spheres of influence. By the same token it was unclear what would follow that surrender. The underlying notion of pacification and policing entailed no vision of the political future. With a discerning eye on domestic opinion, Roosevelt chose accordingly to combine the demand for unconditional surrender with a declaration that the war was ultimately about "freedom." Both positions were absolute and general in character, but unconditional surrender was as precise as the goal of freedom was diffuse. One referred to the enemy and the only possible way the war could end in that regard. The other referred to the deeper meaning of the struggle and what would happen to the forces of good once the enemy had been defeated. The choice of "freedom" in the latter case may now seem natural, given that the idea had always been a constituent part of politics in the United States and its presence later on in Cold War language would become ubiquitous. Yet it was not always the most central referent in the political vocabulary, and Roosevelt's deployment was in fact the product of recent domestic controversies over the New Deal, which had been attacked from the right precisely as subversive of revered American values of freedom. The administration returned the salvo by appropriating the term and connecting it to "security," the notion that people have a substantial right to, among other things, a certain social and economic security in life.
The argument enjoyed, not surprisingly, considerable resonance during the Depression decade when deep "insecurity" was indeed rife among the public at large. At the end of the decade, when the insecurity of the United States itself was becoming manifest, the coupled concept was thus readily available for Roosevelt to project onto the world, above all through the Atlantic Charter and the "Four Freedoms" speech. The position entailed nothing much, again, by way of commitment to any concrete political arrangements, but because it was proclaimed in a language of inherent rights, a certain awkwardness was potentially attached to the procedure. Respect for the universal rights of individuals and nation-states in their capacity as autonomous, self-determining entities was not immediately apparent in British imperial rule, the brutal domestic repression of the Soviet regime, white supremacism, internment of Japanese Americans, and semicolonialism of the United States. These problems were manageable, however, since the suppression of gangsterism was always a prior condition for freedom in full-blown form. Thus, for instance, Roosevelt's support for "trusteeship" as a reasonable intermediate stage for colonial peoples deemed unready for full independence.
There the matter might have rested, but Roosevelt went on to connect unconditional surrender, order, freedom, and security into a single, neo-Wilsonian frame such that there would be and could be no real, final security for the United States and humankind until everyone everywhere had come to encompass and recognize these freedoms. Partly launched as domestic polemic against "isolationism," Roosevelt's crucial move had several related effects. It was now incumbent on policymakers, in principle, to demonstrate in every international matter that, negatively, the issues involved were irrelevant to the overall struggle for freedom, on which hinged in turn the security of the United States. This was extremely difficult to do, as the Truman administration would find out when China was being "lost" in 1948–1949. Moreover, if the world was now to be divided into two exclusive zones of freedom and un-freedom, any conceivable gain for the latter was not only a defeat for the former but also automatically an infringement on the security of the United States. During World War II this made sense because the dividing line was easily defined in straightforwardly military terms and no one could deny that the position of that front was vital for the very future of the world. The free world was for all practical purposes all areas beyond fascist control, while "liberated" ones, specifically, were those freed from such domination. Gains, then, were graphically clear in the movement of the line. Drawing the same line in the postwar world, however, where the antifascist free world was now the anticommunist free world, was a very different matter: areas of contention might technically be at peace, the demarcation vis-à-vis the enemy could not always take the form of a clear front and the issue of "freedom" might well be a good deal blurrier. The Rooseveltian matrix, then, expanded American security concerns in principle to the entire world and structured them in terms of a continuous, epic struggle for final, positive freedom everywhere.
The globalist implications were quietly reinforced by the addition, again for contingent domestic reasons, of a peculiarly American historical referent. To the image of gangsterism, never hard to grasp presumably with the Prohibition era in fresh memory, was added that of a global civil war, understood as a typological reenactment of the U.S. Civil War. Roosevelt himself liked to argue that he had taken the formula of unconditional surrender from Ulysses S. Grant, a nifty triple play on the Civil War, unconditional surrender, and the United States. Distinguished figures around him, moreover, began to talk of the struggle in the religiously flavored terms of abolitionism and slavery. Henry Stimson, the incoming (Republican) secretary of war, invoked Abraham Lincoln's biblical metaphor of a house divided which cannot stand but must turn either slave or free. Vice President Henry Wallace referred similarly to a "fight to death between the free world and the slave world" just as in the United States during the Civil War. Now a matter of the world as a whole, there could be "no compromise with Satan," as he put it. Wallace, interestingly, followed the historical analogy to its conclusion by insisting that the lethal struggle had to be followed by a phase of reconstruction, where the social and economic rights of the underprivileged, the enslaved as it were, would be secured. This aspect tended to disappear or at least be severely constricted when the trope came to provide core concepts for Cold War thought. Eradicating gangsterism, however, was for Roosevelt himself what the struggle was immediately and foremost about: the sequence began with the liquidation of the lawless and continued with policing and establishment of order, followed by the opening up of a long and winding road of progress toward freedom and final, true peace everywhere.
The end of World War II and consequent expiration of the alliance happened almost to coincide with the death of Roosevelt. His successor, Harry S. Truman, not a politician of equal world-historical ambition, inherited a deceptively simple scheme from a figure of deceptively open character who had actually kept much of his geopolitical project to himself, managing to combine in his policymaking extraordinary publicity with extraordinary privacy. Truman was far more literal-minded. The future focus of world politics was to be the war alliance of the United Nations as transformed into a universal operation of cooperation. Pronouncements, such as the Declaration on Liberated Europe at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, meant exactly what they said, as did the agreements on democratic elections in Poland. To the subtleties and nuances of traditional geopolitics he was largely deaf. Four months later, when Truman had the satisfaction of achieving the first of Roosevelt's absolute aims, unconditional surrender (or something close enough to it), he was thus left with the openended commitment to the accomplishment of U.S. security through the global victory of freedom. Whereas the first goal had been clearly strategic and measurable in character, directed as it was to the total defeat and liquidation of a well-defined enemy, it was not at all clear after the final victory in early August 1945 what would follow in regard to the second aim. Crushing the enemy had eliminated the immediate strategic terrain for Roosevelt's second, more positive idea, the concept of freedom. The next two years would thus be a period of reconnaissance and reinvention of that terrain through the gradual installment of the Soviet Union as the new mortal enemy of freedom and U.S. security.
For Truman, the postwar period of 1945–1947 seemed indeed to feature nothing but a whole string of such Soviet transgressions. Moscow was staking claims in two theaters of traditional Russian interests, eastern Europe and the Near East, in ways that appeared to him not only disquieting but in explicit violation of existing agreements. Thus, Stalin imposed his own kind of regime in Poland and never allowed the free elections promised in the Yalta accords. In fact, by the fall of 1945 it seemed clear that the future of Soviet-controlled eastern Europe would not entail anything resembling the sort of "freedom" envisaged by the wartime declarations. Strikingly hardnosed in the Council of Foreign Ministers, the forum where the peace treaties were to be hammered out, the Soviet representatives appeared little interested in anything but their own very narrowly conceived concerns. Subsequently, in 1945–1946 civil war revived in Greece, apparently instigated by communists, while Moscow itself proceeded to make a series of exceedingly hostile demands on Turkey and refuse to leave northern Iran as previously agreed. At the same time there was little or no progress on the economic rejuvenation of Germany and western Europe because of Soviet obstruction, and the situation was clearly (or so it seemed) deteriorating fast.
Truman's response was typically hard: support for the Iranian regime in 1946, strong assumption of previous British responsibilities in the eastern Mediterranean through massive military assistance to Turkey and Greece in the spring of 1947, and, the crowning achievement, the launching of the Marshall Plan in June 1947 to restore the western European economies, followed by institutionalized military ties in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. The western and by far richest parts of Germany being under western control, the process was completed with the creation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949.
Whether or not this was an accurate understanding of Stalin's actual policies is an interesting historical question. Having faced the Nazis mostly alone for almost three epic years of monstrous war, the Stalinist regime was hardly about to jeopardize its new positions in eastern Europe for the sake of any general declarations on liberty. One wonders if the United States would have done so either had there been invasions of comparable scale and devastation through, say, Canada. Indeed, Stalin was doubtless aware that the United States had not been unwilling historically to order and arrange the domestic politics of states in its vicinity for reasons apparently of far lesser magnitude. The Soviet demands on Turkey were imprudent, as were the equivocations and obstructions in northern Iran; but in neither case were the actions beyond the traditional bounds of the czarist predecessors.
In western Europe, meanwhile, the communist parties continued a policy of class coalitions and reconstruction until the Marshall Plan divided the region from the East. The German matter, however, was the paramount one in the end. Here the Soviet Union considered itself entitled chiefly to two things: reparations and absolute guarantees that a reconstructed Germany would never again constitute a threat. In the end it got nothing close to what it had anticipated by way of reparations, and it also witnessed the emergence of the powerful anti-Soviet state in western Germany that was to join NATO. Seen as statecraft in pursuance of its interests, then, the Stalinist policies were not impressive. A more subtle and clever regime, for example, could have wrecked the Marshall Plan by appearing to accept it.
Sharp and pointed as these various actions and counteractions were, however, they do not in themselves add up to a Cold War. That would only come about when the Truman administration had cast a new, modified version of Roosevelt's wartime matrix and superimposed it on the novel condition of what seemed to be a peace that was no peace. What enabled this critical process to take place was the concept of "totalitarianism." By 1950 the "American" translation of the totalitarian theme was to be completed with the full-blown reintroduction of the wartime idea of a global civil war about freedom and slavery.
As a neologism of Italian fascism in the 1920s, totalitarianism had signified the goal of "total" confluence between state and society. At the end of World War II it had of course become an entirely pejorative word, indicating (simply put) a tyrannical regime in dictatorial control of its population by modern means of propaganda and secret police. Dormant if not irrelevant during the war because of the alliance with the Soviet Union, it reentered the Western frame after the war as a focus for the attempt to understand the emerging divergencies with the Kremlin. By the spring of 1947 the Truman administration was announcing in no uncertain terms that the Soviet camp was totalitarian and thus essentially the same as fascism. The reversal abstracted certain similarities in technologies of rule and turned the resultant concept into an explanation of what such regimes would be doing in foreign relations. Fusing two very different adversaries under the rubric of totalitarianism carried with it, then, the projection of fascist modes of aggression and ultimate objectives of world conquest onto the Soviet Union.
The idea of totalitarianism served to reactivate a certain dual lesson already painfully learned at Pearl Harbor, if not before, about the origins of the Second World War and the proper role of the United States in the world. The first part of the lesson had to do with what had actually been done. Legitimate governments in the 1930s, accordingly, had not only failed to stand up to the dictators but, when pressed, actually helped them along by obsequious negotiations and the most abject concessions, only to find the insatiable aggressors escalating their demands and finally throwing the world into generalized war. Tyrants recognized no language, it was clear, other than that of force. This historical lesson was encapsulated in the harsh references after the war to "Munich" and "appeasement," both of which became instantly recognizable signifiers of condemnation.
The second part of the lesson had to with what had not been done. For there was of course the more particular problem of the inactivity of the United States itself. The weaker democracies France and Britain had at least been in a position during the 1930s to choose whether to appease or not. The United States, though possessed of vastly greater potential power, had removed itself even from this choice. Deeply bogged down in self-imposed "isolationism," the country had eventually paid the devastating price at Pearl Harbor. Thus, the model analogy impressed on the public the indisputable imperative of global responsibility and action against threats of the totalitarian type. Given that frame and the experience of Pearl Harbor, it was only with the greatest difficulty from now on that one could find any morally and politically plausible way of opposing such a vast engagement. Perhaps the only truly "American" counterargument was that of the traditional Republican right to the effect that unlimited commitments conjured up the nightmare of an un-American Leviathan, a normalization and entrenchment of the expanded wartime state, in turn a continuation of the corruptions invented by the detested New Deal apparatus. In evoking Munich and Pearl Harbor, however, the "internationalist" response could easily insinuate that some blame for these events had to be put on the Republican stab in the Wilsonian back after the First World War.
