The Contradictions of George Kennan

The Contradictions of George Kennan

Mini Teaser: George Kennan presents a study in paradox. With penetrating scholarship, John Lewis Gaddis explores Kennan’s complex psychology and provides an intellectual history of the Cold War in his comprehensive and wonderfully written biography.

by Author(s): Christopher Layne

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin, 2011), 800 pp., $39.95.

GEORGE F. KENNAN—diplomat, foreign-policy analyst, historian, social critic, memoirist—has been the focus of much scholarly attention. But it seems safe to say that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s comprehensive biography comes as close as any book ever will to being the final word on Kennan. Based in part on extensive interviews with his subject over a quarter century, George F. Kennan: An American Life provides a rich, warts-and-all (and warts there were) portrait of a man widely regarded as the author of America’s grand strategy of containment at the dawn of the Cold War. Meticulously researched and wonderfully written, Gaddis’s opus works on two levels: it penetrates Kennan’s complex psychology and personality with deep insight, and it offers up an intellectual history of the Cold War, seen through the prism of how Kennan’s views influenced, and failed to influence, American foreign policy during that tension-filled epoch.

There are poignant elements in the Kennan story. One is that while he understood perhaps better than anyone in Washington the Soviet regime’s inherent fragility, his two most influential writings—the famous February 1946 diplomatic cable known as the “Long Telegram” and the July 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs—led many to overstate the Soviet threat. Others in Washington, lacking Kennan’s intellectual suppleness and acuity, seized on his sometimes hyperbolic language to undergird their expansive postwar ambitions. Further, Kennan’s own contribution to U.S. actions with respect to the Marshall Plan had the effect, intended or not, of raising Kremlin fears about America’s European ambitions, thereby contributing to Cold War tensions.

The irony of Kennan’s story is that for all the attention showered upon him over the past sixty years, his government career was remarkably brief. During the two years after his “Long Telegram” in early 1946, Kennan’s star was in ascendancy in Washington. But then, as Gaddis notes, in early 1948 Kennan lost his footing and never really regained it. He ascribes this fall from grace to a complex—often contradictory—personality, which puzzled even his closest friends. Kennan was brilliant and ambitious but could be self-absorbed, insecure, moody, sensitive and prone to recurrent bouts of depression. In the Foreign Service and later, Kennan fretted that his voice did not carry the weight he thought it deserved and that his ideas weren’t taken as seriously as he thought appropriate. He didn’t take criticism well.

Gaddis writes that frustration was Kennan’s “normal state” and that he had trouble keeping his emotions apart from his strategies. The biographer hones in on the complexities of the Kennan persona when he notes that the diplomat “had the intuitions and insights—but also the volatility—of a poet.” For a life such as Kennan’s, this was both a strength and a weakness.

On the one hand, this temperament provided a rare gift of deep understanding, letting him see the structural interconnections of international politics and the possibilities for rearranging them in favorable ways. He was capable, writes Gaddis, of “projecting policy much further into the future” than his peers. On the other hand, this poetic nature led some—particularly the lawyerly and ever-practical Dean Acheson—to view Kennan as mystical, visionary, prophetic and a champion of wholly impractical policies. Kennan failed in the big policy debates of 1948 and 1949, so Gaddis suggests, because he could not translate his vision into recommendations for practical solutions.

Still, while Kennan’s tendency toward prophecy and dissent may have undercut his influence as a policy maker, it proved invaluable during his long “second act” as a thinker, writer and analyst based at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. During these years, he distinguished himself by warning of the dangers of Washington’s Cold War nuclear posture, advocating superpower disengagement as a means to ending the U.S.-Soviet face-off on the Elbe and emerging as one of the leading voices in the first generation of American foreign-policy realists. In each of these areas, he built his career upon ideas formed during government service.

DURING HIS foreign-service career, Kennan was right about the big things. He saw correctly that after World War II, the United States was far stronger than the Soviet Union. Hence, he believed, Washington should be cautious and patient, taking care not to overreact to Soviet policies. But others in Washington, focusing on “Long Telegram” and “X” article passages that depicted the Soviet Union in dark and menacing terms, hijacked Kennan’s own words to implement policies of which he did not approve. Gaddis writes, citing Henry Kissinger, that Kennan came “closer than anyone else to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era.” But, Gaddis notes, “after 1947 he could never regard the doctrine with which he was credited as his own.”

The “Long Telegram” and “X” article painted a frightening—even lurid—picture of Moscow’s intentions. The United States, said Kennan, faced a

political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] 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.

Moreover, in pursuit of these ambitions, the Soviet Union had the “power of disposition over energies of one of [the] world’s greatest peoples and resources of [the] world’s richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism.” As Kennan put it, the Soviet challenge was “undoubtedly [the] greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably [the] greatest it will ever have to face.”

Although Kennan believed the Soviet Union aimed to “destroy” the American way of life and “break” the United States’ global power, he also believed the Soviets would be hard-pressed to achieve those goals. He saw the Soviet Union as gravely weakened by the sacrifices of World War II. And he never viewed Stalin as a risk-taking adventurer such as Hitler. While the Kremlin might be “impervious to logic of reason,” he observed in the “Long Telegram,” “it is highly sensitive to logic of force.” Thus, Kennan said, “it can easily withdraw—and usually does—when strong resistance is encountered at any point.” Finally, unlike most U.S. policy makers at the time, Kennan understood that the Soviet Union was fragile and riddled with internal contradictions that threatened its long-term existence. Hence, its “internal soundness and permanence of movement need not yet be regarded as assured.” For these reasons, Kennan argued, the United States could “approach calmly and with good heart [the] problem of how to deal with Russia.” In a famous—and, he subsequently would claim, misconstrued—passage, Kennan concluded that:

Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.

In the “X” article, Kennan argued that the Soviet Union—far weaker than the West—“bears within it the seeds of its own decay” and “the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.” He also understood that Moscow’s sphere of influence in East Central Europe was a source of vulnerability, not strength. Kennan was, Gaddis reminds us, fond of quoting one of the more memorable passages from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which Gibbon warns that nothing is “more averse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations in opposition to their inclination and interest.” This is a lesson the United States has learned painfully in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kennan regarded the Soviet challenge with an equanimity born of his confidence that by displaying steely resolve and offering the world a political model worthy of emulation, the United States would checkmate Soviet ambitions, and the Kremlin’s ensuing frustration would cause “either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

ALTHOUGH THESE perceptions were warmly praised and widely embraced, Kennan never really spelled out his view of their specific policy implications. Should the Soviet threat be viewed in primarily military or political terms? Did containment mean the United States must react to all Soviet or communist thrusts, wherever they occurred, anywhere in the world? Kennan had answers to these questions, but he did not provide them in the “Long Telegram” or the “X’’ article. Thus, others filled the gaps and were able to shape U.S. policy in line with their own thinking.

The journalist Walter Lippmann, for example, used his column to criticize President Harry S Truman’s case for extending U.S. economic assistance to Greece (then in the midst of a civil war against communist insurgents) and Turkey (the target of Soviet political pressure). After reading the “X” article, Lippmann identified Kennan as an architect of the Truman Doctrine. As Gaddis observes, “This could not have been more wrong.” Yet, it is easy to see why Lippmann reached this conclusion. Instead of focusing narrowly on making the case to aid Greece and Turkey, Truman, in his March 1947 address to Congress, framed his policy as part of an open-ended commitment to support all “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

Perceptively, Lippmann feared that the Truman Doctrine’s logic would lead to a vast expansion of U.S. overseas commitments, result in strategic overextension and the enervation of U.S. economic power, and compel the United States to respond at times and in places chosen by the Soviets. Lippmann didn’t know that there actually was a high degree of overlap between his own views and Kennan’s. The “X” article understandably led him to think otherwise. As Kennan later commented, “Mr. Lippmann mistook me for the author of precisely those features of the Truman Doctrine which I had most vigorously opposed.” As Gaddis recounts, like Lippmann, Kennan wondered, “Why should a crisis in a single country become the occasion for an open-ended commitment to resist oppression everywhere?”

