Memoirs 1925-1950 is the story of a sensitive, intelligent boy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who goes off to Europe, where he gains fame, if not fortune, in the service of his country, and after many trials and tribulations discovers that nobody ever understood him. It is a sad tale in which the author suffers mightily from snubs, rebuffs, frustrations, discomfort, and the boorishness of his fellow countrymen. Although he deserves a better fate than he meets, he keeps a stiff upper lip through his adversities, and eventually triumphs over defeat by finding a better life in the cloisters of Princeton, New Jersey.
For all its sadness, the story is an inspiring one that will move many readers to emotions of pity and indignation: pity for a man who was too wise to be listened to by his superiors; indignation at a system that did not provide him with even greater rewards and recognition than he received. It was George Kennan’s misfortune to live in a crass country and in a century where his finest qualities were not truly appreciated. In this lengthy reminiscence, gleaned from voluminous diary notes, unread documents, unpublished poems and travel impressions, thumbnail sketches of famous and obscure individuals, attempts at self-analysis, and accounts of crises and decisions in which the author was involved, the reader gains a new impression of a man who has become the nearest thing to a legend that this country’s diplomatic service has ever produced. These memoirs are expertly written, often fascinating, and in many ways depressing. In them this hero is transformed before our eyes into a very fallible mortal, and in some ways even into an anti-hero. What the author conceives as an eighteenth-century autobiography turns into a twentieth-century tale of alienation, very modern, very sad, and unintentional.
FOR ALL ITS LIMITATIONS, this is an important book, both as diplomatic history and as intellectual biography. These memoirs are more than a recollection of a distinguished, if disappointing, career in diplomacy. More than an explanation of how the embassy in Moscow is run, or what the author thought of Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, or how the Russians took over Eastern Europe. They are about a man as much as about a time: a man of intelligence and integrity whose effectiveness was hobbled by insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and a tendency toward selfpity. A man who counsels the virtues of being, like himself, “a guest of one’s time and not a member of its household”; who was “concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it”; who recognized “that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would”; who watched the Nazi rise to power, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the devastation of Rotterdam with analytical dispassion, but who was painfully wounded when snubbed at Princeton as an undergraduate, or when his superiors forgot to make a place for him on a special diplomat’s train from Rome to Berlin. Forever giving warnings that went unheeded and penning diplomatic dispatches that remained unread, Kennan shows himself in these memoirs as one who struggled to protect the interests of the United States in distant lands, yet who became increasingly estranged from his own compatriots. His book is an effort at self-analysis—a thinly-disguised confessional. What he reveals is not always flattering, but it offers a fascinating insight into a career which fell short of what it might have been, and suggests why this may have been the case.
Kennan is perhaps the most impressive figure ever to have emerged from the shadowy labyrinth of the American diplomatic establishment. His quarter-century in the Foreign Service was marked by loneliness and frustration, by dubious triumphs, and finally by the taste of ashes. These memoirs end with his departure from the Foreign Service, and with his frustration when he felt that he would never be able to translate his views into policy. By 1950 he decided that his usefulness was at an end, and, as he left the State Department to begin his second career as an historian at Princeton, he wondered, speaking of himself and his friend Chip Bohlen, “Whether the day had not passed when the government had use for the qualities of persons like ourselves—for the effort at cool and rational analysis in the unfirm substance of the imponderables.” Much of his dissatisfaction was due to the nature of the organization in which he spent so many years of his life. But equally responsible were some traits of Kennan’s own personality. He was used by the Foreign Service, and sometimes used badly. He became a gadfly intellectual whose views were accepted when others found them convenient, and rejected when they were troublesome or untimely. But he also used the State Department for his own purposes. It provided him with a forum that permitted him to influence policy—although not always in the way he would have preferred.
