Why George Kennan Thought He Failed His Biggest ChallengeHistorians in the News
tags: Cold War, national security, foreign policy, biography, diplomatic history, diplomacy, George Kennan, Containment
Patrick Iber is an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.
Kennan: A Life Between Worlds by Frank Costigliola (Princeton University Press)
George Kennan is considered a singular figure in U.S. diplomatic history. In a life that spanned 101 years—from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to that of George W. Bush—he won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award twice, the Bancroft Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Albert Einstein Peace Prize. Henry Kissinger, perhaps his only rival for influence as a scholar-diplomat, described him as having come “as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” His authorized biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, called him “the most graceful prose stylist to serve in Washington in modern times.” But George Kennan was frequently full of regrets. He felt, over much of his lifetime, that his advice was ignored, his contributions misunderstood, and that he himself was personally inadequate.
For such a prolific writer, Kennan’s legacy is bound up with two short pieces. One is, ironically, known as the “Long Telegram”—at around 5,400 words, it broke traditional limits for State Department communication. In 1946, the Truman administration was trying to work out its policy toward the Soviet Union, which had only recently been an ally in the war against the Axis powers but now appeared hostile and suspicious. Kennan, who had served multiple postings in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, provided an explanation. He described the USSR as a “force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary 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.” It circulated quickly and widely.
The next year, Kennan made a second legendary contribution via an article published in Foreign Affairs, which initially appeared under the pseudonym “X.” That article, “THE SOURCES OF SOVIET CONDUCT,” similarly warned that the Soviet Union was driven by ideology. Nonetheless, he insisted, it remained far weaker than the Western world, and “may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential.” Kennan advised a “policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” Though his writings were not the only sources for these ideas, they were forceful and powerful justifications for policies on which the United States was embarking.
But the “architect of containment” soon began to be dissatisfied with the way the contractors were erecting the building he had designed. Already by 1948 he was complaining that he had not intended containment to be a militarized program of confrontation. In the more than 50 years that he lived after that, he was a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy. Considered one of the founders of realism—the doctrine that the United States should pursue its interests, not have a foreign policy driven by moral considerations—he frequently criticized U.S. military interventions abroad, from Vietnam to Iraq. He believed strongly—and said quite clearly in both the Long Telegram and “THE SOURCES OF SOVIET CONDUCT”—that the United States had to do work at home in order to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
But Frank Costigliola—who, like Gaddis, is a distinguished diplomatic historian—was not convinced. Gaddis’s traditional interpretation of the Cold War, in which a morally and institutionally superior United States prevailed, in the long run, against a totalitarian enemy, caused him to be dismissive of Kennan’s criticisms of U.S. policy. Kennan had once selected Gaddis to be his authorized biographer because they agreed on the shallowness of some New Left historians’ criticisms of Kennan’s early work. But as Kennan survived much longer than he expected, he himself seemed to have had doubts: He recorded in his diary at age 96 that Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle” he “was waging … against the almost total militarization of Western policy towards Russia.”
Costigliola has been on the Kennan trail since at least 1997. He edited Kennan’s diaries, which appeared in a published volume in 2014. His new biography of Kennan tries to take seriously Kennan as a critic of U.S. policy, rather than Gaddis’s Kennan-as-grand strategist. The book succeeds in making the disparate parts of Kennan’s career seem a coherent whole, rather than surprising phases in tension with one another. It is the fullest portrait of Kennan yet available, though it also knocks up against the limits of biography to explain larger forces. All of Kennan’s biographers, however critical, are impressed by his status as a “great man.” But the more one reads, the less important that greatness seems.
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