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Kennan, Character and Country

Kennan, Character and Country

Mini Teaser: John Lukacs offers an intimate portrait of one of America's great strategists in George Kennan.

by Author(s): Sean R. Singer

John Lukacs, George Kennan: A Study of Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 207 pp., $26.00.

En route to Moscow to serve as Ambassador Averell Harriman's minister-counselor in June 1944, George F. Kennan spent two miserable days in Baghdad. Musing on America potentially supplanting Britain as the dominant Western power in the region, he wrote in his diary:

"Are we willing to bear this responsibility? I know-and every realistic American knows-that we are not. Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy toward areas remote from its own territory."[1]

Over sixty years later, Kennan is enjoying a renaissance, as academics (Ian Shapiro), think tankers (John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven) and pundits (Peter Beinart) reflect on his legacy and see important lessons for our present trials and tribulations in Iraq and beyond. Almost six years after 9/11, the Bush Administration's approach to the War on Terror has generated popular frustration, and thus a look back at the origins of another ideological conflict-the Cold War-and the ideas of a man who history proved clairvoyant despite his earlier marginalization, makes sense.

Most studies of Kennan emphasize his contributions to Cold War strategy from 1944-1950, a miniscule portion of his lengthy life. Unfortunately, his inaccessibility as an individual has, in some cases, facilitated the misappropriation of his strategic legacy, and so to truly grasp Kennan's impact, we need a broader and more personal examination, which is exactly what historian John Lukacs provides in George Kennan: A Study of Character.

Chronicling Kennan's character is no easy task. Many commentators have neglected analyzing the man in favor of the strategist. But his character is inextricably bound to his place in history; each informs the other and cannot stand alone. Kennan's fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle said over 160 years ago: "Could we see them [great men] well, we should get some glimpses into the very marrow of the world's history." Lukacs sees Kennan and provides a glimpse into the marrow of America and the world's experience in the twentieth century. George Kennan is not a biography because it does not feign objectivity. It is a panegyric, Kennan's friend's deeply personal appeal to a country that insufficiently appreciates one of its great sons.

His strategic brilliance, his foresight and his accomplishments as an historian alone do not sufficiently elucidate Kennan's character and its importance. We must understand what drove Kennan to such great heights. The intellectual rigor and honesty with which he approached international relations, his incessant study of history and its relation to the United States, and his capacity to look beyond the horizon helped precipitate America's postwar ascent. Lukacs does not seek to canonize Kennan-he had faults, he was wrong at times, and many readers may find his disinterest in international human rights and democracy unpalatable-but in an era when so many Americans feel their country has gone astray, a man who relied on his character to clearly and thoughtfully articulate his vision for the United States is enlivening. And so with a literary style reminiscent of a deferential, omniscient narrator, Lukacs tells Kennan's story.

Ascent and Departure

At the beginning, Lukacs introduces the reader to a reserved, lonely and humble 18-year-old Princeton student. "I see myself, emotionally and personally, as a rather ordinary youth, assailed by very ordinary weaknesses and passions", Kennan reflected. (This humility is much like that of a young Henry Adams, with whom Lukacs compares Kennan favorably-more on this later.) The young collegian maintained a separation between himself and the elite sons of Princeton, a gulf that would define his social relations with such men for much of his life. Surprisingly, the young Kennan flirted with former-Princeton President Woodrow Wilson's liberal internationalism, but its appeal soon faded, and Kennan joined the Foreign Service following graduation.

After posts in Europe, Kennan sought advanced studies and resigned from the Foreign Service. Fortunately, the chance intervention of a senior officer dissuaded Kennan from quitting, and he studied Russia through the State Department in Berlin.

During these years, Kennan achieved a respite from his chronic isolation through marriage, which, like much of his persona, was evocative of a previous epoch. He wed a Norwegian woman, Annelise, in 1929. Lukacs does not hide his own affection for Annelise, who provided her husband with love and support through professional ups and downs-of which there were many-for 76 years.

