Kennan: A Life Between Worlds
By Frank Costigliola.
Princeton University Press, 2023. 
Hardcover, 648 pages, $39.95.

Reviewed by John C. Chalberg.

Biographies of George Frost Kennan can have tales of their own. Or so concludes Kennan’s most recent biographer, Professor Frank Costigliola of the University of Connecticut. In 1982, then septuagenarian Kennan granted a still youthful John Lewis Gaddis, then of Ohio University, exclusive access to his papers. Shortly thereafter, he anointed Gaddis as his official biographer with the understanding that the book would not be published while Kennan was still living. And therein lies a tale.

Beset by various ailments, many of which were serious, and each of which Costigliola examines and re-examines in some detail, the George Kennan of 1982 could not have anticipated living for virtually another quarter century. But he did. In fact, he would not die until March of 2005, or a month after his 101st birthday.

It is also likely that Kennan did not expect that his hand-picked biographer would gradually change his mind about his subject’s signature accomplishment, namely his authorship of the containment doctrine that laid the intellectual groundwork for the Cold War strategy of the United States. But he did. The result would be a biography that did not quite conform to what Kennan had originally had in mind. 

It would be 2011 before John Lewis Gaddis, now of Yale University, would finally come forth with his long ago authorized biography. It is unlikely that a single issue explains the delay, but Costigliola suggests that a major issue must have been the same that had long divided Kennan and various White House administrations. The application of the containment doctrine that Kennan had initiated with his now famous “long telegram” from Moscow and his subsequent “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs. 

For virtually the entirety of his post-“Mr. X” life, Kennan had contended that he had never intended that containment should lead to an American militarization of the then infant Cold War. In his mind containment was to be a prelude—and a spur—to diplomacy. The goal of that “Kennanish” diplomatic effort was essentially threefold: Keep the Soviet regime where it was until it mellowed or collapsed, work toward a united but neutralized Germany, and toward a more peaceful world generally.

 A proud man, George Kennan primarily wanted his biography written for reasons of policy rather than personal pride. After all, he had spent years seeking to de-escalate, de-fuse and de-nuclearize the Cold War. The biography was to be the capstone of that effort; hence his ever-heightening interest in wanting the book to be published, even as he continuously foiled that effort by remaining alive.

For his part, Gaddis seemed to have been in agreement with Kennan as he began his project. But the more he labored on the biography the more he became convinced that an American military presence in Europe, best expressed by a NATO that included West Germany, was a Cold War necessity. That presence kept the peace, while also keeping the Soviets out of western Europe; hence what Gaddis praised as the “long peace” (to borrow from the title of another of his books), as well as the long delay in publishing this biography. 

Costigliola seems to have had no similar change of mind. It is his contention that the American militarization of the Cold War was a mistake for which he holds Kennan significantly, but far from exclusively, responsible. Here is Costigliola: “In the long telegram and in his ‘X’ article, Kennan simplified to the point of distortion the challenges presented by the Soviet Union.” To be sure, he continues, “Kennan realized that the Kremlin represented a political and ideological rather than a military challenge to Western Europe… Nevertheless, he allowed his frustration and ambition to conjure up a Soviet menace so existentially frightening that his manifestos would assume a life of their own.”

As far as Professor Costigliola is concerned, any Soviet military menace to Western Europe was largely a figment of the bipartisan imaginations of American policy makers from Truman and Acheson to Eisenhower and Dulles and beyond. Furthermore, he seems to have divined that that was essentially Kennan’s estimate as well—and not just belatedly and gradually, but even at the time that he had “conjured up a Soviet menace” in both his “long telegram” and his subsequent “Mr. X” article.

Here is the Costigliola take on the political atmosphere following World War II: “While Communist ideology was attractive to many in restive Western Europe, the decision to abandon capitalism for socialism would be made, if at all, by the people of France or Italy, rather than by a Soviet invasion.” 

Therefore, there is little to no doubt in Costigliola’s mind that the combination of the long telegram and the “X” article “helped create the monster of a militarized Cold War.” In the end Kennan was wrong twice over. He was wrong to “conjure up” a Soviet menace in the first place, and he was wrong to deny his having conjured it up in the second place. Costigliola credits Kennan with doing his best to “combat this beast for decades,” but he then criticizes him for waiting “until nearly the end of his life (to) acknowledge his responsibility for having helped create it.”

There you have it. The Cold War was primarily an American mistake. Worse than that, it was a mistake made on the basis of advice, insights, and rhetoric provided by the country’s premier Russian authority. To borrow once more from Costigliola, Kennan, having “realized that mistake,” proceeded to spend much of the rest of his life a) failing to take responsibility for his role in making this mistake, and b) trying and failing to rectify it.

After leaving the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department in 1950, Kennan was a private citizen for almost the entirety of the rest of his life, save for a brief and aborted stint as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and service as Ambassador to Yugoslavia during the Kennedy administration.

Whether ensconced in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study or at home on his beloved Pennsylvania farm, Kennan had plenty of time to write and lecture—and grouse. Much of his grousing was confined to what would become his voluminous diary. Costigliola tells us that Kennan was especially committed to his diary when he was either out of government service or not being listened to or both at once, which no doubt accounts for its great volume.