The lesson learned, in short, was double. First, dictators could only be stopped with unequivocal force and never appeased with concessions. Second, the United States must never again retreat into "isolationism" or abdicate judgment over international events but must always play a leading role in the world. These two truths had been established unequivocally on 7 December 1941, the day of "infamy" at Pearl Harbor. The graphic clarity of the ensuing war effort, however, did not require much reiteration and elaboration of the lesson. Roosevelt's twin vision of unconditional surrender and future cooperation for order naturally dominated the proceedings. When postwar realities seemed to disappoint those expectations, when the American eye began to detect in Soviet behavior something beyond mere intransigence, when one began to see crude impositions and violations of agreements honestly and fairly concluded, when, in short, the Soviet Union became a systemic problem—it was then that "totalitarianism" became a powerful device for the Truman administration, through which it could explain Moscow's conduct in a way that reinforced and recast the twin lessons of World War II in novel circumstances. In a word, communism became identical to fascism. The development was momentous.
Once the identity had been established, some implicit differentiation could take place. For one thing, the older Rooseveltian theme of aggression as gangsterism no longer seemed pertinent. While the Kremlin was no doubt an illegitimate regime, expressive of the cruel, arbitrary will of a tyrant and willing, should the occasion arise, to engage without compunction in every illegal act, it was not on the international level a criminal regime in the sense of, say, an Al Capone. (Indeed, Stalin had been bitterly indignant at the sheer illegality of Hitler's surprise attack, and once the Cold War got going, the Soviet view began to denounce "recklessness" and gangsterism in the name of peaceful relations, now with the United States as target.) The notion, in short, of an adventuristic outfit launching massive assaults at will did not square with the Soviet Union and the communist movement. Early analytical accounts spoke instead of a fairly cautious government, proceeding by secrecy, subversion, conspiracy, proxies, and creeping takeovers, in fact avoiding hot war if possible. This was an adversary with a strong sense of power, equipped with a disciplined, patient machine of great ingenuity, "a far-flung apparatus" in George F. Kennan's phrase. It was the piecemeal, covert as opposed to overt, aspect of totalitarian aggression that appeared to mark the Kremlin.
Another difference, tacitly recognized now and then, was ideological: rather than attacking democracy along fascist lines as degenerate, communism appealed to a putatively better and fuller form of it; rather than declaring racial superiority, communism offered strong critiques of it, not least as it appeared in the United States; rather than celebrating geopolitical expansion, it mobilized against "American imperialism" in terms of national independence and colonial liberation; rather than glorifying war, it proposed a politics explicitly calling for adherence to international agreements and the promotion of peace. One could easily (and often quite rightly) disparage this as empty propaganda, but the fact remained that the ideology of totalitarian communism was not the same as the ideology of totalitarian fascism. "Cold War" was the name of that difference, the name eventually given to the new and lethal challenge of the Soviet incarnation of totalitarianism.
Much of the concrete view of the Soviet Union here stemmed from Kennan. His Soviet morphology, first conveyed in early 1946 in the so-called Long Telegram from his post at the Moscow embassy, proved extraordinarily persuasive to the Truman administration. The grand narrative of freedom and totalitarianism appeared to be amply confirmed by the particulars of the analysis: the image of a hostile, powerful state, predetermined by its very nature to expand and destroy, refusing all normal, decent relations with the West, looking for "security only in patient but deadly struggle for the total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it." When combined with the totalitarian trope and the historical lessons of Munich and Pearl Harbor, this account became irresistible ideology.
Curiously, however, Kennan himself was not especially interested in the concept of totalitarianism, nor for that matter in the universal issue of freedom and slavery. What was inimical about the Moscow regime for him was, simply put, what he took to be its despotic, fanatically anti-Western character and inherent need to expand that rule, not the fact that it was "unfree" as such. Kennan's conservative outlook combined two partly over-lapping, partly contradictory orientations or sensibilities, neither of which had any extensive anchoring in American traditions. On the one hand, he was a realist, conceiving politics purely as a matter of power, interests, and security, not of ideology or norms: the primary question for the realist is what sort of "interested" policy any given power structure might give rise to or permit. On the other hand (and more fundamentally), Kennan espoused what one might call an ideology of the cultural West. He understood this entity as a wide civilization, the central and most mature areas of which lay in western Europe but which was made up of a whole range of specific political traditions and customs, some of which quite legitimately evinced few or no similarities with U.S. democracy. Real diplomacy (or at least extensive relations) could and should take place only within this realm, a realm of "intimacy" as he liked to think of it. Contrary to his realist impulse, then, Kennan felt that cultural proximity should be the decisive criterion in determining the manner of Western diplomacy. Toward the outside, where shared meaning was limited or nonexistent, one should maintain one's natural distance with dignified reserve. In particular, there could be no proper relationship with any fanatical regime that by its very nature was defying the West.
