For students of twentieth-century American statecraft, George Kennan has long ranked as an intriguing figure, second in that respect only to Henry Kissinger. But unlike Kissinger, who served as both national security adviser and secretary of state (for a time holding both offices simultaneously), Kennan never occupied a top-tier position. A career diplomat who never actually dictated policy, he provided a rationale or framework for those who did. As Kissinger once wrote, “Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” Yet power resides not with the author of a doctrine but with those who order its transformation into policy and then control its implementation. This Kennan never did.
Very much like Kissinger, however, Kennan continued to cast a long shadow for decades after his nominal departure from public life. He remained a presence. What he said and wrote mattered—or at least seemed to. The Kennan mystique derives less from the imprint he left on policy than from the elusiveness of his outlook and character. When it came to expressing his views, Kennan was never one to hesitate. He wrote compulsively. Over the course of a long life—he died in 2005 at age 101—he left behind an enormous paper trail, consisting of official documents, Congressional testimony, lectures, essays, well over a dozen books (including his two-volume memoirs), letters, diaries and even poetry. Kennan the poet will never rank alongside Robert Lowell or William Carlos Williams. As a prose stylist, however, he could display an almost ethereal grace, which either explains or makes more mystifying his perpetual complaint about others never quite grasping what he meant. Throughout his life, he remained—and almost certainly wished to remain—difficult to label or to pin down.
John Lewis Gaddis’s achievement in this comprehensive official biography is to unwrap the Kennan enigma. Enjoying unprecedented access to all Kennan’s papers, having interviewed Kennan and members of his family, Gaddis has taken the measure of his man. Yet even while insisting resolutely on his subject’s claim to greatness, Gaddis succeeds chiefly in revealing Kennan’s frailties and foibles. The man in full turns out to have been all too human.
Born in Milwaukee in 1904—his mother died shortly after his birth—Kennan grew up in a strait-laced middle-class household where propriety took precedence over affection. After graduating from a nearby military high school, he enrolled at Princeton, where he demonstrated an aptitude for history while also immersing himself in contemporary American fiction, with fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald being a particular favorite. The Great Gatsby, he later recalled, “went right into me and became part of me.” In his memoirs, Kennan portrays his college years as a melancholy period of isolation and loneliness. Gaddis demonstrates that the truth was otherwise: Kennan enjoyed himself at Princeton, cheering for the football team, playing in dance bands and participating as an upperclassman in the ritual hazing of first-year students.
A summer spent rambling through Europe with a college chum convinced Kennan, at loose ends regarding his future, that diplomacy might provide a suitable career. Upon graduation from Princeton in 1925, he successfully applied for a position in the newly created Foreign Service. After a diplomatic apprenticeship in Geneva and Hamburg, he jumped at a State Department offer to train as a Soviet specialist—this at a time when the United States had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It was a life-altering decision. Kennan became a Russophile, with an abiding fondness for Chekhov.