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Is This George Kennan?

This carefully argued position does not get adequate attention in Gaddis’s account. Nor, as has been said, does he recount how on February 29, 1968—between the beginning of the Tet Offensive on January 31 and the New Hampshire primary on March 12—Kennan, the originator of the containment doctrine supposedly justifying the Vietnam War, addressed a crowd in Newark, New Jersey. He attacked the war as a “grievously unsound” venture that had invested huge resources in a “single secondary theater of world events.” Escalation threatened nuclear conflict with China or Russia. The gravity of the situation approached “the first months of 1942.” The war was alienating America’s youth and much of the world. Kennan scorned the Johnson administration for forgetting that a country such as ours owed “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” His talk amounted to a devastating critique of the administration’s “grand strategy.”

Kennan finished with a strong endorsement of Eugene McCarthy, who deserved “our admiration, our sympathy, and our support.”13 At first McCarthy’s campaign had seemed a quixotic gesture, notable only for the enthusiasm of its young supporters. That Kennan came out for McCarthy—whose surprisingly high vote in the New Hampshire primary helped persuade Johnson not to run—was a remarkable moment in American political history, and it is hard to understand why Gaddis ignores it.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, with the nuclear arms race seemingly unstoppable, Kennan grew almost frantic about an imminent holocaust. “The only thing I have left in life,” he told Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “is to do everything I can to stop the war.” Appalled at President Ronald Reagan’s ramped-up arms spending and rhetoric about the “evil empire,” Kennan denounced the administration as “ignorant, unintelligent, complacent and arrogant; worse still is the fact that it is frivolous and reckless.” Even after Reagan reversed course and began serious arms reduction negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, Kennan remained skeptical about the President. Gaddis, for his part, admires Reagan as being “like Franklin D. Roosevelt…an instinctive grand strategist” and finds that Kennan’s “attitude bordered on the outrageous.” Yet at the time, many highly qualified scientists used just such words about Reagan’s insistence on pursuing an impracticable and immensely expensive system of “Star Wars.”

In 1981, when he made his agreement with Gaddis, Kennan wrote that while he thought Gaddis the most qualified historian “so far as the political-intellectual part of the biography is concerned,” he was unsure about Gaddis’s understanding of his personal life. Gaddis responded, rightly, that the personal sphere could not be separated from the political one.14 That Kennan struggled to control his emotions was obvious not only to his biographer but also to other close observers. The Russian expert Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen, who had known Kennan since the early 1930s, remarked that his friend could not always “divorce his visceral feelings from his knowledge of facts.” Another colleague saw him as emotionally fragile: “It was difficult for him to take unpleasant things.” Isaiah Berlin, who was with him in Moscow in 1945, recalled that Kennan “was terribly absorbed—personally involved, somehow—in the terrible nature of the [Stalin] regime.”

Kennan himself “stressed the importance of the psychological dimension” in his life.15 He told Gaddis that “the inner emotional life of any person, as Freud discovered, is a dreadful chaos. We all have vestiges of our animalistic existence in us.” Consequently, “good form,” whether it involved the ceremonies of diplomacy or the constraints of marriage, “is really the thing to live for.” He continued, “‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ My God, I’ve coveted ten thousand of them in the course of my life, and will continue to do so into the eighties.” “All that has to be fought with. But the main thing is to try to play your role in a decent way.”16

Gaddis deals with the political implications of Kennan’s personal character in a bifurcated way. By characterizing Kennan as the cool Clausewitzian in 1946–1947, he plays down the sense of frustration that Kennan experienced in Russia—an emotional state that was reflected in his advocacy of containment and helped make the language of the Long Telegram and the “Mr. X” article so eloquent and persuasive. Quite different is the way that Gaddis emphasizes the emotional concerns with war that supposedly marred Kennan’s strategic thinking in the mid-1950s, when he sought negotiations to head off a nuclear confrontation in Europe, and again in the 1970s–1980s, when he sounded the alarm against the feverish nuclear arms race.

Though he captures much of the man’s complexity, Gaddis’s depiction of Kennan is ultimately clipped and flattened. Perhaps the problem is trying to frame within “an American life,” as the subtitle has it, the biography of someone who mused that even his friends did “not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repudiation of the things [the American public] lives by.”17 As compared to the portrait in the biography, the personality revealed in Kennan’s diaries and letters—even the figure who emerges from the transcripts of Gaddis’s interviews—was more irreverent as a collegian, more deeply identified with Russian culture as a fledgling diplomat, more ambivalent about his marriage, more alienated from American life, more inclined to concealment, and more tortured by the limitations of old age. The Kennan of the letters and diaries is far less conventional and more complex and elusive than the person we encounter in Gaddis’s biography.

In his conclusion, Gaddis characterizes Kennan as a teacher, a word that Kennan himself used and that is certainly apt. But Kennan also said he was “a prophet. It was for this that I was born.” Gaddis makes little of this self-description. Prophets are more intense and more given to jeremiads than academic teachers. Kennan, perhaps worrying about Gaddis’s suitability for depicting his character, remarked to him: “People who are a little unusual—the Boheme—they understand me, better than do the regular ones.”18

Distinctly non-Bohemian, it seems fair to say, were both Gaddis and the late Annelise Sørensen Kennan, to whom the biography is dedicated. The author acknowledges that “Annelise had her way with this book.” She urged him to write about the personal as well as the professional side of her husband and to include his lighter moments. She stressed, and Kennan himself acknowledged, that he tended to write in his diary when he was feeling morose, and rarely when he was not. Annelise was by all accounts a strong-minded spouse. They were close and their marriage lasted seventy-three years. Nevertheless, Kennan once “went out of his way to say that she is not a particularly ‘intellectual’ woman.”19 Nor did she always empathize with her husband’s moods and worries. Perhaps as a consequence, he sometimes did not confide in her. When Gaddis asked Annelise what she remembered about the unhappiness with US policy that had spurred Kennan to write the Long Telegram, Annelise reflected. “I don’t know whether I took [the discontent] so entirely seriously…. I don’t think I was aware that he was so frustrated.”20

Kennan turned to other women for solace and to meet other needs. He had, as Gaddis tells us, a series of affairs, flirtations, and fantasies. He wrote sections of the diary, including some entries about other women, in Russian—at one point reminding himself that he had to perfect the art of hiding from his wife nothing but the big things. Annelise held her husband “down to earth.” As Gaddis puts it, she pulled him “to the center.”21

He does the same in this book. Such emphasis on the conventional misses some idiosyncrasies that were important to Kennan’s thinking. The older man once described to Gaddis his habit, going back to childhood, of picking up on seemingly disassociated sights, sounds, and other stimuli and then bringing them together with other elements in his experience to fashion a concept or a connection uniquely his own. Throughout his life he had “read all sorts of mystery and beauty and other things into landscapes and places, and also into music.” He sensed what most other people could not. “Every city that I went to had not only a different atmosphere but a different sort of music and intonation to it…. I was immensely sensitive and responsive to differences in the atmosphere of places.”

In his seventies, Kennan tried to describe this almost painful acuteness. Visiting Stockholm, “something in the light, the sunlight, the late Northern evening suddenly made me aware of…Latvia and Estonia,” not so far away, “and I suddenly was absolutely filled with a sort of nostalgia for…the inner beauty and meaning of that flat Baltic landscape and the waters around it. It meant an enormous amount to me.” He then added, “You can’t explain these things.”22 Gaddis, perhaps understandably, did not try; such reflections do not appear in the biography.

Nonetheless, Kennan’s disclosure helps elucidate a central element of his political thinking: his intuitive yet often incisive and empathic descriptions of the inner worlds of the Russian people and of the Soviet regime—based both on his encyclopedic knowledge about Russia and his imaginative guesswork. To Kennan’s continuing frustration, the isolation of diplomats mandated by Kremlin policy made it impossible to talk intimately with top Soviet officials or most ordinary Russians. Kennan compensated by a mode of thought analogous to his sensing and feeling “the inner beauty and meaning” of the Baltic. Gaddis cites a revealing observation of Kennan by the China expert John Paton Davies:

It was a delight to watch him probe some sphinxlike announcement in Pravda for what might lie within or behind it, recalling some obscure incident in Bolshevik history or a personality conflict within the Party, quoting a passage from Dostoevsky on Russian character, or citing a parallel in Tsarist foreign policy. His subtle intellect swept the range of possibilities like a radar attuned to the unseen.

Kennan was attuned to the seen and the unseen. He would tell audiences, “I can assure you” about some aspect of Soviet belief for which he could have little evidence.23 Kennan’s elegant expression and unparalleled expertise gave him enormous authority, especially when he was warning about the Soviet menace in 1946 and 1947. He was far less influential as the cold war hardened, but still could not be ignored when he argued that it was not necessary to accept appeasement or war as alternatives.

In the fall of 2002, as the Bush administration was gearing up for war against Iraq, Kennan, then ninety-eight, spoke with reporters for the last time. He was in the Washington home of his old ally, former Senator Eugene McCarthy. Castigating the administration’s policy of preemptive war and its intention to oust Saddam Hussein, he warned that “the history of American diplomacy” demonstrated that “war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions.”24 He appeared sharp and articulate as he sketched out a strategy for the twenty-first century. Playing down the drama and the wisdom of Kennan’s last public statement, Gaddis mentions this incident in only three terse lines. He would have been fairer to his subject if he had taken more account of the view Kennan expressed in these pages in 1999:

This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable. If you think that our life here at home has meritorious aspects worthy of emulation by peoples elsewhere, the best way to recommend them is, as John Quincy Adams maintained, not by preaching at others but by the force of example. I could not agree more.
  1. 13

    Kennan, “Introducing Eugene McCarthy,” The New York Review, April 11, 1968. 

  2. 14

    Kennan to Gaddis, December 1, 1981; Gaddis to Kennan, December 14, 1981, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  3. 15

    Dilworth, interview with Gaddis, December 6, 1987, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  4. 16

    Kennan, interview with Gaddis, August 25, 1982. 

  5. 17

    Kennan diary, October 21, 1955, Box 233, Kennan papers. 

  6. 18

    Kennan, interview with Gaddis, December 13, 1987, Box 16, Kennan papers. 

  7. 19

    Dilworth, interview with Gaddis, December 6, 1987, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  8. 20

    Annelise Sorensen Kennan, interview with Gaddis, August 26, 1982, Box 16, Kennan papers. 

  9. 21

    Dilworth, interview with Gaddis, December 6, 1987, Box 15, Kennan papers. 

  10. 22

    Kennan, interview with Gaddis, August 24, 1982, Box 16, Kennan papers. 

  11. 23

    See, for instance, Kennan, “The Background of Current Russian Diplomatic Moves,” December 10, 1946, in Measures Short of War, edited by Giles D. Harlow and George C. Maetz (National Defense University Press, 1991), p. 86. 

  12. 24

    Albert Eisele, “George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq,” The Hill, September 26, 2002. 

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