The Wilson Quarterly

A week after the death of Joseph Stalin, in March 1953, the new U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, called in George Frost Kennan, America’s most illustrious diplomat, to inform him that there was “no niche” for him in the Eisenhower administration. Nominally still the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, which had declared him persona non grata the previous year, Kennan (1904–2005) was not simply the leading American expert on the country, but also the author of “containment,” a strategy for resisting Soviet expansion by all measures short of war.

That was the trouble. Although containment had been (and was to remain) the cardinal principle of bipartisan foreign policy since shortly after Kennan had coined the term in 1946, it was deemed by the Republicans, in the age of McCarthyism and loyalty checks, to be too passive an approach. Dulles, with an eye to the ethnic vote in the 1952 presidential election, had replaced it with a clarion call for the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Kennan believed this was lunacy. There was no place in foreign policy, he declared in a speech in Pennsylvania the day after Dulles had stressed his commitment to liberation during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for “emotionalism, the striking of heroic poses, and demagoguery of all sorts.”

Bizarrely, on the day Dulles fired him and the whole Western world was pondering the implications of Stalin’s death, Dulles asked Kennan for his views, saying, “You interest me when you talk about these matters. Very few other people do.” It was, Kennan wrote, as if Dulles had asked his wife for a divorce, but added that he liked the way she prepared scrambled eggs and would she cook a quick plate for him before leaving.

Yet there was some method to Dulles’s apparent madness. Kennan was a national treasure, but a difficult and often wayward subordinate, who nurtured some very odd and lugubrious views about his own country that only seemed to ripen with time.

After his forced exit from the State Department, Kennan found refuge at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1957, he accepted a visiting professorship at Balliol College, Oxford, and an invitation to give that year’s prestigious Reith Lectures, an annual series of talks on public issues broadcast over the BBC. On the ocean liner heading for Europe, recounts Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis in his excellent new biography, Kennan drafted a lecture plan “that would begin with the sterility of American society, point out the overpopulated nastiness of the rest of the world, and conclude by proposing a new country composed of Great Britain, Canada, and the healthy parts of the United States (the South, Texas, and California would go elsewhere), with its capital to be near Ottawa. Democracy would then save itself from itself by half a century of benevolent dictatorship.”

Part of the difficulty that so many of his colleagues had with Kennan was that they were never sure if he had his tongue in his cheek, or indeed if he was capable of irony. The evidence of Kennan’s diaries, strewn with waspish rants about the awfulness of American culture and politics, suggests that he might have been serious. (Gaddis received full access to the diaries, from which Kennan had published only selected excerpts in his memoirs.) In the event, for the lecture he decided on a less controversial topic—the West and the Soviet Union in the age of the atom.

Kennan being Kennan, the lectures he gave proved controversial anyway. He proposed a withdrawal of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Soviet forces from Germany, which would be allowed to reunite on condition that it remain neutral. He also suggested that since the atomic arms race was suicidal, NATO was outliving its usefulness and its member states might reduce their armed forces to militias “somewhat on the Swiss pattern.” The Soviet Union, he could assure everyone, represented no military threat to Western Europe, so to strengthen NATO was to risk war, and to maintain it was to delay peace.

Only the year before, Soviet tanks had brutally re-established communist rule in Budapest after crushing the Hungarian revolution. At the same time, the Eisenhower administration had used its financial muscle to bully the British and French into ending their military intervention in Egypt to seize the Suez Canal. Since the Soviet leadership had simultaneously threatened “to rain missiles” on London and Paris if they did not withdraw their forces, this U.S. repudiation of its main allies had thrown NATO into deep confusion and dismay. Kennan was also speaking in the wake of the Soviet Union’s triumphant launch of the Sputnik satellite, an act of extraordinary technological prowess. So Kennan’s views, coming from a man still regarded as the strategic sage of the free world, caused great alarm in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Anxious diplomats pestered their American colleagues to ask if Kennan was speaking for America, or perhaps for the Democratic Party.

It fell to that other great American diplomat and Kennan’s former boss, Dean Acheson, to put Kennan in his place and to stress in a public statement that his views “most categorically” were not representative of Democratic policy. While Kennan was a great expert on Russian history and on Marxist-Leninism, Acheson said, he “has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” As for Kennan’s personal assurance that the Red Army was no military threat, Acheson asked, “On what does this guarantee rest, unless Divine revelation?”

