Reading John Lewis Gaddis‘ George F. Kennan: An American Life was a depressing experience for a number of reasons. Reading biography has a singular drawback, that plumbing the depths of an individual whose work or experience prompted admiration would reveal some noxious secret that ultimately undermines the original cause for exploring a life. It’s not so much that I don’t admire George F. Kennan now, but that his long, eventful life casts his perspective on realism and containment in less favorable terms. It’s very difficult to read about an idol.
As an undergraduate two people distracted me from language study: my adviser and George F, Kennan. Bo doubt I had a crush on my adviser from the first day of a section of the Introduction to Political Science class he taught. I had already taken two classes on Congress and another introduction, but now I was wedded to International Relations. I abandoned any fantasy about interning for a senator. Kennan also frequently got sidetracked by women. Discussions in class were electric and fluid, not really lectures but just as insightful. Here was a teacher – for she wasn’t promoted to her position yet – who let students speak and still could maintain discipline and cover a topic. Nothing anyone said was not useful to her. Unlike Kennan in his later incarnation as a lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, she rarely spoke for more than a few minutes at a stretch, confining herself to offering introducing concepts and fielding questions. One of the first assignments was Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram”, offered in the form of his 1947 Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct“, signed as “X”. Admittedly, the relationship between the two eluded me then, but Gaddis delivered me from that confusion. The first iteration was brilliant; the “X’ article was a political error.
At the time I conflated the two versions. A diplomat’s observation turned into a scholarly publication. Kennan in 1947 had fused all his erudition and experience into a practical resource for the Truman administration in a time when no one understood where events were leading; in 1948 the political lines in Washington were set, and Kennan didn’t appreciate that he was on the outside. Cold war had set in, and anti-communist ideologues wanted aggressive solutions, not calm restraint. Military tools were attractive; economics and diplomacy were not appreciated.
The Long Telegram was Kennan unbound. Yes, he said, American capitalism and Soviet Communism were incompatible systems; Washington shouldn’t have been surprised to hear Stalin say so. But this had more to do with the nature of Russia than with the nature of Communism. Russian foreign policy had always been motivated by fear of the outside world, and Marxism gave the current regime, which Kennan considered simply the latest in a line of Oriental despotisms, an ideological fig leaf for its insecurity and paranoia. Whatever it might say, the Soviet Union would always seek to undermine the West. That was just the Kremlin’s nature. It was a case of the scorpion and the frog.
Still, there was a modus vivendi available for the short term. The Soviet Union was relatively weak; it was overstretched territorially; and it did not want war. It wanted only to take advantage of opportunities. The proper policy of the United States, therefore, was vigilance against allowing opportunities to arise for the Soviet Union to take advantage of. If the United States demonstrated resolve whenever Moscow made threatening noises; if it extended aid to the European democracies, so that they would know who their friends were; and if it otherwise tended to the cultivation of its own garden there was no reason to expect World War Three.
In Washington, the telegram was a sensation. There’s no evidence that Truman read it, but, thanks largely to the Navy Secretary, James Forrestal, who had it mimeographed and circulated, it was seen by the Cabinet and by senior military officials. Kennan was summoned to Washington and installed in the newly created National War College as Deputy Commandant for Foreign Affairs. The State Department dispatched him on a lecture tour to instruct the public on the true nature of the Soviet threat; at the War College, he lectured on international relations to military, State Department, and Foreign Service officials. “I seem to have hit the jackpot as a ‘Russian expert,’ ” he wrote to Jeanette.
In 1947, George Marshall, the Secretary of State, appointed Kennan chief of a new Policy Planning Staff—an effort to think ahead in the area of international relations, not something that the United States had had much practice with. The staff, Gaddis says, became the principal source of policy ideas for Marshall and for the National Security Council, and thus for the President. Kennan dominated the staff meetings, did most of the writing, and worked in the office next to Marshall’s. For two years, he essentially formulated American foreign policy.
The greatest of his contributions was to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Western Europe, a program that echoed policy recommendations made in the Long Telegram. It was Kennan’s idea that aid under the plan should be offered to the Soviet Union and its satellite states, with the expectation that Stalin would prohibit his satellite regimes from accepting. Stalin did exactly that, and thus put himself in the position of taking blame for the division of Europe.
Kennan’s second major Cold War treatise was the 1947 article for Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The essay began as a paper written for Forrestal. In many respects, it was an eloquent re-statement of the Long Telegram, and it is famous for a single sentence: “It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
This gave a name to American Cold War policy, and, with a few tweaks and many exceptions, what Kennan had called “containment” remained American policy until the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever there was “Communist aggression,” the United States pushed back. As long as the Communists remained in their box, the United States did not (except rhetorically) seek to intervene. And, as Gaddis says, even Reagan, despite talk of liberation and “rollback,” stayed largely true to containment policy.
The article was signed with an “X” because Kennan did not want it to seem that, as a State Department employee, he was stating policy, but his identity was quickly revealed, and for the rest of his career he was known as the author of containment. He had reasons to resent this.
