If you know one thing about the late George Frost Kennan (1904–2005), it’s that he was the principal author of the “containment” doctrine at the heart of America’s winning strategy in the Cold War. If you know two things, you probably know that he came to doubt and even repudiate and regret his own decisive contribution to America’s role in that struggle. If your knowledge extends to three or more things, you are almost certainly a priest in the national security clerisy, a professor of international relations, or a worshiper of those who erected the post-World War II international order—categories not exclusive.
For a long time, I was in the first camp. Although in college I studied history (among other things), my focus was on the more distant past. Still, in reading biographies of 20th-century notables (as I liked to do), one inevitably comes across Kennan’s name. He seemed to me at the time to be a sort of middling figure: important enough to be mentioned and his one big contribution summarized and credited, but not sufficiently significant to merit his own full-scale treatment. After all, prominent as Kennan was for a while, he never made it into one of those really big-time jobs—senator, governor, cabinet secretary—held by those, including many of his peers, about whom biographies are written.
Some years later, I found myself near the top—in terms of proximity, not seniority—of the national security bureaucracy. This was shortly before, and for nearly four years after, 9/11. At that time, there was a lot of talk about a new international system aborning, something much more fundamental than the “new world order” George H.W. Bush had prophesied after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This would, it was hoped, be the most significant remaking of international relations since the (roughly) five-year period following the end of the Second World War. And those in charge of American foreign policy at that time (my bosses) would be the ones to make it all happen, thus ensconcing their names in the history books no less than…George Kennan’s.
Because I had to write these people’s speeches and manage their interactions with the press, I figured I had better learn what the fuss was all about. Luckily, the library on the third floor of what was then still known as the Old Executive Office Building had a plethora of useful volumes. The gateway for me was The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986), Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s seminal parallel biographies of the most important appointed officials who helped erect the “rules-based” or “liberal international order.” From there, I moved on to other biographies, popular histories, and eventually to memoirs—of which Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (1969) is the finest, not just from this cohort, but probably the best Washington memoir ever. Though naturally (given the genre) self-serving, it is also entertaining, informative, crisply written, and sharp-tongued. It remains a pleasure to read, something one can say about very few similar efforts.
George Kennan’s memoirs—especially the first volume, which covers the crucial 1945–1950 period—though less fun to read, were arguably more useful. Here was a wealth of detail about what the wise men actually contemplated, what they attempted and what they rejected, their successes and failures, plus Kennan’s (seemingly endless) recriminations about what might have been if only they had listened to him.
I learned quickly that Kennan was (and remains) a beloved figure in the national security clerisy, especially among the more academic types or those who fancy themselves intellectuals. Studying this man seemed a useful way to gain access to the higher-ups’ innermost thinking.
I also learned, to my great surprise, that George Kennan was still alive! (He would die soon after the president’s second inauguration, at age 101.) Moreover, he was not, as he approached the century mark, a doddering old has-been, at least not mentally. No, he was sharp as a tack, and he frequently used that sharpness to carve precisely targeted wounds into the Bush Administration’s hide and to dissect the pronouncements of my bosses. Kennan drove Condoleezza Rice, in particular, absolutely nuts. His criticisms started right after 9/11 and increased as the Iraq war approached. Kennan was, to say the least, skeptical that any of the benefits the administration promised from that war would actually materialize. I think what bothered Rice was not just the criticisms themselves but the fact that they weren’t coming from some partisan schmuck or no-name hack but from the most distinguished living high priest in her sect, and one whom she had been trained to revere. And who was, like her, a Russia expert and fluent in the language. (As the incumbent secretary of state, Rice would sit in the front pew at Kennan’s memorial service at the National Cathedral.)
Rice was, by contrast, much buoyed by John Lewis Gaddis’s short book Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (2004), which defended the administration’s post-9/11 policies and placed them in a historic context stretching back to John Quincy Adams. She enthusiastically recommended it to all the staff, almost to the point of making it required reading, and even gave copies away. Gaddis, I would later learn, was already Kennan’s hand-picked biographer, though his George F. Kennan: An American Life would not appear until 2011.
