A Review of George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
by Henry A. Kissinger
The New York Times Book Review – November 13, 2011
While writing this essay, I asked several young men and women what George F. Kennan meant to them. As it turned out, nearly all were essentially oblivious of the man or his role in shaping American foreign policy. Yet Kennan had fashioned the concept of containment in the name of which the cold war was conducted and won and almost concurrently had also expressed some of the most trenchant criticism of the way his own theory was being implemented. To the present generation, Kennan has receded into a vague past as has their parents’ struggle to bring forth a new international order amid the awesome, unprecedented power of nuclear weapons.
For the surviving participants in the emotions of that period, this state of affairs inspires melancholy reflections about the relevance of history in the age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Fortunately, John Lewis Gaddis, a distinguished professor of history and strategy at Yale, has brought again to life the dilemmas and aspirations of those pivotal decades of the mid-20th century. His magisterial work, “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” bids fair to be as close to the final word as possible on one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants. The reader should know that for the past decade, I have occasionally met with the students of the Grand Strategy seminar John Gaddis conducts at Yale and that we encounter each other on social occasions from time to time. But Gaddis’s work is seminal and beyond personal relationships.
George Kennan’s thought suffused American foreign policy on both sides of the intellectual and ideological dividing lines for nearly half a century. Yet the highest position he ever held was ambassador to Moscow for five months in 1952 and to Yugoslavia for two years in the early 1960s. In Washington, he never rose above director of policy planning at the State Department, a position he occupied from 1947 to 1950. Yet his precepts helped shape both the foreign policy of the cold war as well as the arguments of its opponents after he renounced — early on — the application of his maxims.
A brilliant analyst of long-term trends and a singularly gifted prose stylist, Kennan, as a relatively junior Foreign Service officer, served in the entourages of Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. His fluency in German and Russian, as well as his knowledge of those countries’ histories and literary traditions, combined with a commanding, if contradictory, personality. Kennan was austere yet could also be convivial, playing his guitar at embassy events; pious but given to love affairs (in the management of which he later instructed his son in writing); endlessly introspective and ultimately remote. He was, a critic once charged, “an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling.”
For all these qualities — and perhaps because of them — Kennan was never vouchsafed the opportunity actually to execute his sensitive and farsighted visions at the highest levels of government. And he blighted his career in government by a tendency to recoil from the implications of his own views. The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.
When his analytical brilliance was rewarded with ambassadorial appointments, to the Soviet Union and then to Yugoslavia, Kennan self-destructed while disregarding his own precepts. The author of trenchant analyses of Soviet morbid sensitivity to slights and of the Kremlin’s penchant for parsing every word of American diplomats, he torpedoed his Moscow mission after just a few months. Offended by the constrictions of everyday living in Stalin’s Moscow, Kennan compared his hosts to Nazi Germany in an offhand comment to a journalist at Tempelhof airport in Berlin. As a result, he was declared persona non grata — the only American ambassador to Russia to suffer this fate. Similarly, in Belgrade a decade later, Kennan reacted to Tito’s affirmation of neutrality on the issue of the Soviet threat to Berlin as if it were a personal slight. Yet Tito’s was precisely the kind of neutralist balancing act Kennan had brilliantly analyzed when it had been directed against the Soviet Union. Shortly afterward, Kennan resigned.
Nonetheless, no other Foreign Service officer ever shaped American foreign policy so decisively or did so much to define the broader public debate over America’s world role. This process began with two documents remembered as the Long Telegram (in 1946) and the X article (in 1947). At this stage, Kennan served a country that had not yet learned the distinction between the conversion and the evolution of an adversary — if indeed it ever will. Conversion entails inducing an adversary to break with its past in one comprehensive act or gesture. Evolution involves a gradual process, a willingness to pursue one’s ultimate foreign policy goal in imperfect stages.