He is hard on the State Department, and rightly so, for its inability to find a place for perceptive and grating individuals like himself is one of its gravest shortcomings. But in the 1920s the Foreign Service was an entirely appropriate place for the unformed but perceptive and intelligent George Kennan to make his hesitant entry into the world. He chose it, he confesses, because “I feared falling into some sort of occupational rut and I thought that I would be best protected in the Foreign Service from doing so.” The decision was a good one, as he himself admits, and if in the years that followed he berated his superiors for their unresponsiveness to his suggestions, he nonetheless cherished the bureaucracy for the protective coloration it offered. Kennan gave himself to the discipline of the Foreign Service, rose rapidly within its clogged hierarchy, gained more from it than he may yet recognize, and suffered from its virtually unavoidable limitations. The Foreign Service did more than make Kennan famous: it made him what he is. Without it he would no doubt have become a distinguished scholar. Perhaps a professor of history at Harvard or Chicago. But by training him in Russian and German, by taking him away from his parochial preoccupations and exposing him to an international setting, it transformed a self-doubting, neurotic boy from Wisconsin into a world statesman. In so doing, however, it alienated him even further from the country whose interests he sought to protect, but whose manners and whose qualities he came to look upon with a coldness bordering on contempt.
The opening chapter of the memoirs is certainly the most revealing, and in many ways the most interesting part of this book, for it offers a clue to Kennan’s puzzling character. Although telling us little about his family, he introduces us to the “grubby military school cadet” who lived “in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them.” It was a private world filled with monsters and demons, in which he imagined a perfectly ordinary brick building in Milwaukee to be “a house of horror—horror unnamed, unmentionable, not to be imaged.” This horror of the unknown remained with him throughout his life, coloring his perceptions and his diplomatic dispatches with a touch of paranoia. Retreating to his private world, he rejected the unpleasantness of the actual one as though it were an aberration that did not concern him personally. He yearned for the tidier world of the eighteenth century and freely confesses “the discomfort I experience in my own status as a contemporary of the twentieth.” He liked to think of himself as the child of a happier, more reflective, more aristocratic age, in which his secret qualities would be admired, and in which less worthy figures would tender the respect that was due.
SUFFERING TERRIBLY from feelings of social inadequacy, he unerringly chose to attend the college that would intensify these feelings to the utmost: Princeton. There, unsurprisingly, he found himself “always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few.” It brought out all his latent masochism and self-pity, filled him with admiration for those he considered to be his social superiors, and intensified his growing sense of isolation. He considered himself “an oddball on campus, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye.” Although invited to join an undergraduate club, he later resigned and became what he terms one of the “social rejects,” most of whom were scarred “by the realization that they had been held to judgment by their fellow students and found wanting.” It was a judgment that has haunted Kennan throughout his life, persuaded him to see himself as another Gatsby, infinitely worthy but never fully appreciated, forever on the fringes of the real elite, and although occasionally allowed to enter the mansion and converse with the swells, never to feel a part of it. “The portrayal,” he confesses,
in the hauntingly beautiful epilogue to The Great Gatsby of the Midwesterner’s reaction to the fashionable East held, to be sure, such familiarity for me that when I first read it, while still in college, I went away and wept unmanly tears.
Rather than curing him of his social insecurity, Princeton intensified it, leaving him with yearnings that could never be fulfilled and anxieties that could never be assuaged. It fed his sense of isolation and contributed to the feelings of martyrdom that color these memoirs. Nobody understood him, nobody wanted him, nobody appreciated him. He chose the Foreign Service because of its “protective paternalism,” and perhaps because it provided a certain social cachet, but he resented its slowness to appreciate his merits. It was, in a sense, Princeton all over again. Although he remained in the club for a quarter-century, he never really felt a part of it, nor was he fully accepted by those on top, whom he viewed with mixed resentment and admiration. Ignored for many years, his political-literary dispatches unread or unacted upon, he saw himself as a prophet forever doomed to murmur his warnings in the wilderness.
