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Wise Men Against the Grain


One’s relations with one’s country, like the relations among intimates, are always complicated; but I conceive myself to have loved my own…. I am now inclined to see my country much the way that I see Russia (in the historical sense): namely, as a politically unsuccessful and tragic country, but one capable of producing out of its midst, from time to time, remarkable literary, artistic, and musical intelligence, politically helpless and always vulnerable to abuse and harassment at the hands of the dominant forces of the moment.
—George Kennan, letter to John Lukacs, July 8, 1984
Dominique Nabokov
George Kennan at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, 1981

The diplomat and historian George Frost Kennan (1904–2005) and the historian and historical philosopher John Lukacs (born Lukács János Adalbert in 1924) are American contemporaries who shared a tradition of humane thought and scholarship that in the late twentieth century has exercised diminishing influence on the political discourse and policy of the United States. The unlikely friendship between the two, initiated by what amounted to a fan letter, continued for almost fifty-two years, in a learned correspondence of observation and commentary on the international and national affairs of the cold war, but increasingly on the condition of men and women, above all Americans, in what Lukacs, the historian, characterized as the final stage in a modern age that began in the West during the Renaissance.

John Lukacs was born in Hungary and lived there until after World War II, except for the year 1938–1939, when his divorced and Anglophile mother (“very beautiful, intelligent, impulsive and chic”) sent him to school in England, where his term ended just before war was declared. His mother’s origins were responsible for his assignment to a special labor battalion for “converted Jews” when, late in the war, he was called up for military service in Hungary. She had been born to a Jewish family long converted to Catholicism (she survived the war). His physician father and his stepfather (“who did not like me very much”) were Catholics too.1

During the war, Hungary’s right-wing government of Admiral Miklós Horthy imprudently joined Italy and Germany in invading Yugoslavia, aiming to recover territories lost in the World War I settlements; it found itself committed to its sequel, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Horthy government, having second thoughts, entered into secret peace negotiations as early as 1942–1943 with the US and Britain, causing Germany to occupy Hungary and place the quasi-fascist Arrow Cross movement in power. After an attempt at an armistice with the USSR also proved abortive, the Russian army invaded Hungary, whose troops fell back toward Germany as part of the Wehrmacht’s retreat. Lukacs, by then serving in an antiaircraft unit, deserted. He and members of his family survived the nearly three-month Russian siege of Budapest, taking shelter with others in a cellar. His stepfather was hit by shellfire on the last day of the siege, and died two days later.

A new government including Hungarian Communists took power. Hungarians of Lukacs’s class awaited the arrival of the British and Americans, which eventually occurred in the form of military missions to the Russian occupation forces. The pre-war American legation was reopened. Lukacs went to the legation and asked to see the second secretary, whose name he had obtained. He placed on that official’s desk an analysis of the political situation in Hungary and volunteered to supply regular reports on the significance of political events. Six months later, he was secretary of the Hungarian-American Society.

In 1946, through this connection, and with support from his family, he left Hungary for the United States. The Americans helped him cross the border into Austria, in his view probably saving his life. They arranged a priority visa for him to enter the United States. He arrived at the moment when the GI Bill of Rights, offering a college education to veterans, had created a huge demand for instructors, which permitted Lukacs, who had completed advanced studies in Hungary, was fluent in English, and had contacts in academic circles, to find a teaching post.


The correspondence between John Lukacs and George Kennan thus began when Lukacs was a twenty-eight-year-old Hungarian political exile and assistant professor of history in a small Catholic women’s college, Chestnut Hill, near Philadelphia. He wrote an article on Russia and America in the cold war, intended for the journal Foreign Affairs. It was refused because the editors found some of his arguments “difficult to substantiate,” and proposed that the article be rewritten in respects that Lukacs would not accept. Some time later he gave the article to the New York Catholic intellectual magazine Commonweal, which published it in two parts, over successive issues in 1952. However, because of the article’s length, it was edited in a way that Lukacs believed gave the impression that it was Kennan’s containment policy that the article criticized, and not its application, as was his intention.

Lukacs then wrote to Kennan himself, whom Dean Acheson had named the Truman administration’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. He said that he was “taking the certainly unusual liberty” of sending Ambassador Kennan the original manuscript of his article, about whose thesis Lukacs felt strongly, and which he wished to place before a man in a position of authority whose acumen he respected and admired.

His letter was sent within a few days of George Kennan’s having placed himself in a disastrous professional position with an impromptu remark. Soon after taking up his post as ambassador to Moscow, during a trip that paused in Germany, he incautiously told a reporter that the prevailing treatment of foreign diplomats in Moscow resembled that which he had experienced in Germany early in World War II. (He had been appointed to Prague at the time of Munich, and after the German occupation of the Sudetenland he was posted to Berlin as second and then first secretary to the ambassador. It was this period to which he referred in 1952. After Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the US, he was interned for some months.)

