George F. Kennan: An American Life
by John Lewis Gaddis.
New York: The Penguin Press. 2011. 784 pp. $40.

William Manchester in his acclaimed biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, introduced his subject as a “thundering paradox of a man.” The same could be said for George F. Kennan, whose long and interesting life is the subject of a new biography by the renowned historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis.

How else to describe someone who in the mid-to-late 1940s authored the most consequential foreign policy doctrine of the Cold War, then spent the rest of his professional life distancing himself from that doctrine; who understood earlier than most Americans the nature of the geopolitical threat to the U.S. and the West posed by the Soviet Union, yet became an apologist for the Soviet regime; who strongly urged President Truman to refrain from sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet Union, yet later called upon President Reagan to adopt a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament; who planned covert operations against the Soviet Empire in the late 1940s, yet dismissed as dangerously provocative efforts to exploit Soviet vulnerabilities in the 1980s; who criticized Congressional investigations of communist subversion, yet fed information to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; who skillfully represented his country and its interests abroad as a diplomat and ambassador, but became increasingly alienated from the culture and mores of his country; who in his personal life stayed married to the same woman for more than seventy years, yet had several affairs; who studied the global balance of power as a hard-headed realist, but had trouble separating his emotions from his analyses; and who understood Russia and Russians better than he did his own country and its citizens.

George F. Kennan: An American Life explores these contradictions and more, while detailing the life and times of a remarkable and complex man. Gaddis had unrestricted access to Kennan and all of his papers, including his diaries which spanned the years 1916 through 2003, and that constitute, in Gaddis’ opinion, “arguably the most remarkable work of sustained self analysis—and certainly self-criticism—since The Education of Henry Adams.” Gaddis also received from Kennan what he calls “the greatest gift an authorized biographer can receive . . . the complete freedom to say what I pleased.”

Kennan lived a long and eventful life (he died at age 101), and Gaddis appropriately covers his childhood and college years in two brief chapters. He was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in February 1904, and lost his mother two months later when she died of a ruptured appendix. His father was a tax attorney who amassed a large library “from which George read extensively.” Kennan’s brother Kent recalled that their family was “very straight-laced.” George attended a grade school in Milwaukee that emphasized grammar and German. At the age of 13, he attended St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. He subsequently did well academically in college at Princeton, demonstrating a great interest in history, politics, languages, and literature.

In 1926, Kennan joined the Foreign Service because, in his own words, he “did not know what else to do.” After training at the new Foreign Service School and apprenticing in the State Department, he was temporarily dispatched to Geneva to help at an arms control conference, then sent to Hamburg, Germany. Unhappy, Kennan almost resigned from the Foreign Service, but decided to stay on when the State Department offered him an opportunity for graduate studies at a European university on the condition that he would become proficient in one of several languages, including Russian. As Gaddis notes, “[d]espite the absence of formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, Kennan chose Russian, supposing that there would someday be official Americans there.”

Kennan eventually studied Russian at the University of Berlin, but first had to perform consular duties at Berlin, then Tallinn, as part of the Riga legation, which at the time, Gaddis explains, was “the principal American listening post for Soviet affairs.” Kennan read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov to peer into the Russian character and soul. It was during this time in Berlin and the Baltic Republics, writes Gaddis, that Kennan’s “character began to take on much of the shape it would retain for the rest of his life.” This included his professionalism and reputation as one of the best young Russian specialists; his cultural pessimism about Western civilization; his “realistic” approach to foreign policy; and his pessimistic view of communism and the future of Soviet-American relations.

In 1933, the new U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and appointed William Bullitt as our first ambassador. Bullitt recruited Kennan, Loy Henderson, Chip Bohlen, Elbridge Durbrow, and Bertel Kuniholm to his embassy staff. These Foreign Service officers, Gaddis writes, “would shape Soviet-American relations well into the Cold War.” None more so than Kennan.

Kennan spent more than four years at the Soviet embassy where he and his colleagues wrote numerous dispatches to the State Department on various topics, including the Soviet economy, Stalin’s purge trials, Russian history, the 1936 Soviet constitution, and the everyday life of Soviet citizens. The Soviet regime, Kennan noted, was hostile to all outsiders. “Our position, “ he explained about embassy life in Moscow, “is precisely that of enemy negotiators in a hostile camp in time of war.” This reflected Ambassador Bullitt’s views, too. “It must be recognized,” Bullitt wrote in one of his last dispatches from Moscow, that the Soviet Union was a “foreign power whose aim is not only to destroy the institutions and liberties of our country, but also to kill millions of Americans.”

Bullitt was succeeded as ambassador in 1937 by Joseph E. Davies who had a much more benign view of Stalin’s regime. “[Davies] knew nothing of the Soviet Union,” writes Gaddis, “but was sure that powerful men were the same everywhere and that he could, through the force of his own personality, get through to its leaders.” This attitude did not sit well with Kennan and other career officers, and embassy morale soon suffered. Davies recommended that Kennan be reassigned and the State Department found a position for him in Washington in its new Division of European Affairs as its Russia specialist.

