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What we can learn from George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’

Kennan's 'Long Telegram' laid out containment strategy for U.S. during Cold War

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American diplomat George Kennan.

American diplomat George Kennan. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Seventy-five years ago, George F. Kennan, then deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow, sent the “Long Telegram” back to the State Department.

Kennan believed that the Soviets were inherently expansionist and laid out the containment strategy for the U.S. during the Cold War.

As we are at a critical juncture of a looming cold war between the U.S. and China, in a potentially very different shape or form, let us compare the Russian and Chinese understandings of history and their sense of security.

Russia’s deep-rooted insecurity stems from its history of being invaded by Hitler, Napoleon, and further back, the Mongols. In the Cold War, Stalin established a large number of vassal states as the buffer between the “Motherland” and NATO.

We now know it's a crazy farce, but the Soviets were believed to be scared to death the U.S. would launch the first strike, and the Kremlin would consider deploying their nuclear weapons first.

The Chinese comprehension of history is intrinsically different from that of the Russians. Though the Song and Ming dynasties perished from the invasion of the Mongols and the Manchus, respectively, the Chinese “Ah-Q Mentality” (阿Q精神) has transformed the enslaved history into the glorified Chinese lineage (中華正統).

Ah-Q is a fictional character with no education and no real job; his story was written by Lu Xun (魯迅) in the 1930s. Subject to terrible humiliations time and again, Ah-Q would proclaim "spiritual victories" over his adversaries through self-talk and self-deception.

He is a bully to the inferior but fearful of those who are more powerful. The author exposed Ah-Q's extreme flaws as symptomatic of the Chinese national character.

Both China’s and Taiwan’s textbooks distort the history and reflect the Ah-Q mentality, as the Chinese claim both Mongols and the Manchus are all part of the Chinese people (中華民族). If we paraphrase this ridiculous assertion, it would be like the Indians, colonized by the British Empire, claiming Queen Victoria as an Indian.

Additionally, both the Chinese and the Taiwanese are indoctrinated with the concept of “one hundred years of humiliation,” which refers to the period from the First Opium War to the end of World War Two, though they have no concept that the Chinese pedigree was eliminated at least twice in history.

In other parts of Chinese history, whenever the empire commanded wealth and strength, such as during the Han and Tang dynasties, they would invade the neighbors and annex their territories. The Chinese history books glorify this expansionist past.

Today, China faces no threat of invasion; there are no ballistic missiles (short- to medium-range anyway) pointed at them. The West treats China as equal, politically and economically, but Beijing’s belligerent behavior has become ever more menacing to its neighbors.

Unlike Russia’s fear, the Chinese Communist Party is stoking hatred against the West using a toxic, twisted version of history. We all know hatred can be more destructive than fear.

Similar to the time before the First Opium War, China today has built a massive military with dubious capabilities. The British Empire in the 19th century hesitated to start a war because of the Qing Empire’s opulent facade and ostentatious military hardware; however, once the war began, the empire eventually collapsed after repeated defeats by Western powers.

China today, with its wealth and bitter ideology, has amassed many invincible battleships and muscular guns (船堅砲利). Nevertheless, underneath the shining armor, whether they have modern doctrine, training, logistics, and culture as a force enabler and even force multiplier is a totally different question.

So what can we learn from the Long Telegram? Kennan wrote that the Soviet Union was "impervious to logic of reason” and “highly sensitive to logic of force." If we substitute the Soviet Union with China, then 75 years later the assessment is still gospel truth.

The question is plain to see: Would Xi Jinping’s (習近平) “China Dream” perish if the Chinese communists dared to start a war with the U.S., which could quickly summon its allies and form another Eight-Nation Alliance?

The hubris of empires abounds in history; disasters tend to repeat themselves.

The author has more than 30 years of professional experience in the U.S. aerospace industry and served as an adjunct distinguished lecturer at Taiwan’s War College from 1999 to 2002.

Updated : 2021-04-10 19:56 GMT+08:00