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Kennan, Warts and All

A new biography examines a flawed but brilliant public servant who helped define the Cold War and the Marshall Plan.

By 12.12.11

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George F. Kennan: An American Life
By John Lewis Gaddis
(Penguin Press, 784 pages, $39.95)

One of the more poignant moments in the massive new biography of George F. Kennan describes him leaving the State Department in Washington for good. There was no place for him in the Eisenhower government. A receptionist held back tears as he passed by on his way to the elevator.

Biographer John Lewis Gaddis calls it an "inglorious conclusion to an illustrious career. For no Foreign Service officer had … more significantly shaped grand strategy at the highest levels of government. None had created, if inadvertently, a 'school' of international relations theory. And yet Kennan walked out of the State Department on June 23, 1953, with hardly anyone noticing. He was not prepared to reflect … on how this had happened."

Gaddis, a distinguished professor of history and strategy at Yale University, explains in painstaking detail how the headstrong young Kennan had risen so fast, accomplished so much, then lost his way in the labyrinth of the international relations bureaucracy.

The book dissects a man who was part prophet, part poet, part visionary -- but no diplomat in the true sense of the emotional detachment required to report on events abroad. He proved too volatile for the ambassador's chair in Moscow and ended up expelled, probably on Stalin's direct orders.

Kennan had a taste for the long-form memo, so exhaustive that his languid prose often was not read by the addressee.

But he was finally noticed when his secret "long telegram" on Soviet strategy hit Washington in 1946 during his earlier posting to Moscow under Ambassador Averell Harriman. Gaddis devotes a chapter to this seminal event under the title "A Very Long Telegram." This one did get read and distributed, and led to decades of "containment" policies to confront the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union. Kennan soon objected to the perversion of his vision, however, as "containment" came to mean many things and to have a military basis.

But it was his penchant for fine writing rather than data that ultimately helped bring his Foreign Service career to a premature close.

Under Secretary of State David Bruce told biographer Gaddis he reached a point where he no longer read Kennan's memos "because they were so long-winded and so blatantly seeking to be literary rather than provide information."

Even Harriman found many of his judgments "too impractical to be acted upon" and when the two men disagreed, Harriman recalled that he ignored Kennan's point of view. "I simply didn't bother to waste time to argue. It didn't amuse me to do so." Elsewhere, Harriman said Kennan understood Russia but not the United States.

 George Frost Kennan was born in a modest family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and graduated from Princeton University in 1925. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service fresh out of school and began a series of low-level postings, first in Geneva, then Hamburg, then Riga. President Franklin Roosevelt established diplomatic relations in 1933 with the Soviets and Kennan found himself in Moscow working for the first U.S. ambassador, William Bullitt. Gaddis describes their fruitful partnership in some detail. Kennan's Russian was sufficient to allow him to act as embassy interpreter. He moved on to Prague in 1938, then to Berlin as Germany began to march. When the United States entered the war, Kennan was interned in Germany with other U.S. diplomats for nine months.

Although he grew impatient with the Foreign Service for ignoring his counsel, he was pleased to be back in Moscow working for Harriman in 1944. Two years later, in response to a request from Washington, he sent his 5,500-word telegram – the longest on Foreign Service history – to the State Department. The following year, President Truman was quoting from it in Congress to support his pledge in the Truman Doctrine to protect Greece and Turkey militarily in the event of Soviet aggression there. Thus Kennan was thrust into the origins of the Cold War and the Marshall Plan.

Gaddis describes Kennan's influence in Washington in 1947-48 as the peak of his official career when he was chosen to establish what is now known as the Policy Planning Staff. But tensions with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles became intolerable. Dulles had described Kennan as a "dangerous man" when they clashed over China's admission to the United Nations and again over the decision to send MacArthur's forces across the 38th parallel in the Korean War, and they never worked well together subsequently.

Kennan fulfilled a series of Washington missions in the 1950s, served briefly as ambassador to Moscow, then was chosen by President John Kennedy to become ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961. He resigned two years later over differences in policy and returned to the United States in 1963. At this point, he permanently joined the Institute for Advanced Study, where he pursued his true vocation as historian and writer. He produced 17 books, twice winning the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Award.

This Gaddis biography has stirred the foreign affairs establishment to a high pitch for its account of the crucial debates and decisions in American foreign policy during the period leading up to World War II and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, saw it all, commented on it all, and was a participant in much of it.

Heavyweights have lined up to read and judge the book and the man, sometimes harshly, sometimes kindly, sometimes with ambivalence. Henry Kissinger, Louis Menand, Frank Costigliola, and David C. Engerman have all had their say.

Kissinger called Kennan "one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants." He was "endlessly introspective and ultimately remote," Kissinger wrote in the New York Times.

A curious thread in these thoughtful Kennan commentaries is the question of his haughty attitude toward the American common man. In American Diplomacy, the first of his 20 books, he went so far as to question the usefulness of American democracy. He saw democracy as a "monster the size of this room with a brain the size of a pin."

His candid comments in his diaries leave no doubt about his antipathy for the average citizen. In a long diary entry, he wrote: "I should never be able to hide my intellectual despair, above all -- my despair with U.S. society."

He added that he could leave the United States "without a pang, the endless stream of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshields, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, the hot dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick boxes, the country-clubs, the bars-and-grills.… All of this I could see recede behind the smoke of the Jersey flats without turning a hair."

Menand, a former Princeton professor and close observer of Kennan's career, believes Kennan had "little love for, or even curiosity about, the country whose fortunes he devoted his life to safeguarding." Kennan judged his compatriots as "shallow, materialistic and self-centered," Menand observed.

Of course he had and still has a lot of company in these attitudes, including this reviewer. Any returning expatriate suffers similar shockwaves.

Some of the most vivid passages in the book deal with the paranoid treatment of foreigners in Moscow during his ambassadorship (1951-1952). These descriptions ring true with me, having endured another period of Soviet paranoia as a correspondent there during the Vietnam War. Contact with locals was strictly constrained and access to the political class was non-existent, very much as it was in the early 1950s.

Kennan became so fed up being followed around and isolated from ordinary Russians that he casually observed in public that Stalin's Moscow reminded him of his internment under the Nazis in the early days of World War II. That remark, in the context of Russia still trying to recover from the horrors of the Nazi invasion, was a step too far. It led to his expulsion, the only such case, Gaddis points out, in 240 years of U.S.-Russia relations. Worse, the incident cost him much of his credibility among the more buttoned-down diplomats of the Foreign Service.

Later in life, Kennan seemed to shrug it off. "I couldn't be the sort of smooth, self-contained type of Foreign Service officer who advanced because he'd made no waves. It's a wonder to me that I got along as well as I did."

Gaddis gives us a warts-and-all authorized portrait of Kennan based on many long conversations with Kennan and his aging colleagues, and a study of Kennan's voluminous writings. These source materials included 20,000 pages of diaries and more than 300 boxes of writings held by Princeton University. The diaries and letters show a new Kennan -- by turns brutally honest, clever, lyrical and yet silent on some key issues. He even insisted that Gaddis study a separate diary in which he recorded his dreams. He obviously wanted to leave a substantial legacy for scholars to pore over.

Gaddis has produced a seamless narrative of Kennan the quixotic intellectual interwoven with the momentous events of war, aggression, Cold War, nuclear weapons, and U.S. foreign military interventions that featured in his life.

Small wonder, then, that the man who emerges is articulate, frustrated, contradictory, sometimes morose, and yet deeply concerned about the unstable era in which he lived. Frank Costigliola, professor at the University of Connecticut, is at work on a 700-page selection of diary entries due out in 2014.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.