George Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis: Review

Kennan, the man who defined America’s cold war policy, has finally gotten the biography he deserves. Jacob Heilbrunn on the misunderstood and grumpy visionary.

John Rooney / AP Photo

Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva—the only daughter of Josef Stalin—might seem like an unlikely friend of an American diplomat who devised the foreign-policy doctrine that helped bring down the empire her father had worked for decades to create. But Alliluyeva, who died on Nov. 22 in Wisconsin and came to see her old man as a “moral and spiritual monster,” sought out Kennan in March 1967 after she requested political asylum at the U.S. embassy in New Dehli. “I’ve been trying very hard to get in touch with Mr. Kennan. Can you tell me where he is?” she asked the CIA. Kennan met her in Switzerland. Alliluyeva was smitten. “George Kennan was tall, thin, blue-eyed, elegant,” she later wrote of their meeting at a safe house in Bern. “That hour proved that fantasies and dreams could sometimes come true.”

Kennan put her up in his version of a Russian dacha in a town in Pennsylvania called, of all things, East Berlin. The Kremlin claimed that it was all part of a plot by Kennan to besmirch the Soviet Union upon the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The truth was more prosaic. Kennan loved Russia. He wanted to do Alliluyeva a good turn and she provided him with a glimpse back into his own youth when he served in Moscow during the 1930s. Kennan had met Stalin. He had seen the gangsters around him. And so they had a lot to discuss. They became fast friends. His house reminded Alliluyeva of a prevolutionary Russian country estate. Where Kennan had analyzed Stalin decades earlier, so his daughter, as John Lewis Gaddis reports in his new biography, now turned the tables. She remonstrated in one letter, “You constantly do not allow yourself to be yourself. You’ve put yourself—and all your life—into the position of (pardon me, please!) that deadly Presbyterian Righteousness which looks `good’ only in pronouncements from the pulpit; which is based on human experiences of different era; different people; different social milieu, than yours.”

She was on to something. Kennan was perhaps the most brilliant intellectual of the past century. He was certainly the most tortured. For all the reams of books and essays written about George F. Kennan during his lifetime, it was a neighbor of his, one J. Richards Dilworth, who divined his true character: “George is ultra-conservative. He’s almost a monarchist.” Yes, the man who invented the doctrine of containment that saved the West from Stalinism in the late 1940s and prepared the road for victory in 1989 when the Soviet empire came crashing down was himself less than a democrat. He was as old school as it gets. He pined for an older, pristine America, one that wasn’t enraptured by automobiles, suburbs, commercialism, and choked by pollution and greed. He opposed American recognition of Israel and didn’t feel it was America’s duty to interfere abroad to spread democracy. He felt that America was behaving like a schoolmaster, handing out report cards to various countries, when it had no right or obligation to behave in such a high-handed fashion. It should mind its own knitting. His dream was that an elite might run America, but he probably knew that it would never happen.

In a lengthy interview with George Urban in Encounter magazine Kennan thus declared, in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, that “this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.” Europe, Kennan added, wasn’t in much better and could perhaps be whipped into shape if the Russians took it over: on a recent visit, he had to his horror witnessed a Danish youth festival “swarming with hippies—motorbikes, girlfriends, drugs, pornography, drunkenness, noise—it was all there. I looked at this mob and though how one company of robust Russian infantry would drive it out of town.”

And so Kennan despaired of the very country he served for decades as a foreign service officer, including stints as ambassador to Moscow and Belgrade. George H.W. Bush bestowed upon him its highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Yet he never felt that his counsel was much appreciated.

How to fashion a coherent biography out of such a contradictory figure? John Lewis Gaddis has, against all the odds, written what surely amounts to the best study of Kennan. Gaddis, who teaches at Yale, has earned fame as a Cold War historian, but this is by far the best of his books. The writing is crisp and penetrating. His judgments are fair and astute. To a greater extent than any previous Kennan scholar, Gaddis has unpacked the man. Gaddis has performed prodigies of archival research, including drawing extensively on Kennan’s diaries, and his account is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. Perhaps even as acerbic a critic as Kennan might have been pleased by the result.

Kennan’s melancholy was rooted in his nostalgia for the America of his youth in Wisconsin with its dirt roads, horses, and lack of telephones. Kennan was born on Feb. 16, 1904. A month later his mother died of a ruptured appendix. He missed her all his life, noting in his memoirs that he had been “deeply affected, and in a certain sense scarred for life” by her death. His father, a lawyer, was an austere and distant presence who shipped his son off to a local military academy. The ancestor that young George identified with was his namesake—George Frost Kennan, who had traveled through Siberia in the 1865 and earned renown as a Russia expert. Kennan wrote, “I feel that I was in some strange way to carry forward [his] work.”

