Russil Wvong / History, politics, and the future / George F. Kennan / PPS/23 quotation

A response to Chomsky's quotation of PPS/23

by Russil Wvong

In 1945, George Orwell wrote:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning.
["Notes on Nationalism"]

The following quote from PPS/23, written in February 1948 by George Kennan, head of the US State Department's Policy Planning Staff, is often given as evidence of the iniquity of US foreign policy.

we have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population.... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives.... We should cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

I don't think Orwell would have been surprised by this highly selective quotation of George Kennan. From what I can tell, it was stitched together by Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and anarchist, as evidence that US foreign policy since World War II has been driven by greed -- by the need to "maintain the disparity".

In fact, if you look up the source of the quote, PPS/23, you'll find that Kennan was saying something quite different: given the disparity between the wealth of the US and the Asian countries -- particularly China and India -- it was pretty much inevitable that they would fall under Soviet control, there being little that the US could do to help solve their problems. And Kennan was saying that rather than trying to keep the Communists from taking over China, the US ought to withdraw from China and the Asian mainland and focus on rebuilding Japan in order to prevent a future attack from the Pacific; he was not saying that the US should oppress the Third World and steal its resources.

Kennan was particularly concerned about Japan, which had colonized Korea and Taiwan, invaded Manchuria and China, occupied Indochina, attacked the US, and invaded Indonesia, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, and the Philippines, and had only been defeated by the US after a long and bitter war. As Kennan says in his memoirs:

We Americans could feel fairly secure in the presence of a truly friendly Japan and a nominally hostile China -- nothing very bad could happen to us from this combination; but the dangers to our security of a nominally friendly China and a truly hostile Japan had already been demonstrated in the Pacific war. Worse still would be a hostile China and a hostile Japan. Yet the triumph of communism in most of China would be bound to enhance Communist pressures in Japan; and should these pressures triumph, as Moscow obviously hoped they would, then the Japan we would have before us would obviously be a hostile one.

I've included below the section of PPS/23 from which the quote is taken.

The irony in Chomsky's quoting Kennan to criticize US foreign policy -- elsewhere Chomsky calls Kennan "an incredible villain" -- is that Kennan himself has consistently argued for much greater moderation and restraint in US foreign policy. Indeed, Kennan does so even in the section of PPS/23 which Chomsky is quoting. For a detailed assessment of Kennan's role in shaping US foreign policy during the early Cold War, see Wilson D. Miscamble's book "George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950," published in 1992.

In short, Chomsky's quote makes it appear that Kennan is saying that the US needs to hold people down, when in fact Kennan is saying almost the exact opposite, that the US should leave them alone.

For more information on Kennan, including the full text of PPS/23 as well as the accompanying PPS/13, see George Kennan on the Web. Also, I wrote a longer critical review of Chomsky's writings a while ago.

Ray Amberg, a Chomsky fan, wrote to Chomsky to ask him about the PPS/23 quote--after earlier asking him about Kosovo--and received a rather hostile response.

Later, Chomsky posted a more temperate response. My response to Chomsky.

Discussion on Brad DeLong's website.

I would respectfully suggest that readers be careful about uncritically accepting anti-American propaganda, on the net and elsewhere. As Kennan wrote in 1961:

The lack of a strong and firm Western historiography in this subject [of relations between the Soviet Union and the West] is particularly unfortunate for the reason that Soviet historians have recently been giving elaborate attention to certain of its phases. The tendency of their labors has been to establish an image of this historical process which they conceive to be useful to the present purposes of the Soviet Communist Party but which is deeply discreditable to Western statesmanship and to the spirit and ideals of the Western peoples generally -- so discreditable, in fact, that if the Western peoples could be brought to believe it, they would have no choice but to abandon their faith in themselves and the traditions of their national life.
[Russia and the West, 1961, p. v]

The section of PPS/23 from which Chomsky is quoting:


My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. This applies, unfortunately, to the people in our country as well as to the Government.

It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.

Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.

This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. The greatest of the Asiatic peoples--the Chinese and the Indians--have not yet even made a beginning at the solution of the basic demographic problem involved in the relationship between their food supply and their birth rate. Until they find some solution to this problem, further hunger, distress, and violence are inevitable. All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and--for the Far East--unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic. We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on. It is my own guess, on the basis of such study as we have given the problem so far, that Japan and the Philippines will be found to be the corner-stones of such a Pacific security system and if we can contrive to retain effective control over these areas there can be no serious threat to our security from the East within our time.

Only when we have assured this first objective, can we allow ourselves the luxury of going farther afield in our thinking and our planning.

If these basic concepts are accepted, then our objectives for the immediate coming period should be:

(a) to liquidate as rapidly as possible our unsound commitments in China and to recover, vis-a-vis that country, a position of detachment and freedom of action;
(b) to devise policies with respect to Japan which assure the security of those islands from communist penetration and domination as well as from Soviet military attack, and which will permit the economic potential of that country to become again an important force in the Far East, responsive to the interests of peace and stability in the Pacific area; and
(c) to shape our relationship to the Philippines in such a way as to permit the Philippine Government a continued independence in all internal affairs but to preserve the archipelago as a bulwark of U.S. security in that area.

Of these three objectives, the one relating to Japan is the one where there is the greatest need for immediate attention on the part of our Government and the greatest possibility for immediate action. It should therefore be made the focal point of our policy for the Far East in the coming period.

Update (December 19, 2002): I was looking through the archives of H-DIPLO, a mailing list for diplomatic historians, and found that Lawrence Serewicz had made the same discovery back in December 1999. (The quote appeared in a lecture by Robert Buzzanco, a New Left historian.) Article by Lawrence Serewicz; responses by Mark Safranski, Curt Cardwell, Serewicz, Safranski, Safranski, Larry George, Serewicz; finally, a more detailed discussion by Serewicz.

Also, a month ago, on November 19, 2002, a police offer in Red Bluffs, California, Dave Mobilio, was shot and killed by Andrew Mickel (also known as Andrew McCrae), a student radical. Before his arrest, Mickel posted a manifesto to several Indymedia websites to justify the killing. His manifesto included the Kennan quote.

Add/View Comments

Created: 2002/05/25