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Heer, Mr. X and the Pacific -- George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia, 2018.

Chichi Peng's review of Heer's book was originally published by the History of War discussion list and is reprinted here via Creative Commons license.

November 1, 2019

Paul J. Heer.  Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kennan and American Policy in East Asia.  Ithaca  Cornell University Press, 2018.  320 pp.  $37.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-1114-5.

George Kennan, Containment, and Taiwan

Discussions of George Kennan's containment policy mostly focus on Soviet or European topics. Paul J. Heer in _Mr. X and the Pacific_ sheds light on how containment applied to East Asia. Kennan's opinions and policy on the region matter because he worked as director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff (PPS) for Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947-49, who largely relied on PPS to formulate US global Cold War policy. In East Asia, according to Heer, Kennan's policy particularly contributed to the decisions on Japanese economic recovery planning and US disengagement from the Chinese civil war. Though Kennan was gradually marginalized in the inner policy circle since Dean Acheson took office in 1949 and finally retired in 1953, he continued to observe and comment on US foreign policy as a public intellectual. Heer tracks how Kennan's views on Asia evolved through his long life and examines the consistency and effectiveness of the policy and its legacies in the region.

Kennan always strived to define and seek a balance between pursuing US core interest and knowing its capability/limit. The goal of Kennan's global containment was to exclusively keep his defined four key world power centers (UK, Japan, US, and continental Europe) outside Soviet control or influence. To fulfill this aim in East Asia, Kennan proposed an economic recovery plan for Japan and implementation of an "offshore island defense chain" that may prevent the spread of Communism from the Asian mainland and may defend US interest in the region from the sea (pp. 68, 90-91). Almost all of the East Asian mainland, including China, Korea, and Indochina, was excluded from Kennan's original containment plan.

Kennan imagined that his policy would rebuild Japan as a revitalized, demilitarized, and neutral nation in the region. And he strongly recommended for the US to choose to dissociate with either the Nationalist or the Communist Chinese regimes. The outbreak of the Korean War, however, upset his plans. Washington decided to build up long-time military bases in Japan and also resumed its military and economic support of the Nationalist regime in Taiwan. Furthermore, after the war, the US decided to step into the affairs in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina, which was also opposite to his suggestions.

Though Taiwan is not one of the central topics in the book's discussion, Heer does spend substantial lengths in revealing how Kennan considered the Taiwan issue. Kennan's approach to Taiwan, according to Heer, was contrastingly unilateral and militaristic, given that most policymakers in Washington at the time were concerned about US commitment in Cairo and therefore rather tended to choose a cooperative manner with the Nationalist Chinese governance on the island. Kennan, however, asserted Taiwan's strategic importance to the US offshore island defense chain and advocated supporting US military intervention to establish a native government in the long run. Kennan revised or altered many of his analyses on East Asia affairs as time went on, but this stand on Taiwan remained almost unchanged.

Taiwan was first discussed but not included in Kennan's original offshore island defense chain strategic framework in early 1948. As the Chinese civil war continued to advance in favor of the Communists in late 1948, a Joint Chiefs of Staff military assessment report suggested that Communist-dominated Taiwan "would be seriously unfavorable to US military operations in wartime" (p. 97). This report together with the misrule of the Nationalist Party of China (KMT) in Taiwan made Kennan reverse his defensive perimeter planning. He wrote in June 1949 that "the only reasonably sure chance of denying Taiwan to the Communists and separating it from the mainland was to remove the KMT government there and replace it with a provisional government--under international or US auspices--dedicated to the principle of eventual self-determination for the island" (p. 103). The strategic importance of Taiwan proposed by Kennan was, unfortunately, ignored by the Truman administration at the time.

However, when the Korean War broke out, Kennan's advice on Taiwan came back to Washington's inner circle. He contended that because Taiwan was on the top of the Communists' wish list, if any further Soviet or Chinese Communist actions would be taken to damage Western prestige or to advance Soviet influence in the region, the area most immediately and dangerously targeted would be Taiwan. Harry Truman accepted his advice, ordering the Seventh Fleet to sail into the Taiwan Strait to prevent the island from any attack. Truman also resurrected the KMT regime through US military and economic aid, which Kennan criticized as unnecessary.

Taiwan matters to Kennan's containment in East Asia because it functions as a hub in the offshore island defense chain and therefore is vital to Japan's security in the region. As Xiaoming Zhang points out in his 2008 article, controlling Taiwan would favor controlling the sea lanes between Japan and Southeast Asia. It would also increase the capability of controlling Okinawa and the Philippines. Due to its geographical location, Japan relies heavily on the sea lanes in the East and South China Sea for food and raw material supply especially in wartime. Taiwan served this role for Japan during World War II. In other words, having Taiwan or not would greatly determine whether Japan is an asset or a liability to the United States in wartime in the Pacific.[1]

Discussions of US-Taiwan strategic relations are usually narrowly constrained in the framework of US-China-Taiwan relations. Reading Heer's book reminds us that Taiwan makes more sense, in Kennan's view, to US national interest and security in the Pacific when it is discussed and analyzed in the framework of US-Japan security relations or US containment in East Asia.

For those who are interested in US grand strategy in East Asia, especially in the era of the Cold War, this book is a must read.


[1]. Xiaoming Zhang, 乔治.凯南与冷战时期美国的东亚政策; [George Kennan and US policy to East Asia during the Cold War], _国__际政治研究_ [International politics quarterly] 3 (2008): 132-53.