A SECRET debate is raging inside the US State Department over the future of Germany. On one side are officials who believe that Germany's reunification is both inevitable and desirable, and favor a mutual withdrawal of Soviet and Western troops to the country's periphery. Under this scenario, dubbed ``Plan A,'' Germany's gradual demilitarization and neutralization would hasten the end of Europe's division into rival armed camps.
Vehemently opposing this concept, supporters of ``Plan B'' envision an indefinite perpetuation of the status quo, with Germany remaining split into East and West and US troops staying put along the cold-war frontier to assure Western Europe's continued stability and security.
Underlying the argument about Germany, both sides recognize, is a larger question of national security policy: Should Washington plan for a Europe indefinitely riven into two military blocs, dominated respectively by the United States and the Soviet Union, or for the reemergence of a Europe free, united, and independent?
It sounds like a natural response to the stunning recent events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to the champagne corks popping atop the Berlin Wall and the sudden talk of the ``inevitable'' uniting of East and West Germany.
But in fact, the State Department debate described above took place four decades ago, when the postwar alliance structure was still crystallizing.
That 1948-49 debate ended with ``Plan B'' ascendant and with West Germany sovereign, rearmed, and incorporated into the embryonic North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For 40 years, the argument has remained closed, a nearly-forgotten piece of history as assumptions about the postwar order in Europe ossified into a deeply ingrained orthodoxy.
Until now, most mainstream US foreign policy analysts and government officials, and in particular those in charge of foreign policy in the Bush administration, have been loath to question cold-war assumptions. There is an understandable and laudable desire, at such a delicate and sensitive moment, to avoid precipitous actions. George F. Kennan, architect of the postwar doctrine of containment, cautions that this is ``not the time to raise the subject'' of German reunification.
At the same time, nostalgic clinging to a cold-war Weltanschauung can impede the kind of creative and imaginative thinking that is needed for designing new political, economic, and military frameworks for Europe. And as historic events compel a reexamination of old assumptions, the history of the long-submerged debate over German reunification sheds interesting light on the issues that are bound to come up as the arguments resume in the State Department and around Europe.
Ironically, the architect of Plan A was none other than George Kennan, who had just articulated the containment doctrine in his famous ``X'' article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1948, as the director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, he set about defying the new orthodoxy he had done so much to establish. Then as now, Mr. Kennan believed fervently that Europe would rise from the ashes of war and transcend the era of Soviet and American dominance, and that a united Germany would play a central part in shaping the continent's new order. Moreover, he felt, it was imperative to try to retract US and Soviet troops sooner rather than later, for otherwise ``both we and the Russians will have to take measures which will tend to fix and perpetuate'' Europe's division. This would make it hard, he warned, ``harder than it is now - to find `the road back' to a united and free Europe.''
But Kennan's ultimately victorious opponents, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Defense Secretary James Forrestal, considered his idea unrealistic and politically dangerous. They placed higher priority on consolidating the unity of the fledgling West European alliance and drawing a firm line against potential Soviet military aggression (the Berlin blockade was then in progress) than on permitting the emergence of an independent Germany. Their objections included the danger that a renascent Germany might run amok again or, conversely, that a weakened, neutral Germany would serve as a tempting target for Soviet subversion.
WHEN an enemy in the secret policy dispute leaked Kennan's heretical concept to the New York Times in May 1949, just before a foreign ministers' conference in Paris, Washington disavowed any notion of withdrawing forces from Germany.
So ended the debate. Pressures for rearming West Germany intensified with the onset of the Korean war in June 1950, and in 1954 agreement was reached to permit a sovereign West Germany, with its own national military forces, to enter NATO.
While paying lip service to German reunification, US leaders privately dreaded it. ``A `neutralized,' unified Germany, with or without armed forces, would entail sacrifices and risks to the West incommensurate with any possible gains,'' read a secret 1953 National Security Council report.
Alarmed at the prospect of a rearmed West Germany, Moscow worked to head it off through a mixture of bluster and diplomatic enticement. In 1952, Stalin unveiled a new initiative to support German demilitarization and reunification, arousing hopes among Germans who thought a settlement could be negotiated.
