Is This George Kennan?

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…

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