Ever since the late 1920s, when Kennan had begun his career as one of the first experts on the Soviet Union in the State Department, he had argued that the regime did not belong to the normative community of the West and should be isolated. Accordingly, he had opposed Roosevelt's diplomatic recognition of Moscow in 1933. A few years later he had also opposed the idea of any Western collaboration with the Soviet regime against fascism. The best policy, all things being equal, toward such disagreeable regimes was really a nonpolicy of no interaction, except where absolutely necessary. This was indeed to be his chief recipe for dealing with the nationalism of what would come to be known in the 1950s as the Third World. In Kennan's view, the Stalinist regime, because it was at once the most fanatical and powerful foe, could not just be ignored, especially not now that historical accident in the form of Hitler's immense betrayal of the West had served to place the Red Army in the middle of the civilizational heartland. It could, however, be isolated, or, in Kennan's own term, contained. Thus he argued that the United States should act rapidly and vigorously to restore to health the remaining parts of the central West, while preventing the enemy by all means necessary from making any advances into those areas and any others that might be deemed strategically vital for the West. Toward the Soviet regime itself, by contrast, one ought to maintain very low relations or none until such a time that its thwarted need to consume decaying Western body parts began to result in collapse, a change into something qualitatively different or at least some "mellowing" into manageable form.
Kennan imagined this whole scenario in the language of bodies, health, and disease because societies and civilizations were for him essentially organic substances. The body whose health mattered to him and which worried him a great deal was the West, always under threat of disease from within and without. The central threat after the war was the Soviet disease, a parasitical if not cancerous regime. The first step in diagnosing and coming to terms with this threat was to study it as though it were an object under a microscope in order to lay bare its inner nature. Intelligent countermeasures might then contain it—not ignore but isolate it. Deprived of feeding grounds, this inherently expanding entity would either wither and die or become innocuous. The parasite, while maliciously alive and energetic, could be treated throughout as an object, an object of knowledge and of action. To have dealt with it as an equal other would have been unthinkable. Kennan's was a policy of rejection and isolation, of no real diplomacy.
This may be compared with Roosevelt and Truman. For Roosevelt there could be no proper relations with gangsters, whose clearly stated aim was to destroy the world of order by means of massive war. Thus they themselves had to be destroyed by similar means. For Truman there could be no proper relations with totalitarians, whose clearly stated aim was to destroy the world of freedom by means of Cold War. Thus, they, too, had to be destroyed by appropriate measures, the specifics of which were to be worked out. For Kennan there could be no proper relations with fanatical and despotic regimes antithetical to the West. Mostly one could afford to ignore them because their means of carrying out their aims were severely limited; but the Soviet foe had to be contained and neutralized by rebuilding damaged parts of the West and preventing any further advances on Moscow's part in any areas of supreme strategic value. All three outlooks begin, accordingly, by assuming a priori the existence of a mortal threat, the character of which is determined by its inner nature and which in turn generates a struggle to death, as the enemy denies others the right to exist.
Eliminating the threat was for Roosevelt and Truman a matter of acting and imposing one's will entirely upon the enemy, for Kennan (chiefly) to prevail by isolation and containment. It is readily apparent how Roosevelt could take this view, given the events of the 1930s and early 1940s: the phenomenon of fascism offered up no great analytical enigmas as far as foreign affairs were concerned, and the answer to it seemed equally obvious, all-out war to eradicate. For Truman and Kennan, the matter should have been a little more complicated. Soviet behavior, as Lippmann was to indicate, was not simply the product of some DNA structure to be delineated with iron certainty through laboratory procedures. Soviet policy was a product of what others did and what the regime expected others to do and claim. Indeed, the brutal cynicism of Stalin's foreign policy was eminently within the interactive, realist tradition of European geopolitics, and, far from never seeking any "compacts and compromises," as Kennan would have it, the Soviet regime had historically engaged in a whole string of such efforts. Given to seeing its interests and security in terms of autarky, Moscow was in fact always prepared to strike deals.
