The four-decades-long confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union—a Cold War that periodically threatened to turn hot—spawned many warriors, but few more interesting or complex than George Frost Kennan. As a midlevel American diplomat based in Moscow during the late 1940s, he articulated the “containment” doctrine that defined American policy toward the Soviet Union. Warning that the leaders in the Kremlin were driven by a quest for global power that could be restrained only by vigilant application of “counter-force,” this hitherto obscure diplomat, far removed from the centers of decision-making, provided a strategy for America’s confrontation with communism. For policy-makers, eager to spread American influence, containment—political, military, and economic—offered the means to turn a threat into an opportunity.
Yet as the deadly contest between the two giants spread across the globe and periodically threatened to erupt into a cataclysmic nuclear war, Kennan became an impassioned critic of crossing the 38th parallel during the Korean war, rearming Germany, and waging war in Vietnam—all of which he saw as distortions of the containment doctrine. No single person encapsulates the drama, the deadly confrontations, and the self-destructive follies of the Cold War better than Kennan. John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian of the Cold War, was granted full access to Kennan’s private papers and conducted numerous interviews, and he delves far beyond matters of statecraft to illuminate the formative influences of Kennan’s life. The result, George F. Kennan: An American Life, is a work of great scholarship, sensitivity, and significance.
What these papers reveal, through Gaddis’s scrupulous rendering, is a private, hypersensitive man plagued by anxieties and insecurities. These stemmed in part from the death of his mother when he was only a few weeks old and from a distant relationship with his father, a Milwaukee tax attorney, who remarried when Kennan was four. Three sisters only partially provided the affection that he craved. He did not find it at Princeton, which he entered in 1921 and where he perpetually felt like an outsider. This stemmed, though, largely from his own reticence. He resigned from the undergraduate social club he had been invited to join; it was Kennan, Gaddis writes, “who rejected his fellow club members, not the other way around.”
Seeking to expand his horizons, Kennan chose a career in diplomacy, entering the Foreign Service on his graduation, and in it found a “new personality to hide behind his earlier one.” Assigned to the consulate in Hamburg, he was offered the opportunity for language training in Russian, first in Latvia, then in Berlin. In 1931, he married a young Norwegian woman, Annelise Sorenson. They were to remain together until his death in 2005. Although they were a devoted couple, the marriage did not relieve what Gaddis identifies as his “personal anguish … as an individual tormented by self-doubt.”
Kennan’s diaries, which Gaddis quotes frequently, express his outbursts of despair and his complaints against the world around him. “Nothing good can come out of modern civilization,” he wrote in 1932. “We have only a group of more or less inferior races. … No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young.” Among these “inferior races,” he singled out blacks and Jews as objects of his frequent harangues. These “rants,” Gaddis writes, might suggest that Kennan was becoming a “dysfunctional fascist.”
Life changed forever for Kennan in 1934 when William Bullitt, whom President Franklin Roosevelt had just appointed as America’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, recruited Kennan to Moscow. In the ambassador—whose fascination with Russia went back to 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson sent him on a secret mission to confer with Lenin on diplomatic recognition of the new regime—Kennan found a sympathetic listener for both his anxieties and his prejudices. An address by Bullitt expressed the sense of drama that was a hallmark of Kennan’s writing. Indeed Kennan may well have written the speech: “Communists are agents of a foreign power whose aim is not only to destroy the institutions and liberties of our country, but also to kill millions of Americans.”
Yet it is striking how little loyalty Kennan evidenced toward the institutions of the country he officially represented. It was “time to drop ‘the angel of democracy’ as well as the bogey man of dictatorship,” he wrote in a letter to Bullitt. Kennan’s contempt for Soviet communism was echoed in his contempt for his own compatriots. “I would not be a part of my country, although what it had once been would remain a part of me,” he confided to his diaries. Allegiance would be “a loyalty despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification.”
His disgust extended to all humanity. “Man is a skin-disease of the earth,” he wrote in 1937 in his diary, “…a diseased world of people drugged and debilitated by automobiles and advertisements and radio and moving pictures.” The only remedy lay “through constitutional change to the authoritarian state.” Three groups would lose the right to vote: aliens and naturalized citizens, nonprofessional women, and “negroes.” Such measures would actually benefit the excluded, he maintained, because “we are kinder to those who, like our children, are openly dependent on our kindness than to those who are nominally able to look after themselves.” Throughout his life, Kennan, who died only three years before Americans elected a black president, proposed that black people be given their own separate state. These authoritarian and racist statements were not, as Kennan claimed, just “scraps of diary material” but rather, Gaddis tells us, “the beginnings of a book, and … would show up again, softened, in later writings. … They also reflect … that he understood the Soviet Union far better than he did the United States.”
Kennan’s hatred of Soviet communism was not matched by any such feelings toward Nazi Germany. His reaction to the Munich conference of 1938, where Britain and France made a vain effort to appease Hitler by ceding a part of Czechoslovakia to Germany, was “one of relief,” Gaddis writes. Kennan believed that Czechoslovakia’s fortunes lay “with—and not against—the dominant forces of this area.” When Germany later seized all of the severed country, Kennan was transferred to Berlin. There he remained until Germany, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, declared war on the United States, and he was repatriated to Washington in an exchange of diplomats.
Kennan’s respect and admiration for Germany, even in its Nazi form, was reflected in his indifference to the persecution of Germans of Jewish origin. Kennan and his wife, Gaddis writes, “found Jews as a class exasperating” and “often made references … that would today seem anti-Semitic.” Charitably, he maintains—presumably regarding the persecutions but not the death camps—that “it is unfair to condemn them for not knowing what no one at the time could have known.” In this regard, Nicholas Thompson is even more revealing of Kennan’s bigotry in The Hawk and the Dove, his brilliantly rendered double biography of Kennan and his colleague and rival Paul Nitze. There Thompson quotes from a letter Kennan wrote to his sister in 1943 in which he complains that although Hitler “has not yet forced us to adopt his solutions, he has forced us to blind ourselves to the problem. … Wherever society finds itself bewildered with Jewish penetration … feelings are aroused which are primitive and exceedingly unlovely.” In a similar vein, Kennan confessed to a German friend that he was “sympathetic to apartheid.”
KENNAN’S RETURN TO Washington was brief. In 1943, the millionaire statesman Averell Harriman, chosen by President Roosevelt as the new envoy to Moscow, appointed Kennan to run the civilian side of the embassy. This, Gaddis writes, gave Kennan the “opportunity to mount a sustained assault on Roosevelt’s approach to the Soviet Union.” Writing to his friend Charles Bohlen, before the 1945 conference at Yalta, where Bohlen would serve as interpreter for the president in his meetings with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, Kennan warned against any efforts to achieve cooperation with the Soviet Union. Europe, he argued, should be divided into spheres of influence. Eastern Europe should be written off, Germany divided between eastern and western zones, and any pretense of shared interests between Russia and the West abandoned.
In February 1946, Kennan’s distrust of the Soviets boiled to the surface in the form of a 5,000-word dispatch that he sent to Washington as a telegram to emphasize the message’s importance. Coming at a critical moment, when wartime collaboration had given way to mutual suspicion, it had an electrifying effect beyond his wildest hopes. In language designed to shock and frighten, Kennan declared that Soviet officials sought foreign enemies to justify their harsh internal rule and were intent on undermining the United States. “We have here,” he charged, “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” What came to be known as the “long telegram” turned into, Gaddis writes, “the conceptual foundation for the strategy that the United States and Great Britain would follow for over four decades.”