The Soviet government reacted to his comment by declaring the new American ambassador persona non grata (undoubtedly pleased at the unexpected opportunity to rid themselves of an official American who knew entirely too much about the Soviet Union and its leaders). Kennan soon after suffered a similar fate in Washington, when the newly elected Eisenhower administration’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, invited him to resign from the Foreign Service. Dulles had campaigned for General Eisenhower’s election with a promise to “roll back” communism in Europe, not to “contain” it. Kennan accordingly left Washington and accepted Robert Oppenheimer’s offer of an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.2 In the midst of all this, he nonetheless found the time courteously to reply to the young teacher.

The correspondence, now published in Through the History of the Cold War, resumed the following year. Kennan was invited to deliver an address at the University of Notre Dame, America’s most prominent Catholic university, at a time when Catholic popular support for Senator Joseph McCarthy, imagined to embody the anti-Communist cause in the United States, was at its peak. (Among the public as a whole, at that time, polls indicated at least 50 percent support for the senator.) President Eisenhower had chosen not to speak critically of McCarthy, and members of his administration and of the Senate and House were mostly intimidated, or at least considered it imprudent to speak against the senator. Kennan did so, describing the United States as victim of

an alarmed and exercized anti-communism—but an anti- communism of a quite special variety, bearing an air of excited discovery and proprietorship, as though no one had ever known before that there was a communist danger, as though no one had thought about it or taken its measure, as though it had all begun about the year 1945 and these people were the first to learn of it….
They sow timidity where there should be boldness; fear where there should be serenity; suspicion where there should be confidence and generosity. In this way they impel us—in the name of our salvation from the dangers of communism—to many of the habits of thought and action which our Soviet adversaries, I am sure, would most like to see us adopt and which they have tried unsuccessfully over a period of some 35 years to graft upon us through the operations of their communist party.

Lukacs wrote to Kennan to describe the speech as a “noble” one, and to say that he had told all his students at Chestnut Hill to read it. Kennan replied again with generosity and a surprising openness. He said that his personal position (he was still a month from official retirement from the Foreign Service) inhibited him from criticizing US foreign policy, and was concerned that to do so would appear to “attack and undermine men with whom I had myself been associated and toward whom I felt a bond of personal obligation and loyalty despite all differences of view.”


George Kennan had become a Washington celebrity in late 1946 for articulating an interpretation of postwar Stalinism and formulating a foreign policy doctrine for its “containment.” This was inspired by his conviction that official Washington (and American opinion generally) failed to grasp the nature of Soviet policy and was deeply mistaken in believing (as had Franklin Roosevelt) that Stalin (“Uncle Joe”) could be “handled” by demonstrations of goodwill and postwar cooperation.3

Written while Kennan was chargé d’affaires in Moscow (while Ambassador Averell Harriman was absent) in response to a routine Treasury De- partment request for clarification of Soviet intransigence on a minor mat- ter, the February 1946 “long telegram” produced a response in Washington that “was nothing less than sensation,” Kennan wrote in his memoirs. He had argued that the Soviet Union was irredeemably hostile to the Western world, since Marxism postulated a basic antagonism between what it called capitalism/imperialism and Leninism. Yet—precisely because communism’s triumph was held to be inevitable—Moscow’s leaders saw no reason to run risks or undertake “adventurist” actions that could damage the socialist fatherland or undermine the Party’s leadership. However, since these optimistic ideological assumptions were baseless, Kennan recognized them as sources of Soviet weakness. He argued, as well, that

the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.

When Kennan returned from Moscow in 1946 he was mandated by the Truman administration to carry out his program for weakening the Soviet position in Central and Eastern Europe. In April–May 1948 he recommended creation of a “directorate” under State Department control for overt and covert political warfare. This was known as the Office for Special Projects and placed under his control. This body was responsible for a secret effort to detach (geographically isolated) Albania from the Communist bloc by infiltrating Albanian exile leaders and their supporters into the country (an enterprise betrayed, with consequent deaths, by “Kim” Philby, the British traitor whom London had named codirector of the operation) and established a supposedly citizen-initiated Committee for a Free Europe, which sponsored Radio Free Europe and other political warfare activities.

  1. 1

    Lukacs, Confessions of an Original Sinner (Ticknor & Fields, 1990). It is not an autobiography, as Lukacs writes in the introduction, but “a history of some of my thoughts and beliefs…. I am convinced that the most important thing in this world, and perhaps especially in our times, is what people think and believe….” 

  2. 2

    This remained his principal professional attachment during the remainder of his career, during which he produced, among a score of other books, distinguished volumes on the diplomatic prelude to World War I, from 1875 forward; American diplomatic relations with revolutionary Russia and the American intervention in the civil war; and Western relations with Leninist and Stalinist Russia from World War I until the end of World War II. 

  3. 3

    An edited version of the document, signed “X,” was published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947 and was included as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Kennan’s 1951 book, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (University of Chicago Press). 

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