Acheson knew Kennan well and admired him, though Acheson—a martini-loving lawyer and bon viveur—had little in common with the scholarly and self-doubting Kennan. The New England statesman and the insecure midwestern visionary had worked fruitfully together in that glorious postwar period of American grand strategy when the Marshall Plan and NATO were formed to wage the Cold War by nonmilitary means. Kennan had the ideas, and Acheson had the political talents to give them practical shape and get them implemented with (in the crucial early phases) bipartisan support.

Moreover, the Kennan whom Acheson had worked with in the Truman administration had been much tougher and more pragmatic than the Kennan of the Reith Lectures. His famous “Long Telegram” from the Moscow embassy in 1946 had galvanized the U.S. establishment out of its sentimental wartime view of Stalin. As Gaddis writes, “Only Kennan had the credibility to show, at a time when too many Americans still viewed the Soviet Union as a wartime ally, that for reasons rooted in Russian history and Marxist-Leninist ideology, there could never be a normal peacetime relationship with it: Stalin’s regime required external enemies.” Kennan’s genius lay in his parallel argument, that there was no need for despair, nor for appeasement, nor for war; the Soviet Union could be managed with “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” until the regime toppled under the weight of its own inefficiencies and its deepening unpopularity in its Eastern European empire.

From that grand design, Kennan, as head of policy planning at the State Department, and as State’s representative on the newly created National Security Council, helped craft the tools of political, economic, and covert war, which included an Office of Special Projects within the Central Intelligence Agency. The stakes were high; at one overheated moment Kennan even suggested military occupation of Italy if it appeared likely to vote in the Communists in the 1948 elections. He later came to regret the support he had lent to covert operations, but at a time when the Soviet Union had recently taken over Czechoslovakia in a postelection political coup, such measures were wholly consistent with the containment strategy he had devised.

It is extraordinary that a man of such influence and vision enjoyed a relatively limited career. Head of policy planning and ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia were the most senior posts he reached. But real power is not always measured by rank. Many far more senior and ostensibly successful figures had only a fraction of Kennan’s impact. As Henry Kissinger wrote in White House Years (1979), Kennan came “as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”

Yet Kissinger too found some of Kennan’s later advice to be outlandish, including one warning against the Kissinger-Nixon opening to China, which Kennan said would alarm the Soviets to a dangerous degree. But there were moments where Kennan chose correctly to challenge the conventional wisdom of the American foreign-policy establishment, and his first public critique of the Vietnam War, in December 1965, followed by his electrifying and nationally televised testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two months later, was a classic example.

The argument he made was realist rather than idealist: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.” And given that he had been the first American diplomat to recognize in Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia that cracks could be opened and widened in the Soviet bloc, and that local nationalisms would eventually trump Moscow’s priorities, his suggestion that Ho Chi Minh was no puppet of Moscow or Beijing carried force. Kennan’s bombshell may have contributed to the steep drop in early 1966 in the proportion of Americans who approved of how President Lyndon Johnson was handling the war.

More than 30 years ago, Kennan chose Gaddis, a professor at Yale and doyen of Cold War historians, to be his biographer, and granted him access to all of his papers. The resulting book is as sensitive to the quirks of the man as it is scholarly on the broader context of Kennan’s career. But this is no hagiography; Gaddis clearly rejects Kennan’s contemptuous dismissal of Ronald Reagan’s role in the Cold War endgame and finds some of Kennan’s fastidious critiques of American society and of democracy in general to be more than eccentric. To his credit, he deals with Kennan’s complex private life and his love affairs with judicious care, and persuasively scotches the rumor, circulated in Moscow in the 1950s, that Kennan had exposed himself to Soviet blackmail through an affair with a Russian woman. In sum, this is as near a definitive biography as we are likely to get of one of the most singular and significant Americans of his century.

It was always when he was most pragmatic and hardheaded that Kennan had the most influence, however much he was taken up by liberal and pacifist opinion. But in his anguished vacillations between idealism and realpolitik he was quintessentially American, embodying the characteristic schizophrenia of America’s global engagement with eloquence and grace.

* * *

Martin Walker is senior director of A. T. Kearney's Global Business Policy Council, a Wilson Center senior scholar, and author of The Cold War: A History (1994). His latest novel, Black Diamond, was just published. 

Reviewed"George F. Kennan: An American Life" by John Lewis Gaddis, Penguin Press, 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Cmacauley

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