The legacies of every war include controversy regarding its origins, its prosecution, its conclusion, and its material and political results. In the case of World War II, John Lukacs argues that among its major legacies was the Cold War, whose cause was the rigid division of Europe agreed upon by Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin while hostilities yet continued. As for the Cold War itself, its legacy was the debate, heated to the point almost of rhetorical violence, over the origins of that phenomenon and the extent to which the two sides—East and West, communist and free world, the Soviet Union and the United States—bear moral responsibility for it.
One of these books deals with the first of these issues, the other with the second—and so much else as well.
World War II, John Lukacs believes, was the work of one man, and one man alone: Adolf Hitler. But that man was enormously complex, at once sui generis (as indeed every human being is) and the product of Europe’s almost infinitely complicated history. Among that history’s salient elements, the immediate cause of Hitler, and thus of World War II, was, Lukacs claims, democracy—the source of both nationalism and socialism in Europe and on the North American continent. Following the Revolutionary Age in Europe that ended with the revolutions of 1848-49, a series of wars occurred; wars not between classes, as Marx and the revolutionists themselves had expected, but between nations. “Both nationalism and socialism came out of the democratization of the world that Tocqueville foresaw, examples of which reach back to centuries even before the Modern Age.” Hitler’s peculiar genius allowed him to recognize that socialism, to succeed, must be national, not international;
that the struggles of classes meant less than the conflicts of nations; that the sentiments and ideas of people, anchored within their nationality, were stronger and deeper than propositions of their material conditions. In sum, he proposed a marriage of nationalism and socialism—but with emphasis on the former.
One of the fundamental differences between the world wars was that the first conflict was a war between states rather than between classes and the various political ideas supporting them.
[I]n 1939-1945 there were millions of internal, not only external, enemies of their governments, Communists in different states across the world whose sympathies (and, on occasion, allegiances) were to the Soviet Union. There were other millions whose sympathies (and, on occasion, allegiances) were for Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan.
Yet as Hitler subordinated socialism to nationalism, so (as Lukacs has argued over the entirety of his career) did Joseph Stalin. Stalin was fully aware of the weaknesses of international socialism, for which, in any event, he cared little. (According to Lukacs, he detested ideologically committed communists, considering that they were not to be trusted.) He believed, as did Churchill but not Roosevelt, in the division of Europe. But his interest lay in ensuring the security of the Soviet Union, not in communizing Eastern, let alone Western, Europe. Churchill, perhaps sensing this, was eager to agree upon the postwar division of Europe while the war still lasted; Roosevelt did not, partly because he liked Stalin, approved of the Soviet Union (to which the American public also was sympathetic), and did not wish to quarrel with its leader; partly, also, because he hoped to win the war in Asia with Stalin’s help after the defeat of Germany. As a result, Lukacs says, the U.S. government and the American people became aware of the division of Europe and the putative dangers of Russian expansion too late—not, as left-wing critics of the Cold War were to argue subsequently, prematurely. Indeed, the Soviet Union at the end of the war held less of Europe than had czarist Russia a century before. “But now conditions were different. Beyond the confines of the tsar’s empire there had existed no Russian sphere of interest. What now did this ‘sphere of interest’ mean?”
John Lukacs speculates that, had Roosevelt and his State Department succeeded in convincing Stalin to acquiesce in an interpretation of the Yalta Declaration of Liberated Europe that permitted the installation of governments in Eastern Europe which would be unequivocally pro-Russian but not ideologically communist, the Cold War might have been averted. That they did not succeed in this Lukacs attributes to the fact that Stalin “was not that kind of a man.” This is not because he was an ideologue; rather, he was realistic enough to understand that noncommunist governments under the sway of the Soviet Union would inevitably grow toward Western Europe and away from Moscow. Hence, he insisted on the creation of governments in Eastern Europe that would be completely in thrall to Russia and cut off from contact with Western Europe, no matter the indignation and anger this provoked in Washington. “That,” Lukacs concludes simply, “was how the cold war began.”