It’s safe to say, though, that in this respect at least, Kennan had the last laugh, or would have, were there anything funny about America’s misadventures in Iraq. As the unfolding of events would show, he was right in virtually all of his criticisms and predictions. If only we had listened to him, indeed!
Not that Kennan was right about everything. One hallmark of his long career was a pile of spectacular misjudgments to go along with those many spectacular insights. By far his most spectacular misjudgment was his own rejection—at times hinging on vehement—of his most spectacular insight.
Understanding this requires knowing something about Kennan’s life, and in this we are aided by a new biography, Kennan: A Life Between Worlds, by Frank Costigliola. Costigliola, a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Connecticut who edited The Kennan Diaries (2014) for publication, is certainly well qualified to write such a book, yet one wonders why it was needed, given the exhaustive treatment presented by Gaddis scarcely a decade prior. What more was there to say?
A Life Between Worlds is certainly not better written than Gaddis’s An American Life (reviewed in these pages by Angelo Codevilla, Spring 2012). For one thing, it’s irritatingly repetitive. How many times does Costigliola look forward, and then backward, to the “Long Telegram” and the “X Article”? I lost count, but it’s a lot. Granted, these are the two documents on which Kennan’s fame chiefly rests, and a little foreshadowing often helps the reader. But Costigliola overdoes it, making the same points over and over, not to bring out new facets but worded as if he hadn’t made them before, thus robbing the central treatment, when the time comes for it in his narrative, of most of its punch.
There are also a number of nontrivial mistakes. For example, Dean Acheson was not an assistant secretary of state overseeing Kennan in the immediate postwar era; Acheson hadn’t been an assistant secretary since 1945 and during George Kennan’s glory days in Foggy Bottom was in private law practice. “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) was not even an apple in the Rand Corporation’s eye in the 1940s. First, there was “Assured Destruction,” coined (and made policy) in the early 1960s, then ridiculed by conservative critics as “MAD” in 1972. George Shultz was not secretary of state when the Berlin Wall fell; he had exited ten months earlier along with his boss Ronald Reagan. There are also a lot of typos, repeated words, and other little infelicities. I point all this out not so much to chastise Costigliola (even the most conscientious author is bound to let some errors sneak through) but to wonder: what happened to fact-checking and proofreading?
The two main differences between Costigliola’s and Gaddis’s treatment are, first, the former is at pains to emphasize, as vindication of his subject’s judgment, Kennan’s later revisionism about containment: Costigliola clearly thinks that policy, at least as implemented, was a costly mistake. Gaddis by contrast argues that containment was sound in both conception and execution.
The second is that Costigliola spends more time trying to tease out Kennan’s inner thoughts and relatively less on the political events that drove his life. (The book is marketed as the first biography to be written after the publication of Kennan’s diaries, which is true, but a bit misleading: Kennan gave Gaddis complete access to all his papers, including the diaries; Gaddis nonetheless chose, if not to ignore them, at least not to dwell on them.) One result of Costigliola’s approach is that it really draws out what might be termed the “instability” of his subject. George Kennan was undoubtedly talented and brilliant, and made many real contributions to his country, but he was also mercurial, histrionic, hypersensitive, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and solipsistic. Readers of this book will be much less surprised by Kennan’s failure to make it to the top than was Kennan himself.
Even in Kennan’s moments of greatest influence, those most inclined to value his insights (and many of the machers around, and above, him weren’t) tended to keep him at arm’s length. No American knew more about Russia or, arguably, Germany, but his judgments were, at best, erratic, and more often than not, all over the map. Consistency was not Kennan’s strong suit. For instance, he wore out his welcome in the State Department partly over his insistence that the United States support the reunification of Germany—and then, when the opportunity for reunification finally came, squandered what influence he still had by denigrating the very idea of reunification.
George Kennan was born in Milwaukee in vaguely upper-class circumstances. His mother’s family was rich but thought their daughter had married down and so never warmed to George’s father. His mother died when George was a mere two months old, leaving a psychic wound that never healed, and to which Costigliola returns again and again, because Kennan himself did. Also in the picture was a wicked stepmother, or at least that’s the way the Kennan children saw her, though Costigliola recounts nothing worse than prudishness and a little emotional distance.