These feelings were intensified by his experience in Russia, where his personal sense of isolation combined with the real isolation that is the lot of foreign residents. To him the Soviet Union was a nightmare and he could never understand why his sentiments of horror and outrage toward it were not fully shared by his superiors in Washington. There were times when he thought it must be part of some conspiracy, and he periodically detected “the smell of Soviet influence, or strongly pro-Soviet influence, somewhere in the higher reaches of the government.” But more often it was simply due to the failure of others to understand him. “There will be no place,” he wrote in 1944 when Washington and Moscow were still allies in the struggle against Hitler, “for the American who is really willing to undertake this disturbing task” of understanding Russia. “The best he can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow, and where few will consent to believe that he has been.”
WHILE SUCH REMARKS reflect the ordeal of a lonely man who feels he has been unjustly ignored, they also reveal the “difficult” side of Kennan’s character. Others are continually failing to follow his advice, including the President of the United States. These various people,” he writes of those in Washington who were conducting the rather farcical negotiations with Portugal over the wartime use of the Azores, “were unquestionably wrong. I knew more about Portugal, and about the ins and outs of the situation, than any of them did” What was true of Portugal was also true of most other places, such as Poland. Of the talks on the composition of the postwar Polish government he writes: “I was probably the only non-Pole present who had enough experience of Eastern Europe to be thoroughly aware of the factors involved.” While such observations may well be true, it is not surprising that the attitude they reflected did not endear Kennan to his Washington colleagues, nor improve the chances for his voice to be heard.
For such a sensitive and highly-strung man, he often seems oblivious to the sensibilities and weaknesses of others. He was, as he says of himself, given to “pride, oversensitivity, a sullen refusal to be comforted, an insistence on knowing and experiencing the worst in order to be the more deserving of sympathy, at lest in my own eyes.” Suffering fools with difficulty and unable to understand why his recommendations were not accepted, he saw himself as a victim of ignorance, or envy, or duplicity, or a combination of them all.
He had little sympathy for the political problems of decision-making in a democracy, and no use for Congress, most of whose members he considered ignorant and boorish. He saw no reason why individual Congressmen should be catered to, nor by what justification they could challenge the considered wisdom of the State department.The function of Congress, apparently, was to approve what had been decided at more elevated levels. “I could not accept the assumption,” he writes of Senator Vandenberg’s efforts to win approval for the Marshall Plan, “that Senators were all such idiots that they deserved admiring applause every time they could be persuaded by the State Department to do something sensible.” Nor did he see why the administration should lobby important congressmen in order to secure the passage of certain bills. “I had never understood,” he states with the unconcealed indignation of a man whose dignity has been stepped on, “that part of my profession was to represent the US government vis-à-vis Congress.”
Perhaps lobbying is demeaning and boring, but our form of government rests, at least in theory, on congressional assent to major foreign policy decisions—particularly on treaties and on the decision to go to war. Diplomatic professionals, even those as distinguished as George Kennan, do not always possess the wisdom they imagine on such crucial issues. If they did, Americans would probably not be dying today in Vietnam. Diplomats may like to think of themselves as part of an intellectual and social elite, but we still live in a democracy, where public opinion can have an influence on legislators, even if it cannot on the President and his foreign policy advisers. Congressional interference is a nuisance to the State Department, but it is not so presumptuous as Kennan imagines.
His attitude toward Congress is indicative of his conception of diplomacy, which he seems to view as a private function to be performed by a specialized elite—something like the sale of municipal bonds or the removal of tumors. Certain work can be performed only by specialists, and the customers have no business giving advice. Things were better back in the eighteenth century, although one wonders whether a boy from Milwaukee would have risen to be ambassador in the court of Louis XVI or of Frederick the Great. Democracy is a sloppy system of government, and one cannot help but detect Kennan’s persistent irritation with it.
Combined with this elitism is a snobbery which transcends social class to embrace whole peoples. Just as he finds the eighteenth century he never knew more congenial than the twentieth century he lives in, so he finds cultured old Europe more appealing than brash, upstart America. His admiration for the ways of the Old World cause him to be embarrassed about the country he is officially representing. While stationed in Berlin as a young foreign Service officer he patronized “a small Anglo-American eating club for bankers and diplomats, a cup run, fortunately, by the English (who know how to do that sort of thing) and not by the Americans,” Would the club have been even more desirable had it excluded Americans (who generally do not appreciate that sort of thing)? Years later, returning to Germany shortly after the war, he finds it occupied by American GIs and comes away
with a sense of sheer horror at the spectacle of this horde of my compatriots and their dependents camping in luxury amid the ruins of a shattered national community, ignorant of the past, oblivious to the abundant evidences of present tragedy all around them, inhabiting the vary same sequestered villas that the Gestapo and SS had just abandoned, and enjoying the same privileges, flaunting their silly supermarket luxuries in the face of a veritable ocean of deprivation, hunger and wretchedness, setting an example of empty materialism and cultural poverty….
What did he expect, one wonders? Should the US Army, which had fought a bloody campaign in which many Americans lost their lives in the struggle against Nazi tyranny, have lived in tents and turned the sequestered villas back to the Gestapo and to the “good Germans” who supported its activities? Whose fault was it that the Germans suffered some of the horrors of a war they inflicted upon others? Who were these Germans, who cheered Hitler for twelve years and repudiated him only in defeat, to give lessons to the Americans on “empty materialism and cultural poverty”? What, one must ask, is Kennan complaining about: That war is nasty, that innocent people suffer, that foot soldiers are not philosophers? What war has ever been any better, what army behaved with so much consideration toward a defeated people as did the Americans, what people had less cause to complain than did the Germans?
One might sympathize more with Kennan’s sensitivities if they extended to the victims of Nazi Germany, rather than merely to those who got back something of what they inflicted on others. When he visits Rotterdam shortly after its destruction by the Luftwaffe, he shows none of the outrage toward its destroyers that ne does toward the unfortunate American. GIs in the occupation forces. And in 500 pages of text virtually his only comment on the Jews is not regret at the fate they met at the hands of their Nazi executioners, but indignation that some US diplomats were bumped from a ship returning to the US “in order to free space on the exchange vessel for Jewish refugees…because individual Congressmen, anxious to please individual constituents, were interested in bringing these refugees to the United States.” Kennan’s moral outrage is highly selective, though his countrymen often bear the brunt of it.
His alienation from American life is not unique. Many Foreign Service and army officers share it to one degree or another. This is one of the problems Americans encounter when they spend much of their life abroad—particularly in countries they admire. But this alienation is one to which Kennan—with his identification with the “cultured”—is particularly prone. It is reflected in his dyspeptic comment on the GIs, and even more specifically in his account of a visit to Wisconsin in 1936. “I came away from the summer’s visit” he writes
aware that I was no longer a part of what I had once been a part of—no longer, in fact, a part of anything at all… Increasingly now, I would not be a part of my country…I would continue to pay it my loyalty. This was a matter of self-respect and of a deeper faith in the values of our civilization. What else, after all, could I be loyal to? But it would be a loyalty despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification. And whatever reciprocation it evoked could never be one based on a complete understanding.
While one can admire the honesty that allows him to admit such feelings, one cannot help but suspect that this profound estrangement from his own country diminished Kennan’s diplomatic effectiveness and contributed to the disappointments of his career. Impatient with America, feeling it was culturally inferior to Europe, unable to consider himself a part of his country, perhaps no longer even wanting to understand it, Kennan became a spiritual exile. His return to the United States during the war did little to change his outlook or his sympathies. This spiritual isolation from his countrymen was intensified by a Calvinist upbringing that was reflected in a weakness toward sanctimony and a refusal to compromise what he believed to be moral principles. This can be considered a mark of his integrity, but it also made it exceedingly difficult for him to engage in the give-and-take that is so much a part of policy formation. Kennan chose to be “right” rather than to be effective. Whether or not this was a conscious choice, it was a real one.
UNFORTUNATELY he was not always right, and he was never more effective than when he wrote the famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs (regrettably not included in the book) which was executed in a way that undermined much of what he really believed. Even at the height of his success in the early postwar years, when he became Forrestal’s – fair-haired boy, General Marshall’s aide, head of the Policy Planning Staff, and drafter of the economic recovery program that was to become the Marshall Plan, he often felt that he had little real influence on policy. “There were times,” he comments on this period, “when I felt like a court jester, expected to enliven discussion, privileged to say the shocking things, valued as an intellectual gadfly on hides of slower colleagues, but not to be taken fully seriously when it came to the final, responsible decisions of policy.”
It is a bitter comment, but a fairly accurate one. The nearer Kennan got to the seats of power, the more aware he became of the limitations on his influence. He thought he could use the bureaucracy and operate outside it. He discovered that he was used by it, and could escape its restrictions only by leaving it entirely. Someone less idealistic would not have been so deceived, nor so disillusioned. He despaired of the bureaucracy, just as he despaired of a system that would allow foreign policy to be judged by Congress. In the moments of depression to which he was, apparently, frequently given, he asked “whether a government so constituted should deceive itself into believing that it is capable of conducting a mature, consistent and discriminating foreign policy.”
Kennan declared that diplomacy should be divorced from sentiment. He was a firm supporter of the classic doctrines of national interest and spheres of influence. Ideologies were foreign to him, and so were the causes of violence. Concerned with methods rather than objectives, “I was never a man for causes.” Yet this is only part of the truth, for he is a man whose entire career is marked by moral judgments, whose code of morality is as strict as that of any of the Scotch Presbyterians from whom he is descended. It is simply that his morality is selective: that it is less outraged by the Nazi tyranny than by the Stalinist police state, less by the barbarities of the German soldiers than by those of the Russians, less by the materialism and cultural poverty of average Europeans than by that of Americans. Kennan claims to be; and no doubt honestly considers himself, a supreme pragmatist. Yet he is typically, and inescapably, American in his idealism and in the high tone of moralism that pervades his writing and his thinking. He is neither the misplaced European, nor the purely rational eighteenth-century philosophe that he may imagine himself to be. He is squarely in the American tradition: somewhere between Henry Adams and Jay Gatsby, between the world that had vanished and the world that was never to be.
His long years of service in Russia (eventually as ambassador, in a later period not covered in this book) brought out his deep-seated moral attitudes, and filled him with a profound repugnance to the system he observed. It was a repugnance that had a considerable effect upon his political judgments—perhaps a far greater one than he may have realized. “So insistently were the evidences of Russia’s degradation borne in upon me during the years of my residence in Moscow—so prolonged and incessant were the hammer-blow impressions, each more outrageous and heart-rending than the other—that the effect was never to leave me.” Although he had a patronizing affection for the Russian people (whereas for the Germans he had a profound respect), he so detested the Stalin regime that he even doubted whether it deserved to be recognized by the United States. On FDR’s decision to exchange ambassadors with Moscow in 1933 he wrote: “Never—neither then nor at any later date—did I consider the Soviet Union a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country.”
If this sounds like John Foster Dulles on the subject of Communist China, the resemblance may not be so coincidental as it seems, for both these statesmen were basically religious fundamentalists, even if one dealt in ideology while the other spoke in the language of classic diplomacy. Although he was far more perceptive about the nastiness and untrustworthiness of Stalinist Russia than were the woolly-headed American liberals of the 1930s and early 1940s, his emotional antipathy to the Soviet regime led him to questionable exaggeration. He deplored FDR’s belief that it was possible to maintain mutually advantageous relations with the Soviet Union, had little sympathy for it during the war, and stressed the extent to which “Hitler’s final decision to attack Russia was influenced by the stubborn greediness of Soviet diplomacy.” The war, one might suspect, was all the fault of Stalin, who “would so seriously overrate his own bargaining power as to make the Germans’, as a price for Russia’s collaboration in the wider war against Britain’s world position, demands so greedy and extreme that they would convince Hitler he had no choice but to attempt to eliminate Russia as a factor in the world situation in order to get on with his principal job.” Here is some meaty material for a new generation of German revisionists who will no doubt one day try to demonstrate that Hitler was pushed into the war by the greedy Russians and their Western dupes.
