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The containment artist
A review of George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
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This authoritative biography of George F. Kennan is more than simply the life story of a prominent public figure: It is also a history of the Cold War viewed from the perspective of its most influential strategist and as interpreted by our most distinguished historian of the conflict that divided the world for more than four decades. The collaboration between these two seminal thinkers—Kennan and John Lewis Gaddis—has produced a volume that should be a must-read for every serious student of the Cold War and international politics.
George F. Kennan: An American Life is a work that was long in gestation in the minds of both its subject and author.1 Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University and the author of several path-breaking books on the Cold War, began work on this project in 1982 when Kennan, aware of Gaddis’s writings, agreed to cooperate in the preparation of his biography, with the implied understanding that the work would be published only after his death. Kennan, then seventy-eight, provided Gaddis with access to his private papers, correspondence, and diaries, the latter a hoard of personal information that Kennan had begun to compile as a schoolboy in Milwaukee and which Gaddis draws upon to great effect in reconstructing the evolution of Kennan’s thought and untangling his complex psychology. Over the years Gaddis conducted periodic interviews with Kennan himself, and also spoke to family members, friends, and old-time colleagues. Perhaps to the surprise of both subject and biographer, Kennan lived on through his eighties and nineties, causing him in later years to apologize to Gaddis for his longevity and provoking banter among some of Gaddis’s students as to which of the two men was likely to die first. In the event, it was Kennan, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 101.
Gaddis had to surmount steep challenges in writing Kennan’s biography, and not only because of his subject’s longevity. There was, first of all, that of mastering the prodigious volume of Kennan’s written output, consisting not only of letters and close to ninety years’ worth of diary entries, but also memoranda, speeches, public documents, and books, seventeen of them in all, several of them prizewinning efforts on historical topics such as Bismarck’s foreign policy and the diplomatic consequences of the Bolshevik revolution. Kennan wrote as easily as most people speak; perhaps because of his solitary nature, he did so often, habitually even, and did it exceptionally well.
A second challenge was to convey to the reader a sense of Kennan’s unusual character and to link it to his achievements as a strategist and historian. Kennan’s strong sense of personal independence contributed to a disposition to work against the grain and to dissent from orthodoxies and ideologies of all kinds, whether of the left or right. He instinctively reacted against constraints that compromised his independence, a disposition that served him well in some diplomatic outposts (Moscow) but less well in government service in Washington where he was expected to operate as a member of a team. Kennan was by nature a critic and independent thinker, which makes it all the more mysterious as to how he managed to succeed so well working as a diplomat and strategist inside the government. One answer, given by some of his critics (but not by Gaddis), is that, because of his temperament, he did not succeed at all.
A third and related challenge was to make sense of Kennan’s two quite distinct careers, the first as a foreign service officer and official in the State Department that began in 1925 and ran until 1953 when he left public service, and the second as a writer, historian, and critic of policy that he pursued for the remainder of his life from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His tenure as an influential policymaker was brief, lasting only three years from 1946 when he articulated the strategy of containment, to 1949 when he left his post on the Policy Planning Staff. The link between Kennan’s two careers is obscure because during the second half of his life he was among the most persistent and insightful critics of the strategic doctrine that he conceived during his first career as an officer in the State Department. Kennan conceived the doctrine from the perspective of realism and later attacked it mainly from a moral point of view.
Gaddis’s biography is the first comprehensive treatment of Kennan’s life that brings all of these questions into focus and allows readers to formulate tentative answers to them. To the biographer’s credit, he does not set forth a thesis to account for Kennan’s life and career, nor does he argue in these pages with his subject where the two men may have had differences over the conduct of the Cold War. By resisting such temptations, he accomplishes something significant, which is to present an account of Kennan’s life in its intriguing and sometimes maddening complexity.
Looking for opportunities to travel and for interesting work to do, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service soon after graduating from Princeton in 1925. After passing his examination, he won short-term postings to Geneva and Hamburg, and then in 1928 (in the first of many such attempts) he decided to leave the diplomatic service. He was given an inducement to stay in an offer to undertake three years of advanced language study at a European university. Kennan, already fluent in French and German, chose to study Russian, perhaps because (as he remarked) a distant relation on his grandfather’s side (also named George Kennan) had been a popular author and lecturer on Russian affairs in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. With his mastery of Russian, Kennan was positioned for advancement when, in 1933, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. William Bullitt, the first American ambassador, sent Kennan ahead to organize the embassy in Moscow and to serve as his chief deputy. Neither Kennan nor his colleagues in Moscow shared Washington’s optimism about the future course of United States–Soviet relations. For his part, Kennan was certain that Bolshevism, despite its “hullabaloo” about revolution, was but another episode in Russia’s long history of autocratic government.