Between 1946 and 1949, the United States sought to establish its hegemony in Western Europe, and it was this ambition for dominance, not fear of the Soviet Union, that was the fundamental driver of Washington’s European policy in the aftermath of World War II. To attain its European goals, the United States embarked on what the diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler described as a “risk-taking” grand strategy, the centerpieces of which were the 1947 Marshall Plan and the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty that would evolve into NATO. Kennan played a big role in these policies, initially as an advocate for them and later in dissent.

Kennan’s first major task as director of the State Department’s new Policy Planning Staff was to devise the Marshall Plan’s architecture. The real impetus for the Marshall Plan was the U.S. interest in reviving Western Europe economically and creating a single, integrated market for U.S. exports. West Germany was Europe’s economic locomotive, and Washington wanted to harness this locomotive to Western Europe’s economic rehabilitation, which was viewed as far more important than the Soviet Union’s need for reparations. Put another way, rather than having West Germany go to work reconstructing the Soviet Union, Washington wanted to put West Germany to work rebuilding Western Europe. Step-by-step, Washington’s German policy gathered momentum, including the 1946 fusion of the U.S. and British occupation zones and the 1948 introduction of currency reform in West Germany. And each step furthered the basic American decision that a divided Germany was preferable to a reunified one. As historian Carolyn Eisenberg has observed, U.S. policy on Germany’s division was not a product of tensions with Moscow but rather a reflection that the United States “had developed a quite independent preference for a German partition.”

Kennan realized that the Marshall Plan and West Germany’s economic integration into a Western Europe dominated by the United States would heighten the Kremlin’s insecurity and provoke the Soviets to react defensively by tightening their grip on East Central Europe and East Germany. This is what happened. Moreover, as Leffler has argued, the Kremlin also viewed the Marshall Plan as “an attempt to penetrate the economies of eastern Europe, dilute the Soviet sphere, and reorient them westward.” In response to the Marshall Plan, in September 1947 Moscow established the Cominform to foment subversion abroad. Then, on February 25, 1948, the Kremlin orchestrated a coup that brought a communist government to power in Prague. As Gaddis observes, Kennan “for months had been predicting such a development,” which, he said, would be “a defensive response to the success of the Marshall Plan.” Finally, in late June 1948, the Soviets blockaded West Berlin. Although Kennan did not believe the Prague coup was part of a plan for “an unprovoked Soviet military conquest of Western Europe,” others in Washington did perceive it as such. As Gaddis remarks, “Kennan failed to anticipate the emotional response to the Prague ‘coup’ in Western Europe and the United States,” which led precisely to the counterresponse he opposed: accelerated negotiations for a North Atlantic Treaty and the Cold War’s increasing militarization.

From 1944 through 1947, Kennan had favored the division of Germany and Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence. But Moscow’s reaction to the Marshall Plan caused a profound revision of his views as he came to comprehend fully the portentous implications of U.S. policies that were leading to the Continent’s irrevocable partition. While a growing number of senior officials in Washington increasingly saw the Soviet threat in military terms—a view that culminated in the famous National Security Council Report 68—Kennan did not. As he put it, “It is not Russian military power which is threatening us; it is Russian political power.” The real danger, Kennan said, was the Kremlin’s ability to exploit the “profound exhaustion of physical plant and spiritual vigor” in Western Europe, the legacy of World War II. As Gaddis notes, Kennan warned that refocusing Western European priorities to a military buildup “would divert the countries involved from the more important task of economic recovery.” Of equal importance was Kennan’s opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty because he believed its creation would solidify the Continent’s division and put an end to the possibility of reunifying both Germany and Europe. Explaining the shift in Kennan’s thinking, Gaddis says:

The division of Germany, which he had been advocating since 1945 as a way of restoring a balance of power in Europe, was in fact removing power from Europe, concentrating it instead in the hands of the United States and the Soviet Union.

