George F. Kennan was a diplomat, historian, geopolitician, strategist, writer, public intellectual, professor, farmer, and introspective diarist. He lived a very long life — he died at the age of 101 in 2005. His ideas helped shape the course of the mid-to-late 20th century, and some of those ideas still resonate today. During the past decade, two major biographies of Kennan and an edited collection of his voluminous diaries have been published. Yet his actual influence on American foreign policy was largely limited to a few years in the late 1940s, when he was the State Department’s director of policy planning.
The latest Kennan biography, Kennan: A Life between Worlds, is written by Frank Costigliola, who also edited The Kennan Diaries. Costigliola approaches Kennan’s life and career from a psychological perspective — too much so. His biography is full of interesting facts and excerpts from interviews of Kennan and Kennan’s diaries, but it suffers from over-psychoanalysis. Costigliola traces virtually every Kennan idea, every Kennan policy proposal, every Kennan attitude, every Kennan action in his personal and professional life to a clash between “Civilization and Eros.” Indeed, Costigliola blames America’s “militarized” Cold War policies more on Kennan’s inner struggles than on an objective assessment of the Soviet post–World War II “threat.” But Costigliola’s critique of Kennan’s Long Telegram and “X” article — both of which influenced the Truman administration’s policy of containment — also stems from Costigliola’s revisionist history that places equal, or more, blame on America, rather than on Soviet Russia, for the origins and length of the Cold War.
One would have thought that a retrospective look at Soviet behavior throughout the Cold War would have silenced the revisionists. One would have thought that the revelations of Soviet archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, the writings of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the encyclopedic dissection of communism by the authors of The Black Book of Communism, the declassified Venona intercepts, the truths told by Soviet defectors, and the writings of the best historians of the Cold War, such as John Lewis Gaddis, would have put to rest the notion that the United States and the Soviet Union were equally to blame for the Cold War. Costigliola, however, reserves the most praise for Kennan for the times when Kennan distanced himself from containment and expressed his disillusionment with the United States and its Cold War policies.
Costigliola claims that Stalin’s postwar policies were not expansionist but “defensive.” Stalin, he claims, was looking to reach an understanding with the United States, but Kennan’s description of Soviet motives in the Long Telegram and “X” article persuaded U.S. policymakers that Stalin couldn’t be trusted and, thereby, resulted in missed opportunities to end the Cold War much earlier. Costigliola praises Kennan’s opposition to NATO and his proposals for a reunited and neutral Germany and for the withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet troops from the center of Europe, neglecting to note that this would have left all of Europe at the mercy of nearby Soviet military forces. And he blames Kennan’s Long Telegram and “X” article for “help[ing] to create the monster of a militarized Cold War.”
Stalin’s expansionist aims predated World War II. In negotiating the Nazi–Soviet Pact in 1939, the Soviets eyed the Baltic states, the eastern portion of Poland, parts of Romania, Finland, and Iran. During and after the war, Stalin attempted to expand Soviet political control as far as his armies marched into Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. He famously told Yugoslavian communist Milovan Djilas: “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach.” And that is precisely what Stalin did and attempted to do after the war — in Eastern and Central Europe, the eastern Mediterranean, Iran, and the Far East. Costigliola mentions very little of this in his biography. Instead, he simply asserts that Stalin’s sole motive was to prevent another invasion of Russia, and that he was ready for a deal after the war that could have resolved the Cold War, and that George Kennan was the only official in the Truman administration that understood this and proposed such a deal — and that is why Kennan’s influence within the administration waned. Kennan, he writes, “was singlehandedly trying to head off an atomic holocaust while his government remained indifferent when not hostile.”
We now know that the Korean War was authorized by Stalin as a move to unify the Korean Peninsula under communist rule. We know that Stalin supplied crucial support to Mao Zedong’s communist forces in China, and that Stalin and Mao provided crucial support to Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces in Vietnam against France in the early 1950s, and that Stalin’s successors and Mao provided crucial support to Ho’s forces against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The expansionist aims of communist leaders colored the portions of the map red during these years.
