The death last week of George F. Kennan concentrates the mind. The great American statesman was 101 years old. His longevity was second to his influence, though, and a chorus saluted him as the father of ''containment," the foundational idea of US Cold War thinking. But Kennan always insisted that his famous formulations -- the Long Telegram and the ''Mister X" article -- were misunderstood. His warnings about Soviet intentions and ideology, he said, were meant as a call to political action, not military build-up. The threat was less the Red Army than the discontent of impoverished peoples who might turn to Communism.
Beginning almost 50 years ago, Kennan decried the American emphasis on war-readiness at the expense of diplomacy and economic development. Across the US reliance on a massive nuclear arsenal that prompted Moscow to reply in kind. The waste and dangers of the arms race were unnecessary. The arc of Kennan's life suggests that American responses to the Soviet Union could have gone another way. What would the world be like today if his views had prevailed?
The civil war on the Korean peninsula would not have been magnified into a transcendent East-West clash, licensing the permanent Stalinism of the north.
Washington would have seized the diplomatic opportunity offered by the death of Stalin, supporting the emergence of reform-minded leaders in Moscow before the arms race began in earnest.
The United States would have refrained from testing and deploying the hydrogen bomb, with notice to Moscow that such grave escalation to a genocidal weapon would take place only if the Soviets went first.
The revolutionary movements of the Third World would have been seen as rejection of colonialism and normal nationalism instead of as global conspiracy centered in Moscow.
There would have been no American war in Vietnam.
The US crusade for ''freedom" would have been mitigated by a sense of modesty, with respect for the differing political impulses of other cultures.
Washington would have remained faithful to the post-World War II American sponsorship of structures of international cooperation, centered in the United Nations.
How we remember the past determines the shape of the future. If Kennan's life reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about the militarized confrontation of the Cold War, it can also help us see an alternative to the belligerent course now being set by Washington. Here is what a Kennan-like preference for political and diplomatic responses over military ones would mean today:
An aggressive movement away from US dependence on nuclear weapons, which is the best way to check proliferation.
Avoiding the militarization of conflict with China, which can needlessly lead to a new Cold War, complete with a rekindled arms race, only now rushing into space.
A prompt end to the war in Iraq, the first step of which is a withdrawal of American forces, paired with a renunciation of all US military bases in the Middle East.
Depriving terrorists of their raison d'etre by defusing Arab and Islamic resentment of American intrusions in the Middle East.
Meeting the gravest threat to national security, which is the global degradation of the environment, by renewing structures of international cooperation.
Bush administration policies run in an exactly opposite direction from the way shown by the life of George Kennan.
As with communism in the early days of the Cold War, we have made a transcendent enemy for ourselves with ''terrorism," imagining a globally organized, ideologically driven threat that far exceeds what actually exists. We have made an idol of a particular notion of ''freedom," forgetting again that freedom from hunger and disease is what the vast majority of humans long for. Once more, we fail to see the ways in which American-style freedom includes dehumanized elements (violence, prurience, greed) that others might properly resist.
In Iraq, we reenact the perverse American script that saves by destroying. In Korea, once again (Secretary Condoleezza Rice resplendent in a military bunker), we imagine that saber rattling helps. As for international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, we express our contempt by appointing as representatives their sworn enemies.
George F. Kennan was a good man. Despite himself, he helped launch his nation down a dangerous road. In regretting that, he spent his life calling for another way. The ultimate ''realist," he legitimized the idealist's dream. War is not the answer. America can honor this prophet by heeding him at last.