In an August 1948 Policy Planning Staff paper, Kennan recommended that the United States attempt to reach an agreement with Moscow on German reunification. While acknowledging the risks in pursuing a German settlement with the Kremlin, Kennan argued that if the West could get the Soviets to withdraw into Poland, or even into the Soviet Union itself, Western Europe’s security would be greatly enhanced. Even more importantly, Kennan believed that reunifying Germany was the only way to avoid what he called the “congealment of Europe along the present lines.” To prevent a recrudescence of the German problem, Kennan envisioned a reunified Germany being integrated into a European federation (something along the lines of today’s EU). By retracting Soviet and U.S. power to Europe’s periphery, he aimed to encourage the emergence of “a third force, which can absorb and take over the territory between the two.”

Kennan warned that if the United States proceeded to create a West German state and the Continent split into American and Soviet zones of control, “it would be hard—harder than it is now—to find ‘the road back’ to a united and free Europe.” On the other hand, a reunified Germany would “keep things flexible for an eventual retraction of Soviet power and for the gradual emergence from Soviet control, and entrance into a free European community, of the present satellite countries.” Kennan added: “Some day our forces must leave central Europe. Someday Soviet forces must leave. . . . The question is ‘when’?”

Kennan’s paper failed to gain much traction in the State Department, but, as Gaddis recounts, it was given a fresh lease on life by the new secretary of state Dean Acheson during the early months of 1949. But then Kennan’s plan was leaked to the influential columnist James Reston, who disclosed its details in a front-page New York Times story in May 1949. The leak reflected the fact that Truman’s foreign-policy apparatus was highly vested in Germany’s division and in the North Atlantic Treaty and was unwilling to risk having those policies undermined by taking up Kennan’s plan for German reunification.

WITH RESPECT to the inevitability of Germany’s division, who was right? Kennan or his critics? Historians have debated these issues for decades. Inevitably, the German question gets tied up in debates about the broader issue of the Cold War’s origins. Orthodox and neoorthodox historians attribute the Cold War to the effects of communist ideology and the impact of Stalin’s personality on Soviet policy. In their story of the Cold War, the United States is a passive actor, responding when threatened by purportedly aggressive Soviet actions. On the other hand, works by classical realist scholars in the early postwar years viewed the Cold War as the unavoidable consequence of clashing great-power interests, reflecting—largely implicitly but sometimes explicitly—the influence of realist international-relations theory. A later group of sophisticated revisionists—Melvyn Leffler, Daniel Yergin, Odd Arne Westad, Walter LaFeber—argued that the United States’ extravagant security strategy and ideological ambitions contributed greatly to the Cold War.

Most—though not all—Cold War historians today agree that it was the United States that took the initiative in dividing Germany. Less clear is whether there were possibilities for reunifying Germany as Kennan proposed, or whether Germany’s lingering partition was inevitable. A number of scholars have argued that there were potential missed opportunities for German reunification between 1946 and 1953, including overtures from the Soviet Union in 1952 (the so-called “Stalin note”) and 1953 (following Stalin’s death). Of course, we can never know what might have happened if the United States had pursued the issue with the Soviet Union. What we do know, however, is that Washington never had the slightest interest in doing so.

