When he died in March at the age of 101, George F. Kennan was remembered principally as America’s leading Cold War strategist, one of the “Wise Men” who took control of American foreign policy in the pivotal years after World War II and molded the institutions that shaped the world for the next 50 years. The containment doctrine most associated with him—espousing the need to confront Soviet postwar expansion with an American “counterforce” and holding out the prospect that a Soviet communism denied significant military or political expansion would eventually wither and die—was the central skein of American strategy for two generations after World War II.
Kennan later observed that if the famous “Long Telegram,” which he sent to Washington while a Moscow-based diplomat in February 1946, had been delivered six months earlier, it would have fallen on deaf ears. Six months later it would have simply expressed conventional wisdom. Whether that is so, it is a fact that this 8,000-word missive caught Washington’s attention the way no diplomatic cable had before or since. In it, Kennan explained that the pursuit of “peaceful co-operation” with Stalin’s government was a chimera and that the then widely held view that maintaining the spirit of the anti-Hitler alliance and turning a blind eye to brutal Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe was the only alternative to war was equally false. Stalin’s was a hard-edged, unsentimental government that would not be swayed by the West’s concessions or professions of friendship but was highly sensitive to “the logic of force.”
“The cable’s author was summoned home shortly thereafter and made the State Department’s first policy-planning chief, under Secretary of State George Marshall. There Kennan became the intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars to a prostrate Western Europe and helped set up a political-warfare unit, the precursor of the CIA. With the publication a year later of his “X” article in Foreign Affairs, Kennan became known as the principal American foreign-policy strategist.
Kennan viewed the Soviet Union primarily as a political and psychological threat, not a military one and by 1948, with the economic reconstruction of Western Europe proceeding, he was convinced the worst of the danger was passed. By 1950, he was already on the dovish side of the Washington establishment and for much of the next decade opposed what he called the militarization of the containment doctrine.
If Kennan had been simply a foreign-affairs expert and an exemplary public servant, a diplomat who formulated a successful strategy to deal with unprecedented danger in a world in great flux, he would merit an important place in American history. But he was far more than that. After leaving the State Department in 1950, he developed an outstanding second career as a scholar, memoirist, polemicist, and moral philosopher. He was probably the last great American WASP intellectual, the last American man of letters whose thought and instincts were consciously rooted in the American WASP past and who was able to take full advantage of that past’s lessons and habits of mind. For Kennan, this history was not a source of guilt or a hurdle to be overcome but a springboard for self-understanding and acting in the world. Indeed, in his work one can see (as one could find virtually nowhere else in America of the 1960s and after), Protestantism as the driving and disciplining cultural force it once was, an inner fire that could push a highly gifted individual to transform himself into a great man.
Kennan came from a middle-class family in Milwaukee and never felt socially comfortable with the richer students from the East he met at Princeton in the 1920s. He joined the Foreign Service after graduation, undertook Russian language training, served in the embassies in Prague, Berlin, and Moscow, and rose steadily in its ranks.
He was a Presbyterian by background who, as he once wrote, regarded himself as a Christian, although others “would question my right to that status.” But whether he was devout in any orthodox sense, he certainly possessed the inner fire, which left traces throughout his work, as, for instance, when he describes leaving the Department of State in 1950 to become a scholar at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Kennan writes of a momentary euphoria: “The hours and days of liberty seemed to stretch forward abundantly into a future too remote to be considered finite. There would now, it seemed, be time for everything.” He wanders into the Princeton bookstore, “intoxicated with the illusion of freedom” and purchases Calvin’s Institutes, sits down on a bench outside and reads “with pleasure and profit.” But the illusion of happiness could not last, and spiritual strain soon makes its appearance. As he writes, “the private diaries now began to contain more in the way of self-reproaches, complaints of the vanity of current preoccupations, protests about the aimlessness of one’s existence, yearnings for a greater unity and seriousness of purpose.”
Thus, a glimpse into the inner life of a man of middle age—one who had just completed a stint in government during which he played a pre-eminent role in shaping the strategic posture of the United States, and hence the West, towards Stalinist Russia, and who would in the ensuing decade publish four volumes of highly regarded scholarship about the history of America’s relations with the Soviet Union and two more about American foreign policy—lamenting his “aimlessness” and exhorting himself to greater “seriousness of purpose.”
Kennan’s writing covered a vast ground, including the publication of two volumes of memoirs that won him the Pulitzer Prize, a spirited polemic with 1960s radical students and their fellow travelers, numerous essays on nuclear weapons and Soviet-American relations, and a semi-philosophical iteration of his general worldview published when he was 89.