As an undergraduate at Princeton, the shy Kennan didn’t really fit in with the young swells. When he asked a fellow freshman at the first students assembly what time it was, Gaddis writes, “the young dandy took a puff on his cigarette, blew some smoke, and then walked away, searing himself into George’s consciousness.” Kennan blossomed when he entered the Foreign Service. Here his facility with languages helped him immeasurably. He was stationed in Germany, where he experienced the tumult of the Weimar Republic. A stint in the Baltics, where he learned Russian, prepared him for his big break. After Franklin Roosevelt’s election, America established diplomatic relations with the U.S.S.R. in 1934. Kennan served at the embassy under Amb. William Bullitt, who arrived with high hopes for good relations with the Soviet Union, but soon became a hardened anti-communist. Bullitt was followed in 1937 by the pro-Soviet American businessman Joseph E. Davies, who admired Stalin and said that the purge trials were legitimate. Kennan cringed at his imbecilities. He left Moscow for Prague, just as the Nazis were about to annex it. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Kennan was transferred to Berlin, where he got to see the Nazi regime up close until Germany declared war on America. He was stuck in an internment camp until May 1942.

It was the new American ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, who insisted that Kennan return to the besieged city in 1943 to assist him in his duties. Harriman played a key role in dealing with Britain and America’s wartime ally. Kennan regarded Harriman as too conciliatory in dealing with Stalin. As Kennan saw it, Franklin Roosevelt harbored illusions about the true nature and character of the man he liked to call “Uncle Joe.” Kennan knew that he was most unavuncular.

To vent his frustrations, Kennan would periodically pen attacks on American policy toward the Soviet Union. One such was a eight-page personal letter he sent in 1945 to his friend Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who was with FDR at Yalta, the next to last meeting of the “Big Three”—Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill. Kennan clearly saw the looming division of Europe. Why not, he mused, cut a deal with Stalin and divide Europe into “spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and keep the Russians out of ours?” Of course that's what was happening even if the Americans did not want to admit it.

Still, Kennan was convinced that the Soviet Union could swallow but not digest Eastern Europe. His reading of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had convinced him of that. He liked to cite Gibbon’s line about the “unnatural task of holding in submission distant peoples.” Kennan expounded upon his views in what became known as the “Long Telegram” of February 1946. At a moment when official Washington was casting about for a coherent response to Stalin’s bellicosity, Kennan’s lucubrations were almost miraculously well timed. They hit like a thunderbolt. Kennan’s message was simple—don’t try to be chummy with the Soviets. Kennan added that from the Soviet perspective war with the capitalist West was inevitable. Indeed, Russia had become a dangerous compound of medieval authoritarianism combined with a chiliastic Marxist-Leninist ideology. Kennan expanded upon this message in what became his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs, published in 1947. But for all his stern language, Kennan was not espousing war with Moscow. Instead, his point was that panic about Stalin was misplaced because Soviet Russia could be contained.

Kennan would later complain that his idea was debauched by the Truman administration. He didn’t mean for America to become a global empire. The military didn’t have to be the prime means of countering the Soviets. But Secretary of State Dean Acheson took a harder line. Kennan became an outsider, a critic of the nuclear arms race that began under the Truman administration and seemed to take on a life of its own, as each side amassed more and more atomic weaponry. As Kennan saw it, more efforts should have been made to bring about a reunification of Germany in the early 1950s. Stalin, for example, had submitted a note in 1952 suggesting that the question of German reunification should be addressed. But the West Germans saw it as a dangerous ploy to create a neutral Germany, one that would have been shorn of its membership in NATO and permanently vulnerable to Soviet blandishments and threats. Most historians now agree that the note was not meant seriously.

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For all of Kennan’s misgivings about Truman administration policies, he had served as head of the policy planning staff. What’s more, it was the Republican right that truly loathed containment, which it saw as tantamount to appeasement. Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles accepted Kennan’s resignation in 1953 and thundered about the rollback of communism. Kennan was crushed. He had thought that the new administration “would still attach value to my opinions and to the preservation of a mutual relationship of cordiality and understanding.” But this was out of the question after Kennan delivered a talk before the Pennsylvania State Bar Association in January in which he denounced the idea of the “liberation” of Eastern Europe. It was, he said, “replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness.”

At bottom Kennan was a realist. He didn’t believe in demonizing other countries. What he believed in was a 19th-century balance of power. But his was essentially a negative view of international relations as a permanent struggle for power. It was Ronald Reagan, Gaddis suggests, who managed to move from containment to a true understanding with Moscow. Kennan, Gaddis writes, “despaired constantly, whatever he was doing. So Kennan turned himself into a complication, leaving it to Reagan to bring his strategy to a successful conclusion.”

Perhaps so. But Kennan would doubtless be alarmed by the current state of American foreign affairs in which triumph in the Cold War was soon converted by neoconservatives into a vainglorious triumphalism that led to Iraq. Kennan, as Gaddis tell us, saw further into the future than his peers. He helped win the Cold War for a country that he would probably now disown more than ever.