As the war approached, Kennan was fortunate to be posted to a series of politically sensitive locations in Europe. He was sent to Prague just before Hitler provoked the Sudetenland crisis. When Hitler invaded Poland the next year, Kennan took up duties in the embassy in Berlin, where he remained as war enveloped the continent in 1940 and 1941. He judged the Nazi government to be far worse and more dangerous than Stalin’s regime because it recognized no limits to its power. He felt it was likely that Hitler would overextend himself and invite destruction, a recurring theme that Kennan, having studied Gibbon, saw in the history of European empires. Even so, Kennan viewed Hitlerism as a demented expression of an historical longing for unification among the German people. He predicted in 1940 that within a year, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union would join in a war against Germany that would last until at least 1944.
When Germany declared war on the United States, Kennan and the embassy staff were interned by the German government for five months before being repatriated to the States. Later, in 1942, he was sent to Lisbon, where he helped to negotiate American access to military bases in the Azores, in important part by making a personal appeal to FDR for presidential intervention in the dispute. In early 1944, he was sent to London to represent the United States on the European Advisory Commission set up to organize the post-war occupation of Germany.
It was through these successive postings to Geneva, Estonia, Berlin, Moscow, Prague, Berlin again, Lisbon, and London that Kennan gained the synoptic view of European affairs that he articulated in his Cold War dispatches and memoranda. By this time, in the midst of the hot war, Kennan had spent nearly his entire adult life in one or another of the European capitals, and had made great sacrifices in the service of his country. At the same time, as Gaddis explains, Kennan may have acquired a better understanding of Europe, and especially of Russia, than he had of the United States. His evolving convictions about balance of power and enduring national tendencies, along with his doubts about democracy and democratic ideals, placed him comfortably within a European intellectual context. These intellectual tools were essential to the role he later played as a masterful analyst of European affairs. Yet these convictions may have been liabilities when it came to understanding his own country.
In mid-1944, Kennan was sent once again to Moscow where he was to serve under Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, who did his best to ignore Kennan’s warnings that the wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was unlikely to last. Here he repeated a conviction he formed in the 1930s after watching Stalin’s show trials that the Soviet Union was unfit to be an ally of the United States. In any case, it was impractical at that time to think about upsetting the coalition that was on the verge of winning the war. The general expectation within the Roosevelt administration at this time was that the two countries would continue to collaborate in the construction of a postwar peace based upon democratic ideals. When (in late 1945) Stalin refused Soviet entry into the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, officials in Washington began to worry about what had gone wrong.
The occasion for Kennan’s “long telegram” was a speech by Stalin on February 9, 1946 in which he dismissed collaboration with the United States and Great Britain, and cautioned Soviet citizens to prepare for war between these two capitalist powers. Officials in Washington wired Kennan for an explanation of Stalin’s speech with its unexpectedly harsh references toward the West. By this time Harriman had resigned his post, but a successor had not yet been appointed. Thus freed from usual constraints, Kennan proceeded to unburden himself of longstanding convictions. Typically, he was in bed with a cold when he began to dictate his message; and, due to the pressures of time, he sent it by telegraph rather than by diplomatic courier.
Kennan’s telegram, sent on February 22, did not set forth the strategy of containment but rather attempted to answer the question as to what the U.S. government could expect in the way of future Soviet policy in light of Stalin’s truculent words. In answering that question, Kennan said that Soviet hostility arose from factors internal to the regime and was not a response to anything the West had done. With the war against Germany over, Soviet policy was certain to revert back to its prior form of viewing the West as an implacable enemy. Stalin’s government, he wrote, “is the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced the country on to new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.” It was particularly vulnerable to succession crises of the kind that occurred after Lenin’s death, and Kennan predicted that another would take place as soon as Stalin died. Soviet leaders, in contrast to Hitler, were patient and flexible in their political calculations. It was unlikely that they would start a war with the United States; instead they would consolidate their power in Eastern Europe, search for weak spots among Western powers, and sow discord among the United States and her allies.
The “X” article, published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947 and unsigned because of Kennan’s official position in the State Department, outlined the themes of the “long telegram” in more detail and for the first time used the term “containment” that would henceforth supply the name for the West’s strategic doctrine. Written in an impressively detached style, the article explained why the Soviet government, with all power concentrated first in the Communist Party and then in a single person, was in fact vulnerable to internal disintegration. The strategy of the United States should be to encourage such developments by a “long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Such a strategy, applied over the long run, would lead either to the moderation or the disintegration of the Soviet regime.