Word spread throughout a bureaucracy searching for an understanding of how to deal with a recalcitrant Russia. In July 1947, the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs featured an article based on the “long telegram,” signed as “X” to conceal Kennan’s identity as a government official. There he argued, in vivid words that were to animate American foreign policy during the Cold War, that American policy must be guided by the “long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” If the United States pursued such 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,” Kennan maintained, the ultimate result would be “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
While the X article, whose anonymous author was soon revealed, brought Kennan public recognition as well as influence in foreign-policy circles, it did not meet with universal approval. Walter Lippmann, the nation’s most influential political columnist, was so distressed by Kennan’s prescription that he devoted 14 successive columns, soon republished as a short book titled The Cold War, to refuting what he described as a “strategic monstrosity,” which required the United States to sustain a “coalition of disorganized, disunited, feeble and disorderly nations, tribes and factions.” Kennan’s article, Lippmann charged, represented a faction in the State Department and the wider government bureaucracy opposed to the Marshall Plan and intent on the “military encirclement of the Soviet Union.”
Kennan’s influence over government policy was sharply reduced in January 1950 when Nitze replaced him as director of policy planning in the State Department. That same month, Kennan urged Secretary of State Dean Acheson to reduce the danger of nuclear war by adopting a “no first use” policy for such weapons. But Kennan’s proposal “was of little use in shaping immediate policy,” Gaddis writes. “He had become prophetic but no longer relevant.” In 1950, a restless Kennan, finding himself marginalized at the State Department, accepted an invitation to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the institute, with no students to teach and no courses to give, allowed a select group of scholars the opportunity to pursue whatever course of inquiry struck their fancy. It was to become Kennan’s home for the next half-century.
Not long after his arrival at this nirvana, however, he was chosen by Acheson to serve as ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was the opportunity he had long sought and the capstone of a lifetime of passionate fascination with Russian politics and culture. But it was soon to become a nightmare and the worst failure of Kennan’s career. Arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1952 he declared, in a grandiose reversal of roles, that “the Soviet leader must come to him, not the other way around.” Kennan’s impatience soon overwhelmed his training and judgment. En route to a meeting in London in September of that year, during a stopover in Berlin, he told a group of journalists that his isolation in the Soviet capital was “worse than he experienced as an interned diplomat in Germany after Pearl Harbor.” The Soviets responded to this insult, delivered in the capital of the nation that had so recently caused them such suffering, by declaring him persona non grata and demanding his recall from Moscow—the only American ambassador to be ejected during more than 230 years of diplomatic relations.
His colossal gaffe, unthinkable for a trained diplomat, made him non grata in Washington as well. John Foster Dulles, the newly appointed secretary of state to President Dwight Eisenhower, told Kennan that there was no position for him in the government. This was, Gaddis writes, “an inglorious conclusion to an illustrious career.” Kennan returned to Princeton and to the writing of books and in 1961 was offered a second chance at diplomacy when President John F. Kennedy appointed him as ambassador to Yugoslavia, nominally a communist state, but resistant to Moscow’s control. This offered an opportunity for creative diplomacy. Although he committed no gaffes, he soon grew restless again and resigned after only two years. “Kennan had never achieved the diplomatic equivalent of clinical detachment,” Gaddis writes. “Emotional fragility led to professional volatility.”
In assessing Kennan’s significance, Gaddis writes that his most important contribution was the policy of containment, which “illuminated a path by which the international system found its way from a trajectory of self-destruction … removed the danger of great power war, revived democracy and capitalism, and thereby enhanced the prospects for liberty beyond what they ever before had been.” Only Kennan, he concludes, “foresaw the possibility … that the United States and its allies might in time get the Soviet Union to defeat itself.” This may be reaching too far. Containment was never precisely defined, either by Kennan or those who later claimed to pursue it through military and political interventions, particularly in the Third World, that Kennan neither intended nor envisaged. Indeed, Kennan, after his departure from the government, eloquently inveighed, in a series of books and articles, against indiscriminate American interventionism. There is a certain irony that the progenitor of containment became one of the most ardent critics of the doctrine attributed to him.
George Kennan was, in his accomplishments, a man touched with greatness, but in his character, a conflicted and flawed one. The recognition of this paradox by John Lewis Gaddis lends depth and pathos to this admirably judicious and illuminating biography.