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Solving for X: On George F. Kennan | The Nation

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Solving for X: On George F. Kennan

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All of which thrust the subject of this sudden adulation into a deep funk. Although intensely ambitious and hungry for recognition, Kennan found it almost impossible to derive lasting satisfaction from any of his achievements. Morose and self-absorbed, he instinctively responded to any perceived slight or setback by being sorry for himself. Feelings of inadequacy and guilt (periodic marital infidelity evoked acute qualms of conscience) found expression in bouts of illness, real or imagined, that landed him in the hospital or confined him to bed, keeping him hors de combat for weeks on end.

George F. Kennan
An American Life.
By John Lewis Gaddis.
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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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Complementing this tendency to moodiness was Kennan’s relentlessly negative assessment of his country and countrymen. He disdained American culture as shallow and materialistic. He derided the political system, especially the deference accorded the unwashed masses by vote-grubbing office-seekers. “I hate democracy,” he complained in a letter to his sister. “I hate the press…; I hate the ‘peepul.’” That was in the 1930s. By the ’50s Kennan professed that “for my own country, I have not a shred of hope, not one.” By the ’80s he was describing the United States as “a wasteland, a garbage dump, a sewer.” “The America I know and love and owe allegiance to,” he once wrote, was the America “of John Hay and Henry Adams and [Theodore] Roosevelt”—that is, an America that had long since ceased to exist. In Kennan’s America, an “enlightened and responsible” elite would wield political authority, with the right to vote restricted to those possessing the proper “character, education, and inclination,” criteria intended to exclude blacks, most women and all city-dwelling Jews and Catholics recently arrived from Eastern or Southern Europe. This was elitism laced with bigotry and seasoned with a hint of authoritarianism.

Kennan, in other words, was a man distinctly at odds with the times (not to mention the culture) into which he had been born. As a consequence, Gaddis observes, he was “allergic to orthodoxy”—even (or especially) any orthodoxy he had played a hand in promulgating. No sooner had a strategy that Kennan was credited with devising become dogma than he commenced to pick it apart.

With its this-far-and-no-further premise, for example, containment necessarily meant that a Germany divided between East and West by the outcome of World War II should remain divided for the foreseeable future. Yet as early as 1949, Kennan was advocating withdrawal of all occupation forces to permit the reunification of a neutralized Germany, a prospect equally unacceptable to the Kremlin, America’s European allies and even most Germans. Containment’s us-against-them logic lumped together all communists as adversaries, unless proven otherwise. Yet in the immediate wake of Mao Zedong’s victory in China’s civil war, Kennan urged that the Truman administration act with “resolution, speed, ruthlessness, and self-assurance” to oust 300,000 Kuomintang troops from Taiwan “the way that Theodore Roosevelt might have done it.” State Department colleagues must have thought he’d taken leave of his senses; after submitting the proposal, Kennan withdrew it the same day.

As if perversely intent on soiling his own nest, the father of containment transformed himself into an archcritic of containment, which inevitably limited his further utility in policy-making circles. To Kennan’s considerable distress, he soon found that his views no longer commanded automatic attention. His renown remained intact, but his influence waned. Eased out of policy planning in late 1949, he never again wielded significant clout, although for years he nursed increasingly improbable hopes of being invited back to redeem American statecraft.

Kennan’s appointment as US ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1951, therefore, came as a sort of consolation prize. But this third tour in Moscow proved if anything more frustrating than the previous two. Stalin couldn’t be bothered to see him, which Kennan took to be a calculated affront. Feeling isolated and besieged, he had the CIA provide him with cyanide vials in case the need to commit suicide should arise. Less than a year into his assignment, talking to reporters while on a visit to Berlin, the ambassador compared living conditions in Moscow to his internment in Hitler’s Germany. When Kennan’s comments made the newspapers, the Soviets promptly declared him persona non grata. Gaddis suggests that Kennan’s gaffe was intentional, the most efficient way of arranging an exit and getting back to Washington, where the newly elected President Eisenhower might anoint him under secretary of state. But with the doctrinaire John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s choice to head the State Department, deeming Kennan insufficiently hawkish, no such appointment was in the cards. Apart from his brief service as President Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, Kennan’s direct involvement in policy-making had all but ended.

* * *

Yet a new career almost immediately commenced. Batting aside offers from various A-list universities bidding for his services, Kennan accepted J. Robert Oppenheimer’s invitation to join the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton. This remained Kennan’s base for the rest of his active life, nearly a half-century devoted to writing diplomatic history and darkly expounding on the issues of the day.

