Princeton University Press
Kennan: A Life Between Worlds By Frank Costigliola, Princeton University Press (2023)
[This article was first published by Policy Magazine]
As the author of America’s postwar policy of containment toward the Soviet Union that defined the core dynamic of the Cold War, it is hard to think of a foreign service officer with more enduring influence on US foreign policy than George Kennan.
Much has been written by and of Kennan. Historian Frank Costigliola has now supplemented his 768 pages of The Kennan Diaries (2014), with his 642-page Kennan: A Life Between Worlds (2023). It is only slightly shorter than the 800-page Pulitzer Prize-winning George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011) written by his fellow historian and official Kennan biographer, Yale University’s John Lewis Gaddis.
Kennan had a first-class mind. He wrote well, if at length. He developed an appreciation of European affairs through his postings and skill as a linguist. Kennan mastered Russian and achieved competence in German, Czech, Polish, French, Portuguese and Norwegian. His assignments included Geneva, Hamburg, Berlin, Moscow, Prague, Lisbon, London and then back to Moscow as deputy head of mission to Averell Harriman. But these were skills and experiences shared by others.
So, what made George Kennan special? Asked in February, 1945 to assess Soviet behaviour he responded with a dictated dispatch of 5363 words known as “The Long Telegram” — indeed, the longest telegram ever sent to the State Department. It was a summary of what he had been writing already, but this time its readership included President Harry Truman.
Kennan described a Soviet Union that saw itself surrounded by hostile powers. Compared with the West, the Soviet Union was economically and militarily inferior. So, its methods would be infiltration, subversion and opportunistic actions rather than an outright attack.That Kennan’s message hit the mark had as much to do with the moment as the man. It is a reminder that, in diplomacy, nobody hears your messages unless they are ready to listen.
Recognizing that there was “nobody like Kennan”, George Marshall, who had become secretary of state in January 1947, named Kennan head of the new Policy Planning Staff in May. With an office next to the secretary, Kennan helped draft the Marshall Plan and flesh out the Truman Doctrine.
Drawing from his Long Telegram, Kennan published ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’ under the pseudonym X in Foreign Affairs (July 1947). Articulating the fundamental thinking behind American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, it argued:
We are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with… The Soviet concept of power, which permits no focal points of organization outside the Party itself, requires that the Party leadership remain in theory the sole repository of truth… it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies… To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation.”
I underline the final sentence for its continuing relevance. Many have tried to emulate Kennan but the analytical framework set out in the ‘X’ article, grounded in his deep appreciation of history, culture and geopolitics, continues to set the bar. It remains required reading in any diplomatic history.
For Constigliola, the X piece is both Kennan’s “most famous success” but also his “greatest tragedy”. Rather than rely on Kennan’s approach of engagement and patient statecraft, successive US governments embraced a “vastly more militarized form of containment.” Dismayed that his advice was ignored, Kennan left the State Department. Still wracked by the neurosis that plagued him all his long life, Kennan found a place at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. It would become his professional home for much of the next half century.
For Costigliola, this was Kennan the ‘flawed genius’ who tried to live between two worlds, not always with success: Kennan the realist on Stalin and Soviet behaviour and Kennan the romantic on the Russian people.
Kennan received two more foreign service appointments. Sent by Truman in May 1952 as his ambassador to Moscow, Kennan was declared persona non grata five months later after he compared life in the Soviet Union with that during his time in Berlin under the Nazis. Almost a decade later, President John F. Kennedy, who admired Kennan’s writing, appointed him to Belgrade in 1961 but after two years he resigned in frustration over Cold War intransigence on both sides and returned to Princeton.
Kennan flourished as an author, commentator and public intellectual, appearing before congressional committees and giving private advice to successive administrations. He spoke presciently on current events, opposing the Vietnam War as an unnecessary intervention in a country that was not of vital strategic interest. Pushing NATO’s borders “smack up against those of Russia” during the 1990s was a mistake and he warned of “much trouble lying ahead in connection with the Ukraine.” He worried about growing dependence on Chinese manufacturing. He championed environmental protection and nuclear disarmament. “For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which you belong,” he exhorted the great powers in 1980, “cease this madness”.
Books flowed, notably American Diplomacy 1900–1950, his masterly Memoirs 1925–1950and Memoirs 1950–1963, Sketches from a Life and the essays in Around the Cragged Hill. Accolades and honours continued to come his way: with two Pulitzers and multiple National Book Awards, the Einstein Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As Ronald Steel wrote in the New Yorker on Kennan’s 100th birthday, Kennan had become America’s “national interpreter, conscience, and censorious judge.”
Privately, Kennan worried about the cultural impact on America of immigration and the emphasis on social justice. For Costigliola, this was Kennan the “flawed genius” who tried to live between two worlds, not always with success: Kennan the realist on Stalin and Soviet behaviour and Kennan the romantic on the Russian people. Kennan who extolled the virtues of a mythical past America and the America changing through immigration and different cultural norms with which he was increasingly uncomfortable. “It helps,” wrote Kennan, “to be the guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.”
I met Kennan twice while posted at our Consulate General in New York City (1978-81). We had an active Canadian studies program at Princeton and I would time my visits there to Kennan’s occasional presentations. Kennan did not disappoint, speaking critically of the new Reagan administration and its hawkish approach to the Soviets. His intellect and grasp of history were impressive. But as a person I found him cold and aloof. Perhaps he had seen enough of junior officers come to gawk at the great man.
By the time he died at 101 in March 2005, I was at our Embassy in Washington. Living just around the corner from the National Cathedral, I volunteered to represent Canada at his memorial service. As do so many farewells to America’s policy architects held at the stately landmark, the service drew the great and the good of the foreign policy establishment, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Former President Bill Clinton sent a letter asserting that Kennan “shaped the discourse and guided the policy of this country for more than 50 years” leaving “this world a better place than he found it.” It is a fair assessment.
What stuck with me, however, was an excerpt cited by the Kennan Institute’s director, Blair Ruble, from Kennan’s diary. Traveling by train for days across Russia in June 1945 with the war in Europe over and the war in the Pacific coming to a close, its poignancy is only underlined by our current circumstance:
“How much more must the traveler feel who sees with his own eyes the deprivations of the Russian people and their heroism…and with it all the wistfulness, the hope, the irrepressible faith in the future” Kennan writes, asking himself what to make of the “gifted, appealing people” whose lives “are set against a landscape that should drive one to despair.” “The answer is anybody’s,” he wrote. “But I, for my part, should have thought with the sights and sounds of Siberia still vivid in my mind, that in these circumstances [it] would be wisest to try neither to help nor to harm… and to leave the Russian people – encumbered neither by foreign sentimentality nor foreign antagonism – to work out their destiny in their own peculiar way.”
This is Kennan the romantic, inspired by the Russia of Tolstoy and Pasternak, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Alas, we now live in the age of Putin and Putin’s regime. Kennan the realist would, unhappily, have to characterize them as the heirs to the Russia of Stalin and Stalin’s regime.
Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a Fellow and Senior Adviser with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.