Kennan’s father was something of a ne’er-do-well—not a wastrel, exactly, but unambitious and, despite his expertise in what should have been the lucrative practice of tax law, inept at navigating the real world. As a result, the Kennan family was always pinched for money, though far from destitute: they lived in a big house (a gift from Kennan’s maternal grandparents) with servants and vacationed at an elegant lakeside summer retreat. They also had enough to travel to Europe and to send George to a private military school, and then to Princeton, where he excelled.
George had already shown his nascent abilities when, on a family sojourn to Germany at age eight, he acquired the language in a little over four months and thereafter maintained a lifelong fluency. He would later, under the auspices of the Foreign Service, which he joined right after college, learn Czech, French, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, and—of course—Russian, the latter probably more thoroughly than any American ever has.
When one imagines the skills you’d want in your country’s diplomats, the mind turns immediately to languages, and then to knowledge of other countries’ histories, cultures, and customs. George Kennan had all these in spades, to a degree I doubt any American envoy has even come close to possessing over the last quarter century at least. Such talents are no doubt rare; career diplomat and former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger called Kennan “the best Foreign Service officer in the history of the State Department.” But it’s as if we’ve given up even trying. Today, languages are not only not required to enter the Foreign Service; once in, the teaching of them is perfunctory at best, and officers are moved around so much that it’s all but impossible for them to gain real expertise in any particular country or its traditions. Kennan, by contrast, learned Germany and especially Russia to their roots. This made him very useful for many decades to the top figures in the American foreign policy establishment.
After productive if unremarkable stints in relatively easy postings where he excelled—Kennan was the most rapidly promoted young diplomat of his generation—in 1933 he was among the few who cut the ribbon on America’s brand-new embassy in Moscow, where his command of the language and knowledge of the country proved indispensable to his superiors and their managers in Washington. Always lurching back and forth between naïveté and steely-eyed realism, Kennan first imagined that a grand rapprochement between the USA and the USSR (brokered by George Kennan) was just around the corner, and then was appalled by the horror of Stalin’s purges, which he closely monitored from his office in Red Square and which ensnared many of his Russian friends. This spectacle turned Kennan, never sympathetic to Communism, into its implacable enemy, a stance he never shed, though he would also never give up his belief that coming to terms with the Soviets was both desirable and possible, even after—as he bitterly complained—the Kremlin cut off all contact and did everything it could to isolate him from his Russian contacts and the Russian people.
Kennan bounced around a bit as war approached, even serving more than two years in wartime Berlin before being detained for six months by the Nazis after Pearl Harbor. Soon he was back in Moscow for the duration of the conflict. The U.S. and USSR were “allies,” so things were better for him on a personal level—he was allowed to get out and talk to people—but ever the contrarian, he thought the Roosevelt Administration’s policy was naïve, and said so. He favored sharply curtailing the virtually unlimited American aid flowing to the USSR. He also saw sooner than anyone—even Winston Churchill—that, in pushing the Nazis out of Russia, Stalin sought to conquer as far west as possible and keep all of that territory, with its people and resources, after the war. Kennan urged (to no avail) the Roosevelt Administration to realize this and do something about it while the United States still maintained the superior position.
Thus, when our erstwhile faux ally turned unapologetic enemy, it was George Kennan who had to explain to a bewildered (and dispirited) establishment what was going on and what to do about it. The “Long Telegram” was a top-secret (at the time) cable—dictated in one marathon session in February 1946 from Kennan’s sickbed in the Moscow embassy—which interprets Soviet behavior as arising from a combination of traditional Russian security concerns that prevail no matter who, or what regime, rules in the Kremlin, plus unique contributions from Communist ideology. Kennan argued that, to a certain degree, Soviet Russia was just behaving like Russia: seeking to protect its long, flat, indefensible frontier by pushing its effective border as far west as possible. The strategy was little different from Peter (or Catherine) the Great’s, with the notable exception that Stalin had managed to drive much farther than the czars had ever dreamed. If the term “grand strategy” has a coherent meaning (Kennan himself dismissed it; “Drop the word ‘grand,’” he once advised the author of a lecture with that title), this is it. But the Communist overlay made everything worse. The contemporary USSR would be especially prickly, paranoid, recalcitrant, hostile, and hard to deal with for the foreseeable future. The West may not have sought a conflict with its former ally, but it had one regardless and needed to adjust—quickly.
