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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In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Kennan ambassador to Yugoslavia, which pleased Kennan. He was familiar with the people, and found the Yugoslavian leader, Josip Broz (Marshal) Tito extraordinarily accessible. Kennan showed his deftness at this post, navigating among the president, who read Kennan’s report with interest; secretary of state Dean Rusk who was doing his best to undermine Kennan’s standing with the Yugoslavs; Congressman Wilbur Mills, who with Senator William Proxmire sought to end Yugoslavia’s “Most Favored Nation” status because of Tito’s leftward lurch, and the Yugoslav people themselves. It was quite a delicate negotiation, which Kennan eventually lost, and he found himself “totally discouraged, feeling defeated as I have not felt since 1953.” He resigned his ambassadorship on May 17, 1963, but he and President Kennedy enjoyed a warm and mutual admiration. After Kennan’s last official duty – paving the way for Tito’s visit to the United States – was accomplished, Kennedy said to him, “George, I hope you’ll keep on talking.”Skip to next paragraph
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By the time Lyndon Johnson’s first full term as president began in 1965, US involvement in Vietnam was deepening, and Kennan’s misgivings about it were growing. During the Kennedy years, Kennan had supported the so-called “Domino Theory” concerning the spread of communism in the region. But by March of 1965, he was expressing anguish “about what our people are doing in southeast Asia. It seems to me that they [the Johnson administration] have taken leave of their senses.” Writing to friend and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Kennan painted a darker vision of the US’s folly – particularly as it distracted from the importance of exploiting the Sino-Soviet differences – stating his fear that Washington had lost “almost all flexibility of choice not only in that particular area but in our approach to the communist world generally.”
Kennan’s open criticism of Johnson’s strategy appeared in the Washington Post on December 12, 1965, and resulted in his appearing before hearings Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright had convened on Johnson’s decision to continue bombing North Vietnam. In the weeks following Kennan’s testimony, one poll showed Johnson’s approval rating on Vietnam falling from 65 to 49%. Once again, Kennan presciently understood and articulated the implications of a prolonged incursion.
With the advent of the Nixon administration, George Kennan struck up a friendship with Henry Kissinger who initially served as Nixon’s National Security Adviser, but by 1973 was appointed Secretary of State. Kennan took a harder line on Moscow, praising Solzhenitsyn’s novel "Gulag Archipelago" as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” Gaddis believes that this more confrontational shift in Kennan’s thinking was due in part to Kennan’s regard for Kissinger. And by the time Gerald Ford had become president – following Richard Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974 – Kennan was openly defending Kissinger against antagonists like Washington senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who Kennan rightly understood as wanting to “dismantle détente”: “Henry’s [Kissinger] is a fine person, and I think very highly of him ... [but] with opportunists like Scoop Jackson around, he could go at any moment.”