November 09, 2011

A diplomat and an intellectual in the Cold War

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An admiring Henry Kissinger noted in 1979 that “George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” The origins of what became known as America’s Cold War policy of “containment” began with Kennan’s “long telegram” from the U.S. embassy in Moscow in February 1946 to his superiors in Washington. A much larger audience read his essay dealing with the same subject, in which the author was identified only as “Mr. X,” in the June 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs.

The 5,000-word telegram was provoked by a speech by Josef Stalin. The Soviet dictator congratulated his army, party, government, nation and, by implication, himself, on winning World War II. He only briefly mentioned his British and American allies and talked of increasing industrial production in his country because of capitalism’s tendency to produce conflict, as, he said, it had in 1914 and 1939.

Kennan, officially second in command at the embassy, was temporarily in charge as Ambassador Averell Harriman had departed and a new ambassador had not yet arrived. A keen observer of events in the U.S.S.R., steeped in Russian history and literature, as well as Marxist-Leninist ideology, Kennan’s telegram contained a brilliant analysis of where the U.S.S.R. government stood and what strategy could be devised to combat it peacefully. What came to be known as the “containment” policy was interpreted in different ways by others over the years. In his memoirs Kennan lamented that it had been applied to “situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance.”

The telegram was only one aspect of an incredibly long and productive life. Among other achievements, Kennan played a key role in the formation of the Marshall Plan and later served as U.S. ambassador to both the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia. As a policy strategist at the highest levels of government, he often disagreed with his colleagues. Later, as what we would today call a public intellectual, he was often critical of U.S. foreign policy and American culture. One of the lingering paradoxes of Kennan’s life was that he understood the Soviet Union better than he did the United States.

With such a distinguished career as a diplomat it may come as a surprise that, at least as early as 1934, Kennan wanted to become a writer. As noted Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis points out in his outstanding and surely definitive biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life, when Kennan was a student at Princeton University, “Literature, inside and outside of class, sparked [his] greatest interest, especially contemporary American novels.” Just as he was graduating, The Great Gatsby was published and, Kennan said later, “it went right into me and became part of me.” Kennan did go on to become an acclaimed author with two volumes of memoirs and works of history such as Russia Leaves the War. He received two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Bancroft Prize for his literary works.

Gaddis began working on this book almost 30 years ago. He conducted many interviews with Kennan, who lived to be 101 and died in 2005, members of his family and former colleagues. He was given access to Kennan’s papers, including his diaries, even a diary of Kennan’s dreams. Poetry by Kennan is included. Kennan understood that the book would not be published until after his death.

Kennan was a complex personality, and Gaddis does a masterful job of sifting through diaries and letters and recollections of those around him to establish what his true feelings may have been at any particular time. The biographer singles out three aspects of Kennan’s character which began to take shape when he was a young diplomat and would be retained for the rest of his life. One was his professionalism, both as a diplomat and as a historian. Secondly, there was a cultural pessimism (could what he regarded as “Western civilization” survive the challenges to it from outside forces and its own internal contradictions?). Thirdly, there was personal anguish and self-doubt. Gaddis also discusses his subject’s personal religious faith and is very good at showing what a stabilizing force Kennan’s wife, Annelise, was in his sometimes tumultuous life.

This excellent work brings us as close as we are likely to get to the life of an important American foreign policy strategist and historian.

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