Two days after the German attack on Russia he wrote an influential associate in the State Department “that we should do nothing at home to make it appear that we are following the course Churchill seems to have entered upon in extending moral support to the Russian cause in the present Russian-German conflict.” He remained faithful to this position throughout the wartime alliance with the Russians and would continue “in opposition until the movement of the pendulum from left to right would bring it close to my own outlook in the years 1946 to 1948, only to carry it away once more in the other direction, with the oversimplified and highly militarized view of the Russian problem that came to prevail after 1949.” He had no use for those who sentimentalized the Russians because they were our allies. At best they were fools or dupes, at worst agents of the Soviet Union. He even castigated the American military establishment as early as 1945 for being “still deeply affected by what I had felt to be the disgraceful anti-British and pro-Soviet prejudices that certain of our military leaders had entertained during the war.”
Even before the war was over he was ready to reverse the alliance and urged the US to cut off all aid to the Soviet Union as punishment for her refusal to aid the non-communist Polish underground during the Warsaw uprising. The threat to cut off aid would also, he believed, force the Russians to be more cooperative in the problems of organizing the United Nations and plotting the political future of Eastern Europe. Russia’s behavior during the Warsaw uprising was, in his mind, “the moment when, if ever, there should have been a full-fledged and realistic political showdown with the Soviet leaders” over Eastern Europe. So much for the lingering impression, totally refuted by the record, that Kennan ever had anything but contempt for the communists, their methods, and their goals. He was a hard-liner from the beginning. The great difference between him and those who later took his warnings to heart was that he did not allow his moral indignation to militarize his thinking.
THE RUSSIANS, in his eyes, were not only untrustworthy allies, devious schemers, and moral hypocrites, but Oriental brutes carrying on the traditions of Genghis Khan. He was moved to agony over “the wild brutalities and atrocities being perpetrated by a portion of Soviet troops…as they made their way into Germany,” although he does not show such indignation at the uncountable brutalities and atrocities committed by the Germans. So extreme are his anti-Soviet, pro-German prejudices, that he condemns the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals on the grounds that we lost the right to judge the Germans once we became allies with the Russians. “The day we accepted the Russians as our allies in the struggle against Germany,” he wrote in 1947, “we tacitly accepted as facts, even if we did not ourselves adopt, the customs of warfare which have prevailed generally in Eastern Europe and Asia for centuries in the past and which will presumably continue to prevail long into the future.” Better, in his view, to have shot the Nazi war criminals on the spot than to have held a public trial which “could not expiate or undo the crimes they had committed,” and admitting a Soviet judge whose presence “was to make a mockery of the only purpose the trials could conceivably serve.”
It was not only the presence of a Soviet judge that bothered him about the Nuremberg trials, but the belief that “history, in judging the individual cruelties of this struggle, will not distinguish between those of victor and vanquished.” By a not unsimilar logic he opposed the postwar efforts at de-Nazification of German society, arguing that it would be difficult to accomplish, that it would endow the victims with the cloak of martyrdom, and that it was unnecessary. “It must be demonstrated to Germany that aggression does not pay,” he advised the State Department in 1943. “But I do not see that this involves the artificial removal of any given class in Germany from its position in public life.” This is indeed the long view of history, but one wonders whether, if the situation were reversed and it was the Russians whose territory were being occupied by the American army, Kennan would still have argued against the “artificial removal of any given class” in the Soviet state.
