First newsphoto of the author after his expulsion from Russia in 1952 shows him arriving at Frankfurt Main station in West Germany. No smile for the photographer that day.
Wide World.

George F. Kennan, Princeton ’25, is former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia. Now at the Institute for Advanced Study, he is also Visiting Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton. His latest books is “On Dealing with the Communist World,” Harper and Row, 1964. This article was adapted from a talk he gave on campus for the Student Christian Association.

I suppose it’s only fair that I should be asked to lead a discussion of “the ethics of anti-communism.” The last thirty-seven years of my life have been preoccupied mostly, in one way or another, with the problem of international communism. And it seems to me that I have stood pretty much in the center of the brickbats that fly back and forth in this connection. I have a respectable collection of abusive and sometimes unprintable letters from people who think that I haven’t been anti-communist enough. On the other hand, I am one of the few Americans who have had the distinction of being thrown out of Stalin’s Russia on charges of being too anti-Soviet. And I can remember a certain week, in 1950, when the walls of Rio de Janeiro were decorated with hundreds of great tar inscriptions saying: “To death with Kennan.” These were inscription put there by the local communists. I was buried repeatedly in effigy at that time, incidentally, by Brazilian communist students, who did me the moving courtesy of putting a white cross on the little black coffin they used for this purpose.

Nobody can be blamed for being exercised about international communism. There has been plenty to be exercised about. I think a healthy capacity for moral indignation is essential to understanding what communism is all about. In our Embassy in Moscow, when we got a new young officer assigned to us who had been trained in the Russian language, if, on first confrontation with the Soviet newspapers in the morning, he didn’t rise from his desk and go storming around the office saying “Look what these so-and-so’s have said today!” – if he didn’t do this, he was no good to us. It was a case where you had first to be capable of getting angry in order to understand what was up; and then you had to learn to control your anger.

The Soviet leaders obviously do not wish us well. Their ideology forbids them to do so. If they had their way, little would remain, I am sure, of our world position or of the things we value here at home.

But despite all this, I must say that I find the term “anti-communism” a very misleading one.

First of all, if you are going to talk today, about anti-communism, you have to being by answering the questions: anti-whose-communism? Karl Marx’s, or Lenin’s, or Stalin’s, or Mao’s, or Gomulka’s, or even Tito’s, since he himself insists on using the term? These are by no means identical. Not even the communists themselves pretend any longer that they are. If all you say is that you are “against communism,” you haven’t made yourself very clear. You cannot simply say “I am against them all” because in some respects the various outlooks that go by the name of communism are not just different but are actually in conflict with each other, so that you can’t be against one of them in all its aspects without being, by implication, in favor of another one in those same aspects.

Suppose, then, you pick a certain communist country – let us say the Soviet Union – and say “When I talk about anti-communism, it is this country I mean and it is the communism of this country I mean and it is the communism of this country I am against.” But there are two things you could have in mind when you express yourself this way: One, the present reality of the Soviet system with its internal institutions and practices; the way the regime treats its own citizens, and so on. Or, two, its external behavior: things it does on the world scene which affect adversely our interests and those of world peace, and which strike us as unjust or deceitful or aggressive.

Now these two things are not the same. We may not like the internal practices and institutions of the Soviet system, but so long as they don’t have external effects that damage our interests, they are not really our business. Unless we have such dreams of grandeur that we picture ourselves as fit to rule the world, which I think very few of us do, then the golden rule is obviously going to apply here: We must agree to let Russians be Russians, and not try to substitute out conscience for theirs.

Perhaps you simply like to use the term “anti-communism” to record your abhorrence of the theory and practice of government which you understand to prevail in Russia. You can’t mean, surely, that you are against all the institutions and practices of the Soviet system. There are a great many things that take place under the authority of, and in the name of, that system that are not at all reprehensible: Schools are taught, people heal the sick, scientists pursue the quest for knowledge. Perhaps these things serve communism to some degree; the regime has often tried to make them do so. But this is not all they serve. Teachers teach, as they do here, because this is their pride and their profession and they feel it important that young people should be taught. Doctors heal for similar reasons. And scientists pursue their research because, like scientists everywhere, they have learned the nobility and the excitement of the quest for knowledge.

Obviously, it is not all features of communism that we are against – only certain ones. But the sweeping term “anti-communism” does not suggest this.