He was more or less the founder of the realist school in American foreign-policy thought, wary of the role ethnic lobbies and congressional enthusiasms played in the formulation of foreign policy and of the country’s seemingly irrepressible need to view conflicts with other nations as black and white moral crusades. His bestselling book American Diplomacy introduced the term “national interest” into the foreign-policy lexicon. In Kennan’s view, the term was a brief not for selfishness but modesty, for recognition that “our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing and understanding.”
Over a wide range of subjects, Kennan could produce passages that were remarkably free of the whole bundle of multiculturalist concessions and guilt that had managed to overwhelm the WASP sense of self in the 1960s. His writing could sometimes sound like a voice from a distant past, and yet it enabled him to address the range of subjects around the intersection of the United States and other civilizations like no other American in the second half of the 20th century.
At the opening of his memoirs, Kennan wrote of his own family,
Its members were neither rich nor poor. They never owned an appreciable amount of capital. There was not one who did not work long and hard with his hands. They were, on the other hand, as devoid of self-consciousness with regard to their poverty as they were of social bitterness over the fact that it existed… [W]hen times were hard, as they often were, groans and lamentations went up to God, but never to Washington … No family could have been more remote from the classic social predicament to which Marx, outstandingly, had drawn attention and to which his followers tended to ascribe so overwhelming a significance.
Thus Kennan credits his background for inoculating him against taking Marxism too seriously, an inoculation that the majority of intellectuals of his era plainly did not receive. It served him well in the 1930s and especially the 1940s, when he became, in effect, the United States’ most important interpreter of Marxist ideology and its role, or lack of one, in Stalin’s foreign policy.
But this frugal pioneer-stock background could be wielded to make other, more polemical points. For instance, in The Cloud of Danger, a foreign-policy treatise published in 1977, Kennan touches on the then extremely volatile subject of Third World development and the relations between the “rich” and “poor” countries. He wrote, “I have before me … a faded snapshot, recently sent to me by a relative, of the log house in which my great-grandparents lived when they first came, in 1851, to the Green Bay region of Wisconsin: a crude almost windowless structure, standing in a dreary treeless field. And I am moved to recall that the Wisconsin of that day was very much of what we today would call an underdeveloped country.” He then proceeds to describe the growth of the state’s governing institutions, the development of tolerance and respect for majority opinion, how its inhabitants made use of developmental capital acquired at normal rates of interest, all which made Wisconsin today “the seat of a high prosperity—too high, I sometimes think, for the good of its own inhabitants.” And then there follows, in a broadside at the pervasive and cacophonous discourse about the rapacious North and the noble South then emanating from the United Nations and virtually every establishment newspaper and major university president, “Had we Wisconsinites been a lazy, violent, improvident people, devoted more to war than to industry … and had we therefore remained undeveloped instead of developing our resources—would we today be seen as possessors of a peculiar virtue vis-à-vis the more developed countries, entitling us to put claims on their beneficence and to demand of them that they exert themselves to promote our development?” The West, Kennan concluded, needed to divest itself of its guilt complex in its dealings with the Third World.
Throughout Kennan’s memoirs are insights that would have tested the boundaries of political correctness, had the concept a name at the time, and some which transgressed the sensibilities that actually did exist. In 1950, for instance, Kennan, still an employee of the State Department, was sent on a multi-country tour of Latin America, culminating in an American ambassadors’ conference in Rio de Janeiro. In his diaries, he recalls being haunted by the huge gaps between the rich and poor and dismayed most of all by the despairing opulence of the “hopelessly rich.”
Upon his return, he filed a report that the head of State’s Latin American division promptly locked away from view, saying it did not belong in the department’s archives. In his memoirs, published 16 years later, Kennan quoted from it. Latin America, he wrote, was disfavored by geography and climate and weighted down by its history, permeated by a “heavy, melancholy force.” Noting the “inordinate splendor” and “pretense” of Latin American cities and the “squalor” of their hinterlands, he wrote, “[I]n the realm of individual personality this subconscious recognition of the failure of group effort finds its expression in an exaggerated self-centeredness and egotism—in a pathetic urge to create the illusion of desperate courage, supreme cleverness, and a limitless virility where the more constructive virtues are so conspicuously lacking.”
One can see why the State Department might shield Foreign Service officers from these observations without concluding Kennan was wrong in making them. In his memoirs, Kennan added a sort of amendment, writing that despite the tragic aspect of Latin American civilization, “in another sense” it might be humanity’s best hope for the future. In phrases that reflected his increasingly critical view of the United States, he wrote that he might well prefer the human ego in its Latin American manifestations, “spontaneous, uninhibited, and full-throated,” to the “carefully masked and poisonously perverted forms it assumes among the Europeans and the Anglo-Americans.”
