RePost: George Kennan on ‘Political Warfare’


The seeming dichotomy of Peace and War does not exist so splendidly in reality; for all factions and especially all nations tend to exist in a state of partial competition. Clausewitz counsels that war is merely politics by other means; certain commentators disillusioned by democracy contend that politics is merely war by other means.

Thus it is immediately obvious why great generals have at times made great statesmen, and great statesmen great generals. Now the martial and civil arts are indeed very different in method, style, culture, and a thousand other measures; but they share together certain principles, and in the last analysis they both exist for the accomplishment of political ends.

Han Feizi teaches of the Ruler’s Two Handles- rewards and punishment. Machiavelli admonishes of the two tools which a Prince must know how to use- force and laws. Other analyses beyond these might include the control of information or the manipulation of wealth as similar instruments of political power. The wise statesmen, then, knowing the interest of his country, will see that in peacetime, he is neither at peace nor at liberty to believe he is. By the tools available to him he must defend his realm from the barbarians at the gates and the regents directing them, for these opposing regents use all similar tools available to them to advance their interests at the expense of their neighbors. Were the world simpler it might be defined as a war of all against all; but our world is not simple, and the intensity of competition, relative degree of cooperation, temporal and geographic and cultural peculiarities, and situational balance of power, being perpetually shifting factors, necessitate the leader’s prudence in managing his country’s interests.

George Kennan, titan of the Cold War and one of the soberest minds ever at the helm of American foreign policy, outlined a re-acquiring of the ancient art of Political Warfare, that tool to navigate the constant state of affairs which is not quite war yet not quite peace. His analysis ought to be considered by all analysts and strategists pondering the currents of American foreign policy. I have copied the introduction below, and attached the full partly-unclassified paper further down.


“1. Political warfare is the logical application of Clausewitz’s doctrine in time of peace. In broadest definition, political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures (as ERP–the Marshall Plan), and “white” propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of “friendly” foreign elements, “black” psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states. 

2. The creation, success, and survival of the British Empire has been due in part to the British understanding and application of the principles of political warfare. Lenin so synthesized the teachings of Marx and Clausewitz that the Kremlin’s conduct of political warfare has become the most refined and effective of any in history. We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war, by a tendency to view war as a sort of sporting context outside of all political context, by a national tendency to seek for a political cure-all, and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations–the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.

3. This Government has, of course, in part consciously and in part unconsciously, been conducting political warfare. Aggressive Soviet political warfare has driven us overtly first to the Truman Doctrine, next to ERP, then to sponsorship of Western Union [1-1/2 lines of source text not declassified]. This was all political warfare and should be recognized as such. 

4. Understanding the concept of political warfare, we should also recognize that there are two major types of political warfare–one overt and the other covert. Both, from their basic nature, should be directed and coordinated by the Department of State. Overt operations are, of course, the traditional policy activities of any foreign office enjoying positive leadership, whether or not they are recognized as political warfare. Covert operations are traditional in many European chancelleries but are relatively unfamiliar to this Government. 

5. Having assumed greater international responsibilities than ever before in our history and having been engaged by the full might of the Kremlin’s political warfare, we cannot afford to leave unmobilized our resources for covert political warfare. We cannot afford in the future, in perhaps more serious political crises, to scramble into impromptu covert operations [1 line of source text not declassified]. 

6. It was with all of the foregoing in mind that the Policy Planning Staff began some three months ago/2/ a consideration of specific projects in the field of covert operations, where they should be fitted into the structure of this Government, and how the Department of State should exercise direction and coordination. “

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