What Kennan's containment really amounted to, by contrast, was in fact precisely a refusal to strike deals. This was also the gist of Walter Lippmann's realist critique of the X Article. The columnist made two particularly incisive observations. Equating, not unnaturally, Kennan's views with Truman's, he argued first that the administration was now espousing "a disbelief in the possibility of a settlement of the issues raised by this war." Second, he found Kennan's concept of diplomacy deficient. Rather than being based on "intimacy," as Kennan seemed to think, diplomacy was in effect about the political resolution of concerns of mutual interest between states. The idea of containment was for Lippmann not only unnecessarily passive but also implied that the West should refuse to engage in the sort of dealmaking that states normally do in times of peace. Whereas the Truman-Kennan position assumed that the U.S.–Soviet relationship was incommensurable because of the very character of the Kremlin regime and consequently that no agreements of a lasting nature were possible, Lippmann maintained that the systemic differences between the two powers were less important than their respective state interests. He went on in that regard to suggest that concrete negotiations on such essential questions as troop withdrawals from central Europe would be eminently doable and certainly verifiable: armed forces were either present or not present. From the U.S. standpoint it seemed most imperative to get the Red Army to return to the Soviet Union, in which case it made sense to figure out what Moscow would demand in return. Lippmann's umbrella term, meanwhile, for the existing impasse was "Cold War."
Ironically, Kennan himself would soon come to embrace this approach internally in the Truman administration, while the latter became increasingly wedded to what Lippmann had singled out as Kennan's view. By the middle of 1948 the Soviet expert had thus begun to see the solution to his paramount "culturalist" concern with the future of the intimate West in realist terms: the only way to prevent the permanent, militarized division of Europe, the anchor of the West, down the middle would be some sort of agreement with the Soviet Union on Germany, an agreement that would presuppose the principle that Moscow had legitimate security interests. Kennan would spend a very long lifetime from then on elaborating an extraordinarily trenchant critique of Cold War thinking, while the administration on its part went in the other direction, applying a simplified concept of Kennan's containment within the context of a grand narrative about totalitarianism and appeasement. One consequence was that, as of 1947–1948, there ceased to be any real need for fresh analyses of the Soviet problem: Moscow became an axiom, its essence written in stone. A crucial, contributing reason for this was that the established account solved the issue of legitimizing the permanent, peacetime presence of the United States throughout the world: it provided the essential premise of a ubiquitous, mortal threat, which could and should not be appeased by any diplomatic concessions. This is not to say there was no real threat. It is to say, however, that there was no urgency about revising the image once it had opened up for the United States to become "leader of the free world" and to initiate a formidably successful effort to restore order in the Western capitalist world. By 1949 Kennan had been marginalized, and by the end of the following year, he had effectively left the State Department. The professional background of Paul Nitze, his replacement as head of the Policy Planning Staff, was on Wall Street.
One of Nitze's early achievements is indeed indicative of another notable development. In the massive, foundational policy document known as NSC 68, written under Nitze's auspices in the spring of 1950, the totalitarian frame was thoroughly "Americanized." It is sometimes contended that NSC 68 was merely a rhetorically overcharged pitch for what was really a call for immense budgetary increases and military buildup. NSC 68 was certainly that, but its ideological content was actually remarkably telling. The document returns powerfully to the Rooseveltian subtheme of a civil war between freedom and slavery and a combat to death between entirely incompatible principles; a return to the image of a world divided, doomed to go completely one way or the other. Freedom is under constant, global threat from a monumental conspiracy, engendered by an enslaving, evil agent of epic proportions. At times, in fact, the language seems taken directly from the abolitionist movement of a century earlier. Soviet communism appears here in a guise not unlike that of the southern slave owners before the Civil War: inherently incapable of tolerating the very existence of freedom, Moscow must destroy its every last trace by any means necessary. Hence, there can be no recognition of one another as equal enemies. The opposition is not symmetrical. While freedom is conceived as the natural, independent condition of humankind, slavery is merely its perversion, a parasitical, degraded other. The former thrives on its own; the latter can exist solely as a subversive attempt to destroy freedom. This is the reason there is a relation at all. By definition, the relation begins with the attack on freedom. By definition, too, the agents of slavery can have no legitimate interests. Their whole modus operandi is in fact to invent a range of devious "designs" to liquidate the free world and its leader. The name of this enslaving attack, then, is the "Cold War." In the following "total" conflict, the free world must learn to use the Soviet techniques against the Kremlin itself, to subvert the subversive agent.
