The Ghosts of Kennan and Lessons of the Cold War

Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, international relations, George Kennan

Kennan: A Life Between Worlds

By Frank Costigliola

Princeton University Press, 2023, 591 pp.

We all read him, those of us who did graduate work in U.S. diplomatic history in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For although there were other important figures in modern U.S. foreign relations, only one was George Kennan, the “father of containment,” who later became an astute critic of U.S. policy as well as a prize-winning historian. We dissected Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946, his “X” article in these pages from the following year, and his lengthy and unvarnished report on Latin America from March 1950. We devoured his slim but influential 1951 book, American Diplomacy, based on lectures he gave at the University of Chicago; his memoirs, which appeared in two installments in 1967 and 1972 and the first of which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and any other publication he wrote that we could get our hands on. (I figured there was no skipping Russia Leaves the War, from 1956, as it won not only the same awards garnered by the first volume of his memoirs but also the George Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.) And we dove into the quartet of important studies of Kennan then coming out in rapid succession by our seniors in the guild—by David Mayers, Walter Hixson, Anders Stephanson, and Wilson Miscamble.

Even then, some of us wondered whether Kennan was quite as important to U.S. policy during the early Cold War as numerous analysts made him out to be. Perhaps, we thought, he should be considered an architect of American strategy, not the architect. Perhaps the most that could be said was that he gave a name—containment—and a certain conceptual focus to a foreign policy approach that was already emerging, if not indeed in place. Even at the Potsdam Conference in mid-1945, after all, well before either the Long Telegram or the “X” article, U.S. diplomats understood that Joseph Stalin and his lieutenants were intent on dominating those areas of Eastern and Central Europe that the Red Army had seized. Little could be done to thwart these designs, officials determined, but they vowed to resist any effort by Kremlin leaders to move farther west. Likewise, the Soviets would not be permitted to interfere in Japan or be allowed to take control of Iran or Turkey. This was containment in all but name. By early 1946, when Kennan penned the Long Telegram from the embassy in Moscow, the wartime Grand Alliance was but a fading memory; by then, anti-Soviet sentiment was a stock feature of internal U.S. policy deliberations.

Still, the 1946 telegram and the 1947 article were remarkable pieces of analytical writing that explained much about how U.S. officials saw the postwar world and their country’s place in it. That Kennan soon began to distance himself from containment, and to claim that he had been grievously misunderstood, that the policy in action was turning out to be more bellicose than he had envisioned or wanted, only added to the intrigue. Was he more hawkish regarding Moscow in this early period than he later claimed? Or had he merely been uncharacteristically loose in his phrasing in these writings, implying a hawkishness he did not feel? The available evidence suggested the former, but one held off final judgment, pending the full opening of Kennan’s personal papers and especially his gargantuan diaries, which spanned 88 years and ran to more than 8,000 pages.

These materials were indeed rich, as the world learned with the publication of John Lewis Gaddis’s authorized biography, three decades in the making, which appeared to wide acclaim in 2011 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Gaddis had full access to the papers and made extensive and incisive use of them. Then, in 2014, came the publication of The Kennan Diaries, a 768-page compendium of entries ably selected and annotated by the historian Frank Costigliola. Scholars had long known about Kennan’s prickly, complex personality and his tendency toward curmudgeonly brooding, but the diaries laid bare these qualities. What emerged was a man of formidable intellectual gifts, sensitive and proud, expressive and emotional, ill at ease in the modern world, prone to self-pity, disdainful of what he saw as America’s moral decadence and rampant materialism, and given to derogatory claims about women, immigrants, and foreigners. 

Yet in one key respect, Kennan’s diaries proved unrevealing. Like many people, Kennan journaled less when he was busy, and there is virtually nothing of consequence from 1946 or 1947, when he wrote the two documents on which his influence rested and when he began to reconsider fundamental assumptions about the nature of the Soviet challenge and the preferred American response.

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs