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Is This George Kennan?

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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

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. 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. 

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

  15. 15

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

  16. 16

    Kennan, interview with Gaddis, August 25, 1982. 

  17. 17

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

  18. 18

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

  19. 19

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

  20. 20

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

  21. 21

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

  22. 22

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

  23. 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. 

  24. 24

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

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