A review of George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) entered the Foreign Service in 1926, the year after he graduated from Princeton. A specialist in Soviet affairs, he became a household word in 1947 when Foreign Affairs published his "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" under the transparent pseudonym "Mr. X." The article reprised the "long telegram" he had sent from Moscow to Secretary of State James Byrnes in 1946, explaining that the Soviet regime's very nature doomed any diplomatic attempt to placate it. He advised, instead, that the Soviets should be "contained" with "unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

Winston Churchill had quipped that Soviet international conduct was "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." During the War years, that was as far as American officials would go in accounting for the Soviet Union's malevolence. Kennan's "long telegram" and "X" article blew away the official fog: Stalin had united Marxist-Leninist ideology and Ivan the Terrible's legacy to render Soviet Russia implacably militant yet averse to foreign war. Since the USSR would try to expand through proxies and subversion, it would have to be contained externally by these very means until it changed internally.

Popular myth has it that the United States pursued containment from 1947 to the 1991 consummation that Kennan intended. But this oversimplifies key facts: the Soviet Union never changed but died, and Kennan, the architect of containment, became its most severe but least coherent critic. Even worse, our preoccupation with the sources of Soviet conduct distracts us from a more complex and enduring question concerning the sources of America's conduct of foreign affairs. Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis's masterly biography of Kennan is worth reading, above all, for the light it sheds on the intellectual, social, and political processes by which Kennan and other prominent Americans conducted our side of the Cold War.

Kennan's contributions to U.S. foreign policy resulted at least as much from his idiosyncratic personality and equivocal patriotism as from his reasoning about international affairs. He spoke Russian better than most Russians, and Russian literature shaped his soul. He knew the Soviet Union well. He was a competent practitioner and scholar of diplomacy, and wrote solid histories of Russia's diplomatic dealings with Europe. But his mind worked poetically, especially regarding practical matters. Always introspective, he was often self-indulgent to the point of solipsism. Never a disciplined thinker, Kennan followed the logic of his tastes without asking himself where that logic led. His understanding of America and of his own American identity was contorted by prejudices, moods, and passions.

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Gaddis's subtitle, An American Life, reminds the reader that George Kennan's intellectual and emotional ambivalences are anything but atypical of America's 20th-century upper-middle class, that they are interesting to us because they explain, to some extent, the class that gave the American Century its character, and that such things are among the deepest sources of American conduct. The most basic factor among them was a sense of superiority to the mass of Americans. Like others of his class, Kennan loved the America of his own reminiscences, imagination, and close acquaintances, while loathing the rest of Americans and the civilization they represented. He recalled lovingly his youth at his family's compound on a Wisconsin lake, and treasured his gentleman's farm in exurban Pennsylvania, as equivalents of Chekov's spiritual communion with the cherry orchard of his doomed character, Ravenskaya. These "stood for certain ideals of decency and courage, and generosity." Kennan's attitude toward the rest of America seems a paraphrase of the Pharisee's prayer in the Temple: "Lord I thank thee that I am not like other Americans…."

Thus when Kennan looked at Hitler's Germany in the 1930s he saw primarily "a great garden, well kept and blooming…populated by clean and healthy people." By the same token, while he recognized that Communism negates the soul—Soviet funerals showed "the meaninglessness of life expounded and argued from the meaninglessness of death"—he nevertheless thought it was better "to sell one's soul…than to let it dry up in its own bitterness and get nothing for it whatsoever."

Lack of soul, or indeed of anything worthy, is what Kennan saw in ordinary Americans. He wished that Americans might "have their toys taken away from them, be spanked, educated, and made to grow up." That would take a "strong central power (far stronger than the present constitution would allow)." Meanwhile, he expressed revulsion at the sight of well-fed, "shapeless, droopy" Americans, getting out of their cars "tired from not walking," "a skin disease of the earth." He told his diary: "I hate democracy; I hate the press…. I hate the ‘peepul;' I have become clearly un-American." America was unworthy of him.

