You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard the name George F. Kennan.
If you’re under 50, didn’t fixate, as many of us did, on the daily threat of nuclear holocaust from the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and have always seen Russia (aka the Soviet Union) as “the evil empire,” then George Kennan might simply be a footnote in a dusty old college international relations textbook. In one way or another Kennan touched all those issues and lived a full, complicated, fascinating and fruitful life as well.
Kennan was, at the same time, an absolutely fascinating and frustrating man; contradictions that make for the great story that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis details – warts and all – in his superb new biography. It is a testament to Kennan, the self-taught historian, that he gave Gaddis complete access to his papers, diaries, friends and thoughts and the result is biography on a grand scale.
And it is not too grand a statement to say that Kennan was the man more than any other to define Cold War foreign policy on both sides of the great capitalist/communist divide from the 1930’s to the end of the 20th Century.
Gaddis, like Kennan in his time, is a probing and distinguished scholar of foreign policy who has produced a book that surely appeals to anyone who cares about how the world we inhabit came to be this way. But Gaddis has also written a story of the life and struggles of a man who worked his way from junior diplomat in Moscow in 1933 to become the foremost scholar of American foreign policy, a position he continued to occupy until his death in 2005 at age 101.
The Guardian newspaper wrote upon his death that few people can “claim to have changed the shape of the age they lived in,” but Kennan certainly had. “Virtually singlehandedly, he established the policy which controlled both sides of the cold war for more than 40 years.”
As Henry Kissinger noted in his New York Times review of George F. Kennan – An American Life: “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.”
Kennan’s personal story is every bit as interesting as his public life. Born in Milwaukee, graduate of Princeton, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1925. He was sent to Moscow 1933 to set up the U.S. embassy when Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations with the Communist regime then headed by Josef Stalin. Kennan traveled extensively, wrote brilliantly and voluminously, mastered several languages, including Russian, and by the late 1930’s was in Berlin watching the world explode.
Back in Moscow in 1946, Kennan authored his famous “long telegram” that brilliantly dissected Russian post-war aims and served as the foundation for the development of his policy of containment.
Kennan came to deeply regret that his notion of containment, basically a willingness to confront the Soviets economically, culturally and with ideas, was perverted into becoming a purely military response. The conclusion of his long telegram stressed his essential belief that U.S. democratic values would eventually win the day against Soviet communist values.
“Finally,” Kennan wrote in 1946 in words that he would repeat time and again over the next half century, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”
Kennan’s approach to diplomacy – we could have used some of his clear thinking before stumbling into Vietnam and blundering into Iraq, two military misadventures that Kennan opposed – was to understand the motivations, the history, the culture, the literature, the fears and hopes of your adversaries and then to apply that knowledge to prevent confrontation. While he admittedly became more of a cynic about politics later in his life, he came back time and again to the belief that western democracies, if they were smart and true to their ideals, could win the battle of ideas with anyone.
Gaddis has written a brilliant biography; a history of the Cold War; a book about one man’s life that illuminates the path along which we came to the world in which we live. I cannot praise this book enough.