And so Kennan found himself swimming upstream. The United States controlled (as Lippmann described it) “the best part of Germany,” and most U.S. policy makers were unwilling to risk having it slip from Washington’s grasp. As Gaddis has written elsewhere, “Reunification would remain the declared goal, but neither the United States nor its allies would risk security or prosperity to achieve it.” Although Kennan’s position was the minority view in the State Department, he had some important allies. In 1948, Kennan’s reunification proposal was backed by two senior officials, Philip Jessup and Charles Yost. For a time during 1949, Acheson even gave Kennan’s ideas on German reunification a respectful hearing. But the momentum in U.S. policy for the North Atlantic Treaty and West Germany’s economic integration with Western Europe—policies that were fundamentally incompatible with German reunification—was too powerful to be overcome.

Of course, as Acheson said in May 1949—right after pulling the plug on Kennan’s plan following the Reston leak—the United States always was ready to reunify Germany “if the circumstances are right.” The “right” circumstances meant reunification on American terms, including guaranteed free elections, the continuing presence of American troops in Europe, reunified Germany’s economic integration into Western Europe and its membership in the U.S.-designed Western European security architecture. As Acheson said, if negotiations on German reunification took place, the United States could not “accept any proposal which would prohibit or limit the right of a unified Germany, or a Western Germany, to join the West and contribute to Western European defense.” Thus, for U.S. officials, the fundamental precondition for German reunification was, as Acheson put it, a change of heart by the Soviets and the willing alteration of their policy—something that Washington knew was not in the cards.

There is also an ongoing debate about whether Moscow’s 1952 and 1953 overtures represented a real chance to achieve German reunification.There is still too much we do not know to reach a definitive conclusion about the Kremlin’s sincerity. But we do know that the United States wasn’t interested in probing the Kremlin’s position. Washington had decided that German reunification would not serve American interests—unless, of course, the Kremlin accepted reunification on the basis of Washington’s conditions. In this respect, U.S. policy provides the answer to the question of whether 1952 and 1953 (and 1948 and 1949 as well) were “lost opportunities” with respect to German reunification. They were not lost opportunities because, barring an unlikely Soviet acceptance of its hard-line terms, the United States had no interest at all in German reunification.

In his December 1957 BBC Reith Lectures, Kennan—on leave from the Institute for Advanced Study and ensconced at Oxford’s Balliol College as holder of the George Eastman Professorship—revived his argument for a mutual superpower pullback in Central Europe. The 1956 unrest in Poland and Hungary caused him to fear that as long as East Central Europe simmered with resentment toward the Soviet Union, possible renewed turmoil could spill over and spark a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unless these tensions were eased, he believed, the United States could face a stark choice between acquiescing to the Kremlin’s long-term control of the region or risking renewed unrest that could escalate into a full-blown superpower conflict.

Kennan believed peace could not be assured so long as Soviet forces remained in East Central Europe. A departure could not occur, however, as long as the Elbe remained the focal point of tension between the superpowers. So Kennan proposed breaking the Cold War logjam by having both Soviet and American forces depart Central Europe. Disengagement would defuse the U.S.-Soviet competition, free the East Central European nations from Soviet control and bolster Western Europe’s security by retracting Soviet military power back to the Soviet Union itself. Kennan’s proposals were rejected outright by the United States and Western Europe. The most devastating rejection came from Dean Acheson. As Gaddis puts it, for Acheson, “Anything that might deflect NATO from its present path bordered on heresy—even the grand design of a former policy planner, the logic of which Acheson had once embraced.” The standoff along the Elbe continued until 1989.

THE RISK of nuclear war stemming from the superpower stare down in the heart of Germany led Kennan in 1982 to coauthor, with Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and Gerard C. Smith, an article in Foreign Affairs calling for the United States to adopt a “no-first-use” policy with respect to nuclear weapons. NATO’s 1979 decision to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles in West Germany and the United Kingdom sparked widespread public opposition both in the United States and Western Europe. It also illustrated the irrationality of Washington’s extended-deterrence policy. As Gaddis explains, when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in August 1949, Kennan had been one of the first to grasp that once the Soviets attained strategic nuclear parity with the United States—as they did by the mid-1960s—Washington’s security guarantee to Western Europe would no longer be credible (or, more precisely, that it would be incredible in both senses of the term). That guarantee rested on the U.S. threat to respond with nuclear weapons if the Soviets attacked Europe with conventional forces.

