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George F. Kennan: An American Life

John Lewis Gaddis's biography is an important examination of a man who shaped the current American way of life.

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During 1933, Kennan was asked to set up the American Embassy Moscow, an experience which cemented a lifelong interest in Russia, where Kennan’s own ancestor, also named George Kennan, had lived and written half a century earlier. His return to the US in 1936 left him with doubts about his country and the merits of capitalism which would remain with him his entire life.

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These doubts led him to write his sister Jeanette, “I hate the rough and tumble of our political life.… I hate democracy; I hate the press.…; I hate the ‘peepul;’ I have clearly become un-American.” In this sense, he despised the way that unbridled capitalism eroded communities and degraded the environment, and how politics bowed to the pressures of private interests. This was compounded by his “striking lack of faith” in the health and durability of democratic institutions. It was a startling about-face from his post-Princeton period and represented one of a number of instances where he would match his “obtuseness regarding America and his astuteness with respect to the world.” Kennan would exhibit the same tendency in 1938 while at the embassy in Czechoslovakia. In his “Perquisites” essay, he had expressed a “simpleminded” view that a dictatorship might be good for the United States. As Gaddis notes, “he understood how it had happened in Germany and refused to rule out the possibility that American reserves of decency and good nature were not inexhaustible.”

On the rise of Hitler and on Kennan’s inability to anticipate the rise of the Nazis, he said that “perhaps those of us who served in Moscow were not quick enough to understand the whole Nazi phenomenon, because we couldn’t imagine that there could be any regime as nasty as the one with which we were confronted.” For instance, he wrote Annelise in October, 1941, about the Nazi requirement that Jews wear yellow stars: “That is a fantastically barbaric thing. I shall never forget the faces of people in the subway with the great yellow star sewed onto their overcoats, standing, not daring to sit down or to brush against anybody, staring straight ahead of them with eyes like terrified beasts – nor the sight of little children running around with those badges sewn on them.”

Appointed by President Truman as the Director of the State Department’s US Policy Planning Staff in May of 1947, Kennan oversaw the drafting of policy proposals that materially altered US international relations on a number of fronts. In 1948, he successfully counseled against the advice of Dean Rusk, then Director of the State Department’s Office of United Nations Affairs, who had advocated “partitioning” in the case of Palestine, for which the British government had recently ceded authority. Next, Kennan worked closely with Secretary of State George Marshall in the development and implementation of the European Recovery Program – more commonly known as the “Marshall Plan,” which was instrumental in aiding Europe to heal from the ravages of World War II.

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