Regarding the Cold War, there have been two historical interpretations. The first holds that the United States in particular, and the West generally, reacted in a timely way to the actions and deceptions of Russia, beginning in 1945; the second (the so-called revisionist line), that the American government, prompted by suspicion and anticommunist prejudice, responded too early, thereby encouraging further aggression by Stalin. John Lukacs proposes a third interpretation:
This is that the American concern with Russia came not too early but too late; that Stalin should have been confronted with the precise and practical questions about the actual limits of his postwar sphere of interest, including the political status of at least some of the countries overrun by the Russian armies, sooner rather than later, in 1944 or 1945 but certainly before the end of the Second World War in Europe.
George F. Kennan, a former U.S. deputy ambassador and subsequently U.S. ambassador to Moscow, later an architect of the Marshall Plan and the initiator of America’s policy of “containment” in respect of the Soviet Union, came to feel that his policies had been both misunderstood and misrepresented. Having believed during the war and after that the Soviet Union was inherently expansionary, by 1948 he was arguing that the time had arrived for diplomatic initiatives to Moscow. This put him at odds with the Truman administration and with Dean Acheson, who fired him on becoming secretary of state in 1949. The next year Kennan left the State Department; thereafter, he was an outspoken critic of Washington’s increasingly belligerent stance toward the Soviet Union. His writings and speeches resonated with the thinking of a 28-year-old refugee from Hungary, a then-unknown historian, who in 1952 wrote him an admiring letter, to which Kennan replied almost at once. It was the beginning of a correspondence—and a friendship—lasting more than 50 years. The last exchange occurred not long before Kennan’s death on March 17, 2005: one year, one month, and one day after his 100th birthday.
George Kennan and John Lukacs concurred on just about every matter of importance, and many others not so important. Their agreement began with their objections to U.S. foreign policy, their disgust at the replacement of a healthy American patriotism with an hysterical and wholly ideological form of anticommunism, and their detestation of the tendency of both the American people and the U.S. government to confuse the clash of state interests with ideological disagreements. But there was so much more than that to this remarkable meeting of minds. This collection of approximately 200 letters (about half of their complete correspondence) tells us how much more.
John Lukacs and George Kennan were separated in age by 20 years. In 1952, George Kennan was one of the most distinguished men of his time, while Lukacs was at the beginning of his career. One of the most touching aspects of this book is the subtle but constantly growing alteration in their relationship, from one of acolyte and master to that of almost equals. (That “almost” is thanks entirely to the refusal of the younger man, now recognized by a relatively small but highly sophisticated audience as being among the foremost historians and thinkers of the 20th century, to put himself on the same plane as his elder friend.) Another is the deepening friendship and mutual understanding between the two seen against the background of a civilization sinking ever deeper into intellectual and moral confusion, political and social decay, and barbarism at the end of an age—an age which both men felt to be their own, however attenuated it had become in their lifetimes and even before. In this way the ravages of individual mortality reflect the mortality of societies and civilizations, precluding personal consolation taken from an assurance of social continuity. Yet neither man, both of them believing Christians (one Presbyterian, the other Catholic) is entirely without hope with regard to the future; their attitudes exhibit a determination to sustain hope in hope (which is only the same thing as hope in faith).