America had conducted its wartime diplomacy on the premise that Stalin had abandoned Soviet history. The dominant view in policy-making circles was that Moscow had embraced peaceful coexistence with the United States and would adjust differences that might arise by quasi-legal or diplomatic processes. At the apex of that international order would be the newly formed United Nations. The United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain were to be the joint guardians. (China and France were later additions.)
Kennan had rejected the proposition of an inherent American-Soviet harmony from the moment it was put forward and repeatedly criticized what he considered Washington’s excessively accommodating stance on Soviet territorial advances. In February 1946, the United States Embassy in Moscow received a query from Washington as to whether a doctrinaire speech by Stalin inaugurated a change in the Soviet commitment to a harmonious international order. The ambassador was away, and Kennan, at that time 42 and deputy chief of mission, replied in a five-part telegram of 19 single-spaced pages. The essence of the so-called Long Telegram was that Stalin, far from changing policy, was in fact implementing a particularly robust version of traditional Russian designs. These grew out of Russia’s strategic culture and its centuries-old distrust of the outside world, onto which the Bolsheviks had grafted an implacable revolutionary doctrine of global sweep. Soviet leaders would not be swayed by good-will gestures. They had devoted their lives (and sacrificed millions of their compatriots) to an ideology positing a fundamental conflict between the Communist and capitalist worlds. Marxist dogma rendered even more truculent by the Leninist interpretation was, Kennan wrote, “justification for their instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value. . . . Today they cannot dispense with it.”
The United States, Kennan insisted (sometimes in telegramese), was obliged to deal with this inherent hostility. With many of the world’s traditional power centers devastated and the Soviet leadership controlling vast natural resources and “the energies of one of world’s greatest peoples,” a contest about the nature of world order was inevitable. This would be “undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face.”
In 1947, Kennan went public in a briefly anonymous article published in Foreign Affairs, signed by “X.” Among the thousands of articles produced on the subject, Kennan’s stands in a class by itself. Lucidly written, passionately argued, it elevated the debate to a philosophy of history.
The X article condensed the Long Telegram and gave it an apocalyptic vision. Soviet foreign policy represented “a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.” The only way to deal with Moscow was by “a policy of firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”
So far this was a doctrine of equilibrium much like what a British foreign secretary in the 19th century might have counseled in dealing with a rising power — though the British foreign secretary would not have felt the need to define a final outcome. What conferred a dramatic quality on the X article was the way Kennan combined it with the historic American dream of the ultimate conversion of the adversary. Victory would come not on the battlefield nor even by diplomacy but by the implosion of the Soviet system. It was “entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions” this eventuality. At some point in Moscow’s futile confrontations with the outside world — so long as the West took care they remained futile — some Soviet leader would feel the need to achieve additional support by reaching down to the immature and inexperienced masses. But if “the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument” was ever so disrupted, “Soviet Russia might be changed over night from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.”
No other document forecast so presciently what would in fact occur under Mikhail Gorbachev. But that was four decades away. It left a number of issues open: How was a situation of strength to be defined? How was it to be built and then conveyed to the adversary? And how would it be sustained in the face of Soviet challenges?
Kennan never dealt with these issues. It took Dean Acheson to translate Kennan’s concept into the design that saw America through the cold war. As under secretary to George Marshall, Acheson worked on the Marshall Plan and, as secretary of state, created NATO, encouraged European unification and brought Germany into the Atlantic structure. In the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles extended the alliance system through the Baghdad Pact for the Middle East and SEATO for Southeast Asia. In effect, containment came to be equated with constructing military alliances around the entire Soviet periphery over two continents.
The practical consequence was to shelve East-West diplomacy while the positions of strength were being built. The diplomatic initiative was left to the Soviet Union, which concentrated on Western weak points, or where it calculated that it had an inherent advantage (as in the exposed position of Berlin). Paradoxically containment, while hardheaded in its absolute opposition to the further expansion of the Soviet sphere, failed to reflect the real balance of forces. For with the American atomic monopoly — and the huge Soviet losses in the world war — that actual balance was never more favorable for the West than at the beginning of the cold war. A situation of strength did not need to be built; it already existed.
