[Editor’s note: The original a) was transcribed (this one not by me) to create a readable and OCR error-free copy of this unfinished 1938 work by George F. Kennan. Please contact me if you notice any errors.]

Original source:

a): The Prerequisites, Notes on the Problems of the United States in 1938; 1938; George F. Kennan Papers, Box 240, Folder 4; Public Policy Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.


I. The Prerequisites [1938]

The problems which confront the United States of America in the in the year 1938 are not ones which require lengthy elucidation. Ours is an introspective country and the [ pitiless ? ] beam of publicity has been focused on the [jointure?] from sufficient angles and for a sufficient length of time to make the outline amply clear to everyone.

For three hundred years a stream of immigrants has poured into a vast territory and developed it into the greatest of modern industrial states. The political covenant which was to have permitted these people to live together in peace and decency was drawn up one hundred and fifty years ago. It was designed to meet a given set of conditions which were foreseeable at that time. Enormous changes have occurred since then and the just regulation of the relationships between man and man has become infinitely more complex. That we have clung, despite these changing conditions, to the old pattern of political life, is not surprising. For most of this period it has worked tolerably well. And we have had no other tradition to which might turn. But the difficulties of working out our rational life within this
framework have become increasingly great. Our economic machine refuses to continue to run itself in the old smooth manner. Its creaks and groans were detectable long before Government began to tamper with it to the present degree, and the busy monkey wrenches of government power have been able to restore the even workings of its parts. Nasty and uncontrolled industrialization has introduced ugly social and political problems which refuse to be ignored. Our agricultural population is largely indebted or disposed. Our great cities and industrial communities are not pleasant to contemplate. Our population as a whole no longer has its old fiber or its old ideals. Few of us are untouched by the problems of crime, corruption and class and race antagonizers.

Popular opinion on the best way of meeting these problems divides – despite its myriads of sub-currents and cross-currents – into two main lines. One section believes that the problems can be solved only through the paternalistic efforts of central government. The other [suliu?] believes that the interference of government actually created some of the problems and aggravated others, and is incapable of solving most of them. These people see the solution in a revival of what amounts to a domestic policy of laissez-faire.

Both of these groups accept our present Constitution and, in general, the system of government that has grown up under it, as the basis of political life. Both of these profess abhorrence of they call “fascism” or “dictatorships.” Both stand for “democratic government.” One believes that centralized government can effectively regulate the economic and social life of our country. The other believes that this economic and social life can be effectively regulated by free competition and local government.

It is the opinion of those who are [returning?] on this discussion (and who will be refereed to hereafter with the editorial “we”) that both of these groups are wrong, and that the only solution to the problem lies along a road which very few Americans are willing to contemplate: along the which leads through constitutional change to authoritarian state.

***

The horrid word has now been spoken, and from those who have not already laid down the book we have such a chorus of indignant exclamation that we must pause for a moment and allow the din to subside, before we attempt to answer any of them. On the meanwhile, let us reflect a bit in the world at large.
Let us recall, first of all, that there is no such thing as absolute democracy or absolute dictatorship. The very word “democracy” has no precise commonly accepted meaning. As a generalization bandied about daily on a thousand tongues, it probably signifies to most of us a vague mixture of personal liberty and majority rule. But personal liberty, in a society which has taxes, police and unemployment, is a relative term itself. And majority rule is a dangerous measuring stick to apply in a country where a good percentage of local and state governments are in the hands of political machines and where the main-springs of federal legislation are lobbies, patronage and local interests.

The term “dictatorships” is equally elusive. The idea that modern states can by a run by a single individual is simply childish. The countries of the world have varying degrees of centralization of powers. Those in which political power is most highly centralized and absolute we call – when we don’t like their regime – dictatorships. Yet these states are at best oligarchies in which the dominant figure has acquired a certain symbolic value in the popular eye. Their “dictators”, great as their power may be, are dependent on many advisors and assistants and find themselves compelled to compromise at eveyr turn with influential groups of citizens. Is it not significant that no rulers have had to go to greater lengths to influence public opinion through propaganda than those very “dictators” who if their power were absolute as we suppose, should be able to scoff at it? The feel is that in every modern state government exists by the tolerance of the people, and it is precisely the “dictators” who, having deprived themselves of all legal means of retreat, have the bear by the tail.

The majority of the countries of the world, furthermore, are governed by the regimes which fit into neither of the popular conceptions of “dictatorships” or “democracy.” China, which was had in Chiang Kai Shek a conspicuous and powerful leader, is not ranked as a “dictatorship.” Japan is, although few have any clear idea who the dictator is supposed to be. In Europe, which is commonly portrayed as divided into democratic and dictatorial camps a good percentage of the governments now defy classification. Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey fit into opposing camps? This question would be equally embarrassing if applied to a number of the countries of Latin America. All in all, it is obvious that neither of these terms is more than a vague cliché, loosely applied for emotional reasons wherever people find it convenient to apply it. Neither will serve us as a precise conception of political life. For this reason, we propose to drop them completely – both the angel of democracy and bogey-man of dictatorship – in our consideration of American problems.