But in a world of superpowers with strategic nuclear parity, this would be tantamount to committing nuclear suicide, although few Americans understood this at the time. Nor did they understand that the missiles were deployed precisely as trigger mechanisms that would cause the United States to do reflexively what it never would do reflectively. The risks to Washington embedded in its extended-deterrence strategy are something the American policy establishment has never wanted to acknowledge. Although Henry Kissinger, in a recent New York Times piece, implicitly rebuked Kennan and his coauthors for their stance on no first use, he conveniently glosses over his own late-1970s views. In remarks—intended to be confidential—made in Brussels in 1979, Kissinger said, “Don’t you Europeans keep asking us to multiply assurances we cannot possibly mean and that if we do mean we should not want to execute, and which if we do execute would destroy our civilization?”

In 1951, Kennan published his American Diplomacy, a book that established him as a charter member of the postwar American realist school of international relations. Reflecting the key maxims of foreign-policy realism, Kennan consistently stressed that U.S. foreign policy should be based, as Gaddis puts it, on “self-restraint and the contraction of responsibilities.” Unlike those who have advocated a muscular foreign policy that exports American values, Kennan understood that efforts to transform the world are more likely to transform the United States itself. As Kennan put it in the “Long Telegram”—in words that President Dwight Eisenhower would echo—the “greatest danger” that could befall the United States in seeking to contain the Soviet Union “is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Kennan also understood that even a nation as powerful as the United States did not have the resources to intervene everywhere. Hence, it was important for policy makers to distinguish between those places where the United States needed to act and those where it could stand aside. He rejected the notion that pulling back from unwise or unsustainable commitments abroad would undermine American “credibility.” As Kennan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1966, “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

Gaddis says Kennan understood that although the foreign-policy aims of the United States were “infinitely expandable,” the means available to support those ambitions “could never be.” Hence, Kennan believed the United States should aim at shifting burdens to others by ensuring that “elements of independent power are developed on the Eurasian land mass as rapidly as possible, in order to take off our shoulders some of the burden of ‘bi-polarity.’” To do this, the United States needed to restore multipolarity to the international system. It was an “urgent necessity,” Kennan said, for the United States “to restore something of the balance of power in Europe and Asia by strengthening local forces of independence and by getting them to assume part of our burden.”

Here, Kennan understood that what international-relations scholars call polarity—the number of great powers in the international system—is a crucial factor for grand strategy. He realized that in the post–World War II bipolar system of two superpowers, there were no other independent poles of power to which the United States could devolve the responsibility for containing the Soviet Union, which meant that it would have to bear the lion’s share of the burden. Nor, in fact, did most policy makers in Washington wish it to be otherwise because they preferred a subordinate Western Europe to one that was a geopolitical equal of the United States. Simply put, most of them abhorred and opposed multipolarity. This, of course, is still U.S. policy even in today’s—rapidly waning—unipolar world.

Kennan was a rarity among U.S. policy makers and grand strategists during the last seventy years. He appreciated that multipolarity favored the United States because, in a world of several great powers, others could assume many of the strategic burdens that otherwise would weigh on the dominant power. Although Kennan was unusual in seeing the advantages of restoring multipolarity, he was not alone. John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, also championed a united Europe that no longer would need to rely on U.S. forces for its security. As Dulles said, “We want Europe to stand on its own two feet.” He added the United States provided Western Europe with perverse incentives to avoid the necessary steps to achieve political unity. The Marshall Plan and NATO, said Dulles, “were the two things which prevented a unity in Europe which in the long run may be more valuable” than continuing subservience to the United States.

