It’s never over ’til it’s over.
— Yogi Berra, 1973
Having been in the old Czechoslovakia (with the Princeton Glee Club, no less) six weeks before the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, my contempt for that approach to a peaceful populace knows very few bounds, and after the Russians obligingly self-imploded in 1991, the idea of never seeing it again was a serious upper.
So we watch Kyiv in 2022, re-reliving the xenophobic paranoid Russian autocrat act; it’s such a pervasive theme on the eastern borders of Europe across the centuries that the versions are almost impossible to separate or count. The Cold War was the latest prior to this, and while America hardly engaged in it without big mistakes (e.g. Sen. Joe McCarthy, Vietnam) it did end up vindicated in the end, so reviewing some key aspects in which Princetonians came to the fore may well prove immediately instructive.
The obvious starting point is George Kennan 1925. As a senior embassy officer in Moscow in 1946 he wrote “The Long Telegram,” arguably the most crucial diplomatic communication of the 20th century, which laid out his view of the mysterious Stalinist Soviet Union “impervious to the logic of reason.” In the next year he expanded it to “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and it was published anonymously in the influential Foreign Affairs by Hamilton Fish Armstrong 1916. In a nutshell, under the label of “containment,” it suggested an aggressive strategy combatting Soviet moves by diplomatic and covert means, but notably not military (which many people instantly forgot). This was the opening bell of the Cold War, which ratcheted up when Stalin got the atomic bomb and the Korean War broke out as the opening salvo in surrogacy by the two competing sides. Armstrong would carry on his editorial fight for another 25 years, disparaging U.S. involvement in Vietnam along the way. Kennan, a brilliant writer as well as strategic intellect, maintained a powerful senior advisory role with succeeding U.S. governments from his outpost at the Institute for Advanced Study, and was familiar to generations of students on campus, where he regularly turned up for seminars and symposia. Intriguingly, he argued against the 1997 eastern expansion of NATO that Vladimir Putin now whines about. This continued, astonishingly, until Kennan’s 100th birthday symposium at SPIA in 2002, a star-studded affair that made an attempt to examine his huge range of influence and his myriad awards; he died the following year.
In 1954, in the midst of McCarthyism and the indeterminate wreckage of Korea, and between unsuccessful races for president, Adlai Stevenson II 1922 came to Princeton to speak to the senior class, an address we’ve previously noted as one of the great statements of Princeton’s purpose in our history. But it is also a statement of the world condition, with the opening salvo: “If those young Americans who have the advantage of education, perspective, and self-discipline do not participate to the fullest extent of their ability, America will stumble, and if America stumbles, the world falls.” This call to psychological arms in the Cold War culminates in the West’s argument in opposition to the Soviets: “We have bet all our chips, if you please, on the intellectual improvement of our people. This is a magnificent gamble — but it is a gamble.” Thus the import of places like Princeton.
Eight years later, Stevenson, as President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, was the man on the firing line as the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba for allowing the Soviets to introduce nuclear-capable missiles to the island. The eyes of the world were on the conflict in the U.N. Security Council, where the reputedly cerebral Stevenson, branded by ’50s Republicans as too much an egghead to challenge the Soviets, went for the jugular in facing down their representatives:
“Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed, and is placing, medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no — don’t wait for the translation — yes or no?... I am prepared to wait for an answer until Hell freezes over, if that is your decision. I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”
When he died on a London street from a massive heart attack in 1965, this was the image of Stevenson recalled by the president, vice president, and chief justice who attended his funeral in Bloomington, Illinois.
After 20 awful intervening years, with the U.S. mucking around in Vietnam and the Soviets mucking around in Afghanistan, the Cold War began to move to its endgame, much as foreseen in Kennan’s containment argument. The man in the chair for the U.S. was Ronald Reagan, and after a quick look around he called on George Shultz ’42 to be his secretary of state. Shultz was an economist with an honors degree from Princeton and a doctorate from MIT who had been in and out of Republican administrations for 25 years. He was far more encouraging of talks and treaties with the Soviets than many hardline Reagan staffers, and he developed a sense of trust with his Soviet counterparts after the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Six months before Shultz and Reagan left office, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were able to give a live concert before 300,000 crazed aficionados — in East Berlin. It was all over but the shouting.
The wall came down Nov. 9, 1989, under George H.W. Bush and Shultz’s successor, James Baker III ’52. Two years after that, the Soviet Union and its Communist Party were dead. An honors history graduate (with a thesis written for the legendary professor Buzzer Hall) and a long-standing lawyer friend of Bush from Texas, Baker’s increasing activity in Republican politics led to becoming Reagan’s White House chief of staff, then secretary of the treasury, before running Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign. His 3½-year term at the State Department was a constant set of wind sprints, including the entire Gulf War as well as active Arab/Israeli negotiations, plus the upheaval in Eastern Europe, during which maps and political relationships seemed to change daily.
But Baker took time on Dec. 12, 1991, to journey to Alexander Hall for a major policy speech on world affairs, specifically the wreckage of the Soviet Union. He was introduced by President Harold Shapiro *64; notably, the one attending individual they both saluted by name was George Kennan, soon to be 90 years old. In Baker’s words, “containment worked.” But rather than a victory lap, he decided to lay out a strikingly precise doctrine for approaching the new states and semi-states, based on self-determination — a completely new way for them to regard themselves.
From day one, he envisioned a broad international alliance to support the new areas: the Scandinavian states to help support the new Baltic lands, for example, and Japan and South Korea to assist Siberia. Short-term emergency tactics were already underway to stave off starvation during the winter — food, grain credits, medical assistance. They would clearly be needed the next year as well. But long-term strategies were where the alliance would succeed or fail: First, it would support reducing military forces, destroying nuclear weapons wherever possible, ideally precluding any new nuclear states. Second, it would attempt in any way possible to teach democracy (not impose it) to the former vassal states, including leadership, electoral ideas and stable, open government. Baker hoped to have communications/journalism support from the United States Information Agency, broad staffing from the Peace Corps, and technical assistance funds from consortia of private companies on the ground where they were welcome. Third, it would spend a lot of money to help establish free choice in the economic realm and develop free markets wherever possible. Businesses and NGOs throughout the alliance would participate, and the support for them would be broad and deep. The U.S. and allies would enlist the support of the G7, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank in providing credits and debt deferral to maximize the opportunities for these fledgling economies to grow and stabilize. The old history student inside Baker also noted tartly what the alternative was: He compared the American self-absorption and rejection of Woodrow Wilson 1879’s League of Nations following World War I, with Hitler as a result, to the internationalist plans of Kennan and George Marshall following World War II that enabled modern Germany and Japan, not to mention the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Of course, since acceptance of these proposed initiatives (amounting in each case to an internal revolution) was voluntary on the part of the new states, the questions of how to attain public support — and, most important, find the right leaders — were ever-present and, in the end, only fitfully solved. The Baltic states took the challenge to heart and thrived. Belarus, across the border, became an ugly authoritarian backwater. And of course, in today’s spotlight, we have Ukraine, which did indeed voluntarily surrender its nuclear weapons, then took many halting steps toward liberalizing its democratic processes. But when the wolf came to the door, it was a homeland worth fighting for, and Russia, whose xenophobia and long historical toleration of tyrants has again arisen to drive its neighbors crazy, and — via nuclear weapons — prevent much of the globe from focusing on self-improvement. But we need to remember the inspiring successes of Baker, Kennan, Shultz, and their compatriots — not their occasional shortcomings — and continue betting with Stevenson on the intellectual improvement of our people. In a time of war, there seems no rational alternative.