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.

George F. Kennan: An American Life By John Lewis Gaddis Penguin Press 800 pp.

If there were one word to encapsulate the life of George Frost Kennan, it would be “conflicted.” Starting with his youth in Milwaukee in the first decades of the 20th century, and throughout a career that stretched from a foreign service position with the Coolidge administration, on through to the latter years of the Reagan presidency (when the president, as biographer John Lewis Gaddis laments, “had little need of Kennan"), Kennan was often conflicted in his world view, though indeed ahead of his time – in his thoughts, actions, and policy positions.

Gaddis, a Cold War scholar at Yale University and prize-winning author of several books on the subject, has provided an important, if not indispensable biography of Kennan in George F. Kennan: An American Life. Kennan was a figure alternately admired and reviled, but he was nonetheless an influential foreign serviceman, ambassador to both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and a foreign policy strategist. In this context, it is not an overstatement to say that Kennan – through the formulation of his Cold War “Containment” strategy, his role as an architect of the post-World War II “Marshall Plan”, and his passionate opposition to “McCarthyism” – was a central figure of the 20th century who alternately mirrored and molded our modern American way of life.

Gaddis’s account is refreshing in the sense that his interpretation of Kennan, his personality and beliefs, and his writings, is seemingly free of the ideological taint, sophistry, and hagiography that has so invaded political discussion in this early part of the new millennium. It is a very frank and open account. Gaddis undertook this project 30 years ago at the request of Kennan himself, with the provision that it not be published until after his passing. Within this tome’s nearly 1,000 pages, Gaddis has provided an extraordinary portrait of Kennan, which includes not only a wide range of Kennan’s views on political topics, but also throws light on his internal struggles and confessions about such deeply personal topics as morality and mortality, sex, loneliness, depression, and many others. Kennan does not hold back and Gaddis is both very faithful and fair to his subject.

In the earlier pages, Gaddis speaks about his methodology and his own philosophy about writing biography. In one instance, Gaddis discusses views of Kennan that could be viewed today as anti-Semitic. “Biographers have an obligation … to place their subjects within the period in which they lived: it is unfair to condemn them for not knowing what no one at the time could have known.” That sense of obligation extends to other characterizations of Kennan as well. Although Gaddis notes instances of solipsism and self-indulgence – seasoned with occasional histrionics – in Kennan's writing, Gaddis also makes clear that Kennan was likewise possessed of a powerful intellect, disciplined rectitude, and a remarkable prescience that produced, among other documents, the so-called  “Long Telegram” – a dispatch Kennan sent to soon-to-be US Atomic Energy Chairman David E. Lilienthal from Moscow in March of 1946. This was the single most important document that formulated America’s post-war Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union.

Born in 1904, Kennan, the son of Kossuth Kent Kennan, a successful Wisconsin tax attorney (his mother, Florence James Kennan, died when George was an infant), the young boy grew up in comparative privilege. He spent endless hours in his father’s library, “preferring the company of books to those of grown-ups.” And though there were many happy times spent with his mother’s families, the Frosts and the James, the Kennans, George believed, shared a certain darker temperament. He later wrote they lacked the capacity for “gaiety, phantasy, humor, the courage to be honest with yourself, and the self-discipline to learn to sin gracefully and with dignity, rather than to try unsuccessfully not to sin at all.” He added that they passed along neuroses “like the family Bible.”

Having “scraped by” his college entrance examinations, Kennan enrolled at Princeton in 1921. By all accounts, he was “healthy, handsome and clever.” But he later described his initial experience there in terms worthy of Dickens: “I knew not a soul in college or town. I was given the last furnished room in the most remote of those gloomy rooming houses far off campus to which, at the time, late-coming freshmen were relegated.… Princeton was for me not exactly the sort of experience reflected in 'This Side of Paradise.' ” He says he lived in penury, but eventually managed to have fun – enjoying relatively innocent pranks, going to proms, visiting his sister in New York City, and joining the Key and Seal, one of the school’s numerous and distinctive “eating clubs.” In June, 1924, he and a Princeton classmate traveled on a shoestring to Europe, and some of the more stressful moments of the trip prompted a habit Kennan would carry with him throughout his life: writing poems.

After Princeton, Kennan went to work as a Foreign Service officer in the State Department. He traveled widely in Eastern Europe, and in 1929 was ordered to move to Berlin, where he was to commence Russian language and history studies. By 1931, these studies led him to adopt a hard-edged ideology: Communists, he asserted, combined “innate cowardice” and “intellectual insolence.”  He then took aim at American liberals, “who now find the Soviets so pleasant, [but] will be the first ones to be crushed in the clash.” That same year, Kennan met and married Anna Elisabeth “Annalise” Sørensen, who had come to Berlin from Norway “ostensibly to learn German.”