The Long Telegram caused a sensation in Washington, where it was read by just about anyone cleared for it, from the president on down. It dispelled the fog about Soviet intentions (and behavior) still prevalent as a hangover from wartime conviviality and Soviet penetration of the U.S. government. More than Kennan’s analysis, his prescription is what made his reputation. He was the first to offer a third way, a via media between the awful alternatives of yet another European war or passive acquiescence to Soviet aggression. “Containment” became not just the new Washington watchword but the glue that would hold together the Western alliance for the subsequent 45 years.
The “X Article”—formally “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published pseudonymously in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs—is (I would say) the most consequential journal article of all time, on any subject. The text is more or less the Long Telegram rewritten for public presentation and with more emphasis on Communist ideology than historical Russian strategy. Kennan’s superiors (especially navy secretary James Forrestal) thought it important that a public case be made, in order to rally elite and then wider opinion for what John F. Kennedy would later call the “long twilight struggle” ahead. Washington also thought it was too dangerous, for the government’s relations with Moscow and for Kennan’s career, to put George’s name on it—hence the pseudonym. But everyone knew who had written it, including Stalin, whose hard feelings would help doom Kennan’s mission to Moscow five years later.
The years 1946–1948 were Kennan’s apogee. He returned from the USSR as America’s, and arguably the world’s, most celebrated diplomat to create the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, essentially its internal think tank, except when Kennan was there it actually planned policy. (It hasn’t since, but that’s a story for another article.) In this role, Kennan was responsible for, among other things, the intellectual architecture of the Truman Doctrine (which, naturally, he later disavowed) and the Marshall Plan. Kennan’s economic views were vaguely free-market but pragmatic. He strongly believed that markets should always serve higher ends, so goosing commerce for political purposes didn’t bother him.
Kennan continued riding high as long as George Marshall remained secretary of state. But when the former general resigned, citing exhaustion, Kennan’s new boss, Dean Acheson, was far less deferential to his advice. The two went back a long way and were friendly, but Acheson had less patience for Kennan’s mostly long (not to say long-winded) intellectual expositions and preferred attacking problems head-on. Kennan, realizing that his star had dimmed, took a leave, eventually landing a spot at Princeton’s highly prestigious Institute for Advanced Study (then home to Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, and many other luminaries). Two years later, he was tapped to return to Moscow, this time as ambassador. But neither President Harry Truman nor Acheson gave him any instructions; to the contrary, they expected him to observe and report—and that’s all.
But Kennan had grander ambitions. He was already grumbling that “containment” had been misinterpreted, a complaint he would press for the rest of his life. What he had intended, he now said, was not some semi-permanent posture of militarized vigilance but a forceful reset of U.S.-Soviet relations to convince the Kremlin that we were no patsies, followed by serious negotiations to defuse the crisis—to be conducted, naturally, by George Kennan.
In Moscow, he palmed every doorknob and found them all locked. He was, contradictorily, convinced that Soviet officials had the highest respect for him personally—and that their freeze-out of American officials and ubiquitous anti-American propaganda were targeted at him specifically. His frustration burbled over into an ill-advised (and, for someone with his experience, inexplicable) public comparison—in Berlin no less—of the Kremlin’s silent treatment with his detainment by the Nazis a decade earlier. Kennan, already suspect in Moscow because of his role in shaping the Western response to the nascent Cold War, was, in diplomatic parlance, quickly “PNGed”—declared persona non grata—by Stalin himself and denied reentry into the USSR.
