Born in 1904 during Teddy Roosevelt’s first Administration, and dead on March 24, 2005, under a very different kind of Republican rule, George Kennan took his last stance as a public intellectual when he was about to turn 100. The issue was the impending invasion of Iraq. Kennan considered it ill advised. The official justifications for war struck him as flimsy, the servile reaction by the leadership of the Democratic Party “shabby and shameful.” When Colin Powell traveled up to Princeton later to pay homage on Kennan’s hundredth birthday, the Secretary, though doubtless aware of these views, nevertheless saw fit to liken the Iraqi operation to containment.
Till his dying days, Kennan could not get away from supposedly having been the “architect” of containment, the master signifier and reference point of all US foreign policy since the beginning of the cold war. He was 42 in 1946 when he wrote (or rather dictated) the so-called Long Telegram in Moscow, the text that, along with the famous “X-Article” in Foreign Affairs the following year, came to establish rigidly the official view of the Soviet danger and, putatively, the containment doctrine designed to deal with it. I doubt he imagined that he would live nearly another sixty years; and I am quite sure he didn’t think he would have to spend a good number of them regurgitating what he really meant and didn’t mean by “containment.” Kennan considered Powell an honest person, and the latter may actually have believed what he said; but his remarks must have perturbed the old man then, as they might perturb Powell now (then again, probably not). Containment was Kennan’s claim to fame and his everlasting curse.
Whatever the meaning of containment, a “doctrine” it was decidedly not: Kennan would recoil at the congenital US affinity for “doctrines” to be applied across the geopolitical board. Containment, by contrast, was a simple answer to an altogether too simple analysis of what the Soviet Union was all about. Kennan argued that Moscow, for specific historical and ideological reasons, was inherently expansionist and utterly inimical to the West, indeed to all forms of power not under its own control. To placate or “deal” with this regime, as Franklin Roosevelt had tried to do, was hopeless and counterproductive. The Soviet Union and its allies could only be contained, stopped in their tracks, thwarted in their natural logic of expansion. The regime should be treated as a pariah, not just as a hostile but recognizable political competitor. Real diplomacy and negotiation were counterproductive until, in effect, the Soviet Union ceased being the Soviet Union.
The decisive aspect of these two texts (whose internal contradictions and errors I leave aside) was precisely Kennan’s prescriptive refusal to deploy the traditional means of diplomacy in relations with Moscow, his insistence that nothing serious could be achieved by way of negotiation on fundamental issues of mutual concern until the entire nature of the regime had changed. I take this to be the decisive aspect of the cold war as well, the aspect of warlike hostility under formal conditions of peace that made the conflict a cold war as opposed to a nasty but essentially traditional conflict of international relations. In my view, this posture fundamentally shaped US foreign policy until the early 1960s, when the Cuban missile crisis, the Sino-Soviet split and other factors rendered it largely obsolete. Kennan’s responsibility for the cold war, it would seem, was thus far from negligible. Perhaps Powell had a point?