But US officials viewed Stalin's initiative as a maneuver to delay West German entry into the European Defense Community (EDC), the proposal for an integrated West European army that was seen as the best hope against a Soviet invasion. (The EDC plan failed - watch for its resurrection in 1992 - and was replaced by NATO.)
Nor did the West German leader, Konrad Adenauer, have much faith in Soviet motives, and Moscow's brutal repression of a June 1953 uprising in East Berlin did little to inspire confidence. But Mr. Adenauer also found irresistible domestic political pressures to try his best to attain reunification on acceptable terms.
So preceding the January 1954 Berlin Conference - the first Four Power conference in five years - Western leaders publicly proclaimed their open-mindedness but privately hoped the Soviets would block reunification, and get the blame for doing so. Then, reunification hopes dashed, West German rearmament could go forward.
Tension mounted as Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov walked to the microphone to announce his government's proposals. But Western leaders soon sighed in relief. Had Mr. Molotov willingly supported free elections as part of a package leading to German reunification, Adenauer and his allies would have accepted. But instead, clumsily, Molotov spoke of elections that would exclude all ``non-democratic'' groups, such as ``fascist, militarist, and other organizations hostile to democracy'' - in other words, mainstream parties favoring alignment with the West.
Molotov's intransigence gave Bonn and Washington an easy out. His proposal was ``so extreme,'' Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reported to President Eisenhower, ``that we believe Western position has been greatly strengthened.'' West German integration into Western military structures sped forward, and a revised Soviet offer for supervised elections came too late to prevent Bonn's entry into NATO.
And so it went until November 1989. But for the first time in 35 years, if one can believe the promises of the besieged East Berlin government, the possibility exists for democratic elections in East Germany - the very condition the Soviets refused to satisfy in 1954. And if a freely elected non-communist East German government calls for reunification, with all the predictable emotional resonance such an act would have in West Germany, the Western alliance may be forced to put up or shut up.
Of course, it would be silly to say that Plan A or any particular blueprint for Europe's future political and military map is the only sensible solution for a situation that is changing so fast. No one knows what the continent is going to look like next year, let alone a decade from now.
And, obviously, the context surrounding the recent German developments differs drastically from that of 1948-49. Fears of German nationalism and revanchism have not entirely subsided (among Americans, Poles, Soviets, French, or Israelis, to name a few), for understandable reasons. But they are not so vivid as in the immediate postwar years, when Kennan described the German people as ``sullen, bitter, unregenerate, and pathologically attached to the old chimera of German unity.'' Those words certainly don't describe the exuberant folks in Berlin now. The evident confidence in democratic institutions voiced in both Germanys is reassuring.
The most important difference, of course, is that Mikhail Gorbachev sits in the Kremlin instead of Joseph Stalin, who, to put it mildly, took a less relaxed approach to security. In contrast to the tense early years of the cold war, few on either side of the ripping Iron Curtain now believe an East-West military conflict inevitable.
Nevertheless, despite the accelerating changes in the old communist world, the increasingly anachronistic detritus of the cold war remains - including thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides. Should changes continue, pressure in Eastern Europe and East Germany for the removal of Soviet troops and a dismantling of the Warsaw Pact are likely to increase. And the chances for that to happen peacefully improve if NATO allies can start formulating strategies to ease the transition to a post-cold-war world and to replace the militarized arrangements that have existed.
``So long as the dominant Soviet influence over Eastern Europe remains firm, [those arrangements] are apparently adequate,'' Kennan wrote in his 1967 ``Memoirs.'' ``But if someday there should be an insistent demand on the part of the Eastern European Community for some sort of reintegration into the European Community generally, and if the nature of their relations with the Soviet Union is at that time such as to permit this to happen peacefully, then the limitations of the arrangements concluded in 1949 and 1954 will at once become apparent, and people will have to occupy themselves seriously once again with the logic, if not the detailed provisions, of `Plan A.'''