After a bit of flitting around western Europe, Kennan returned to Washington, naïvely expecting another big job. The new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, abruptly informed him that there was “no niche” for him in the Eisenhower Administration, in part because, thanks to his Berlin gaffe, the Senate was unlikely to confirm him to anything. As consolation (and out of genuine respect), the new president made Kennan a key leader of the “Project Solarium” study group. Here, Kennan scored a kind of revenge on Dulles: the outcome of Project Solarium was to bury the secretary’s favored strategy of “rollback” in favor of containment, which would remain American policy for the next 40 years.
But when the project ended, Kennan resigned from the Foreign Service after almost three decades, the vast majority of those overseas. He later returned to government, briefly, as President Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, but his unrealistic expectations—that he would somehow, from Belgrade, direct American Cold War policy and relations with the Soviets—were inevitably disappointed and he soon resigned, never to serve again.
Kennan spent the rest of his life dividing his time between Princeton, where he mostly wrote and lectured on diplomatic history under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Study, and his farm in rural Pennsylvania. He was twice courted by the Democratic Party to run for office, and wanted to do it, but backed out both times, citing financial concerns. One suspects, though, that given his disdain for ordinary people and their ordinary concerns, George Kennan would have made an unusually ineffective retail politician. He wanted to be elevated by acclamation, from which perch he could concentrate on foreign affairs and high statecraft without ever dirtying his hands with the grubby business of constituent service.
Kennan was something of a natural-born expatriate, always more at home overseas than in his own country. Whether this was the cause or an effect of his, if not anti-Americanism, certainly his contempt for ordinary Americans and their culture, is not easy to say. But Costigliola frequently quotes Kennan railing in his letters or diary against the preferences and habits of his fellow citizens in language bound to repel patriots but appeal to the present ruling class. “More and more it is borne in upon me how little I have in common with, how little I belong to, this polyglot accumulation of people in the meridial part of North America.” “I hate the ‘peepul’; I have become clearly un-American.”
I doubt this was Costigliola’s intention, but the most interesting thing about his book is what it reveals about the differences between the ruling class Kennan was a member of and the one we’re saddled with today. In the two decades since I began my researches, elite idolatry of the “Wise Men” and the order they helped create has only intensified. Few of their admirers seem to realize, or at least admit, that all of them would be canceled today for one or more offenses (or for just being white men), with George Kennan easily the most cancelable of all.
Costigliola mentions, and is at pains to apologize for (but never excuse!), Kennan’s many, many anti-woke transgressions. At one time or another—and in most cases consistently over decades—George Kennan offended every present-day ruling class piety. He does not appear, to put it mildly, to have been overly enamored of Jews, Catholics, blacks (“ineradicable bitterness and hatred of the whites”), Chinese, Mexicans, Arabs, the Third World, immigrants generally, “inferior races,” miscegenation, homosexuals—really, it would be easier, and take less space, to list out those who didn’t repulse him. Not even his beloved Russia got off the hook: “a filthy, sordid country, full of vermin, mud, stench, and disease.” Kennan was an early adopter of the allegedly discredited “Great Replacement conspiracy theory”: he lamented the decline of old stock Protestant Americans into “not only a dwindling but disintegrating minority” and their replacement by a “sea of helpless, colorless humanity, as barren of originality as it is of nationality, as uninteresting as it is unoriginal—one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness.”
The best Costigliola can do against this tidal wave of offense is sigh that Kennan’s “racist, eugenicist views were stock in trade for his generation and social class.” He also invokes the rebuke “orientalist” every time he quotes Kennan musing on the ethno-cultural traits of the Russian people. Still, if that’s the lamest bit of woke jargon in a book published by an academic press—and it is—things could have been worse.
As to Kennan’s views, well, Costigliola has a point that upper-class orthodoxy changed no less fundamentally than the composition of the upper class itself. Just about the only thing on which Kennan and his overclass successors agree is that the American people—meaning old-stock, middle-class “normies”—are awful. But even here I detect an important difference. George Kennan didn’t so much hate his fellow Americans as he was perennially disappointed in them. Yet he thought they could be improved through some kind of forced return to a more idyllic American past—preferably overseen by a coterie of George Kennans invested with near-dictatorial powers. Such musings (expressed, it should be added, only in private) may have been ridiculous but at least they arose from genuine concern rather than malice.