Gaddis writes that “the long telegram became the conceptual foundation for the strategy the United States—and Great Britain—would follow for over four decades.” One high-ranking official called it the “finest piece of analytical writing ever to have come out of the foreign service.” Along with the “X” article, Kennan’s message played a central role in the reorientation of American thinking away from its wartime illusions about the Soviet Union and toward a different approach that saw the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a struggle for world influence. As Henry Kissinger later observed, Kennan during this period “came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” Kennan was transformed almost overnight from an unknown foreign service officer into the nation’s foremost authority on the Soviet Union.
In Kennan’s mind, “containment” was a concept abstracted from the European balance of power system. To the extent this was so, he viewed it as a political more than a military strategy, one that did not necessarily require consistent application of military power to check Soviet power. The United States could contain the Soviet Union by “balancing” political and economic power against it or by promoting tensions within the Communist bloc. Despite claims that containment went against the grain of American history, there were precedents for the strategy: Lincoln, for example, tried to bring about an end to slavery by “containing” it within the borders of the southern states. Yet that political strategy soon evolved into a military one. Walter Lippmann criticized containment as essentially a defensive strategy, one requiring the United States to respond to Soviet initiatives. Later Kennan’s policy was caught in a political crossfire between some Democrats who said the doctrine was too hawkish and Republicans who wanted to “roll back” Soviet power. There was also a subtle internal contradiction in Kennan’s idea that the Soviet Union would collapse if it could not expand but that it was also vulnerable to collapse if it expanded far enough to absorb territories it could not control.
“Containment” occupied a muscular middle ground between passivity and confrontation, and it looked optimistically toward an ultimate resolution of the conflict, which occurred more or less as Kennan prophesied and partly in consequence of one of those succession crises to which he felt the Soviet system was particularly vulnerable. It was a remarkable achievement to have changed, by the work of his pen and with no assistance or support from anyone, the strategic outlook of the world’s most powerful nation. He wrote in the “long telegram” that the post-war situation posed an unprecedented challenge to American diplomacy. Could a democratic nation like the United States follow such a strategy over the long run without yielding either to the temptation to give up the struggle or to confront the Soviet Union in a win or lose military conflict? Before long it was the latter possibility that he began to worry about.
In early 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall appointed Kennan as the first head of the Department’s newly created Policy Planning Staff charged with providing an overall strategic context for day-to-day military and diplomatic operations. This assignment provided Kennan with the opportunity to translate his vague and abstract conceptions into actual policy. He immediately contributed to one singular and far-reaching success, which was to devise a plan for American support for European reconstruction. The Marshall Plan, with its dual focus on Europe and economic aid, was exactly the kind of program that followed from Kennan’s political concept of containment. It was Kennan who recommended that the Soviet Union be invited to join the program, certain that Stalin would reject the overture, which was exactly what happened. Yet the Marshall Plan was also an important step in a process that led to the division of Europe, an outcome that Kennan hoped to avoid.
Even by this time, in 1947 and certainly by 1948, Kennan was beginning to have reservations about the course of American policy. The Truman Doctrine, from his point of view, was far too sweeping to serve as a guide to policy and could, if seriously applied, render the United States vulnerable to political “overstretch.” He rejected the prevailing idea that Communism was a monolithic movement directed from Moscow, and predicted that the revolution in China would fracture the movement as much as it would strengthen it. He advanced a futile proposal, called “Plan A,” to create a neutral and de-militarized Germany as a step toward the creation of an independent Europe that would “balance” the two major powers. He had reservations about the “militarization” of the containment policy following the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, the crisis in Berlin, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the successful test by the Soviet Union of a nuclear weapon. He opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb. Shortly after Kennan left the Policy Planning staff in 1949, his successor (Paul Nitze) helped to craft NSC-68, an important Cold War document that called for a U.S. military build-up to implement the evolving containment doctrine. Kennan was skeptical of its recommendations because the document did not distinguish between vital and peripheral American interests. Kennan left his post in 1949 with a sense that events were moving in the wrong direction, unaware (as Gaddis writes) of how much he had accomplished by way of redirecting American policy.
In early 1952, Truman appointed Kennan as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. His tenure would necessarily be short since this was the last year of the Truman administration but Kennan accepted the post hoping to play a role in easing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. In September 1952, barely five months after arriving in Moscow, Kennan delivered some off-hand remarks at an airport stop-over in Berlin during which he compared the Soviet regime unfavorably to Nazi Germany, a diplomatic gaffe of the first order. Soviet officials, perhaps looking for an opportunity to get Kennan out of the country anyway, quickly informed the U.S. government that he was now persona non grata in the Soviet Union and would not be allowed to return. A few months later, with a Republican administration in office, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (a critic of containment) eased Kennan out of his position in the Department, thus ending his career in the diplomatic service.
