Solving for X: On George F. Kennan

Solving for X: On George F. Kennan

Unwrapping the enigma of the career diplomat who wrote the Long Telegram.


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.

His affinity for Russian culture and admiration for the Russian people were matched only by his loathing of the Soviet system, which he encountered firsthand in 1933. With commercial considerations uppermost in mind, the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, decided that year to restore relations with the Kremlin, appointing William Bullitt as US ambassador. The State Department posted Kennan to Bullitt’s staff and charged him with reopening the US embassy in Moscow, closed since the Bolshevik Revolution. Kennan remained in Moscow until 1936, having by then long since concluded that anyone expecting a “friendly” Soviet-American relationship to bloom was simply naïve.

Assignments to Prague, Berlin (he was interned for five months after Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941) and Lisbon followed. By 1944 he was back in Moscow, serving as right-hand man to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. Courtesy of Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union were now allies of a kind. Yet Kennan’s second posting in Moscow did nothing to improve his opinion of the Soviet system.

* * *

The Soviet-American alliance did not survive the collapse of Hitler’s Reich. And in February 1946, with US officials already gripped by an increasingly anti-Soviet mood, Kennan—chargé d’affaires during Harriman’s temporary absence—sent Washington the most influential cable ever drafted by a career diplomat. According to Gaddis, a leading scholar of the cold war who teaches at Yale, the so-called Long Telegram—more than 5,000 words in all—was “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.”

Yet as in business or entertainment or politics, so too in statecraft: timing is everything. In this instance, Kennan’s was exquisite. “Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do,” he wrote in his memoirs. “They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.” Mustering all the assurance acquired during the years spent studying and dealing with the Soviet government, he unleashed a thunderbolt. Further efforts to get along with the Kremlin were pointless. Soviet ambitions and US interests were irreconcilable. Protecting those interests required a radically new approach—a sustained and comprehensive effort to prevent any further expansion of Soviet power. Over time—not likely to be very long in Kennan’s estimation—such a strategy of containment would cause the Soviet Union to collapse from within.

As an exercise in expository writing, Kennan later remarked, the Long Telegram resembled “one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Kennan classified the Soviet leadership as “neurotic” and the Soviet system as “archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.” Whatever the accuracy of this assessment, in policy circles it elicited an enthusiastically positive response. Kennan’s missive, Gaddis acknowledges, served in effect to “provide the rationale for the course upon which the [Truman] administration had already embarked.”

In an instant, Kennan’s reputation was made. Summoned back to Washington, he soon became director of policy planning, a position created by Secretary of State George Marshall to address questions of basic strategy. As the go-to guy on all matters related to the Soviet Union, Kennan bent himself to the task of converting containment from concept to policy. Out of the ensuing period of intense activity came all manner of large initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO and early experiments with covert dirty tricks, some succeeding (funneling money to anti-communist Italian political parties, for example), others failing abysmally (attempting to subvert the Kremlin-aligned government of Albania). In each of these episodes and more, Kennan was in the thick of things.

Not least of all, an essay called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the handiwork of a mysterious “X,” appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, instantly becoming a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in public policy: here was the definitive explanation of why the USSR behaved as it did and how the United States needed to respond, the essential themes of the Long Telegram repackaged for public consumption. The roughly five minutes it took enterprising journalists to identify Kennan as the essay’s author catapulted him from influential insider to intellectual celebrity. In the world of ideas, doors swung open. Publishers, editors, columnists, the presidents of universities and foundations: everyone wanted a piece of Mr. X.

* * *

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.

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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