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Is This George Kennan?

Dominique Nabokov
George Kennan, 1984

It seemed like the perfect match. In the late 1970s John Lewis Gaddis was smart, sympathetic, and eager to write the biography. George F. Kennan admired Gaddis as probably “the best of the younger historians of American policy in the immediate postwar period.”1 Kennan had earned enormous respect over his long career as a diplomat, historian, public intellectual, and critic of US policy in the cold war. Yet he remained thin-skinned about any disparagement. Anxious to have his voice heard by future generations, Kennan worried that “weak and superficial”—and wrongheaded—biographies would garble his message and life story.2

The intellectual turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s amplified that concern. Some younger historians, spurred by their abhorrence of the Vietnam War and by the analyses of William A. Williams and others on the New Left, were critical of the foreign policy establishment, Kennan included, even though he had spoken out eloquently against the conflict in Southeast Asia. Kennan’s American Diplomacy, which had won widespread praise after its publication in 1951, was now being dismissed as “obscurantist and misleading,” a reviewer in these pages reported in August 1968.3

Gaddis, in contrast, praised the wisdom and necessity of Kennan’s famous doctrine arguing that the right approach to the USSR was “containment,” not aggressive military action. Kennan had articulated these ideas in his so-called Long Telegram of 1946 from the US embassy in Moscow, and his “Mr. X” article of 1947 in Foreign Affairs, and while director of the State Department’s policy planning staff from 1947 to 1949. Gaddis’s widely read Strategies of Containment praised Kennan as the brilliant “grand strategist” of the late 1940s who had astutely assessed problems and had recommended the right mix of policies to deal with them. In 1977, Foreign Affairs published a retrospective essay by Gaddis lauding Kennan’s foresight, consistency, and caution regarding the use of US military force.

When two younger historians, citing recently declassified documents, charged in 1978 that the containment doctrine was dangerously vague, and that Kennan in 1948–1949 had in fact recommended military intervention to deal with political crises in Italy and Taiwan, Gaddis publicly mocked them for puffing up such “curiosities.”4 Kennan appreciated this defense. He confided to Gaddis that he was

appalled at the inability of many of our scholars to look carefully at the wording of official documents and to put them into the [proper] context…. [While] I have no desire to enter in a polemic with [those] whose opinion I do not greatly value, I do, however, value your own opinion.5

In the fall of 1981, Gaddis put to Kennan, who would soon turn seventy-eight, the possibility of his writing an authorized biography to be published posthumously. He asked for exclusive access to the Kennan diaries, letters, and other papers still closed to other scholars, and he wanted to be able to talk to Kennan about the past. Kennan accepted eagerly: “I can think of no one who…would be better qualified than yourself.” He added, “I value your contribution especially, because so much nonsense has been talked about ‘containment.’”6

There soon surfaced, however, hints of a disagreement that would cause the older man some anguish. Though Gaddis lauded Kennan’s “grand strategy” between 1946 and 1948 to contain the Soviet Union, he remained largely unsympathetic to Kennan’s efforts in the subsequent forty years to propose a changed relationship with the Soviets that would lead through negotiations to an easing of the cold war. Kennan tried to explain this position to Gaddis repeatedly. He had always regarded “successful containment not as an end in itself but as the prerequisite for the ultimate process of negotiation.” Since 1948, he had viewed the division of Europe into Soviet and American spheres as a dangerous “geopolitical anomaly.” The creation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the armies eyeballing each other across the West German–East German frontier, and the deadly weapons on hair-trigger alert—all this disturbed Kennan, who increasingly feared nuclear war.

He lamented his failure, particularly between 1948 and 1958, to convince Washington and its allies in Western Europe to trade their “‘positions of strength’” for a Soviet pullback from Eastern Europe, nuclear reductions, and a reknitting of divided Germany and Europe.7 Kennan never claimed that such negotiations would succeed. Rather he insisted, and in numerous articles and speeches pleaded, that the horrors of nuclear war made it foolhardy not to try. Gaddis, who regarded the cold war as a secure “long peace” and who edged to a more conventional hard-line view from the 1970s on, shared neither Kennan’s concerns nor his analysis. Though their relations remained cordial, Kennan’s letters and diaries show that the aging man was bothered by their differences. It would have been understandable if this disagreement caused some delay in Gaddis’s completion of his masterwork.

By 2000, Kennan, now ninety-six years old, despaired in his diary that Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle I was waging…against the almost total militarization of Western policy towards Russia.” Looking back at the nuclear holocaust narrowly averted during the Cuban missile episode and the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961, and at the costly proxy wars waged in Vietnam and elsewhere, he believed that “had my efforts been successful,” they “could have obviated the vast expenses, dangers, and distortions of outlook of the ensuing Cold War.” Then, perhaps thinking of the time and faith invested in his chronicler, Kennan lamented:

That this battle should not be apparent even to the most serious of my postmortem biographers means that the most significant of the efforts of the first half of my career—namely, to bring about a reasonable settlement of the European problems of the immediate postwar period—will never find their historian or their understanding. And this is hard.8

Kennan, then approaching the end of his 101-year life, judged “the most significant effort” of his career not his helping to formulate the policies to contain the Soviet Union, but rather his subsequent push for Washington to establish workable relations with Moscow. He had, after all, predicted in his “Mr. X” article that Soviet communism would come to an end, and he had been proved right.