Representing this motley nation's interests was a continuing emotional burden for someone who saw himself on a higher plane of human existence. Time and again, these hallmarks of our ruling class's mentality warped the professional diplomat's judgment. Gaddis tells us this attitude was inappropriate but only, in his view, because Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was moving America in the precise direction that Kennan desired.

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George Kennan, the Soviet expert and professional diplomat, had a tight grip on the fundamentals of international affairs. No sooner had Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 than Kennan distilled what should have been America's war policy toward that country: we should give the Soviets "whatever called for by our own self interest." We should also, however, emphasize the differences between our own purposes and those of a regime "widely feared and detested" because of its policies, domestic and foreign. Because the Soviet Union had started the war along with Hitler and had war aims very different from ours, "it has thus no claim on Western sympathies."

Gaddis calls this clarity "impractical." He writes: "for how were Roosevelt and the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to persuade their democracies to aid the Soviet Union without identifying politically and ideologically with it?" But ordinary Americans and Britons understood Soviet reality better than their rulers. Churchill, for his part, spoke frequently and forcefully about the differences between Soviet and Western war aims. Gaddis's critique of Kennan's clarity confuses reality with Roosevelt's felt need to please pro-Communists and Wilsonians within the Democratic Party.

Kennan's analysis was equally clear-sighted in 1944, when Stalin: a) refused Soviet support for the Polish underground's heroic Warsaw rising against Nazi troops; and b) refused to let American and British aircraft refuel at Soviet bases, making it impossible for those allies to help the Poles. Kennan wrote that this was the time to force the Soviets to choose "between changing their policy completely and agreeing to collaborate in the establishment of truly independent countries in Eastern Europe or forfeiting Western-Allied support and sponsorship for the remaining phases of their war efforts." New Dealers and One Worlders had led the American people to believe that the Soviets shared our war aims. Now that Stalin obviously intended to set up an exclusive zone of control, the USSR had to be somehow "disabused of this illusion" of limitless American accommodation to their designs. Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and Kennan's superior, judged Kennan's suggestion "impractical" and did not bother to argue with it or mention it to Roosevelt. Gaddis agrees with them tacitly.

Events showed, however, that the real impracticality was FDR's aversion to concrete political objectives in Europe. Kennan wrote to Chip Bohlen (Roosevelt's interpreter at Yalta in April 1945) that the United Nations, the president's "grand design," had "no basis in reality." Pursuing it gave the American people "a distorted picture of the nature of the problems the postwar era is bound to bring." Necessary as destroying Nazi power was, this objective was "purely negative." To get something positive out of the war, "We should gather together at once into our hands all the cards we hold and begin to play them to their full value." But Bohlen thought such words so subversive of the administration's statecraft that he urged Kennan to destroy all copies of the letter.

As Stalin accomplished his objectives, however, he quickly ceased hiding his contempt for the Rooseveltians. Stalin's response to Harry Hopkins's final plea to place some kind of fig leaf on his takeover of Poland, lest it cause domestic political difficulties for U.S. Democrats, amounted to "that's your problem!" In short, by late 1945 Stalin's behavior was making it ever less practical for U.S. officials to continue the course of action they had been so sure was practical.

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Kennan's "long telegram" of February 1946, sent while Ambassador Harriman was in Washington, was as forthright as his earlier dispatches. But officials now welcomed its call to reality because now reality was forcing them to pay attention regardless of what they might wish. The "long telegram" was a primer on Communist Russia: "archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries." That, and the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism that justified their despotism, is why Soviet leaders divided the world into two parts, between which there could be "no permanent modus vivendi." Through "an elaborate and far flung apparatus…of amazing flexibility," they sought to disrupt our society's internal harmony and to destroy our traditional way of life. Coping with the Soviets would require the "same thoroughness and care as solution of major strategic problem in war." Foremost among Washington's tasks would be to educate the American people about the seriousness of the problem.

He expanded these themes in the "X" article, especially his prescription for universal containment. Yet the American people soon proved that they were far ahead of their officials in understanding the Soviet threat. Kennan himself spent much of the ensuing half-century chiding his countrymen for being insufficiently accommodating to the Soviets pretty much across the board.

