• Email
  • Print

Wise Men Against the Grain

1.

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
pfaff_1-060911.jpg
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.

2.

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.”

3.

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.

pfaff_2-060911.jpg
Tobias Everke
John Lukacs

In 1948 he recommended an overall reform of America’s postwar intelligence services that would assign the paramilitary resources surviving from the wartime OSS to the Pentagon and would place intelligence-gathering and analysis in an independent, civilian-run intelligence agency. Bureaucratic resistance was too great, and an independent CIA that included paramilitaries was the result—“my greatest mistake,” Kennan much later said (with reason).

Kennan argued that Russian national interest, and Stalin’s and the Party leadership’s power interests, not Communist ideology, dominated postwar Soviet policy, and that a Soviet attack on Western Europe was militarily implausible, if not impossible, in view of the overall balance of forces. Kennan held that the main postwar threat to the United States was not communism but Russia’s enlargement of its sphere of influence in Europe. He believed that the American focus on the Russian military threat was a misguided American projection onto Russia of a danger that would confer legitimacy on the continued existence of the immense military establishment that the formerly isolationist United States had built up during the war.4

The subsequent militarization of containment was the result of a secret debate in 1950 during the drafting of the immensely influential strategic document NSC 68, which accepted an extravagant assessment of the Soviet threat and the principle of “first use” of nuclear weapons, and authorized further exploration of the manufacture of thermonuclear weapons—all opposed by Kennan, and factors in his eventual departure from the government in 1953.

Kennan’s position on dealing with Russia was that nothing should be done to suggest to the Soviet leadership that the United States wished the destruction of the Russian state as such.5 He believed that to bring a permanent settlement in postwar Europe it was necessary to loosen Russia’s grip on Central and Eastern Europe and rebuild strength and self-confidence in Western Europe, so as to induce reciprocal military withdrawal of Soviet and American forces, leaving Central Europe “in the military sense uncommitted.”

Kennan subsequently recommended this in the BBC Reith Lectures he was invited to give in 1957. This had been the status negotiated in 1955 for occupied Austria, which was made independent but neutral. In 1956 the Communist Party “mutiny” in Poland and popular revolt in Hungary suggested that a negotiated Central European “disengagement” might be possible, with removal of nuclear weapons, as was proposed by the Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki, but rejected by governments on both sides. There was to be no Central European solution until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow.

Kennan was himself subjected to much controversy over the years because of what was misunderstood to be his opposition to a foreign policy based on morality. His stated position, all the more pertinent in the religion-soaked politics of our own time, was:

Real love of country, implying as it does the sense of a people’s tragedy as well as of its virtues and accomplishments, is one thing; romantic nationalism and illusions of superiority are another. The Christian God, in contradistinction, I suppose, to the Jewish one, recognizes no nations—only the human soul. And the summons addressed by millions of aroused people in the Almighty to bless their cause in the two horrible wars of this century, was of course in itself a form of blasphemy….

4.

It is easier to become an American than to become American,” Lukacs wrote in his 1990 autobiography. Unlike most of the Hungarian exiles he met at the time of his own flight to the United States,

I did not share their hopes for an eventual American liberation of Hungary, not because I was more of a political realist than they but because I knew Americans better than many of them did…. This was one of the reasons I chose to make my academic career and writing into something more than becoming another interpreter of Central European history in English.

In a 1966 letter to Kennan, Lukacs made a fundamental statement of his career-long contention that history is not a matter of ascertaining facts but a mode of knowing:

I think you would agree with St. Augustine’s statement to the effect that God had not created time in the sense that it preceded the world but that he created time and the world together—wherefrom we may conclude that we are not merely the “creations” of time but, in a way, the “creators” of time too.

This was in response to a letter from Kennan a few days earlier that had argued that history

is always a product of the interaction between two personalities, the judged and the judger…. There is no historical truth—at least not…in any sense useful to us—independent of the eye and the position of the viewer. Every historical treatise represents not the reconstitution of some detached, abstract historical truth, but rather a way of looking at something behind us in time; and there are as many ways of looking at that “something” as there are historians, just as in the world of visual arts there are so many ways of seeing and apprehending an object as there are artists.

In his autobiography, Lukacs spoke of the need to deal with

the persistence of national characteristics; with the relationship of imagination and memory, indeed with that of “evolution” and history; with the necessity to recognize the inevitable involvement of the historian and his subject, that is, of the “observer” with what is “observed,”…whereby near the end of the so-called Modern Age the Cartesian and Newtonian views of man and of the universe must be rethought.

Lukacs found a clear statement of the scientific equivalent of what he proposed about modes of knowing in the physicist Werner Heisenberg’s argument that “the ideal of objectivity—dependent on the Cartesian separation of subject from object—has proven imperfect even in the very study of matter, where the human act of observation cannot be separated from, because it interferes with, the object.” Lukacs notes that he came upon Heisenberg’s Gifford Lectures in 1958 three years after beginning his book Historical Consciousness (which took twelve years to complete), and while pleased to discover a form of confirmation of his views in an unexpected quarter,

also saw that now my task was greater than what I had conceived it to be earlier, that I was face to face with the task of giving a reasonable form to the historical recognition of the existence of a profoundly important and relatively recent development in Western thought.

In this view, knowledge is acquired through the history of the subject, undoubtedly the most profound source of knowledge since the history of something created its current existence, even though historical knowledge is often incomplete or inaccurate. Lukacs says that

the very purpose of historical knowledge is not so much accuracy as a certain kind of understanding: historical knowledge is the knowledge of human beings about other human beings, and this is different from the knowledge which human beings possess of their environment.

Or, it can be added, of material subjects. History

does not and cannot borrow its methods from the natural sciences. Behind the condition of the unpredictability of history lie many “causes,” one of them being that historical causalities are quite different from the categories of scientific causality. At this point it may be sufficient to state a truism: while science, including the so-called social sciences, deals principally (though not exclusively) with what is typical and with what is routine, history deals primarily (though not exclusively) with what is unique and what is exceptional.

5.

When in 1947 he accepted the position of professor at Chestnut Hill, a well-meaning colleague warned Lukacs that such a minor post would be “a definite professional handicap,” which was undoubtedly sound advice if Lukacs had wanted a conventional academic career but was also valid in view of the distance between Lukacs’s own conception and practice of history and the prevailing positivist influence in American social studies. His rejection of such a career was also due to what he described as “the undisciplined range of my mental interests.”6 After 1956, Lukacs says that his interest in international politics declined:

My writing and teaching were primarily historical; and my interest in politics, too, was the result of my impatience with the inadequacy of the historical (and therefore, human) understanding demonstrated by politicians, bureaucrats and many intellectuals.

In Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, published in 1968, which Lukacs considers his most important work, he sets out his conviction—at a time when historical studies were increasingly embattled and neglected—that history has become the most valuable means for understanding the reality of persons, nations, and human society itself because their existing reality is revealed by their creation over the course of their pasts. “History is Humanity’s knowledge of itself” (Lukacs cites the German nineteenth-century historian J.G. Droysen). Human endeavor cannot completely (which is to say, satisfactorily) be explained by current observation of events, characteristics, and declared aspirations, but by the history of humanity’s acquisition of those characteristics and formulation of those particular aspirations. Lukacs said to Kennan in a 1979 letter:

You write about America with a unique compound of sentiment and realism; people may see in your writing the nostalgia of a sensitive and conservative thinker; but there is much more than that…a concern with the national character. This concern reaches back into the past, where it is no less vivid than when it is addressed to the present. Your compound is not that of nostalgia for the past cum concern with the present. It derives from a deep felt historical sense to the effect that the past is not dead; that while death is irrevocable, the past is not; and that, while death and the past are not the same, life and the present are not the same either….

One of Kennan’s last letters to Lukacs included a copy of a letter to Kennan’s nephew, written on February 19, 2003, when the UN Security Council declined to vote in favor of an American-British invasion of Iraq. About that imminent invasion, he wrote, “I take an extremely dark view of all this…. What is being done to our country today is surely something from which we will never be able to restore the sort of country you and I have known.” The sentiment, of course, is shared by many. The duty owed history, and those who bear and will bear its consequences, is an effort fully to understand what has happened to American political civilization and the American mind during the half-century to which Kennan refers. This publication of his long correspondence with John Lukacs is an invaluable contribution to that understanding.

  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). 

  4. 4

    The same mechanism was at work in the United States after September 11, when—with the help of Samuel Huntington’s irresponsible notion of an impending “clash of civilizations”—the activities of al-Qaeda and associated radical Muslim groups were, as they today continue to be, proclaimed a mortal threat to the American nation. 

  5. 5

    In 1953, Radio Liberty—originally known as Radio Liberation from Bolshevism, then as Radio Liberation—was created (and eventually placed under Committee for a Free Europe management) amid much quarreling among factions of émigrés from Russia and the member states and nationalities of the former Russian Empire, posing exactly the problems Kennan (already gone from office) had anticipated in any attempt to provoke internal conflict in Russia. 

  6. 6

    There undoubtedly was also a homesteading impulse at work. He reconstructed, largely by his own efforts, an abandoned country schoolhouse, where he lived with his first wife (he was to be twice widowed), and later, as his family grew, rescued a larger house on the same property. In 1974 he was to write of his

    gratitude…[and] contentment with the fact that, after all is said, I, a refugee and an unorthodox writer and academic, have been able to secure for myself private conditions of existence in this country that are beyond the dreams of my former countrymen, and without having had to sacrifice my intellectual independence in the bargain.
     

  • Email
  • Print