And if we take just those things that we do definitely dislike in a communist system – such things as governmental hypocrisy, denial of civil liberties, the deliberate use of the big lie, automatic abuse and denigration of fallen statesmen – then we have to recognize that it is not in communist countries alone that such things are to be found; nor are they made any worse, just because they go under the banner of communism. Yet this, too, the term “anti-communism” does not suggest. It is, in fact, definitely misleading in this case: because it seems to carry the implication that we think these evils are confined to a single political system in a single part of the world, and that all other civilizations are wholly immune to them.

But suppose we turn for a moment to that aspect of international communism about which we do have a right to protest: to the behavior of communist regimes as actors on the world scene. Here again, we come up against great variations among communist governments. We have our problems with the Yugoslav government, but I am here to testify, after just spending two and a half years in that country, that the way it conducts itself in international affairs is as different from the conduct of the Chinese Communists, or of Yugoslavia’s Albanian neighbors, as night is from day. The attitudes taken towards us by such diverse regimes as say the Soviet one, the Cuban, the Chinese, the Hungarian, and the Polish represent quite different problems for U.S. policy. To try to sum up our response to all of them by saying that our policy is one of “anti-communism” is simply not meaningful.

I can think of certain non-communist governments whose behavior towards us and towards the international community generally in recent years has been by no means superior to that of certain communist governments I could name. Do we really wish, by using the term “anti-communist” to obscure all this: to leave the implication that falsehood, malice, cantankerousness, irresponsibility, territorial expansionism, and aggressive behavior, either do not exist in the behavior of non-communist states or are reprehensible only when they go by the name of communism? If not, why use the term “anti-communist”? Why not be specific? Why not oppose these phenomena, as such, wherever we encounter them?

Now how about anti-communism as a term relating to political forces within our own national life?

Never strong in membership or even in voter support, the American Communist Party nevertheless gained considerable moral influence, especially in intellectual circles, during the 1930’s. This was primarily a result of the shattering effect of economic crisis and the loss of confidence in established American values which that crisis occasioned. The communists were greatly aided by their ability to identify at that time with anti-fascist groups, generally, particularly in the case of the Spanish Civil War. They capitalized extensively on the revulsion to fascism which swept over the liberal West.

With the development of the so-called cold war in the late 1940’s, the strength and influence of the American Communist Party began to decline rapidly. Even at the time of the anti-communist hysteria in the early 1950’s, it already was a very minor force in our society. Today it is a tiny and pathetic little band of people embracing, I suppose, not much more than five thousand members, if that, or something less than one hundredth part of one per cent of our adult population. It is no exaggeration to say that the influence of the American Communist Party today in our society is negligible. If you were to comb the country, you would have a hard time finding a less influential group.

Arriving in New York with Mrs. Kennan and their two children after their forced departure from Moscow, the Ambassador now produces a tight smile while Christopher flourishes not one but two American flags.
Wide World
I have had many occasions, in the past 40 years, to know and observe people who were communists. Some of them were indeed brutal, treacherous and dangerous people. But others were idealists: people acting out of the deepest bewilderment and despair and misguided courage and desire to find the right answer. I must confess to you that deeply as I have disagreed with these people, and profoundly as I have deplored the methods and tactics to which they were led to subscribe, there have been many instances where I have had more respect for them, in all their error and all their hopelessness, than for many pillars of respectable American society, vegetating in the smugness and selfishness and superficiality of their particular brand of philistinism.

To err, as we all know, is only human; and there is not one of us who does not do it with the greatest of regularity. To err with courage, with conviction, with self-sacrifice, and out of the agony of the soul, can at least be said to be tragic. But to err out of cowardice, of complacency, of jealousy, of vindictiveness, or of greed, has not even this to be said for it; and I am not prepared to believe that error of this sort is any more acceptable in the sight of God just because it clothes itself in “anti-communism.”

The Marxist-Leninist ideology was based on some serious misconceptions; and the methodology embrace by its adherents, under Lenin and Stalin, was in many respects evil and inexcusable. But no movement of our time, I am sorry to say, has more to show in the way of dedication, hard work, and selflessness, than does the movement that goes by the Leninist-Marxist name. We should not forget this; and when it comes to the American Communist Party, in particular, we should not be too self-righteous in our condemnation of men who have been made what they are by the stamp of circumstances – and circumstances, in many instances, for which every one of us in my generation, at least, bears a share of the blame.

