It is a common sentiment that ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences and bad ideas have bad consequences. When Marx penned in the Communist Manifesto that a spectre [was] haunting Europe — the spectre of communism, he hardly envisaged that the revolutionary ideas posited would become a rationale, or justification, for the slaughter of millions. Alas, in the hands of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, Marx’s ideas became a scary ghost indeed. So, who should we blame? Is Marx responsible for the dead, or should we blame the so-called Communist practitioners, who manipulated then propagandized Marx’s ideas to serve their own purposes. This dilemma illuminates yet another commonly shared sentiment — It is difficult to put theory into practice, and when doing so, it often occurs that the practitioners negate the very theory they hypothesize.
During the Cold War, there was a battle of ideas for the hearts and minds of humankind between the Communist creed of collectivism and liberal idea of self-determination. It was a world struggle between the tyrannical Soviet system and the capitalist West. It was self-evident that that the philosophies of the former were dangerous; Less obvious was that to combat this evil system, many thought it necessary for the liberal West to compromise the very liberal idea it cherished. To put it another way, the liberal theory ingrained in the United States identity required American leaders to practice policies contrary to its nation’s founding theories. I call it the "liberty dilemma."
George Kennan attempted to ameliorate this unfortunate conundrum. In “The Long Telegram,” Kennan wrote that the “greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Kennan attempted to outline a policy guide that did not violate the philosophical outlook of the United States. Kennan believed that the nation who does anything in the name of power is but a nation who is complicit in tyranny. Kennan feared that the United States would become the very monster it was attempting to destroy.
I was struck by this when reading NSC-68. For it was George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” that influenced the policies advocated for in NSC-68. But Kennan hated NSC-68 and never intended it to be militarized to such an extent that it was. What Kennan preached was not practiced. Instead, his theory of “containment” turned out to be the rationale for the arms-race. And some would argue that American liberties were compromised because of this buildup. The point is this — It is hard to put theory into practice. And when ideas are tools in the hands of dangerous or self-serving men, the policies they practice all too often violate the original idea. I am not saying that NSC-68 was an evil manipulation of Kennan’s philosophy; I am saying that ideas have consequences.