Much as Kennan wavered on policy, however, his judgments on the fundamentals of international affairs remained firm and clear. His short book American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, published in 1951, demonstrated the arrant nonsense of the modern American foreign policy establishment's creed of internationalism. Kennan wrote that while the purpose of foreign policy is to advance concrete national interests, the internationalists had imagined that it should be to improve the world, somehow. Their pursuit of un-definable, abstract goals, he argued, had done much harm. Kennan displayed the same sobriety when in 1956 the Eisenhower Administration and its Wilsonian Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, supported the Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser when he seized the Suez Canal: Kennan told the New York Times that our leaders had forgotten the difference between long-time allies and "tin pot dictators" who "are not our friends." The canal was Anglo-French property and vital to world commerce. He sensed that our foreign policy establishment's courtship of self-appointed "Third World" leaders could only have bad consequences.

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In 1947 Kennan became a victim of the Peter Principle. Having become a celebrity, he was promoted out of his competence as a reporting diplomat and into the role of a policymaker, which encouraged him to pontificate, to indulge his prejudices and inner instability.

He began well enough. In the spring of 1947, as the "X" article was being printed, he advised Secretary of State George C. Marshall that containing the Soviets in Europe required relieving the continent's misery, which in turn required massive American economic aid with the sole condition that plans for it be coordinated among Europeans and agreed upon with Americans. The ensuing "Marshall Plan" indeed started the process that Kennan had advocated, of "turning former enemies into allies." But it was downhill from there.

As theoretically sound and similarly influential, but pregnant with trouble, was Kennan's critique of President Truman's pledge of aid to Greece and Turkey. The decision was the first manifestation of the "Truman Doctrine," a promise to intervene in any and every situation where there might be danger of the Soviets gaining any advantage, no matter how small or temporary. Kennan's general point was valid enough: surely no principle of policy applies automatically to any and all circumstances. Indeed, Gaddis reminds us that Kennan's formulation of containment had implied both automaticity and universality, rendering his critique of the Truman Doctrine a refutation of his own words.

Kennan the policymaker argued strenuously for retrenching U.S. commitments. Czechoslovakia should be allowed to fall to the Communists, never mind the sad precedents of 1938-39. Even China, he argued, on which America had placed so many hopes and expended so much blood and treasure, should be permitted to go Red—the sooner the better. To boot, he urged driving the anti-Communist side out of Taiwan. He repeated that the Soviets could not hold onto such conquests, that they would choke on them in the long run. But Gaddis notes that in Kennan's original formulation, containment's virtue consisted substantially of depriving the Soviets of vital psychological satisfaction. Would Communist victories in China and Czechoslovakia not give them that satisfaction? And what would their victories do to uspsychologically? Why would Kennan's new version of "containment," which seemed to be about containing America more than the Soviet Union, not dispirit and destroy us instead of them?

Because Kennan never addressed such questions directly, we may well suspect that his enthusiasm for retrenchment came, not from any understanding of history or principles of statecraft, but instead from his increasing socio-political identification with Americans who believed Soviet advances and American retreats were inherently good. Indeed, to the extent he got involved in policy and politics, he set principles aside. His mind seemed to work on two mutually exclusive levels. For example, he seemed unaware that his statement of diplomatic principles in American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 was identical to the argument of A Foreign Policy for Americans, published in the same year by Robert Taft, whom he loathed socio-politically. In later years, he reacted with outright disbelief when discovering that his views matched those of conservatives.

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In 1946-47 Kennan delivered a series of lectures on strategy at the National War College, in which he earnestly committed himself to the dangerous contradiction that diplomacy itself should become grand strategy. He knew perfectly well that diplomacy is only one of several means of communication, and that the substance of any message outweighs the form in which it is delivered. Like anyone else, he knew that formulating a plan is logically and chronologically prior to communicating any part of it. So, what sense might it have made for him to speak of diplomacy as grand strategy? Behind the lecture's soaring rhetoric about a battle for men's minds there may well be a pedestrian explanation: he felt that America and especially the colonels and generals in the audience needed to hear that force was not the key to the Cold War. America should cool it.