The present ruling class, by contrast, does not appear to wish to improve the people but apparently seeks to make them worse. How else to explain policies that encourage poverty, joblessness, obesity, and illegitimacy? Or teaching children to hate their ancestors, their country, and themselves—and then encouraging them to self-mutilate while punishing parents who try to stop them? The government and its corporate allies have morphed into a kind of nationwide crime syndicate pushing drugs, gambling, sexual degeneracy, and every imaginable form of vice. The next step on the road to national dissolution, it is now clear, will be expropriation, a.k.a., racial “reparations.” One wonders what comes after all that money is spent on an attempt to square “the debt that can never be repaid”?
Especially in matters Kennan understood well, he thought the public should have no say. His diaries show that he was a keen reader of Alexis de Tocqueville, and while he never mentions this specific point, his insistence that foreign policy be conducted by the well born and well educated, without interference from the masses, echoes the French nobleman’s argument that aristocracies are better than democracies at diplomacy. “[T]he ‘people’ have no idea what is good for them,” Kennan declaimed, characteristically. This and (many) similar barbs clearly show that he was anything but an uncritical admirer of “our democracy.” Yet at least Kennan was honest about his preference for expert rule; our present elites, by contrast, insist that their expert rule actually is democracy.
Skeptical as Kennan was of democracy at home, he was even more dismissive of its potential abroad. “The aptitude for democracy is not something just born into people,” he wrote, but “has to attain the quality of habit.” In perhaps the most risible passage in this biography, Costigliola cites these words as evidence of Kennan’s prescience and then applies them only to…Poland and Hungary, which he characterizes as plagued by “authoritarian tendencies.” Can’t he think of any more apt examples of countries where democracy was recently tried and failed? Poland and Hungary, which have enjoyed more than three decades of free elections, would seem not to fit the bill.
Kennan scoffed at the idea that Russia in particular would or could ever democratize—and despite or because of this, he loved that country, its people, its culture, its literature, and its history, especially pre-1917. To a nontrivial extent, Kennan modeled his own life on what he read in Anton Chekhov, particularly The Cherry Orchard, which inspired him to buy his Pennsylvania farm. (As a young man, Kennan’s highest ambition was to write a biography of Chekhov.)
Although Kennan despised the Soviet regime, he always insisted that Russia remained, underneath it all, fundamentally Russian—and therefore cautious, desirous of international respect, and open to negotiation. He saw his overarching mission in life as preventing war with Russia. The motive wasn’t simply his Russophilia. In his travels immediately after V.E. Day, Kennan saw the devastation wreaked on German cities (in particular, Hamburg) by conventional munitions and was so unnerved that he vowed nuclear war must never take place for any reason. Every course he urged, every suggestion he made—the good as well as the bad—was intended toward this end.
Whether Kennan’s plan all along really was to use containment as an initial clarifying smack that would open the path to a subsequent settlement is impossible to determine. What’s clearer is that neither the Long Telegram nor the X Article easily supports that interpretation. Costigliola sympathizes with Kennan’s second thoughts but declines to agree that his subject’s carefully calibrated qualifications were, so to speak, present at the creation. To the contrary, Costigliola repeatedly chastises Kennan for overstating his case in 1946-47, thereby handing to others more hawkish than he the intellectual ammunition to justify an arms race.
Nonetheless, “contain; then talk” is the stance Kennan insisted he had meant from the beginning. It is, ironically, one of the few policy positions about which he was always consistent—at least after 1947—often to the (deserved) detriment of his reputation. Even when the Soviets were at their worst—in Budapest, Berlin, Cuba, and Prague—Kennan was sure talks would yield results.
The issue that did more than any other to convince the rest of official Washington that Kennan had become more liability than asset—and which especially roused Dean Acheson’s ire—was his proposal (developed while he was still in government but advanced most forcefully in his 1957 Eastman Lectures at Oxford) that the United States withdraw west of the Rhine and support a unified, disarmed, neutral Germany. Kennan repeatedly asserted that doing so was the only way to avoid a nuclear World War III. That this was, incidentally, also the Soviet position might have opened Kennan to charges of disloyalty, but he somehow managed to remain personally untouched by McCarthyism, even as many of his friends saw their careers derailed, or worse.