While Costigliola may not be thankful for Kennan’s contribution to the militarization of the Cold War, he has to be thankful that Kennan’s government essentially either ignored him or refused to take his advice for most of the rest of his post-“Mr. X” life. The more that he was rejected, the more reason he had to grouse. And what better vehicle for grousing could there have been for a shy Midwesterner than a diary, a diary that Professor Costigliola has found very useful for his own purposes.

Costigliola at once seeks to cut Kennan down to size and offer him some back-handed praise. If the George Kennan was wrong to open the door to a militarized Cold War, he was right to make many of the cases that he made for American foreign policy over the course of the last half century of his life.

In the world according to Costigliola, Kennan was right to favor a united and neutralized Germany; he was right to oppose the expansion of a militarized version of containment to Asia; he was especially right to oppose the Americanization of the war in Vietnam; he was right to oppose the creation of NATO in the first place, as well as its expansion in the 1990s; he was right to question and oppose a nuclear policy of Mutual Assured Destruction; and therefore he was right to think that the United States should shoulder much of the blame for the Cold War.

But the diary is useful for Costigliola’s other purpose as well, even if that purpose may well wind up contributing to Costigliola’s working at cross-purposes in this biography. If the Gaddis biography emphasizes the public Kennan, with some reference to his private life, Costigliola reverses that emphasis. In fact, in probing into the inner life of this very private man, Costigliola offers us a portrait of an individual who was not always the detached, remote, highly rational figure that he appeared to be and undoubtedly tried to be.

The subtitle of the book, “a life between worlds,” captures the tensions in Kennan’s life in more ways than one, maybe even in more ways than Costigliola intended. Most obviously, Kennan lived his life caught between America and Russia. More specifically, he lived it caught between the Russian people (whom he generally seems to have liked) and the American people (whom he generally seems to have disliked).

But Kennan’s was also a life lived between his remote and widowed father and his dead mother’s family. (His mother would die a few weeks after Kennan’s birth, leaving a scar that never really healed, and therefore a scar that Costigliola frequently sees fit to return to in these pages.)

Kennan also lived a married life that was caught between his highly intellectual self and his not-at-all-intellectually-inclined Norwegian wife. Then there was a Kennan, or at least Kennanish, life that had to be negotiated between official Washington (with which he was almost always at odds, but from which he was never psychologically divorced) and the American electorate (from whom he felt divorced and for whom he had a good deal of contempt and very little affection).

Not to be ignored, because neither Kennan nor Costigliola could ignore it, was the surprising, even stunning, life that George Kennan lived between the two worlds of “Eros and Civilization.” Apparently, the diary was often a place to confess as well as grouse. Costigliola avoids concrete, might we say X-rated, details, because “Mr. X” likely did the same in his diary entries, but this biography explores these tensions, if not any escapades, at great length. 

A devotee of Freudian psychology, Kennan was apparently forever poised between the pull of the former and the demands of the latter. More than that, Kennan was convinced that Eros was not just a sexual urge. It also contributed to his intellectual creativity and added to his appreciation of beauty in all its realms. And as for those sexual urges? Let’s just say that for George F. Kennan such urges often proved to be uncontainable.

Lastly, George Kennan’s was a life lived psychologically and emotionally bouncing between the 18th and 20th centuries with more than occasional pauses in the 19th century of the Russian artist he most treasured, Anton Chekhov. In many respects, Kennan often seemed to be much more at home in either of the two previous centuries, if only because he was often ill at ease in a 20th century that was overly urbanized, industrialized, and automated. For Kennan, highways were the “most deserted places I had ever encountered,” while any road clogged with cars symbolized “the sad climax of individualism” in America.

Perhaps less surprisingly, both Kennan, the diplomat, and Kennan, the historian, were much more comfortable among autocrats than among democrats. Discovered among his papers was a never-published “book fragment” which Kennan composed in Moscow in the late 1930s. Titled “The Prerequisites,” he called for a vast overhaul of the American government. Disparaging both the “fetish of democracy and the specter of dictatorship,” he urged a “new national government” that would steer Americans away from anything that was “purely individualistic and selfish.” In Costigliola’s words Kennan’s goal was a “frankly authoritarian state run by selfless young patriots such as himself.” Here is the deep state before there was a Deep State.

And yet George Kennan, the cosmopolitan, multi-lingual, professional diplomat, was also the kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who knew how to handle chores and repairs on his Pennsylvania farm. Costigliola also refuses to gloss over a few other facts of Kennan’s life, including his retention of many of the prejudices and failings of his Midwestern forbearers, far from the least of which were expressions of anti-Semitism and misogyny. In other words, some of Kennan’s private views were very much akin to the public and private views of the American electorate that he privately disparaged.

Here Costigliola himself might be finally caught. Unlike John Lewis Gaddis, this unauthorized biographer finds himself in general agreement with the foreign policy views of the post-“Mr. X” George Kennan. And yet his portrait of this particular “X”-pert gives the reader ample reason to question reliance on government by experts. After all, Professor Costigliola himself is not at all hesitant to criticize both the overly emotional Kennan of “Mr. X” fame and the alleged experts in many subsequent administrations who persistently refused to listen to him.  

Today the country finds itself in the middle of an ongoing controversy concerning what is sometimes called the administrative state or otherwise called the Deep State. Who should be supreme? Our elected representatives or our professional experts? Costigliola seems to think he knows how Kennan would answer this question, but one can only wonder which side the good professor might finally take in such a debate.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota. 

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