Yet in 1948, after the Russians took over Czechoslovakia and Italy's Communists were poised, according to some American observers, to gain power by winning national elections, Kennan panicked at the prospect that the Soviets might parlay one victory into another and another. As head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, he went so far as to recommend forcing the postponement of the Italian elections and re-invading Italy. As a fallback, he urged covert aid to Italians thought by the Central Intelligence Agency to be likeliest to stop the Communists. He also supported covert action against Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But Kennan and the CIA knew even less about such things than about strategy. Few Italians thought the Communist-Socialist coalition stood a chance, which is why Eugenio Reale, the Italian Communists' liaison to the Cominform, had resisted Stalin's order to set up the electoral confrontation. In the end, the Communist coalition won only 31% of the vote. In Eastern Europe, the CIA and State Department wasted the lives of countless agents in missions without adequate counterintelligence.

The 1950 Soviet-Chinese-North Korean invasion of South Korea caused the same Kennan who had wanted to help deliver Taiwan to the Chinese Communists to deem Taiwan essential to the defense of the world. But that did not diminish his sentiment that diplomacy could work wonders: he proposed to drive a wedge between Mao and Stalin, and perhaps to negotiate an end to the Korean war, by offering to turn China's U.N. seat over to the Communists. By this time, his advice was no longer welcome in the Truman Administration, which had embraced Paul Nitze's prescription for conducting U.S.-Soviet relations from a position of military superiority. Kennan tried his prescriptions on John Foster Dulles, who was already the Republican Party's shadow Secretary of State, and was rebuffed.

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Never again would Kennan take an appreciable hand in policy. His writings for the next half-century however, would contribute to Washington's evolving thinking, and provide insights into an influential mentality.

From a post at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies, and using a celebrity's access to the media, Kennan personified the foreign policy establishment's new approach to international affairs between 1950 and the Soviet Union's collapse. This new course was based on certain premises that help make sense of his affections, disaffections, and reversals of previously held positions.

Not the least of these had been formulated by Bernard Brodie's 1946 book, The Absolute Weapon. Written within weeks of Hiroshima, it posited that "one bomb suffices to wipe out a city," both the U.S. and USSR would have "the bomb," and that "defense against atomic bombs is impossible," rendering insignificant an imbalance in which one side has 20 bombs and the other 2,000. From this starting point followed three precepts: major war means mutual suicide; nothing justifies undertaking or even risking such suicide; and, thus, no effort must be spared to avoid incurring that risk. In short, "better red than dead," as Kennan himself put it. Consequently, any kind of peaceful arrangement with the Soviet Union was good, and anything or any person that stood in the way of such an arrangement was bad.

In 1947-48, while supporting the division of Germany, Kennan opposed the creation of an Atlantic Alliance on the Western side of the line, because that would mean the "final militarization of the present dividing-line through Europe." That happened to be the Soviet position. But by 1957 he advocated reuniting Germany by neutralizing it, while at the same time dissolving both NATO and the Warsaw Pact—nominally neutralizing Europe. That, too, also happened to be the Soviet position. He continued advocating that position into the Kennedy Administration, whose Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, said that the policy would lead to America and its allies being nibbled to death like ducks. For Kennan, however, pushing away the prospect of war was paramount, which made reaching a deal with the Soviet Union the overriding objective.

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When Nikita Khrushchev threatened to cut off their access to Berlin unless the Allies recognized East Germany, France's Charles de Gaulle and Germany's Konrad Adenauer urged firmness, but Kennan advised the Kennedy Administration to deal with Khrushchev behind the Europeans' backs. When the crisis culminated in the Soviet Union's construction of the Berlin Wall, Kennan applauded it, as well as the Kennedy Administration's acquiescence in it. In 1989, as the German people swept that wall away and rushed to re-unite, Kennan urged preserving the division for the sake of the Soviet Union's stability.

George Kennan fawned over the Kennedys, even though he believed that JFK had reneged on promises to be as accommodating to the Soviets as Kennan had counseled. He was especially sour that the president had gone along with Congress's declaration of "Captive Nations Week," keeping alive a vestige of the American body politic's conviction that the Soviet Union's domination of the Baltic States (gained through the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, which Kennan himself had denounced) was illegitimate. He believed that Kennedy secretly agreed with him that all the anti-Communist moralism was bunk, but that the president needed to throw bones to the ignorant, bellicose American people.