After completing his studies, Kennan had achieved, among Foreign Service Officers, an unparalleled understanding of Russia; its language, culture and history. In 1933 he moved to Moscow to serve under William Bullit, America's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. In the shadow of the Kremlin, over a decade before the Long Telegram, the young, then-pedestrian diplomat put his indefatigable intellect to work, starting on a path that would lead to the highest echelons of American government.

Lukacs crucially emphasizes that Kennan's anti-communism was not akin to that of so many Americans, especially Joseph McCarthy's vicious and hysterical brand (Kennan reviled this paranoia and fanaticism, and Lukacs describes him as an anti-anti-communist). In other words, it was not superficial or political: it had an intellectual and historical depth. Kennan believed that Marx was wrong: class struggles did not drive history-nations and states did. (He also had his reservations about democracy, particularly the potential for domestic influences to supercede national interests in foreign policy.) And this applied in Soviet Russia, where it was not dialectical materialism, but, as Lukacs writes, "an age-old Russian, here and there even Byzantine, element in the politics of Stalin and his cohorts: an ancestral suspicion and fear of human differences and of the outside world that explained almost everything of the brutalities and dishonesties of that regime." As a witness to the domestic repression in the USSR throughout the 1930s, Kennan knew that Marxism was playing second fiddle to old-fashioned Russian nationalism.

Today, such arguments might be derided as racist (or right on the money in some circles). Cultural sensitivity towards non-European cultures, to couch it in diplomatic language, was not Kennan's forte. (He had especially bigoted words for Iraqis during his 1944 visit, writing: "What of the possibilities of service in Baghdad? A country in which man's selfishness and stupidity have ruined almost all natural productivity.") His intolerance aside, Kennan's experiences in Moscow laid the foundation for what would become containment. He expressed these ideas and others in his legendary Long Telegram of 1946. "George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history", Henry Kissinger later observed. But as Kennan further refined these ideas, they eventually put him at odds with much of the foreign policy establishment after he returned to Washington to lecture and, in 1947, head George Marshall's Policy Planning Staff.

But Kennan's vision of containment was hardly instructive in concrete policy matters-it was no roadmap. As Yale historian and Kennan's official biographer John Lewis Gaddis writes, "The very act of transforming expertise into policy guidelines distorted that expertise, Kennan believed."[2] Policy guidelines would strip America of the flexibility associated with classical diplomacy, but guidelines and directives were what policy implementers needed, and even Kennan recognized the challenge of selling a strategy resting on "the unfirm substance of the imponderables." Dean Acheson bluntly recalled: "[Kennan's] recommendations . . . were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not have been sound, but his predictions and warnings could not have been better."[3] Containment existed in the abstract, and Kennan's conscious decision to preserve its amorphousness contributed to his own fading influence.

Paul Nitze succeeded Kennan at policy planning and Nitze's authorship of NSC-68 in April 1950 and its Manichaean language exemplified the vast divide separating Kennan and most of the Truman Administration, which might come as a surprise to those self-proclaimed heirs to both strategic legacies. "The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatical faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world", NSC-68 read. To Kennan, there was nothing new or unprecedented in Russia's actions and thus he sought to divide the communist world along nationalist lines, anticipating Tito's split with Stalin in 1948 (though it occurred sooner than he expected) and the Sino-Soviet split years later. (On Sino-Soviet issues, to his death, contrary to the policies of American presidents since Nixon, Kennan saw greater value in a relationship with Russia than with China, Lukacs reminds us.)

By 1953, Kennan's diplomatic career was all but over. In his final days in Foggy Bottom, Lukacs writes, "He occupied a desk somewhere on the lower levels of the State Department building, where he worked and read and wrote. There, too, he was now alone." Solitude remained a common thread throughout the life of Kennan, who knew the role of outsider better than most.

In Kennan's case, however, "outsider" did not carry a negative connotation-quite the opposite, for it reflected immunity to groupthink and commitment to his principles. But did Kennan embrace the role of outsider and contrarian to his own detriment? It is a worthwhile question Lukacs does not adequately explore.

Essay Types: Book Review