If we do this, we will be able to approach these problems with a greater freedom and a greater equanimity.

***

We take it that there is little disagreement among thinking people with respect to the aims of government. It is clear that a good proportion of our population should be better fed, better housed, better clothed and should enjoy better opportunities for play and relaxation and athletic enjoyment. They must be thought to be more humane and more decent in their relations to one another. Finally, they are to be happy, they should be given the feeling that they are participating individually in a common program towards the end described above, that their efforts are not purely individualistic and selfish, that they are contributing toward the general improvement of the society in which they live.

This is a sketchy program, but we do not feel that it needs to be more complete. We leave the communists to detailed description of distant millenniums. Perfection does not exist in nature. The goals we seek will never be entirely attained. There is plenty to occupy us and our children and our children’s children. The road is a long one. We will be satisfied with motion in the indicated direction. To achieve such motion in the task of government.

***

The problem before us is this: what type of government is best calculated to assure such progress? In seeking the answer to this question, we consider that the content is more important than the form. The first thing to consider is the people who are to bear responsibility for government and who are to participate directly in the exercise of authority. The constitutional form through which this authority is to be exercised is a secondary consideration. Generally speaking the world has always been governed by minorities. At one time, the land-owning nobility or the clergy, or both contributed the basis of power in many western-European states. Later they were replaced by the bourgeoisie. In England, the source of authority is that peculiar strata of society called the “upper class.” In Germany, Russia and Italy it is a combination of the chauvinistic youth, party bureaucracy and the leaders of the armed forces. Only in the sense of “neutral” countries of Europe which enjoy in varying degrees the advantages of compactness, homogeneity of population and exceptional popular political ability, has it possible to widen the basis of power into what may be called a majority of the population.

It was the aim of our present political system to base governmental power on the entire adult population. This aim has obviously been realized. The responsibility of government is largely exercised by a conglomerate minority composed of professional politicians and powerfully-organized special interests. We take issue with this system not because it constitutes rule by minority. We take issue with it because it is rule by the wrong minority, by a minority which does not have national interest at heart and which – would in large part – be incapable of recognizing such interests even if it cared to do so. We hold no brief [sic] for the rule of the majority in the United States. We do not consider the mass of our population sufficiently enlightened, sufficiently homogeneous in its political thought to be capable of taking responsibility for government. What element should then constitute the basis of political power in this country? The old line Republicans say in effect – “business.” The democrats [sic] have no clear idea. The Marxists would have us believe that the only elements morally capable of bearing on their shoulders the burden of political authority are the industrial workers and the most unsuccessful farmers. John L. Lewis says “organized labor.” Some of our most bewildered theorists suggest “the old Anglo-Saxon element.”

We reject all these proposals. We feel that no single, identifiable element or class now exists which is capable of filling this bill. We feel that this country can be effectively and properly government only by a minority selected from all sections and classes of the population, and selected on the basis of individual fitness for the exercise of authority. This fitness must be determined by character, education and inclination. It must be supplemented, once the original selection is made, by training and experience.

In other words, an element capable of bearing political responsibility in this country does not yet exist as an entity. It must be created. Its members must be selected, organized and trained. The necessity of training them means that they can be selected, organized and trained. The necessity of training them means that they can be selected, in the main only, from the youth. And this election can be carried out only by a political organization, unconnected with any existing political party or any vested interest, an organization professional indifferent to the size of tis population backing and unhampered b[y] the necessity of seeking votes, an organization capable of commanding the undivided loyalty and confidence its followers. It is the creation of such an organization which we propose as the first step in the realization of the program outline in this book.

***

Before leaving this point, let us paint this organization in a little greater detail.
As stated above, it would have to be composed largely of young people. Its members would have to dedicate themselves to its purpose. They would have to make it their profession. They would have to abandon the attractions of private life, the prospect of making money and of keeping up with the Joneses. They would have to subject themselves to discipline as they would if they entered a religious order. Many of them would doubtless have to face – at first – the opposition of parents and pedagogues and the scorn of loss less idealistic fellows.

For all this their rewards would come – if they were successful – in the possession of authority and in the sense of real service to society. If they were unsuccessful, they would have only recollection of a comradeship relieved of the social life of young America[:] falseness and the philistinism which pervades in its colleges and its suburban communities, and the feeling that they had done all that they could to prevent the disintegration of the body politic which [sic] into which they had been born.

