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George F. Kennan – Well, nobody wants war, but…

January 4, 2015

“The Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, who was also a doctor, once observed that when a large variety of remedies were recommended for the same disease, it was a pretty sure sign that none of them was any good and that the disease was incurable. Similarly, when one notes the variety of arguments put up by the expansionists for the territorial acquisitions of 1898, one has the impression that none of them was the real one – that at the bottom of it all lay something deeper, something less easy to express, probably the fact that the American people of that day, or at least many of their more influential spokesmen, simply liked the smell of empire and felt an urge to range themselves among the colonial powers of the time, to see our flag flying on distant tropical isles, to feel the thrill of foreign adventure and authority, to bask in the sunshine of recognition as one of the great imperial powers of the world. …

We see that, in the reasons governing our resort to war and the determination of the character of our military operations, there was not much of solemn and careful deliberation, not much prudent and orderly measuring of the national interest. When it came to the employment of our armed forces, popular moods, political pressures, and inner-governmental intrigue were decisive. McKinley did not want war. But, when the bitter realities were upon him, there is no indication that either he or his Secretary of State felt in duty bound to oppose the resort to war if this was advantageous to them from the standpoint of domestic politics. Having resorted to war for subjective and emotional reasons, we conducted it in part on the basis of plans which, as far as we know, had never been seriously examined and approved by any competent official body; which were known to, and understood by, only a tiny handful of individuals in the government service; and which obviously reflected motives ulterior to the announced purposes of the war as defined by Congress. When the success of the naval and military operations that flowed from these plans inflamed public imagination and led to important questions of the acquisition of foreign territory, the Executive branch of the government took little part in the debate. It made no serious effort to control the effects of popular reaction to the exploits of a popular commander far afield. It was only the obligation of the Senate to ratify treaties which caught the tremendous issues involved and brought them to the attention of the public in a senatorial debate as measured and enlightened as any we have every had.”

(from American Diplomacy 1900-1950 [1951])


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