Kennan’s next overseas post was in Prague as secretary of the American legation. Czechoslovakia was then the focus of world attention. The Western democracies were poised at Munich to sacrifice Czech security for an illusory peace. Kennan, ever the realist, initially greeted the Munich agreement with relief, Gaddis explains, because armed resistance to the more powerful Germany would be futile. Hitler’s subsequent occupation of all Czech territory, however, shattered most illusions that Germany’s geopolitical ambitions were limited.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 caught Kennan and most of the world by surprise. When the Second World War began in Europe with Germany’s invasion of Poland and the declarations of war by France and England, Kennan was transferred to Berlin. He wrote to his wife that Berlin would likely be a “nasty assignment,” and he feared that Europe was disintegrating. America, he believed, had better start to rearm itself.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Kennan advised Washington to provide material aid to the Soviets “whenever called for by our own self-interest,” but warned against identifying ourselves too closely with the feared and detested Soviet regime. Stalin, he wrote, had “no claim on Western sympathies,” having been complicit with Hitler in the latest partition of Poland. This was, writes Gaddis, “a typical Kennan memorandum, relentlessly clear-sighted in its assessment of European realities, yet wholly impractical in its neglect of domestic political necessities in Washington and London.” To persuade their publics to aid the Soviet war effort, FDR and Churchill (to a lesser extent) would portray Stalin’s regime as an heroic wartime ally.

Kennan’s wartime service included internment for five months by the Nazis at a hotel in Bad Nauheim with 135 other Americans; counselor to the U.S. legation in Portugal; political advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Britain; and counselor at the Moscow embassy (under Averill Harriman). During this time Kennan also read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which offered lessons in imperial overstretch that he would later apply to his analysis of Soviet vulnerabilities. At the Moscow Embassy, Kennan wrote essays and assessments that attempted to warn official Washington of the hostile and aggressive nature of the Soviet regime based on Russian history and communist ideology, and the geopolitical implications of the de facto division of Europe that would result from the war. Of particular note were two lengthy essays, “Russia—Seven Years Later” and “Russia’s International Position at the Close of the War with Germany,” which, unfortunately, had no impact on U.S. policy at war’s end.

Kennan’s impact on U.S. foreign policy, though profound and lasting in its consequences, was limited in time to about three years: 1946–1948. First, he sent the so-called “Long Telegram” (5,000 words) from Moscow which restated much that he had written before about the historical and ideological roots of Soviet behavior and concluded that no permanent modus vivendi was possible between the Soviet Union and the West. Gaddis calls it “the geopolitical equivalent of a medical X-ray, penetrating beneath alarming symptoms to yield at first clarity, then comprehension, and finally by implication a course of treatment.” Unlike his previous assessments from the Moscow Embassy, the Long Telegram was widely read and discussed by colleagues in the State Department, the Army and Navy, and current and future policymakers in the Truman Administration.

Second, Kennan organized and led the State Department’s new Policy Planning Staff where he authored several important and classified papers for the new National Security Council that helped shape America’s post-war grand strategy. In this role, he also anonymously (as “X”) wrote his most famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which appeared in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs and advocated a policy of “firm and vigilant containment” of Soviet expansionism—a policy that dominated America’s approach to the Cold War.

Third, Kennan helped devise U.S. policies to provide economic assistance to war-torn Europe that became known as the Marshall Plan.

Containment as envisioned by Kennan in his “X” article included “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. . . .” The policy, he wrote, was “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.” Such a policy, he concluded, would result in “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Critics of containment emerged almost immediately. The respected journalist Walter Lippmann wrote a series of columns (later collected into a book entitled The Cold War) that attacked Kennan’s strategy for proposing to commit the United States to defend areas of little or no strategic interest. The noted political philosopher James Burnham (a former OSS officer and consultant to the CIA who, curiously, is not mentioned by Gaddis) wrote three books between 1947 and 1951 that criticized containment as too passive and proposed an alternative policy of “Liberation.” Meanwhile, critics on the ideological Left viewed containment as unnecessarily provocative to a Soviet regime that, in their view, only sought security against another invasion from the west.

The most interesting critic of containment, however, was George Kennan. Within the Truman administration he argued for the neutralization of Germany, opposed the formation of NATO, advocated cutting off aid to the Nationalists in China, promoted the idea of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in 1950, and dissented from NSC-68 (the classified blueprint for containment). He claimed thereafter that the “X” article had been misinterpreted and militarized by policymakers (downplaying his advocacy of firm and vigilant “counter-force”). By 1949, Kennan’s influence on policy making was over. With the exception of two brief ambassadorial posts (Moscow in 1952 and Yugoslavia in the early 1960s), Kennan never again held a full-time government position.

What he did professionally for the rest of his life was lecture and write prolifically about history, international relations, and contemporary affairs, mostly from the academic setting of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. His best diplomatic history books cover the time period from the end of the Bismarckian world order through the First World War. His special focus was Russia, both under the last Czars and the early Bolsheviks. Gaddis notes that although Kennan never professionally trained as a historian “the study of history was at the center of his preparation for diplomacy and strategy.” History taught Kennan, Gaddis explains, that the “great enemy was abstraction, which promised perfection while denying the imperfections of human nature.”

Kennan in time came to be regarded as one of our country’s “wise men,” periodically consulted by policymakers on important foreign policy matters. As he aged, however, he became even more alienated from what he perceived as the decadence of our culture and the unseriousness of our polity. It is not too much to say that he ultimately lost faith in democracy, believing that the United States could be better governed by an enlightened council of state.

In the last decade of the Cold War, Kennan in essence repudiated his original conception of containment “to the point of seeing his own country, not the Soviet Union, as the principal threat to international stability.” He was harshly critical of President Reagan despite the fact, as Gaddis points out, that Reagan’s approach to Cold War strategy accepted Kennan’s main argument in the “X” article that the Soviet empire contained within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Therein lies the final paradox: despite his forty-year effort to distance himself from containment, Kennan’s place in history rests ultimately on his authorship of the Long Telegram, the “X” article, and Policy Planning Staff assessments that provided the intellectual architecture for the grand strategy that won the Cold War.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of book cover imageSomewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War (Hamilton Books), which recounts his father’s experiences in World War II from Omaha Beach to the Elbe River. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.