There’s no way to know what might have happened had this specific advice been heeded, but even though—or because—it wasn’t, the Cold War ended in precisely the way Kennan in his glory years predicted it would. The Soviet Union, successfully contained, collapsed from a combination of external pressure and internal rot. When it did, Kennan not only didn’t want credit, he resented the near-universal attempts to heap it upon him. He saw in all those accolades a rejection of his insistence over four decades that missed opportunities to negotiate squandered the chance to end the whole thing sooner. Kennan could never accept (and neither can Costigliola) that he had been right the first time.
It is here that we find Kennan at his most inconsistent. He despised Richard Nixon—but what was détente and all its attendant treaties and agreements if not a Kennan-esque attempt to ease tensions, reduce the chances of war, and see a way toward peaceful coexistence? He dismissed 1975’s Helsinki Accords, but what were they if not a shrewd trade—recognition of 1945 borders (a concession Kennan had long advocated) in exchange for commitments on basic rights—that over time undermined the Soviet grip on its wartime conquests and accelerated the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution? Kennan had even greater contempt for Ronald Reagan—but what were Reagan’s early arms buildup and tough rhetoric if not a deliberate tactic to throw the Soviets off balance so as to drag them back to the negotiating table? In other words, exactly the strategy Kennan protested he had meant by “containment” all along.
But by far the biggest problem today, right now, for our ruling class’s Kennan idolatry is their hero’s unapologetic counsel, persistent for more than seven decades, that American policymakers exert real effort to see the world through Russian eyes, recognize Russia’s legitimate security interests, and come to terms with Russia as a peer with whom we have no choice but to coexist. Neither country can simply vanquish the other, Kennan insisted, and so neither should try. In particular, he explained that, rightly or wrongly, Moscow will always consider Ukraine integral to Russia and will never accept the loss of “the totally un-Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, together with one of the three greatest Russian naval bases.” No less than, and well before, political scientist John Mearsheimer, George Kennan predicted that pushing NATO’s border to the Ukrainian frontier would spark a crisis. In other words, he rejected in advance the Western policies that helped lead to the present war and he would almost certainly oppose the Western aid that keeps it going. If his track record is any guide, he would—as ever—advocate peace talks.
Today’s neoliberal Russophobic Kennanphiles are in a double bind, or would be, if they in any way valued consistency. The George Kennan they profess to admire was a consistent advocate of negotiation with Russia, something today’s ruling class regards as equivalent to breaking bread with Hitler. The only way to marshal Kennan to their present cause of sticking it to Russia come what may is to resort to his ’46-’47 hardline anti-Communism, which good liberals have long regarded as troglodytic, warmongering, and McCarthyite—and which, more to the point, Kennan himself carefully qualified for the second half of his life.
The key to the apparent paradox isn’t very complicated, but grasping it seems beyond our rulers’ reasoning powers. All you have to do is go back to the original documents and remember that Kennan argued that the sources of Soviet conduct were a combination of classic Russian state interest and Communist ideology. Take away the latter, and you’re left with unadulterated Russianness. It was a staple of American Cold War policy and rhetoric that we had no quarrel with the Russian people but only with their murderous regime, which was a greater burden on them than on us. Is our government now determined to convince the Russian people that we were lying all along? At any rate, if the sanctified Kennan was right, that would mean that a non-Communist, less ideological Russia is today more amenable to talks than was Stalin in 1952, and at least as amenable as Leonid Brezhnev in 1972. So why aren’t we talking?
