August 19, 2016

1968. George Kennan on American Principles

Bill Downs Weighs in on George F. Kennan's Controversial Views
"Kennan at Tempelhof airport, in Berlin, in 1952, en route to Moscow" (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

June 10, 1968

This is Bill Downs in Washington sitting in for Joseph C. Harsch.

A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow is so shocked at developments in American society that he suggests some Russians solutions to the problem . . . or does he?

Let's consider that question . . . right after this.

Former Ambassador George Kennan is undisputed as an expert on U.S.-Russian relations and one of the foremost analysts of Communist power and policy around the globe. But the week before last—the weekend before the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy—Mr. Kennan spoke in Williamsburg, Virginia, as an ordinary and highly concerned American citizen.

Discussing the roots of American independence put forth by such men as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry in the Virginia Assembly, Mr. Kennan raised some self-styled "painful questions" about the U.S. national heritage and its application to present day life.

In effect, the ex-ambassador asked: When the Founding Fathers spoke of "all men being created equal" with a God-given right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," were they really putting forth principles of universal validity? Or, asks Mr. Kennan, were there precepts really meant only for those—and I quote—"of birth and breeding . . . by the spirit and discipline of the home?"

Kennan admits that the nation has proceeded on the proposition that the "self-evident truths" mentioned by Virginians like Jefferson were workable among the great masses of immigrants who initially came to the United States, but now he says the pattern of population movements in the past decades of the twentieth century should give the nation pause.

"Without a qualm," he says, "we have permitted our great cities . . . to be blighted and drained of people of education, influence, and responsibility . . . and to be colonized by huge masses of the impoverished and poorly educated . . ."

"Never . . . does it seem to have occurred to us that there might be limits to the absorbent capacity of our cities."

Then, Mr. Kennan makes a most peculiar suggestion:

"Perhaps," he said, "it was the business of governmental authority to see that these limits were not overstepped."

And later he suggests that the Negroes might have their own local political communities where they can express themselves collectively and "find identity and dignity."

We are just as disturbed as Mr. Kennan about the racial explosions in the urban ghettos. But we part company with the ambassador when he suggests that the government should somehow select who should liver where in our cities—or anywhere else in the country. Surely the former envoy to Moscow is not suggesting the propusk system used by the Communists be imported into this country. This would mean every American would carry a personal passport—a propusk—requiring him to register with the police every time he moved from town to town.

If Mr. Kennan has twentieth century doubts about the universality of the eighteenth century American Revolution, then perhaps he is guilty of misreading U.S. history.

If American democracy is imperfect, it is not because of its revolutionary principles. It is the fault of the men who failed to apply those principles and make them work.

It was history which made the United States a pluralistic society. To suggest that it can be "de-pluralized" by government ukase repudiates the American Revolution.