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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But arguably the central contribution Kennan made to statecraft was the formulation of what was to become known as the Truman Doctrine in 1947. Kennan appreciated Carl von Clauswitz’s belief that “War is the continuation of policy by other means” – that you can, in fact, have a war without bloodshed. Greece and Turkey were deemed as likely to fall to Soviet hegemony if they did not receive sufficient levels of American financial and military aid. Kennan’s analysis and President Truman’s endorsement of this strategy reflected a seismic shift in US-Soviet relations. Where previously a strategy of “détente”, or a loosening of tensions, was the prevailing orthodoxy, the Truman Doctrine established a policy of “containment”; that is, the restricting of Soviet expansion wherever it occurred in the world. It was the beginning of the Cold War.Skip to next paragraph
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In the process of developing this strategy, Kennan composed two seminal documents that have achieved nothing less than mythical status in the annals of diplomacy. The “Long Telegram” of 1946 was critical because it outlined concisely the expansionist intent of Soviet leader Josef Stalin and that the influence of the Soviet Union needed to be “contained”. Secondly, in July of 1947, an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X.” That article expanded upon the central points of the “Long Telegram” and postulated that Stalin was determined to use Marxist-Leninist ideology to basically “encircle” capitalism on a global scale. Eventually, Kennan was identified as the author of the article, and though Kennan would always insist that it was not to be considered boilerplate administration policy, the immediate and passionate reactions it elicited gave it that aura.
In 1948, Kennan asserted that Japan was the “anchor” of the East Asian component of his containment strategy. But one of the main impediments to activating it would lie with the Allied Supreme Commander in Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Gaddis writes amusingly of MacArthur’s “shogun-like remoteness” that compounded his alternate lack of interest in and ignorance of Europe, the Soviet Union, or for deferring to Washington generally. Kennan viewed him as “a major impediment to success” by establishing policies “designed for the purpose of rendering Japanese society vulnerable to … a communist takeover.” The secretiveness of MacArthur’s regime made it seem like Kennan was negotiating with “a suspicious foreign government” and added to Kennan’s view that “the general was a universalist in need of tethering.”
Kennan successfully managed to diffuse MacArthur by suggesting that the Far Eastern Commission, the international body that oversaw the occupation (and which inconveniently included the Soviet Union), would have to have its responsibilities curtailed, if not eventually eliminated – and that MacArthur would “remain in charge.” Eventually, the Marshall Plan-like package of reforms recommended by Kennan (and approved by Truman) became known as “Reverse Course” (with MacArthur’s authority sustaining much of the reversal).