Quintessential cold war lesson remains true today
Letter to the FT by Prof Geoffrey Roberts
George Kennan was, as Philip Stephens indicates (“The short telegram about Putin’s Russia”, February 20), the intellectual architect of containment but he was also among the first to repudiate the policy when it was militarised and resulted in nothing except further polarisation, division and conflict. By 1957, in his Reith Lectures Kennan was arguing for accommodation of the Soviet Union and settlement of the cold war in Europe and Germany on the basis of compromise. Kennan did not just oppose Nato’s expansion to Russia’s borders — he saw it as “the greatest mistake of the entire post-cold war period”.
Kennan believed the west would prevail in the cold war — as it did — but not through confrontation and interventionism. The west would win through engagement and by remaining true to its values. Kennan was fond of quoting John Quincy Adams that America should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy but seek to lead by example. That is the quintessential lesson of cold war history and it remains true today.
Professor, School of History,
University College Cork, Ireland