Of course, all of this does not mean that the Truman administration’s response was always correct or wise. Kennan rightly questioned the broad scope of the so-called Truman Doctrine, which pledged to support free peoples everywhere who were under assault from external and internal forces. Kennan did not believe that every part of the world was equally important to U.S. interests. Kennan’s thinking here appeared to be significantly affected by Walter Lippmann’s series of critical articles written in response to the “X” article, which were later collected into a small book titled The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy. Kennan’s thinking initially also appeared to be consistent with some of James Burnham’s proposals designed to “liberate” countries and peoples from Soviet rule. Costigliola is critical of Kennan’s involvement in formulating “political-subversive warfare” against the Soviet empire during the early years of the Cold War. Burnham, who worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and consulted with the Central Intelligence Agency during the early years of the Cold War, laid out the strategy of political-subversive warfare against the Soviet empire in his book Containment or Liberation?: An Inquiry into the Aims of United States Foreign Policy. Although Burnham’s book was respectfully critical of Kennan’s “X” article and the general policy of containment, Kennan in his memoirs described it as “a well written and persuasive book.”
Costigliola notes that Kennan in his diary in 1952 — when he served a brief stint as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union — portrayed himself as a martyr in the service of peace. Kennan hoped to stay in Moscow as ambassador under the new administration, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his incoming secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had promoted “rollback” instead of containment as the proper approach to the Soviet empire. And Kennan in a speech in Scranton had criticized rollback as “irresponsible” and dangerous. There would be no place for Kennan in the Eisenhower administration. Costigliola believes that here was another missed opportunity to significantly reduce Cold War tensions. “If Kennan were in Moscow,” he writes, “he might have been able to conduct the diplomacy for which he had prepared himself since the late 1920s. He might have fanned the flickering light of wistful thinking into a flame that warmed relations. Then the subsequent four decades might have developed more safely and without the perilous crises over Berlin and Cuba.”
Kennan was now out of government and would remain so, except for a brief stint as the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia under President John F. Kennedy. At this time, Kennan thrived as a historian, writing two volumes on early U.S.–Soviet relations (1917–1920) that earned the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. He occasionally consulted with Eisenhower and successive administrations, but, for the most part, he was an outside critic and observer for the rest of his life.
Gaddis’ biography of Kennan reveals all the complexities and contradictions and flaws of Costigliola’s Kennan, but without the baggage of Costigliola’s psychoanalysis.
He became a professor of international relations at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He delivered influential lectures, including the annual Reith Lectures in England in 1957–1958 (which were later published in a book titled Russia, the Atom and the West), where he once again proposed mutual disengagement from Europe by U.S. and Soviet forces, a motion that brought a vigorous riposte from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and others. Another series of lectures that he delivered in 1954 (which were also published in book form, titled Realities of American Foreign Policy) are not even mentioned by Costigliola, yet they contain perhaps Kennan’s best geopolitical analysis. Here, Kennan identified those centers of “military-industrial strength” wherefrom the United States could be threatened: England, Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union (interestingly in 1966, Kennan added China to the list). The great danger to U.S. security, he said, was if hostile powers controlled the “physical resources” of Europe and Asia. Echoing the warnings of the great British geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder, Kennan wrote that “a combination of the physical resources and manpower of Russia and China with the technical skills and machine tools of Germany and eastern Europe might spell a military reality more powerful than anything that could be mobilized against it … from any other place in the world.” And he warned that “the balance of power in Europe and Asia in conventional weapons has been greatly and seriously altered to Russia’s advantage.”
Kennan did not blame the United States for the origins of the Cold War. Instead, he described the Soviet regime as having “congenital and deep-seated hostility to … the western world, and particularly to the United States.” And though Kennan believed that “western policies” played a role in that hostility, he said that Soviet ideology “by far” played the greatest role. But that is not the Kennan so admired by Costigliola. It is the Kennan who distanced himself from containment, who fought against the “hardliners” in Washington, who worked to bridge the gap between Americans and Russians, who sought to “undo what he and others had wrought” since 1944–1948, that Costigliola admires.
Costigliola argues that the Berlin and Cuba crises resulted from Washington’s refusal to listen to Kennan in the 1950s. And Costigliola notes that while Kennan in 1966 publicly opposed deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam and opined that our involvement in that war was a mistake, he never embraced the positions of the radical, anti-war protesters of the 1960s. In fact, Kennan viewed them as manifesting everything that was wrong in America. Costigliola, on the other hand, embraces the anti-war movement and criticizes Kennan for his “rants” and “petulance” toward the movement. The ultimate debacle in Vietnam, after all, stemmed from Kennan’s containment doctrine.