Although sympathetic toward Germany, a country whose language he spoke fluently and in which he had lived for some six years as a student and as a diplomat, and intensely hostile to Stalinist Russia, Kennan prided himself on being a political realist rather than an ideologue. He recognized that peace did not depend on the “intimate collaboration with Russia that Americans had been taught to envisage and to hope for,” but rather “all that was really required to assure stability among the great powers was the preservation of a realistic balance of strength between them and a realistic understanding of the mutual zones of vital interest.” The Russians understood this, and the problem was to get the Americans to understand it as well—to see the cold war not as a moral struggle for the soul of mankind, but as a conflict of interests that could be dealt with by an unemotional show of strength. He chided the “chimera of Soviet collaboration,” but he stressed that the primary problem faced by the West was political rather than military. “Moscow would have no reason to contemplate a further military advance in Europe,” he wrote in May 1945; “the danger for the West was not Russian invasion—it was the Communist parties in the Western countries themselves, plus the unreal hopes and fears the Western peoples had been taught to entertain.” He wrote this not during the anxieties of 1947, but in the full flush of Russo-American cooperation two years earlier. In this assessment of Russia’s intentions he was right, while those who criticized him at the time later embraced views far more sweeping and militarily oriented than any envisaged by Kennan.
THESE RECOMMENDATIONS later appeared in the famous “X” article that he originally wrote in January 1947 as a memo for Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, a man who became Kennan’s protector in the government, and who was instrumental in having him assigned to the prestigious National War College and later chosen by General Marshall to head the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. The article made Kennan famous, largely for its espousal of the “containment” doctrine, and it was received so enthusiastically because it came at a time when the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union had turned into a cold war rivalry. A new foreign policy was needed, and Kennan provided its intellectual substance by urging a program of resistance to further Soviet penetration in Europe. Kennan became a hero overnight. The containment doctrine became the foundation of American foreign policy, and we have been living with its heritage ever since.
For Kennan the whole thing became a source of acute embarrassment. Although it made him famous, he believed that his recommendations were misinterpreted and distorted so that they no longer represented his assumptions. Instead of a doctrine for the political containment of the Soviet Union in Central Europe, it became the justification for an enormous rearmament program aimed at military containment. It was the “X” article that provided the foundation for the NATO pact, a construction Kennan viewed with alarm and dismay. Looking back, Kennan singles out the deficiencies in the article that led so many people, including Walter Lippmann, to interpret it differently from the way in which he intended it. Lippmann, for example, took him to task for conceiving containment as a military posture, and for failing to offer any program that might lead to the mutual withdrawal of Soviet and American troops from Europe. Kennan deplores this misinterpretation and assumes much of the blame for not making himself clearer. “The Russians don’t want to invade anyone,” he wrote in an unsent letter to Lippmann. “They don’t want war of any kind.” Containment, he insisted, was designed to encourage Western Europeans to resist domestic, not international, violence. Eventually the containment policy was supposed to provide the stability that would allow us to negotiate with the Russians to end the partition of Europe. This was the link, he argued in a much later reassessment of his own doctrine in Foreign Affairs, between containment and disengagement.
YET IF ALL THIS was clear in Kennan’s mind, it was not so in anyone else’s; neither in the minds of those who were preparing for a military showdown with the Soviet Union, nor of those who hoped that the division of Europe could be eased before it became rigidified and militarized. However much Kennan may regret this, much of it was his own fault—not only because he failed to make himself clear, but also because his vehement antipathy to the Soviet Union made it impossible for him even to envisage a cooperative approach. Perhaps such an approach would have failed. That is certainly Kennan’s belief, and he reproaches those who continued to believe otherwise. But by virtually precluding any hopes of such cooperation and by favoring initiatives, such as the creation of an independent West German state, that “aroused keen alarm among the Soviet leaders” and so forced the Russians to respond in kind with equally drastic measures of their own, Kennan accepted as inevitable the very partition of Europe that he deplored. He accepted that the Russians were going to remain dominant within their sphere of influence, and urged we should take every step necessary to solidify our own. Although he did not believe that conflict between the two blocs was necessary or even likely, he could see no prospect of reaching a meaningful accord with Stalinist Russia.