When Acheson replaced Marshall as Secretary of State, in 1949, Kennan’s influence was diminished—though Acheson was friendly and solicited his advice. Kennan gave counsel to the Administration during the Korean War, and was instrumental in setting up the covert-operations wing of the Central Intelligence Agency. His tenure as Truman’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union ended abruptly when, at a press conference at Tempelhof airport, in Berlin, he compared life in the Moscow Embassy with his internment by the Nazis at Bad Nauheim. Stalin declared Kennan persona non grata, and he was denied reëntry to the country.
Kennan was me the quintessential practitioner, a diplomat who could do scholarly work. Yet, history reveals him as a little less adept at both. Both before the period spanning the two iterations of his most notorious contribution to the American foreign policy establishment, Kennan did good work. He helped establishment the first embassy in the former Soviet Union, where he returned later as ambassador. Kennan endured internment in Germany during the war, but lead a resilient staff through the experience. He then served in Portugal and Spain. Kennan was on duty when the North Koreans invaded the Republic on June 25, 1950, organizing the policies that established the initial resistance. Ironically, Kennan had earlier argued that the Korean peninsula was not a key interest of the United States. In Yugoslavia, as ambassador, Kennan enjoyed a relationship with a young admirer, John F. Kennedy, and the two talked the most that any of Kennedy’s diplomats ever did, usually in the private residence. Again, it was congressional politics that undid Kennan, and, even with Kennedy’s public support, Yugoslavia was his last diplomatic assignment.
The irony cutting through Kennan’s masterpiece is, that, although “interests” seems concrete, they are more obfuscating than illuminating. Kennan’s realism doesn’t rely on the structure of a Waltzian world, where anarchy facilitates discernible patterns and strategies. Kennan’s is a murky, mystical brew of literature, experience, insight, and language. The reader accepted on faith that the solon knew about his opponent, not that the world was the way it is because human nature made self-help necessary. Still, Kennan was the right wise man to consult.
Now, generations of scholars and diplomats have added their erudition and experience to the foundation Kennan laid.
The realist view is that a nation’s foreign affairs should be guided by a cold consideration of its own interests, not by some set of transcendent legal or moral principles. In words of John Quincy Adams that Kennan loved to quote, a nation should not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” This often means letting foreign evils go unaddressed, and, in a commencement speech at Harvard, in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn attacked Kennan, by name, for refusing to apply moral values to politics. “Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute Evil in the world,” he said.
Solzhenitsyn was right that Kennan was allergic to concepts that were important to Soviet dissidents, concepts like “human rights.” The reason Kennan considered the United Nations a bad idea was that it is an organization based on the pretense that every nation can subscribe disinterestedly to international legal principles—when nations are always, and rightly, interested primarily in preserving or extending their own power. He was horrified by the Nuremberg Trials. “Crimes against humanity” was just the sort of exalted legalism that he thought led to foreign-policy disaster. In any case, he believed that, once the United States accepted Stalin as an ally, it lost the moral authority to condemn Nazism. Kennan spent a good deal of his early life in Germany; in the two volumes of his memoirs, there is not a single mention of the Holocaust.
All this makes realism seem a philosophy for the heartless, and one more reason to wonder about the nature of Kennan’s contribution to American life. It was a little strange that he regarded a nation that, under no serious threat to its own sovereignty, undertook to go to arms to save the world from fascism and militaristic imperialism as decadent, naïve, and deluded by idealism. Americans may be self-centered and internationally uneducated, but they do believe that there are values whose defense calls for commitment and self-sacrifice, even if the United States might ignore the threats to them safely. Someone has to do the right thing. At a minimum, someone has to say the right thing, even if it gives people like Kennan hives.
In practical terms, a policy committing the United States to intervene whenever a non-Communist government was threatened anywhere in the world was untenable, as even Acheson quickly acknowledged to congressional leaders after Truman’s speech. But, in principle, simply the existence of totalitarian states is an affront to democratic values. Totalitarian governments throw their political opponents into prison or kill them; they pursue genocidal policies toward their own people and try to dominate their weaker neighbors. If democratic governments are not committed to the abolition of such regimes—sooner or later, by some means or other—then their foreign policies are not worth much. Kennan wanted totalitarianism abolished, but he thought the United States could accomplish this largely by going about its business. Much of what Kennan predicted about the Soviet Union came to pass; it’s not clear that this was because the United States minded its own business.
Still, buried within Kennan’s realism there is a moral view: that in relations of power, which is what he thought international relations ultimately are, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. They will do what the scorpion does to the frog—not because they choose to but because it’s their nature. They can’t help it. This is an easy doctrine to apply to other nations, as it is to apply to other people, since we can always see how professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It’s a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan’s great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists.
Yet, the United States never stops trying, and we need a Kennan to restrain us from error. In the end, Kennan is a dismal sage pulling us back. Reading his life only punctuates the wisdom of doing less, lest we do harm.