Though it ought to be said that, while the present ruling class has a lot to learn from Kennan, its opponents could also learn at least one lesson from his long, often frustrating experience. His persistent desire to talk to the Russians was just as persistently rebuffed. Time and again, Kennan assumed and hoped that his love of all things Russian and evident goodwill would bring the Russians around. One senses in some quarters of the new Right a similar Russophilia, some of it likely genuine, but some expressed more in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy”—i.e., since the “globalist American empire” hates Russia, maybe Russia is my friend. But as George Kennan learned the hard way, writing love poems to Mother Russia is not by itself enough to unlock the Kremlin gates. It may be a shame, even a tragedy, that Russia’s mistrust of the West is so high and that Russians fail to distinguish between Westerners bent on their country’s destruction and dissidents who sincerely believe the West should back off. But, at least for the moment, it is and they don’t, and one more mash note isn’t going to change that.
All this doesn’t come close to exhausting the myriad ways in which Kennan’s expressed opinions run afoul of present orthodoxy. The go-to insult of today’s national security clerisy is “isolationist,” by which they mean anyone who questions the wisdom or value of even one overseas commitment or intervention. By this standard, George Kennan—patron saint of the liberal internationalists—was an isolationist. He believed that core American interests extended no further east than the Oder (if even that far), and to our west, the Sea of Japan—as Costigliola accurately summarizes, “the industrialized core of the Free World.” Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, eastern Europe, most of Asia, even South Korea and Taiwan, Kennan thought “strategically unimportant.” He believed that Franklin Roosevelt’s vision for the United Nations had “no basis in reality.” He opposed using American leverage to press European decolonization after World War II. He sought and got a change in U.S. policy to improve relations and establish military cooperation with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. He disagreed with Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 and was never a fan of the subsequent U.S. alliance. He excoriated the Eisenhower Administration’s abandonment of Britain and France during the Suez Crisis. He was skeptical of NATO at its founding, floated the idea of its dissolution after 1989, and vehemently opposed its expansion in the 1990s and 2000s. He railed against the “counter-culture,” drugs, long hair, and the various ’60s riots and attempted revolutions. He denounced as “unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable” making democracy promotion a core aim of American foreign policy. And he worried about the negative effects of (legal and illegal) mass immigration on American political unity and cultural cohesion in terms little different from Samuel Huntington, or Sam Francis.
Kennan’s curious mixture of hawkishness and dovishness, his reactionary impulses and utopianism, his hardheaded realism and airy romanticism, make him hard to summarize or classify. My tentative judgment is that he was a Machiavellian with an overdeveloped conscience. That is to say: clear-eyed and hard-headed about the cold realities of international relations and his country’s true, core interests, but also sentimental and sometimes even soft about matters of genuine concern that are better addressed by recourse to that analytical coldness than to emotional appeals, however well-intentioned or deeply felt.
Politically, Kennan identified with and mostly served Democrats, but that may have been a function more of timing than anything else: his prime coincided with five consecutive Democratic presidential terms. He sought an appointment in the Eisenhower Administration and assisted there in an informal capacity, only to be rebuffed by Dulles. Apart from his perennial advocacy of negotiation and opposition to the arms race, about the only issue on which George Kennan was consistently liberal was environmental conservation—which has always been at least as much a concern of the Right as of the Left. Indeed, Kennan’s instinctual conservatism ran so deep that he was something of a Luddite. He lived to see the internet but said little about it. Judging from his lifelong disdain for machines and industrialization (he hated cars), he would have loathed Big Tech. As much as saying so would unnerve and anger his admirers and heirs—to say nothing of the haughty, quasi-aristocratic Kennan himself—it is not unreasonable to assert that the culturally conservative, economically ecumenical, anti-technology, anti-immigration, anti-intervention George Kennan shared more opinions with today’s populist Right than with the contemporary Left.
And yet despite all this, apart from a little grumbling occasioned by the publication of his diaries, our ruling class still professes reverence for George Kennan. Though not for the real Kennan—the isolationist Russophile immigration hawk—but a Kennan reinterpreted on their terms: scourge of the Boomer-hated Vietnam war, thorn in the side of Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the two Bushes, despiser of the average Joe. The real George Kennan, one may say, has been contained.
But mostly our overlords still exalt Kennan because he was a key architect of the postwar liberal international order, which remains a core source of their strength and power. They eagerly tear down statues of their enemies’ heroes; they know better than to deface one of their own.