February 24, 1948 – Top Secret Memo by State Department Official George F. Kennan on the Bane of Altruism as a U.S. Policy

On this day in history, George F. Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff, wrote a memo outlining priorities for American foreign policy. In a preface he stated “The paper is submitted merely for information, and does not call for approval,” but Kennan was widely respected, and his analyses taken seriously.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

In the section on the Far East of this very interesting and prescient memo, Kennan avers:

… 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.”

[By world-benefaction Kennan means benevolence, kindness, or contributions of money or assistance.]

He continues on with harsh assessments about each area of the post-war world.

Of the Soviets, Kennan observes:

We are still faced with an extremely serious threat to our whole security in the form of the men in the Kremlin. These men are an able, shrewd and utterly ruthless group, absolutely devoid of respect for us or our institutions. They wish for nothing more than the destruction of our national strength.”

[One could of course say the same thing from their perspective about us.]

In his concluding paragraph he admonishes: “In all areas of the world, we still find ourselves the victims of many of the romantic and universalistic concepts with which we emerged from the recent war.”

Clearly, there was not much place in the State Department for “benefaction” or “romantic” notions. Occasionally, he admits, such idealism “served a useful purpose”:

But by and large it has created more problems than it has solved, and has led to a considerable dispersal of our diplomatic effort.”

You can read the entire text of this important and influential memo here.

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