Noting that no Latin American country possessed nuclear weapons or was even thinking of acquiring them, he concluded that the region “may prove some day to be the last repository and custodian of humane Christian values that men in the European motherlands and in North America—overfed, overorganized, and blinded by fear and ambition—have thrown away.”
Of comparable interest was Kennan’s view of China. He was never a Sinophile of any stripe, neither an enthusiast of China’s Maoist revolution nor of the powerful China lobby of the 1950s, which sought to enlist Washington’s support for restoring Chiang Kai-shek to power on the mainland. Kennan thought that little good could come from too close relations with the Chinese, whom he considered masterful at manipulating American perceptions of them. Mao’s revolution and the expulsion of Westerners from China meant for the first time, China held no more American “hostages” whose views were inevitably corrupted by their own affections. Of the Chinese themselves, Kennan wrote that they were “probably the most intelligent, man for man, of the world’s peoples.” But “admirable as were many of their qualities—their industriousness, their business honesty, their practical astuteness … they seemed to me to be lacking in two attributes of the Western-Christian mentality: the capacity for pity and the sense of sin. I was quite prepared to concede that both of these qualities represented weaknesses rather than sources of strength in the Western character. The Chinese, presumably, were all the more formidable for the lack of them.”
Two generations after these discursions on Latin America and China were published, it is far from clear they are anachronistic or irrelevant. One could meaningfully debate whether or not they are correct. What is more certain is that today no American official, in or close to government, would dream of committing such thoughts to paper—or even be capable of entertaining them. However many self-professed devout Christians may now inhabit the upper echelons of the present administration, are there any who could conceive of their own country having a “Western-Christian” mentality in a nuanced fashion or use such vocabulary? It is far easier to imagine a contemporary Christian nationalist advocating that Washington attack or invade non-Christian countries, a prescription more based on ignorance of the targeted countries than knowledge of them.
Isolationist is not the right word for Kennan, and the term realist is too freighted with calculations of power politics to be quite correct either. Perhaps the perspective of these passages can be described by a term like civilizational—a point of view that combines understanding and attachment to one’s own tradition, awareness of its differences with others, and alertness to the possibility that distance can be a wise thing for the diplomat to cultivate. It is a conservative viewpoint in the true sense, which makes it the antithesis of contemporary neoconservatism and neoliberalism, as well as all universalist ideologies. Needless to say, it is a kind of voice that is no longer heard at all in the top echelons of official Washington.
In the last decades of his life, Kennan was increasingly critical of American society, its ecological waste, its commercialism, in some sense its superficiality. In the 1980s he emerged as a vociferous critic of the American defense strategy, based as it was on the possible first use of nuclear weapons. In the last book he wrote, Around the Cragged Hill, published in 1993, he welcomed the Cold War’s end as providing the United States a chance once again to cut a more modest figure in the world, arguing that the greatest service this country could render would be to put its own house in order and make of American civilization an example from which others could take inspiration.
He thought the United States had grown too large for successful self-government, urging that it consider dividing itself into smaller constituent republics. He questioned the whole point of an economy based on constant growth, wondering if there was not “something diseased, something cancerous, something open-ended and unstable” about an economy that had always to expand to be seen as adequate. He would have preferred a nation that traveled by train, with denser, more concentrated cities, a citizenry that read more and spent more time outdoors and watched less television. He opposed mass immigration, saying that a society that depended on cheap outside labor was like the Romans, who became dependent on barbarians to fill the ranks of their armies. He found it absurd that Washington, “while not loath to putting half a million armed troops into the Middle East to expel armed Iraqis from Kuwait, confesses itself unable to defend its own southwestern border from illegal immigration.” He recognized, of course, that his speculations were idle—that there was no possibility of the political system accommodating his views and that a man who questioned some American shibboleths was simply regarded with “gasping horror.”
Kennan’s point of view—that of a Russell Kirk conservative with Green tendencies, elitist in tone, infused with serious experience in government and knowledge of the world—is today far outside the mainstream. The United States did not turn inward at the end of the Cold War, showed not the slightest inclination to abandon the quest for bigness, and has pursued foreign policies exactly the opposite of what Kennan recommended.
But none should doubt that a century or two hence, whatever fate has befallen the United States in its immodest and belligerent quest for world “democratic” empire, George F. Kennan’s voice will be seen as of the peak of dissident wisdom, and historians will note that the United States would have been extremely fortunate to have had men like him with the president’s ear in 2002, as it did in 1946.