As early as 1945 he argued that “the idea of a Germany run jointly with the Russians is a chimera,” and stated that “we have no choice but to lead our section of Germany…to a form of independence.” From this flowed logically all the things he deplored: the partition of Europe, the creation of NATO, the rearming of Germany. He may have been surprised, but he shouldn’t have been. Urging us to protect our own sphere of influence, he saw no reason why the Russians should not do the same in theirs. He was not surprised by the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, nor by the attempt to force the Western allies out of Berlin—both of which he viewed as “defensive reactions on the Soviet side” to the Marshall Plan and our decision to set up a West German government. He could not understand why people in Washington were so alarmed, why they rushed to set up NATO and rearm Germany. He tried to explain the reasons for his equanimity to the people in the State Department and expresses surprise that officials accepted the “tough” part of his analysis but were unmoved by his more subtle qualifications. “The only answer,” he comments with curious naïveté, “could be that Washington’s reactions were deeply subjective, influenced more by domestic-political moods and institutional interests than by any theoretical considerations of our international position.” Kennan apparently thought he was working in the world of pure intellect and was shocked to discover that his colleagues had parochial interests and a regrettable shortness of vision.
He admits that the policy of containment later failed. This was not because it was impossible to halt the Russians, or because Soviet policies did not mellow. “The failure,” he writes in retrospect,
consisted in the fact that our own government, finding it difficult to understand a political threat as such and to deal with it in other than military terms, and grievously misled, in particular, by its own faulty interpretations of the significance of the Korean War, failed to take advantage of the opportunities for useful political discussion when, in later years, such opportunities began to open up, and exerted itself, in its military preoccupations, to seal and to perpetuate the very division of Europe which it should have been concerned to remove. It was not “containment” that failed; it was the intended follow-up that never occurred.
The follow-up never occurred because it was not the way official Washington saw the problem—particularly after the outbreak of the Korean war. According to Kennan, the Soviet decision to unleash the attack in Korea probably stemmed directly from Washington’s decision to set up permanent bases in Japan, and to sign a peace treaty without Russian participation. But by then Washington was thinking almost exclusively in military terms, and the Korean war seemed like the prelude to a Soviet probe in Central Europe, rather than a defensive measure designed to frustrate the American effort to turn Japan into a military bastion. Along these lines Kennan reveals that in July 1950, only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, the Chinese reportedly accepted an Indian proposal to end the conflict by a restoration of the status quo ante, and by the admission of Communist China to the UN—and that the US government turned this down flat, although Kennan thought it a sensible compromise. He had already decided to quit the State Department and soon left. Later, as we know, MacArthur marched toward the Yalu, the Chinese intervened as they had warned they would, and the war dragged on for three more years.
Perhaps none of this would have happened had Washington followed Kennan’s advice. Perhaps we would have been spared the worst excesses of the cold war, the agonies of Korea and Vietnam, the waste of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the rearmament of Germany which solidified the partition of Europe. With an uncommon lucidity, an intellectual acuity, and a deep sense of humanity, Kennan would have been a far better guide than any we had during the squandered later years of the cold war. Yet he bears a share of responsibility for the hardening of our own attitudes—and perhaps that of the Russians as well—in the early post-war years.
Perhaps the most depressing part of these memoirs is Kennan’s puzzlement over the fact that his advice was taken only selectively—that official Washington finally in 1947 came around to his point of view when he urged a crack-down on the Russians, but that nobody listened when he insisted that the real danger was political rather than military. Yet this should not have been surprising. His influence was not so great—he could not, after all, persuade any of his superiors to do anything they were not ready to do in the first place. Rather, he provided the intellectual framework which permitted them to rationalize what they were ready to do anyway—confront the Russians—for reasons that had little to do with Kennan’s memos.
Although at the center of the storm, he remained very much on the fringes of power: one of the many intellectuals who are drawn into the government, whirled around the vortex until they produce something that is useful to their superiors, and then disgorged like dried sponges. This has been the fate of countless others, and it would have been Kennan’s as well had he not had the courage and the good sense to get out of the State Department and try to influence policy from the outside. The Kennan who is so respected today throughout the world is not the architect of the containment doctrine distorted by the military minds of four administrations, nor the free-talking ambassador who was declared persona non grata by the Soviet Union, but the historian who has since used his remarkable intellectual gifts and his eloquent pen to question some of the most persistent myths of the cold war.
January 4, 1968