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 September of 1976, just prior to the election of President Jimmy Carter, Kennan gave a controversial interview – spanning 33 pages – to Encounter magazine. It was as startling, curious, fatalistic, and contradictory as anything he’d said before or since. First, he said that the United States “is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic or enormous in their scope” – arising from industrialization, urbanization, commercialization, secularization and environmental degradation. And by saying that these problems would necessitate a downscaling of American foreign policy, he made himself sound like an isolationist. The magazine asked, “Wouldn’t that consign European allies to Soviet domination?” Kennan replied that perhaps they deserved it, becoming too self-indulgent under American protection. Quite remarkably, he asserted that compared to the ecological and demographic consequences of nuclear war, Soviet domination of Western Europe would only be a “minor catastrophe.”Skip to next paragraph
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Kennan then suggested capriciously that since there could be no recovery from nuclear war, the US should seek to eliminate nuclear weapons – if necessary, unilaterally. Gaddis writes, without compunction, that “This and much else in the interview was self-indulgent nonsense ... given space, he would fill it, wisely or not. Kennan the enthusiast, Kennan the entertainer, Kennan the old fool, had taken over yet again.” All of this caused Nitze to declare, “He’s on their side.” This wasn’t an unusual reaction for Nitze; as Gaddis writes, both he and Kennan were convinced “that the other’s desired policies could lead the United States to the ultimate catastrophe.” After all, their personal friendship and professional animus was well known.
After Carter’s election, Nitze formed a bipartisan “Committee on the Present Danger” to consolidate antagonism toward detente. Kennan, in turn, criticized the Committee “at length and with care”; but, as Gaddis notes, Kennan’s "Memoirs" had shown that Kennan had serious inner conflicts “about himself, his dream world, his work, his goals, and his relationship to the American nature and culture ... which has brought him perilously close to preaching that we don’t really need a foreign and defense policy at all.” Not only this, but his suggestion about unilateral disarmament caused even the Kremlin to laugh at “your political wizards” – a lightly veiled jab at Kennan.
In this context, Gaddis notes tellingly that one of the more striking of Kennan’s characteristics as a diplomat, strategist, and policy planner was his inability to separate his professional duties from his moods. “I have the habit … of seeing two opposing sides of a question, both of them wrong, and then overstating myself so that I appear to be inconsistent.” But the opening of the Cold War archive after the fall of the Soviet Union, in Gaddis’s words, showed that “Kennan’s impression of a frightened, overstretched gerontocracy, desperately trying to regain the initiative lost by its own ineptitude dating back at least as far as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, to be much closer to reality than Nitze’s calculation of a purposefully rising hegemon.”