The most illustrious advocate of this point of view was Winston Churchill. In a series of speeches between 1946 and 1952, he called for diplomatic initiatives to produce a European settlement while American strength was still preponderant. The American policy based on the X article appealed for endurance so that history could display its inevitable tendencies. Churchill warned of the psychological strain of a seemingly endless strategic stalemate.
At the same time that Churchill was urging an immediate diplomatic confrontation, Kennan was growing impatient with Washington’s tendency to equate containment with a largely military strategy. He disavowed the global application of his principles. As he so often did, he pushed them to their abstract extreme, arguing that there were some regions “where you could perfectly well let people fall prey to totalitarian domination without any tragic consequences for world peace in general.” We could not bomb the Soviets into submission, nor convince them to see things our way; we had, in fact, no direct means to change the Soviet regime. We had instead to wait out an unsettled situation and occasionally mitigate it with diplomacy.
The issue became an aspect of the perennial debate between a realism stressing the importance of assessing power relationships and an idealism conflating moral impulses with historical inevitability. It was complicated by Kennan’s tendency to defend on occasion each side of the issue — leading to incisive and quite unsentimental essays and diary entries analyzing the global balance of power, followed by comparable reflections questioning the morality of practicing traditional power politics in the nuclear age.
Stable orders require elements of both power and morality. In a world without equilibrium, the stronger will encounter no restraint, and the weak will find no means of vindication. At the same time, if there is no commitment to the essential justice of existing arrangements, constant challenges or else a crusading attempt to impose value systems are inevitable.
The challenge of statesmanship is to define the components of both power and morality and strike a balance between them. This is not a one-time effort. It requires constant recalibration; it is as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise. It implies a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity. The practitioners of the art must learn to put the attainable in the service of the ultimate and accept the element of compromise inherent in the endeavor. Bismarck defined statesmanship as the art of the possible. Kennan, as a public servant, was exalted above most others for a penetrating analysis that treated each element of international order separately, yet his career was stymied by his periodic rebellion against the need for a reconciliation that could incorporate each element only imperfectly.
At the beginning of his career, Kennan’s view of the European order was traditional. America should seek, he argued, an equilibrium based on enlightened self-interest and sustained by the permanent introduction of American power. “Heretofore, in our history, we had to take the world pretty much as we found it,” he wrote during the war. “From now on we will have to take it pretty much as we leave it when the crisis is over.” And that required “the firm, consistent and unceasing application of sheer power in accordance with a long-term policy.”
In pursuit of that European equilibrium, Kennan urged Washington and its democratic allies to oblige the Soviet Union to accept borders as far east as possible. In 1944, he proposed that Poland be placed under international trusteeship to prevent its domination by the Soviet Union. But when this was rejected by Roosevelt, who did not want to risk alienating Moscow in the last phase of the war, Kennan adjusted his view to the new realities as he saw them. If the United States was unwilling to force the Soviet Union into acceptable limits, “we should gather together at once into our hands all the cards we hold and begin to play them for their full value.” That meant dividing Europe into spheres of influence with the line of division running through Germany. The Western half of Germany should be integrated into a European federation. He called this a “bitterly modest” program, but “beggars can’t be choosers.”
Six years later, Acheson was building an Atlantic partnership in essentially the manner Kennan had proposed. But Kennan rejected it for three reasons: his innate perfectionism, his growing concern about the implications of nuclear war and his exclusion from a role in government.
The irony of Kennan’s thought was that his influence in government arose from his advocacy of what today’s debate would define as realism, while his admirers outside government were on the whole motivated by what they took to be his idealistic objections to the prevalent, essentially realistic policy. His vision of peace involved a balance of power of a very special American type, an equilibrium that was not to be measured by military force alone. It arose as well from the culture and historical evolution of a society whose ultimate power would be measured by its vigor and its people’s commitment to a better world. In the X article, he called on his countrymen to meet the “test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.”