Gaddis does not completely accept the conventional explanation that Kennan was temperamentally ill-suited to the kind of policymaking role that he was required to play as head of the Policy Planning Staff. Kennan carried out many sensitive administrative and policymaking assignments during his career in the diplomatic service. He had worked successfully with prominent figures like Bullitt and Harriman. He was prepared to take risks in pursuit of visionary goals, as when he devised the Marshall Plan and advanced his proposal to create a neutral Germany. Gaddis suggests that he had a problem with “sequencing,” an inability to visualize what steps needed to be taken, and in what order, in pursuit of large goals. Kennan did not appreciate the importance in the United States of “selling” a policy to Congress and the American people, and the inevitable distortions such a process implied for any strategic vision. He condemned the influence that domestic groups seemed to exercise over foreign policy. The new international system, containing just two intact centers of power, posed a challenge to anyone who (like Kennan) thought in terms of balance of power calculations. The intellectual tools that served Kennan well up to 1946 were increasingly difficult to apply as the Cold War took shape.
The situation was further complicated by Kennan’s fears that nuclear weapons had changed the nature of international politics such that leaders could no longer consider war as a legitimate avenue for advancing national aims. Kennan wondered if, in the nuclear era, any nation had the right to launch a nuclear war that might kill millions and destroy civilization.
Containment provided no certain answer to the problem since it might break down at any time, much as the European alliance system did in 1914. This new circumstance demanded that leaders think in both moral and realistic terms by working toward a comprehensive settlement that might end the threat of nuclear war once and for all.
After he left government service in 1953, Kennan “retired” to the Institute for Advanced Study where he spent the last half of his life writing histories and personal memoirs, lecturing on foreign affairs, and seeking positions of influence in successive presidential administrations. Throughout this period Kennan expressed a dual perspective of realism and moralism when discussing international affairs, leading some to dismiss his views as inconsistent, contradictory, and idiosyncratic. His prize-winning books on Bismarck, the Franco-Russian alliance, and the origins of World War I were informed by a balance of power approach. At the same time, he criticized American leaders from a moral point of view for failing to take steps to scale back the nuclear arms race and ease tensions with the Soviet Union. In the balance, he blamed the United States more for these failures than he did the Soviet Union. At one point during the 1970s, he called Leonid Brezhnev a “man of peace.”
Kennan was generally disappointed with post-war presidents and secretaries of state, reserving praise only for John F. Kennedy, who appointed him as ambassador to Yugoslavia, and Henry Kissinger, whose balance of power diplomacy he understood and appreciated. He opposed Eisenhower’s nuclear policy, testified against Johnson’s Vietnam policy, disdained Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy, and criticized Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, all because he believed that they were based upon inaccurate assessments either of American interests or of Soviet intentions. Nevertheless, he also condemned the anti-war radicals of the 1960s for their slovenly manners and anti-intellectualism, and for thinking that slogans were a substitute for knowledge and understanding.
As Gaddis writes, Kennan felt little sense of satisfaction when the Cold War ended even though it did so, much as he had predicted, with the disintegration of the Soviet empire. He was reluctant to give Reagan the credit he deserved for this outcome, calling him a “prejudiced, ill-informed, and stubborn man.” Kennan deplored Reagan’s “confrontational tactics” when in 1987 he called upon the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. By this time, Kennan was not completely sure that that the West deserved to win the Cold War or that its societies were necessarily superior to those in the East. Always a cultural pessimist, he foresaw the destruction of American society due to the familiar evils of industrialization, urbanization, and environmental degradation. Perhaps something of a reactionary also, he saw a remedy in a “simpler form of life” with a smaller population and a greater “agrarian component.” In his later years he was, as Gaddis calls him, a “prophet of the apocalypse.”
In summing up his life, Kennan suggested that above all he had been a teacher, even though he never had students, and that his views were too contradictory and idiosyncratic to yield consistent lessons. At one time, he also called himself a prophet, even though he rebelled against the one truly important and far-sighted prophecy he gave to the world. He may have been both of these in some part, but also something else as this splendid biography reminds us: an independent thinker of the first order who, at a critical moment in history, saw something clearly that others saw but through a haze, and by an act of singular intellectual courage earned absolution for any misjudgments he may have subsequently committed.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 January 2012, on page 79
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