Gaddis attempts to explain, in diction reminiscent of a geometry lecture, how Kennan’s character exuded a “triangular” nature – with its three points comprising “professionalism” (as one of the best young Russian specialists), “cultural pessimism” (a doubt whether Western civilization could survive challenges from external adversaries), and “personal anguish” (how would a man tormented by self-doubt fit into all of this?) Gaddis’s separate contention that Kennan often contradicted himself would seem to bolster this analysis. Kennan managed to chronicle some those self-doubts and other melancholy observations in diary entries that Gaddis meticulously recounts.

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.

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.

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.

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).

During the last years of the Truman administration, Kennan, who had since relinquished his position as Policy Planning Staff Director to Paul Nitze, was asked, along with Nitze, to prepare a report on Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s proposal of a “super” moratorium on atomic weapons. A special NSC committee had been formed, including Acheson, David Lilienthal, and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, to advise President Truman on the matter. Kennan’s paper, entitled “The International Control of Atomic Energy” was, in Kennan’s view, “one of the most important, if not the most important of all the documents I ever wrote in government.” But Kennan’s “prophetic” paper – 30 times the length of Nitze’s “crisp,” two-minute read – wasn’t considered relevant, though it would inform strategic debates on nuclear weapons for much of the 1970s and 80s.

In 1950, at the behest of physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who had been recently appointed head of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Kennan was asked to join the Institute. Kennan spent several happy and productive decades there, but joining it was, if nothing else, fortuitous. On January 16, 1953, as President Eisenhower’s ambassador for Moscow, Kennan had angered secretary of state John Foster Dulles while speaking before the Pennsylvania State Bar Association, in which he openly criticized Dulles’ foreign policy positions as “dangerous.” Kennan later received word that Charles E. Bohlen was replacing him in Moscow and that no future appointment was coming. It was one of many instances where Kennan’s bombastic rhetoric would get him into trouble. Afterward, Kennan, still smarting from that episode, was living with Annalise in Adams County, Pennsylvania (near Gettysburg, where President Eisenhower had his own home), and briefly but seriously considered running for congress.

But another unfortunate mark on Kennan’s reputation occurred during the hearings of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. The country was awash in the so-called “Red Scare,” and McCarthy’s witch hunt had already taken a devastating toll on two of Kennan’s former colleagues: Robert Oppenheimer and former Foreign Service officer John Paton Davies. Though Kennan himself escaped inquiry, he confessed that while being interviewed by Oppenheimer investigators, he reported on others on “one or two occasions,” but only in the case of “minor employees.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

During heightened tensions between America and the Soviets in the second year of the Reagan presidency, Kennan wondered how Reagan, an “apparent lightweight” with regard to Soviet and nuclear weapons strategies could embrace views that had once mirrored his own: that one could not reconcile Christianity with US/USSR politics of “moral equivalency,” and also that nuclear weapons could be rendered  “impotent and obsolete." The explanation, Gaddis states, was that Kennan “allowed sensitivity to style and susceptibility to emotion to cloud his judgment.”

Kennan, in a May 1982 address, referred to the administration’s Soviet stance, including adherence to MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) as well as Reagan’s capricious statement that the Soviet Union was “the focus of evil in the modern world,” as “simply childish, needlessly childish, unworthy of people charged with the responsibility of conducting the affairs of a great power in an endangered world.” Kennan trusted Soviet leader Yuri Andropov more than he did Reagan. But just a year later, and interestingly, if not ironically, Reagan sent to Kennan what amounted to an apology for the hard line he’d adopted earlier against the Soviets. And Secretary of State (and fellow Princetonian) George Shultz later sought Kennan’s counsel on the continuing negotiations. 

In later years, though he occasionally and dourly opined that he was being used as a “human monument” for political ends, Kennan appreciated the fact that President Bill Clinton, who had read and admired his texts, wanted to approach him. Clinton requested that Kennan to come with him to Moscow in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II; but Kennan’s health, along with an increasing self-consciousness about inconveniencing others, caused him to decline. It was to be the last time he would have such an opportunity. He passed away, at 101, in 2005.

Gaddis’s monumental achievement in "George F. Kennan: An American Life" is the way he brings out not only the scholar in Kennan, but also the human being behind the scholarship – complete with all the frailties that informed it. Gaddis's biography offers perspective and context in which to understand the complex being that was Kennan, a man who struggled all his life with bouts of inner conflict.

But it’s also heartening to know that this humane and decent man of conscience was at the forefront of US foreign policy for as long as he was.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland.”

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