There is little doubt Americans were the chief culprits in Kennan's indictment of humanity for being "little microbes" infecting the globe's environment. "The country at large," he wrote, would not recognize any "really sound and brilliant diplomacy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union" and would "call with great acclaim for its abandonment." The "détente" policy of the 1970s was what Kennan had in mind, personified by Henry Kissinger, whom he judged "a wise, learned, and agreeable man." Kennan was more correct than he realized about the American people's propensities: in 1976, future presidents from both parties, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, simultaneously ran national campaigns against détente and Kissinger—a record for rejection.

In Kennan's view no one—not the American people, not even the very best of the Russian people, like Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chekov's and Tolstoy's contemporary equivalents—had any right to stand in the way of détente and thus to endanger the world. Gaddis points out that containment, as Kennan had prescribed it in 1946, required a steadfast American public to create international circumstances in which "visionaries-dissidents" would wake Russia out of the Soviet trauma. But when the visionaries who so nearly fit everything that Kennan had admired in Russian culture presented themselves on the world stage, he rejected them as "dangerous enemies."

That made sense only within the peculiar vision of the narrow American social class to which he belonged. So did his view of Ronald Reagan, whose administration he described as "ignorant, unintelligent, complacent and arrogant; worse still is the fact that it is frivolous and reckless." The fact that Reagan succeeded in removing strategic nuclear weapons from Europe, which Kennan had long advocated, did nothing to qualify his contempt. As Gaddis points out, much of the Reagan Administration's foundational document on the Soviet Union (NSDD-75) read like a paraphrase of Kennan 1946-47. Gaddis writes: "[Kennan] trusted Andropov—until recently head of the KGB—more than he did Reagan." How could Kennan "have loved John F. Kennedy, who repeatedly rejected his advice, and loathed Ronald Reagan, whose actions…were consistent with it?" Because Kennan found it impossible to imagine that anyone from an unpalatable socio-political background could be any good. Gaddis notes that Kennan "could not share aspirations with someone so unlike himself." And since getting along with the Soviets had now become his and his class's touchstone of good sense, why not morally reverse the roles of the U.S. and Soviet Union?

It seems that Kennan, and many like him, went a long way in this direction. Gaddis tells us that Kennan, describing Reagan's negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, reversed the roles of Americans and Soviets 40 years earlier. Then he had written that Americans might have offered Stalin everything he asked for, and "Moscow would smell a trap." But now, "Kennan seemed to be saying Gorbachev in his dealings with Reagan was facing an American Stalin."

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In his epilogue, "Greatness," Gaddis argues that Kennan was very important. I suggest that his biography shows that Kennan's insight into the Soviet regime's evil nature was uniquely brilliant only when compared with the dull, three-monkey orthodoxy of the Roosevelt Administration, Walter Duranty's mendacious (Pulitzer Prize-winning) dispatches in the New York Times, and the useful idiocy of Progressives. Any number of scholars, never mind ordinary folks, understood clearly that when Stalin spoke of breaking eggs to make omelettes, he meant mass murder. After the Stalin-Hitler pact, millions of Americans who were somehow connected to Eastern Europe, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, were shouting warnings in comparison with which the "long telegram" and the "X" article were milquetoast. Indeed, the Truman Administration's containment was the soft alternative to rolling back Communism, which was the policy America's majority preferred.

But, yes, between February 1946 and June 1947 George Kennan was, at the very least, the catalyst of U.S. foreign policy, and for the better. Thereafter, as his celebrity grew his influence on policy atrophied. For the rest of his long life, the media took note of anything that issued from the theoretician of "containment." But his pronouncements did not so much move our foreign policy establishment's consensus as keep pace with it. In opposing U.S. policy in Vietnam, dismissing Ronald Reagan, or pleading for longer life for East Germany and the Soviet Union, Kennan was just another member of his class, only more visible than most.