George Kennan’s and John Lukacs’s shared opinions of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War were hardly fortuitous. Quite the opposite: They represented the inevitable meeting, on a particular subject, of minds that saw the world in similar terms and from a similar historical point of view, despite their very different origins and influences. For Kennan and Lukacs, the American response, popular as well as official, to the Soviets’ behavior in 1945 and after was more than symptomatic of postwar America; it was a prominent aspect of it. Both men deplored popular anticommunism as a form of hysteria induced in part by politicians presenting themselves as moralists, though they were indeed only ideologues. They were offended and disheartened by, above everything, the anticommunists’ insistence on presenting what was, beneath the rhetoric and posturing from Moscow, a more or less traditional clash of rival states and state interests as an apocalyptic struggle between the Power of Good and the Power of Evil. To their minds, anticommunist sentiment was an unpleasant, dishonest, and dangerous substitute for the old-fashioned patriotism to which it pretended to appeal. But it was also a symptom of, and an encouragement to, the coarsening of American political life, and of the American intellect and understanding. In this, John Lukacs perceived the rise of a populist nationalism that he thought (and still thinks) to be the direction of democracy (in particular, American democracy) in our time. Thus, while the Cold War subsided over the years, the damage it had helped to inflict on American politics, and on American political discourse, remained. Thus Lukacs to Kennan in October 1984, following Ronald Reagan’s and Walter Mondale’s third presidential debate:
I was shocked—and perhaps even frightened—by the abysmal ignorance of these two men, the source of which . . . was a view of the world which was narrow and unhistorical perhaps without precedent. This horrid compound of narrowness and extent, of utter parochialism and universality a—relatively—new thing. I doubt whether their vision of the world had any resemblance of what may have existed in the minds of even the most mediocre nineteenth-century presidents.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), George Kennan, the public figure and sometime man of affairs, presents himself in this collection as even more pessimistic than his more private friend. “It seems to me,” he writes (in 1953),
That if we manage to survive these coming years without a new catastrophe . . . it will not be because of ourselves but despite of ourselves: by virtue, that is, of the fact that we have so little, rather than so much, control over the course of events, that the stuff of our human reactions is so obstreperous and so little understood that our efforts to affect it have only a sort of coincidental result.
Both Kennan and Lukacs deplore the replacement of the old America by the new through mass immigration produced by immigration “reform” in the 1960’s. Beyond that, however, Kennan sounds refreshingly radical. Though brought up (in Wisconsin) to regard Abraham Lincoln as a great man and the preservation of the Union as a saving accomplishment, he subsequently developed doubts (he writes) that keeping North and South together was in fact a good thing; he goes so far as to express the wish that the country of today might be split up. Elsewhere, Kennan further doubts that the influence of the United States on the rest of the world has been, on balance, beneficial. Again, he expresses limited enthusiasm for “the multi-party system” as something worthy of universal installation in democratizing countries. And he takes an explicitly Burkean stand on the matter of political representation in a democracy: “The task of the populace is to select, through proper electoral procedures, its own rulers; God forbid that it should ever itself attempt to rule.” Kennan suggests the almost Platonic idea for the creation of an appointed National Council of State for the purpose, not of replacing elected officials, but of examining problems in a manner of which the political establishment is incapable. More broadly, he questions the “intellectual idols” of our time: urbanization, democratization, and “the passion to insert the machine in place of the human hand in the productive processes of our life.”
Over the summer of 1998, John Lukacs expresses his conviction that “we are only at the beginning of the Democratic Age.” From 1500 to 2000, he writes, aristocracy and democracy coexisted. But now,
democracy [has] become the absolute acceptance of majority rule. (In some cases: democracy having become populism.) But this goes beyond politics; it involves society, “culture,” education, etc., etc.
In reply, Kennan agrees that “of course” we are at the beginning of a new age—in which, he expects, European civilization will be not only abandoned but forgotten, through the related abandonment of the literature and poetry that have hitherto kept civilization alive. In place of civilization, he predicts “a long period of enslavement, or rather self-enslavement as people allow themselves to be dominated by their machines and inventions. Thus, he suggests, “democratic is hardly the word to describe this new age. Perhaps parliamentary government will keep representative government alive.” As for the United States, however, he foresees a quite different future.
The Kennan-Lukacs correspondence begins within the context of the Cold War and ends in that of President George W. Bush’s pseudo-Christian military crusade to impose democracy on the world: two far worse than misguided efforts stemming from the same ideological root. Lukacs asserts that, sooner or later, the American people must be judged: “[W]ill they accept this now present vile propagation of a universal nationalism, or will they not . . . ?” We do not have Kennan’s reply to this letter, but a passage in an earlier one (dating from 1987) suggests what his answer might have been:
What one may not do is to confuse the purposes of and activities of the governmental power with the advancement of divine purpose. To attempt to associate these things is to misconstrue and abuse the real nature of government and to blaspheme that of God. Particularly is this true when we attempt to picture ourselves in the form of a national community rather than as morally responsible individuals.
[The Legacy of the Second World War, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 201 pp., $26.00]
[Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs, John Lukacs, ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) 276 pp., $39.95]