Kennan became a one-man Greek chorus, denouncing the crassness of American culture, lamenting the degradation of the environment and warning against the impending threat of nuclear apocalypse. His views enjoyed wide dissemination and always received a respectful hearing—before being promptly discarded. He was, in short, the embodiment of the public intellectual, “a mystic and a visionary,” according to Isaiah Berlin, at a time when Washington belonged to functionaries who knew the assigned script by heart and could be counted on to recite their lines.

As with other mystics and visionaries, Kennan could be unpredictable and even erratic. His proposed response to the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, for example, was to reinforce the US garrison in West Germany with another 100,000 troops. Yet in 1973 he insisted that Washington refrain even from expressing sympathy for Soviet dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov so as to avoid upsetting the Kremlin. The 1975 Helsinki Accords elicited sharp disapproval: “two years of wrangling over language…one of it committing anyone specifically to anything.” And when revolutionaries in 1979 seized the US embassy in Tehran, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the United States should simply declare war on Iran.”

None of these dubious judgments disrupted the flow of awards and recognition that Kennan steadily accumulated: two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, the Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes for history, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, more than two dozen honorary degrees—just about every trinket on offer apart from a Super Bowl ring.

All the while, Kennan lamented that his life had come to nothing, venting his unhappiness in his diary. “I have nothing to live for,” he complained soon after his formal retirement from government employment. “I am an exile wherever I go.” Or this: “I am utterly without relationship to this country and this age.” Or again: “I am determined that if I cannot have all, or the greater part, of what I want, no one is going to deprive me of the glorious martyrdom of having none of it.” Kennan wallowed in self-pity. “My role,” he wrote on another occasion, is “that of a prophet.”

It was for this that I was born. And my tragedy is to enact this part at a time when it becomes increasingly doubtful that there will, as little as ten or twenty years hence, be anyone left to recognize the validity of the prophecies, or whether, indeed any record of these prophecies will have survived….

Gaddis describes Kennan’s diary as “the most remarkable work of sustained self-analysis—and certainly self-criticism—since The Education of Henry Adams.” Based on the extracts reprinted in the book, the comparison seems misplaced. Unlike Kennan, Adams experienced significant personal tragedy (for one, his wife committed suicide). He also evinced a far more acute appreciation of the problems following in the wake of modernity, not least the moral confusion to which the advent of the machine age was giving rise. Adams possessed in abundance one quality that Kennan lacked altogether: a sense of humor. And, blessedly, Adams was not a whiner.

* * *

In his conclusion, Gaddis ranks Kennan among the great Americans of the twentieth century, locating that greatness in his “timeless, transcendent teaching.” This is an odd judgment, not easily sustained by the evidence that Gaddis has compiled in this fat book. In fact, Kennan’s “teaching”—if by that word we mean the public expression of his views—was all over the map, as likely to be informed by overstatement or ill temper as by wisdom and foresight.

Like many intellectuals, Kennan did best when confining himself to generalities: “We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.” In his education George W. Bush apparently overlooked that particular Kennanesque nugget, for which Americans have ample cause for regret. The Kennan oeuvre contains other aphorisms that would do Jeremiah proud: “Providence has a way of punishing those who persist long and willfully in ignoring great realities.” With Washington today willfully ignoring realities at home and abroad, that one stings.

Yet great teachers do not compromise truth. This Kennan did when promoting views to which he happened (if only in passing) to subscribe. One of his most memorable sentences comes at the conclusion of “The Source of Soviet Conduct.” After suggesting that the “thoughtful observer” should “find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society,” Kennan offered this peroration:

He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

This patently dishonest curtsy to American exceptionalism was violently at odds with what Kennan believed. Indeed, a few short years before, a letter to his sister included a rather different assessment of the United States: “Ignorant and conceited, we now enter blindly on a future with which we are quite unqualified to cope.” In the essay that made him famous, Kennan engaged in blatant pandering, suppressing his almost comically low opinion of his countrymen. Mr. X’s aim was not to educate or enlighten but to manipulate and sell. The sales job worked, of course, setting an example mimicked ever since by the demagogues who routinely cite history’s purposes and America’s supposedly special calling to promote US meddling in some far quarter of the globe. No wonder Kennan subsequently had occasion to regret his words.

Rather than a great man (does such a creature exist?), Kennan exemplifies the fate and the misfortune of someone an inscrutable Providence briefly smiles on and then just as quickly casts aside. Gaddis includes this observation by Bismarck: “By himself the individual can create nothing; he can only wait until he hears God’s footsteps resounding through events and then spring forward to grasp the hem of his mantle—that is all.” For a brief interval after World War II, Kennan faintly detected God’s footsteps and ever so briefly became history’s foot servant. Yet that moment soon passed, leaving the gloomy Kennan to spend the remainder of his life vainly trying to recapture it.

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