The political vocabulary of NSC 68, a sort of neo-abolitionism, gave a recognizably domestic coloration to the otherwise slightly alien notion of totalitarianism and to the narrative of Munich and World War II. That the struggle overall is irreconcilable, a struggle to death, is reinforced here by the historical evocation of the Civil War. Henry Wallace had moved on to become a Cold War critic, but his adage from the Second World War could stand for NSC 68: "no compromise with Satan." However, writing after the "loss" of China and the detonation of a Soviet atomic device in 1949, the authors of NSC 68 were not interested in maintaining the status quo, what the document in a crucial passage characterizes as the "diplomatic freeze." To settle down along existing lines would not only be to accept the morally and politically indefensible but to encourage continuing encroachments, in some sense to recognize slavery. Although containment is summoned as a legitimating principle, the argument against the "diplomatic freeze" is in fact, not surprisingly, a critique of Kennan's notion as altogether too inactive and conservative. Thus NSC 68 culminates in an exhortation to mobilize the vast, untapped resources of the United States for victorious combat against evil.
The Republican Party, in the same vein, would shortly come to declare containment as somehow un-American since it implied a stalemate as evidenced by the Korean War. Containment was just appeasement on the installment plan, as the slogan went in the campaign of 1952. The spatial metaphor of containment was thus to be replaced by another, more appropriate one: "rollback." The lines of communist power would have to be forced backward, not merely stabilized. Nothing much by way of substance, however, would happen on that front, and the irony is that the actual posture of Democrats and Republicans alike remained remarkably similar to the isolating strategy of the early Kennan. For in the end, by far the most important aspect of the entire Cold War project was not what happened to the communist camp. It was the rebuilding and securing of the West and the maintenance of some kind of order in other parts of the noncommunist world. Roosevelt's policing, in another irony, came to be a matter of ordering the free world, so that the temporal idea of progress following order could be applied to various right-wing dictatorships, eradication of domestic radicalism in the name of anti-communism being the precondition for orderly development and civilization.
If the primary aim was not really "rollback" but leading the "free world," then serious negotiations about issues of mutual concern would be doubly wrong. They would be wrong because any real settlement would remove the axiomatic divisions that permitted the whole project to be set forth in the first place. They would also be wrong because they presupposed concessions and compromises, deeds already declared morally intolerable and strategically disastrous. At the same time, negotiations as such were supposed to be a good thing in the Western idiom, and public opinion, especially overseas, might well find them politically congenial. NSC 68 grappled pensively with the issue. The authors grasped that the only politically correct negotiations, given their frame, would have to concern "a settlement which calls for a change in the Soviet system." This was obviously fatuous, and so negotiations turn into something to be done for tactical purposes in order to make the Soviet regime look bad or, alternatively, a sort of registry for presumed future successes in "the policy of gradual and calculated coercion," the phrase used in NSC 68 to encapsulate the newly invigorated essence of containment.
The problem with the act of negotiating and making concessions had an interesting echo in Roosevelt's wartime scheme. That one would not strike deals with aggressors and gangsters was of course not a problem. The problem was that the framework really did not allow much by way of deals with one's allies either. This was especially the case with the Soviet Union, whose fierce struggles against the Nazis in the East presented prospects of an order there not easily accommodated within the U.S. image of what a liberated, free world would and should look like. The temporary escape from this quandary was Roosevelt's dual set of absolutes, unconditional surrender and freedom. One was minimalistic, an easily defined, immediate goal, the other a vast and almost entirely abstract desire. "Unconditional surrender" allowed for the postponement of the nasty issues that threatened to render the meaning of freedom too concrete. Neither, in any case, provided any clear room for deals short of the U.S. ideal. The intermediate notion, order and policing, might have done so, but it largely faded with Roosevelt himself. The victory may have been absolute, but it turned out not to be total, because it produced a peace that was no peace and certainly no peace of freedom. Thus was reinstated the idea of unconditional surrender as the object of the ensuing war that was no real war.