Kennan saw clearly — more so than a vast majority of his contemporaries — the ultimate outcome of the division of Europe, but less clearly the road to get there. He was too intellectually rigorous to countenance the partial steps needed to reach the vistas he envisioned. Yet policy practice — as opposed to pure analysis — almost inevitably involves both compromise and risk.
This is why Kennan often shrank from the application of his own theories. In 1948, with an allied government in China crumbling, Kennan — at some risk to his career — advanced the minority view that a Communist victory would not necessarily be catastrophic. In a National War College lecture, he argued that “our safety depends on our ability to establish a balance among the hostile or undependable forces of the world.” A wise policy would induce these forces to “spend in conflict with each other, if they must spend it at all, the intolerance and violence and fanaticism which might otherwise be directed against us,” so “that they are thus compelled to cancel each other out and exhaust themselves in internecine conflict in order that the constructive forces, working for world stability, may continue to have the possibility of life.” But when, in 1969, the Nixon administration began to implement almost exactly that policy, Kennan called on me at the White House, in the company of a distinguished group of former ambassadors to the Soviet Union, to warn against proceeding with overtures to China lest the Soviet Union respond by war.
So emphatically did Kennan sometimes reject the immediately feasible that he destroyed his usefulness in the conduct of day-to-day diplomacy. This turned his life into a special kind of tragedy. Until his old age, he yearned for the role in public service to which his brilliance and vision should have propelled him, but that was always denied him by his refusal to modify his perfectionism.
A major element in this refusal was Kennan’s growing repugnance at the prospect of nuclear war. From the beginning of the nuclear age, he emphasized that the new weapons progressively destroyed the relationship between military and political objectives. Historically, wars had been fought because the prospect of accommodation seemed more onerous than the consequences of defeat. But when nuclear war implied tens of millions of casualties — and arguably the end of civilization — that equation was turned on its head.
The most haunting problem for modern policy makers became what they would in fact do when the limit of diplomatic options had been reached: Did any leader or group of leaders have the right to assume the moral responsibility for taking risks capable of destroying civilized order? But by the same calculus, could any leader or group of leaders assume the responsibility for abandoning nuclear deterrence and turn the world over to groups with possibly genocidal tendencies? Acheson chose the risk of deterrence, probably convinced that he would never have to implement it. Kennan abandoned deterrence and the nuclear option, at one stage even seeking to organize a no-first-use pledge from American policy makers and musing publicly in an interview whether Soviet dominance over Western Europe might not be preferable to nuclear war.
When Kennan was operating in the realm of philosophy, he tended to push matters to passionate and abstract conclusions. Yet under pressure of concrete events, he would swing back to the role of a hard-nosed advocate of specific operational policies. After the Chinese offensive across the Yalu in 1950, he overcame his distaste for Acheson’s more militant policy to urge him to refuse any attempt at diplomacy with the Communist world and instead adopt a Churchillian posture of defiance. Similarly, in 1968, his decade-long advocacy of military disengagement in Europe did not keep him from urging President Johnson to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by sending another 100,000 troops to Europe.
It was my good fortune to know both Acheson and Kennan at or near the height of their intellectual powers. Acheson was the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period. He designed the application of the concepts for which Kennan was the earliest and most eloquent spokesman. The growing estrangement between these two giants of American foreign policy was as sad as it was inevitable. Acheson was indispensable for the architecture of the immediate postwar decade; Kennan’s view raised the issues of a more distant future. Acheson considered Kennan more significant for literature than for policy making and wholly impractical. Kennan’s reaction was frustration at his growing irrelevance to policy making and his inability to convey his long-term view.