Kennan feared the consequences of America’s propensity to engage in ideological crusades and understood that there were sharp limits to Washington’s power to mold a recalcitrant world in its own image. He frequently quoted John Quincy Adams’s dictum that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” As Gaddis observes, this “would become Kennan’s favorite quotation, and it reflected the shift in his thinking while on the Policy Planning Staff: the danger was now not that Americans would attempt too little internationally but that they would try to do too much.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Kennan emerged as an early opponent of the Vietnam War. In his February 1966 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he noted that “Vietnam is not a region of major military and industrial importance” and that events there did not affect the global balance of power. Even more importantly—invoking his favorite John Quincy Adams quote—he argued that the United States

should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country, and particularly not one remote from our shores, from our culture, and from the experience of our people. This is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully.

GEORGE F. KENNAN’S career is something of a foreign-policy Rorschach test: our reactions to his views tell us much about our own visions of America’s world role and about our judgments on the wisdom—or lack of it—of U.S. Cold War policies. Gaddis’s respect and affection for Kennan shine through in this book. So, too, does Gaddis’s disagreement with many of Kennan’s policy views, which are portrayed as visionary or impractical—and sometimes even “a bit weird.” Gaddis surely agrees with Kissinger’s verdict that there was no alternative to the U.S. decision to divide Europe and that Kennan’s “opposition to NATO, his critique of the Truman doctrine and his call for a negotiated American disengagement from Europe” were “unsettling” in their implications. What we see here is a foreign-policy dispute that goes back to the very beginning of the Cold War and continued through that epoch and up to our own time. The country’s foreign-policy establishment naturally wishes to protect its own orthodoxy, even two decades after the Cold War’s end, and naturally it takes a dim view of Kennan’s critique of its initial policy choices at the end of World War II.

Today, Kennan stands as perhaps the most trenchant critic of those decisions. In fact, there were other choices that could have been made, other paths that could have been followed. Through him we can see that, while in a bipolar world there would have been some form of Soviet-American rivalry, it nevertheless could have been more like a traditional great-power competition than the Manichean, militarized and global Cold War that actually occurred.

Gaddis ascribes Kennan’s failure to prevail in key policy debates to the impractical and visionary nature of his prescriptions and to his quirky personality. But there is a more compelling explanation: no one holding views such as Kennan’s could have prevailed because the dominant foreign-policy elite’s outlook differed greatly from his. He wanted to restore a balance of power to postwar Europe. They wanted to establish U.S. hegemony there. He wanted to reunify Germany and Europe. They wanted to keep Germany divided, wage the Cold War aggressively, and use it as a justification for extending American power. He wanted to alter the postwar status quo and create conditions that would allow East Central Europe to free itself from the Kremlin’s grip. While paying lip service to rolling back Soviet power, they invested in the Cold War status quo and thereby consigned East Central Europe to nearly a half century of submission to the Soviet Union. He understood the limits of U.S. power and the need for restraint. They saw American power as boundless and defined U.S. interests expansively—extending even to places such as Vietnam. He opposed running a continually escalating arms race. They allowed themselves to get sucked into one.

George Kennan’s tragedy was that his notion of containment was appropriated by others with a very different conception from his about America’s world role. In this respect, it could be argued that Kennan’s tragedy also was the tragedy of American diplomacy during the Cold War. As the Pax Americana winds down and the United States confronts an increasingly multipolar world and a rising China, we can only hope that Kennan’s counsels of prudence, balance, restraint and foreign-policy modesty receive a more sympathetic hearing than they did during the Cold War.

Christopher Layne is professor and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A & M University’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. His current book project, to be published by Yale University Press, is After the Fall: International Politics, U.S. Grand Strategy, and the End of the Pax Americana.

Pullquote: Kennan feared the consequences of America’s propensity to engage in ideological crusades and understood that there were sharp limits to Washington’s power to mold a recalcitrant world in its own image.Image: Essay Types: Book Review