***

The question will now be asked; supposing that you are successful in creating a competent, disciplined and devoted organization of untrammeled young people, dedicated to the service of the state, how are they going to come into power unless they have behind them an effective vote-getting machine, which in turn means selling-out to one of the other of the countries existing political factions?
We propose to leave this question unanswered. It does not bother us. We know of no instance in history where a highly-disciplined, energetic and determined minority has failed eventually to find means of coming into power in a state where political power was corrupt, chaotic and diffused. Nor does this imply the necessity of the use of violence. If the presen[t] degeneration of Americas political life continues, it is more probable that power will eventually drop like a ripe apple into the hands of any organized minority which knows what it wants and has the courage to accept responsibility. This danger already exists. We did not create it. We are only trying to anticipate it. There will be ruthless elements a-plenty waiting to inherit the instruments of power which the old system has been unable to wield. It is our concern that there should be at least one competitor with a sense of decency and responsibility.

***

Now we have come an amazing distance in this short space of time. We have shaken off the fetish of democracy and the spectre of dictatorship. We have searched our country in vain for a promising foundation of political power and have ended up by creating one and bringing it into power. We have kept it free from the compromises and restrictions of vote-seeking and demagoguery. We are now at liberty to turn to the main theme of the discussion: the program which could be followed by an organization of this sort and – let us add – by no other type of political entity.

II. The Organization of Government

Whenever this, or any authoritative regime comes into power in this country (and we depend on it that if this one does not come into power some other one will) the circumstances will scarcely be such that one will be able to turn immediately to the normal processes of government. There will be plenty of problems of an emergency nature faced at the outset, -problems which will have to be dealt with on an emergency basis through the apparatus of the existing executive and judicial branches of the Government. There is no necessity, consequently, for having on hand a complete plan of constitutional reform, ready for the application on the spur of the moment, like the Soviet formula for the government of puppet states in Asia or the standard Nazi framework into which Austria was so suddenly gleichgestaltet.
Nor do we feel that it is the business of any individual or of any single particular political group to plot out changes of this nature. We have sufficient confidence in ourselves to take responsibility for the immediate exercise of power, if the opportunity presents itself. We do not feel that we could – or should – take responsibility for determining the permanent form which government power should take. This is a matter which can be worked out only by a body of representing all the elements fit to share political responsibility in the country, assembled in a new constitutional convention.

We have, we repeat, no detailed plan for a reorganization of government and we do not feel that it is our business to have any. But there are certain principles which we feel should be observed in such a reorganization.

The first of these is that there must be a very extensive restriction of the suffrage in national affairs. It is obvious that there are millions of people in this country who haven’t the faintest conception of the rights of wrongs of the complicated questions with which the federal government is faced. One may reply that they are not supposed to have, that they are merely supposed to elect representatives in whom they have confidence and who are qualified to consider these matters.

Unfortunately, the system does not work this way. Corruption, machine politics, demagoguery and ignorance all stand in the way. When bewildered ignorant popular masses, untrained in any particular political tradition or even national feeling, are given the unlimited privilege of political responsibility, the invariable and unavoidable result is that they turn it over to the most determined unscrupulous self-seekers. The broader and more remote the governmental unit in which they are supposed to represent, the less understanding they have for its operation and for their own real interests. Thus unrestricted suffrage, debatable enough in local an state affairs, becomes even less justified and more dangerous in national affairs.

How can suffrage be rrestricted [sic]? There are three answers to this. The first is the disfranchisement of aliens and naturalized citizens. This proposal will be greeted with particular horror and indignation by a great many people. These groups of persons – the aliens and the naturalized citizens – have proportionately more power in American politics than any other elements of the population.

Anyone who has held a position of any responsibility in the federal government can confirm the fact that a newly arrived alien who happens to belong to one of the well-organized nationality groups can get much more in the way of favorable action out of Washington than the average Tom, Dick or Harry whose ancestors have so fare merged themselves into the American picture that their foreign origin, if determinable at all, can no longer be recognized. The real American, modest and decent should that is, contents himself with the meagre privileges of his status as a resident of the country and his individual political allegiance is not even known to the local ward-heelers. The member of one of the nationality groups is registered and catalogued and the group has its particular congressmen and senators to do its bidding in the national capitol.

We do not deny that a restriction of the suffrage on this basis would mean that a certain number of highly intelligent and right-minded people would not be allowed to vote. This is a sacrifice which we cannot avoid. But by way of compensation, the ground would be taken from under the feet of a large number of useless and harmful politicians, foreign governments would lose their principle channels of influence in American internal affairs, and several millions of bewildered semi-digested new arrivals would become for the first time the objects of benevolent good government rather than fodder for the rent-sharks, ward-heelers and confidence mend of the big cities. These people will be happier as passive citizens of a government they can respect than as misguided participants in the sorry farce of what they are told is “American democracy”.

The second element which should be deprived of the franchise is the woman, insofar as she does not have an independent status in the productive life of the country as a job-holder or as one who pursues a profession. This suggestion is probably the only one that could arose more indignation of than that of the disenfranchising the aliens and naturalized citizens. But the purpose of this book is to look and naturalized citizens. But the purpose of this book is to look realistically at the American scene and not to give pleasure.

The fact is that this country is already a matriarchy. In no other great nation have women been given remotely the power in social, economic and political affairs that they have in this country. They control in large part the family. They control in still greater part the nation’s purse. They dominate cultural life, as the greatest market for magazines, books, films, etc. The[y] have their lobbies in Washington and the politicians tremble at their approach.

As a whole, the American women has conspicuously failed to live up to the reasonability which the exercise of this power entails. Her club-life has become a symbol of futility and inanity. In national politics she has placed her enormous power in the hands of lobbyists, charlatans and racketeers. Finally, shea has not even done well by herself. She has ruined in large part some of the greatest assets of her own sex. She has become, in comparison with the women of other countries, delicate, high-strung, unsatisfied, flat-chested and flat-voiced. The higher she is in the social and economic scale and the more true these things are – and the greater the part she takes in politics. A reversion of woman’s social activity to family picnics, children’s parties and the church social (without the lecturer from New York) would take an enormous strain off the country – and the women as well.
Let this not be take as disrespect for something that all Americans have been taught to revere. It is rather an attempt to take the first step toward clearing away of the underbrush of ridiculous, wearing activity for activity’s sake which has grown up around woman’s leisure time and a restoring to American womanhood of something of the strength and dignity which it is rapidly losing.

The third element which has no benefit from the suffrage in this country is made up of the negroes. Seventy years of nominal enjoyment of this privilege has proved this beyond and necessity of further demonstration. The condition of the colored race is probably the outstanding disgrace of American public life. The negro has become in reality – whether we like it or not – the ward of the American government. Urgent measures are required to stop the economic decline and the physical and nervous disintegration which are overtaking the colored populations of our cities. These measures will never be taken by the type of person to whom the negroes, when permitted to vote, entrust their political fortunes. On the contrary, these people merely clutter up the process of government and impede any sort of constructive progress. The lack of the franchise could make the negro little more defenseless than he is. It should serve, on the contrary, to develop some sense of responsibility for his welfare which is so woefully lacking in the white population. It is a national characteristic that we are kinder to those who, like our children, are openly dependent on our kindness than those who are nominally able to look after themselves.

If these three restrictions were made in suffrage, then the basis of political power would be cut down to something roughly coinciding with the body of persons, who by virtue of background as well as their function in society, might be supposes to have some qualification for exercising it intelligently and usefully.

The question would then remain: through what channels should this power be exercised?

We hold it to be self-evident that the present legislative branch of our government is utterly inadequate to meet the demands of a modern state for intelligent ligeslation [sic]. For this we do not blame the individuals who comprise the body. They are the products rather than the creations of the system, and it is the system which is wrong. They are of necessity, by virtue of the method of their selection, mediocre men with little courage. They are compelled to legislate on national questions but they are not allowed to think along national lines. Their masters are those elements which control their constituencies. Even freed of their bosses and constituents, they would have a hard time finding reasonable answers to the problems placed before them, due to their limitations of intelligence and character. Saddled as they are with demands of sectional and special interests, they do not even try to keep national interests in their legislative work. The measures which they adopt are consequently a series of hodgepodge compromises between various selfish interests, compromises which often bear very little [recognizable] relation to the problems they are supposed to meet.

We regard it as self-evident that the present constitutional system is inadequate and to a certain extent directly harmful. For this, we do not blame the fathers of the constitution. We blame the subsequent generations, including our own, for distorting the pattern which the framers of the Constitution laid down, for perverting what was supposed to be a representational government into a boss-ridden democracy, for admitting to this country millions of new elements incapable of understanding our conceptions of government and destined inevitably to constitute the means for the abuse of these conceptions by unscrupulous demagogues, and – finally – for a general cowardliness and reluctance to take responsibility in questions of political theory. We feel that if the men who framed the Constitution could re-appear on this earth today they would be the first to demand immediate far-going revision of that very document and would have some biting words for a generation too lazy and too timid to continue a work which they themselves had begun with such energy and courage.

For the formulation of a system of government can not be – and was not meant by our forefathers to be – a single, isolated act, valid for all time. Human nature is fallible; human life is subject to change. The form for political life must necessarily be subject to constant, gradual change, if more violent changes are to be avoided.

The British have recognized this, with conspicuous success. It is time this country did likewise.