On the issues of the day, I sided with Acheson and have not changed my views in retrospect. If Europe was to be secured, America did not have the choice between postponing the drawing of dividing lines or implementing a diplomatic process to determine whether dividing lines needed to be drawn at all. The application of Kennan’s evolving theories in the immediate postwar decades (particularly his opposition to NATO, his critique of the Truman doctrine and his call for a negotiated American disengagement from Europe) would have proved as unsettling as Acheson predicted.
At the same time, Kennan deserves recognition for raising the key issues of the long-term future. He warned of a time in which America might strain its domestic resilience by goals beyond the physical and psychological capacity of even the most exceptional society.
Kennan was eloquent in emphasizing the transient nature of a division of the world into military blocs and the ultimate need to transcend it by diplomacy. He came up with remedies that were both too early in the historical process and occasionally too abstract. He at times neglected the importance of timing. Gaddis quotes him as pointing out that he had problems with sequencing: “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.”
In a turbulent era, Kennan’s consistent themes were balance and restraint. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he applied these convictions to his side of the debate as well. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the Vietnam War but on the limited ground that there was no strategic need for it. He emphasized that the threat posed by Hanoi was exaggerated and that the alleged unity of the Communist world was a myth. But he also warned elsewhere against “violent objection to what exists, unaccompanied by any constructive concept of what, ideally ought to exist in its place.” He questioned the policy makers’ judgment but not their intent; he understood their dilemmas even as he both criticized and sought to join them.
Oscillating between profound perceptions of both the world of ideas and the world of power, Kennan often found himself caught between them. Out of his inward turmoil emerged themes that, like the movements of a great symphony, none of us who followed could ignore, even when they were occasionally discordant.
As time went on, Kennan retreated into writing history. He did so less as a historian than as a teacher to policy makers, hoping to instruct America in the importance of moderation in objectives and restraint in the use of power. He took as an example the collapse of the European order that led to the outbreak of World War I. He produced two works of exemplary scholarship and elegant writing, “Russia Leaves the War” and “The Decision to Intervene.” He published a book of lectures and essays about the making of American foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century, “American Diplomacy: 1900-1950,” which remains the best short summary of the subject.
Yet Kennan did not derive genuine satisfaction from the accolades that so fulsomely came his way from the nonpolicy world. His partly self-created exile from policy making was accompanied by permanent nostalgia for his calling. In his diary he meticulously recorded the tribute that was paid to him by the American chargé d’affaires at an embassy dinner in Moscow in 1981, noting that no secretary of state had ever paid him comparable attention.
Policy makers, even when respectful, shied away from employing him because the sweep of his vision was both uncomfortable (even when right) and beyond the outer limit of their immediate concerns on the tactical level. And the various protest movements, which took up some of his ideas, added to his discomfort because he could never share their single-minded self-¬righteousness.
Dean Acheson wrote that separation from high office is like the end of a great love affair — a void left by the disappearance of heightened sensitivities and focused concerns. What is poignant about Kennan’s fate is that his parting came before he reached the pinnacle. He spent the rest of his life as an observer at the threshold of political influence, confined to what he called “the unbroken loneliness of pure research and writing.”
Though he lived until the age of 101 (dying in 2005) and saw many of his prophecies come into being, even the collapse of the Soviet Union did not confer on him the elation of vindication. Rather, it marked in his mind the end of his literary vocation. The need for his influence on policy making had irrevocably disappeared. “Reconcile yourself to the inevitable,” he confided to his diary, “you are never again, in the short remainder of your life, to be permitted to do anything significant.” He put aside the third volume of his majestic history of pre-World War I diplomacy. He had no further lessons to teach his country.
We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, thoughtful, human, self-centered, contradictory, inspirational — a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis’s moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary.
Early in his career, Kennan wrote that he was resigned to “the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow and where few will consent to believe he has been.” Gaddis had the acumen to follow Kennan’s tortured quest and to convince us that Kennan had indeed reached his mountaintop.
George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (Illustrated. 784 pp. The Penguin Press. $39.95)
Henry A. Kissinger’s latest book, “On China,” was published in May.