George F. Kennan and the Large Mean Giants

Some anti-communist political figures like Joe McCarthy claimed that Franklin Roosevelt “gave away the store” to our Russian allies at the Yalta Conference at the end of World War II. George F. Kennan doesn’t think so, and he ought to know. He’s the guy who wrote the longest telegram in history, and it was all about the Russians.

The way he explains it in American Diplomacy 1900-1950, there were three large mean giants on the world stage at the beginning of the war. The Western democracies had no hope of defeating any of them without the help of at least one of the others.

“Before the war began the overwhelming portion of the world’s armed strength in land forces and air forces had accumulated in the hands of three political entities — Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan. All these entities were deeply and dangerously hostile to the Western democracies.

“As things stood in the late thirties, if these three powers were to combine their efforts and stick together in a military enterprise, the remaining Western nations plainly had no hope of defeating them.

“I am not claiming that this was perceived, or would have been easy to perceive, by Western statesmen,” Kennan writes. “But I believe it was a reality. Of the three totalitarian powers, Japan was the only one which could conceivably be defeated by the democracies without invoking for this purpose the aid of one of the other totalitarian powers.

“In the case of Germany and Russia, circumstances were bitter. Together, they could not be defeated at all. Individually, either of them could be defeated only if the democracies had the collaboration of the other.

“But such collaboration, if permited to proceed to the point of complete victory, would mean the relative strenthening of the collaborating power and its eventual appearance as a greedy and implacable claimant at the peace table…

Kennan later addresses the Moscow, Tehran and Yalta conferences with the Russians:

“If it cannot be said that the Western democracies gained very much from these talks, it would also be incorrect to say that they gave very much away. The establishment of Soviet military power in eastern Europe and the entry of Soviet forces into Manchuria was not a result of these talks; it was the result of the military operations during the concluding phases of the war.

“These was nothing the Western democracies could have done to prevent the Russians from entering these areas except to get there first, and this they were not in a position to do.”