Now there are many people who, when they use the term “anti-communism,” have in mind not the little American Communist Party of this day but a whole variety of tendencies and conditions they associate with the word communism: tendencies and conditions supported by far wider circles than just the members of the Communist Party: such things as the increase in the powers of the central government, the high degree of paternalism which seems to them to be reflected in the existing social-security arrangements and other programs of social benefit, an inadequate degree of military aggressiveness in foreign policy, absence of demonstrative patriotic fervor, and so on. And to this I would just like to say that these are of course views you can hold: these tendencies and conditions do exist in our society, for better or for worse, and it is perfectly all right for an American citizen to be against them, if this is the way he sees things. But what all this has to do with communism is not apparent.

Communists, it is true, can be construed as being in favor of these things to some degree, but no more so than millions of other people; and to suggest that all of these tendencies in our society – most of which, to the extent they have been realized at all, have been realized through the operation of our democratic processes, and largely by act of Congress – are simply the result of some refined and diabolic Communist intrigue, by means of which tens of thousands of influential citizens, government servants, and legislators are affected without knowing it, is not only to propagate a preposterous absurdity, but it is also to do a profound disservice to the national cause.

In individual psychology the sense of being the innocent victim of unseen conspiratorial forces is often the beginning of, and a symptom of, mental illness. In political life it is the beginning of totalitarianism, which is only a form of mass psychosis: the social equivalent of mental illness. So true is this, and so dangerous are the consequences of yielding to this sort of escapism, that one ought to reject such suggestions even when the available evidence might seem to support them. I cannot warn too strongly those of you who are students against associating yourselves, ever, with the suggestion that your personal troubles or those of the society to which you belong are attributable only to dimly-sensed conspiratorial forces, wholly external to yourselves, beyond your power of comprehension or influence, whose hostility you have done nothing to deserve. To accept such suggestions is a sure path to irrationality, to illusion, and to disaster.

Evil is an omnipresent substance of human life: around us and within us as well as without us. In a way, it is all of a piece, just as love and truth are all of a piece. When we struggle against it we must always regard that struggle as in part an overcoming of self. We cannot for this reason identify ourselves self-righteously with all that is good and clothe whatever opposes us in the colors of unmitigated evil. But this we tend to do when we try to make out of an impermanent semantic symbol, such as “anti-communism,” the expression of a personal and political philosophy.

We all have in mind the events that have taken place in Moscow in the recent past. They have constituted in effect a third great crisis in the transfer of personal power from one set of hands to another in the history of a regime which has no adequate constitutional means of achieving such a transition. I have naturally had to think about this, and I have talked with friends, who, like myself, have spent many years in the study of Russian communism. All of us, I think, have the impression that this recent series of events really marks the end of an epoch. It marks the final fading, as a political reality of that aura of excitement and inspiration and authority which Moscow was able to radiate, in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, over restless, discontented elements in the western world.

Russia remains, today, a great power, as she was before 1917. She remains a problems to us, as she would have been before 1917 had we then been an active participant in world affairs. But the importance of Moscow as a source of inspiration and authority for the communist parties of the West, and even for the communist parties now in power in Eastern Europe, has been extensively and probably decisively shattered.

Whoever, then, tries to make anti-communism into a political or ethical philosophy is addressing himself to the past. He is talking about things that were, not things that are. This is, as we all know, an unbelievably endangered world in which we live. The ultimate problems created by nuclear science and by overpopulation – by man’s new-found ability to destroy his habitat entirely or to make it intolerable by multiplying himself within it beyond the point of endurance – stare us in the face. To neither of these problems does mere anti-communism even suggest an answer; and the morbid preoccupation with this term can scarcely be explained otherwise than as the reflection either of an inability to free one’s self form the anxieties, the seizures, or the nightmares of the past, or a lack of the requisite manliness to face the reality of the present. I think it is high time that we, all of us, threw off these shackles, emancipated ourselves from the power of vague semantic symbols, and turned our faces resolutely, with all the realism and the honesty we can muster, to the problems of the present and the future.

This was originally published in the March 16, 1965 issue of PAW.