Where Costigliola plants his feet firmly on the side of the Cold War revisionists is in his chapter titled “Kennan Embattled, 1967–1982.” Here, the author unambiguously sides with the intellectual leaders of the revisionists, including William Appleman Williams, Walter LaFeber, Lloyd Gardner, and Gar Alperovitz, who challenged the idea that the Soviets were largely to blame for the origins of the Cold War. And Costigliola criticizes Kennan’s efforts to discredit the revisionists and his recruitment of Gaddis to defend the Long Telegram and “X” article. Gaddis, the author of the definitive biography of Kennan, and perhaps the best Cold War historian, is depicted as Kennan’s “lieutenant” in striking back at the revisionists’ criticism of Kennan.
But Costigliola is right when he writes that Kennan “shared more of [the revisionists’] viewpoint than he wished to admit.” As Kennan’s alienation from his own country increased, his criticisms of a confrontational approach toward the Soviet Union became less nuanced. Some of this had to do with Kennan’s fear of nuclear war. As Richard Pipes once pointed out, Kennan’s balanced and sober historical assessments were sometimes discarded when he wrote or spoke about the danger of the nuclear arms race. Kennan and three other “elder statesmen” proposed in Foreign Affairs that the United States adopt a policy of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons, an idea that scared our NATO, Japanese, and South Korean allies and invigorated the “peace movements” in the democracies. Kennan would become a fierce critic of the Reagan administration’s more offensive, confrontational approach to the Soviets, yet ironically it was President Ronald Reagan’s “political-subversive” warfare in the 1980s (which Kennan once embraced in the late 1940s) that exploited Soviet economic and political vulnerabilities and, thus, helped unravel the Soviet empire. (READ MORE from Francis P. Sempa: The Kennedy Assassination Is Back in the News)
When Kennan turned to history and sought to discern relevant lessons from the past, he was at his very best. His two volumes on the diplomatic origins of World War I — The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order (1979) and The Fateful Alliance (1984) (which Costigliola erroneously titles The Fatal Alliance) — are first-rate diplomatic histories. Kennan wrote that in attempting to understand the 20th century, all lines of enquiry led back to World War I, which he described as the “seminal catastrophe” of the century.
Toward the end of his life, Kennan worried about how he would be judged by history. Costigliola discusses Kennan’s relationship with Gaddis, his authorized biographer, as well as what Costigliola views as Gaddis’ turn to the right on the issue of Cold War origins. But Gaddis was simply following the evidence where it led him. That became clear in Gaddis’ book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (1997), wherein he unequivocally placed the blame on Stalin for initiating the Cold War and even praised Reagan for peacefully ending it. And all you need to do is read Gaddis’ biography of Kennan, George Kennan: An American Life (2011), to conclude that Kennan chose his authorized biographer wisely.
Gaddis’ biography of Kennan reveals all the complexities and contradictions and flaws of Costigliola’s Kennan, but without the baggage of Costigliola’s psychoanalysis. Gaddis pays far more attention to Kennan’s policy papers and books than does Costigliola. Gaddis has a better historical familiarity with the events of the Cold War than does Costigliola. Most importantly, Gaddis approaches the nature and evolution of the Cold War from a far different perspective — one that places primary blame for the origins of the Cold War on Stalin rather than on U.S. policymakers.
Costigliola contends that the Cold War might have ended earlier if American policymakers had listened to the post–Long Telegram/“X” article Kennan. What he refuses to acknowledge, however, is that had America abandoned containment in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Cold War may have ended in a Soviet, not an American, victory.
Kennan’s last important contributions to American foreign policy related to the issues of NATO expansion and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. Kennan was a vigorous critic of NATO expansion, predicting that it would revive militaristic and extreme nationalistic tendencies within post–Cold War Russia. Kennan was equally opposed to America’s post–9/11 wars and the notion that America could democratize other portions of the world. He should be remembered most not for his introspective habits and personal failings, as highlighted by Costigliola, but for his signal contributions to American foreign policy in the mid-to-late 1940s and the role they played in the West’s victory over Soviet communism.