Despite its problems of perspective and balance, Gaddis’s George F. Kennan remains a monumental and absorbing book. His prose is elegant and lively. Though Kennan will likely attract other biographers, none will be able to match the research on display here. Not only has Gaddis pored through Kennan’s 20,000-page diary, a separate “dream diary” of reflections, and the 300-plus boxes of other papers by Kennan now open for research at Princeton, but he also conducted many interviews with the former diplomat and his associates. Most of those people are now gone. Gaddis had privileged access to family papers still in the possession of Kennan’s daughter. The cordial correspondence and discussions between “George” and “John” fill three manuscript boxes. Gaddis did extensive work in other US archives. There are some British and even a few Russian documents. He is often perceptive, sensitive, and reflective. And he is justifiably proud that George and his wife, Annelise, became for two decades “my companions.”

Gaddis’s political predilections—as evidenced by his enthusiasm for Kennan as cold warrior in 1946–1948 and his skepticism about Kennan as peacemaker in later years—shape this biography. He sides largely with Kennan’s critics, such as former secretary of state Dean Acheson, in the heated debate over Kennan’s advocacy in 1957–1958 for US “disengagement” from the cold war in Europe. Indeed, while quoting extensively from Acheson’s venomous assault on Kennan in Foreign Affairs, Gaddis merely notes but does not quote Kennan’s rebuttal in the same journal.

In 1966–1968, Kennan articulated a set of cogent and prescient ideas and policies in response to the Vietnam War and other changes around the world. The former cold warrior had an important part in making opposition to the Vietnam War respectable. The biography, however, devotes only one paragraph to recounting the substance of Kennan’s testimony in February 1966 before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee. Kennan’s strong testimony in January 1967 on the futility of the war, at a time when it had become a bitter national issue, goes unmentioned. Nor, curiously, does the book even mention Kennan’s early and influential endorsement of Senator Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries on grounds of McCarthy’s opposition to the war.

The biography suffers from this neglect. In the heated cross fire of the Senate hearings, Kennan outlined long-range principles grounded in history. He laid out a strategy that if not grand was certainly wise: scrutinizing old ideas and knee-jerk attitudes, insisting that the nation’s goals match resources, and guarding against both overinvolvement and timidity. He argued that much of China’s fierce rhetoric stemmed from that nation’s past humiliation by the West. “A new generation of Chinese leaders” would likely improve relations, he believed. He was also prescient in warning, a year before the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring, that such an uprising would induce the Soviets to march, just as “the Tsar’s government would have moved in.”9

As in the 1950s, Kennan worried about the military standoff along the border of the two Germanies. For him, serious danger lay not in far-off Vietnam but rather in the nuclear arms race. Washington’s primary challenge was in “the real possibilities for a genuine…exciting and constructive…understanding eventually between the Russian people and our people.” This lifelong lover of Russian culture remarked, “If I did not believe this was a possibility I wouldn’t have led the life I have for the last forty years.”10

Regarding Vietnam, where escalation was yielding only stalemate, Kennan urged securing enclaves in the south, halting military offensives and bombing, and inviting negotiations. He wanted a US withdrawal but not a precipitous and humiliating exit. As millions watched on television, Kennan argued before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Americans should neither forget that “we are a great nation” able to endure the loss of South Vietnam nor delude ourselves with “illusions about invincibility.” Americans were vulnerable to manipulation. “Practically everybody who wants our aid in the world claims that he wants it in the cause of freedom.” No matter the military arguments, “the spectacle of Americans” attacking “a poor and helpless people, and particularly a people of different race and color,” wreaked “psychological damage” to America’s global image. He stressed “that there is more respect to be won…by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”11

Citing Woodrow Wilson’s futile promotion of elections in Russia in 1918–1919, Kennan argued that such empty rituals could not stabilize South Vietnam. In general, “it is very, very difficult for outsiders to come into a situation”—any foreign situation—“and to do good.” Moreover, “by our interference” in peripheral matters, “we raise questions of prestige which need not have been raised.” Far better to “bring our influence to bear…through the power of the example of our own civilization here at home.” He summed up his testimony by quoting John Quincy Adams’s famous speech of July 4, 1821: “While America stood as ‘the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,’ she should be ‘the champion and vindicator only of her own.’”12

  1. 1

    George F. Kennan to Michael J. Lacey, October 11, 1977, Box 15, George F. Kennan papers, Mudd Library, Princeton University. 

  2. 2

    Kennan to Gaddis, April 3, 1984, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  3. 3

    C. Vann Woodward, “Wild in the Stacks,” The New York Review, August 1, 1968. 

  4. 4

    Gaddis, “Kennan and Containment: A Reply,” SHAFR Newsletter (1978), copy in Box 15, Kennan papers. The historians were John W. Coogan and Michael H. Hunt. 

  5. 5

    Kennan to Gaddis, April 6, 1978, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  6. 6

    Kennan to Gaddis, December 1, 1981, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  7. 7

    See, for instance, Kennan to Gaddis, September 7, 1980, Box 15, Kennan papers. See also Kennan to Gaddis, September 28, 1986, ibid. 

  8. 8

    Kennan diary, May 2, 2000, Box 239, Kennan papers. 

  9. 9

    Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate, 89th Congress, 2nd session, on S. 2793, February 10, 1966 [hereafter 1966 Senate Hearings], p. 371; Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate, 90th Congress, 1st session, January 30, 1967 [hereafter 1967 Senate Hearings], p. 46. 

  10. 10

    1967 Senate Hearings, p. 10. 

  11. 11

    1966 Senate Hearings, pp. 338, 384, 334–335. 

  12. 12

    1966 Senate Hearings, pp. 414, 381, 418, 336. 

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