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Kennan and Solzhenitsyn

Jordan Michael Smith has reviewed Gaddis’ George F. Kennan in the new issue of TAC. It’s a very good review, and Smith makes several valuable observations about how Gaddis and Kennan increasingly diverged from one another in their views in the last three decades. Smith points to the growing cultural pessimism of Kennan in his later years:

When the Germans celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kennan lamented that they were only motivated by the “hopes of getting more jobs, making more money, and bathing in the fleshpots of the West … was this, over the long term, what we really wanted?”

Kennan had always been curmudgeonly, harshly critical of modern life and industrialization. But these views had once been outweighed by affection for American virtues and strengths. In his later years, there were only laments about the pornography, anti-intellectualism, and commercialism that characterize the contemporary West.

Why do I bring this up? Because I am struck once again how closely Kennan’s view of the U.S. and the West as a whole matched up with that of his occasional antagonist, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When I received my copy of Gaddis’ book, I was curious what he had to say about the feud between the two men, because it still seems a little incredible to me that one of the foremost Russia experts in America should have been so much at odds with the great writer. After all, it was Kennan who once described Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” Gaddis cites this quote from Kennan, and then asks, “Why, then, was Kennan becoming less sympathetic to the Kremlin’s domestic critics as the attention they attracted, during the early 1970s, began to grow?” Gaddis explains Kennan’s increased support for detente policy during these years as the main reason, but also notes that Kennan came to see the people agitating on behalf of Soviet dissidents as dangerous opportunists:

Like John Quincy Adams, Kennan doubted the feasibility of trying to right wrongs committed by foreign governments against their own citizens.

Because the stakes in U.S.-Soviet relations were so high, agitating on behalf of dissidents had the potential to lead to disastrous outcomes.

When Solzhenitsyn passed away a little over three years ago, I had re-read his famous Harvard commencement address and noticed that he had singled out Kennan for special criticism. At one point, he named Kennan as an example of Western short-sightedness:

Very well known representatives of your society, such as George Kennan, say: “We cannot apply moral criteria to politics.” Thus we mix good and evil, right and wrong, and make space for the absolute triumph of absolute evil in the world. Only moral criteria can help the West against communism’s well-planned world strategy. There are no other criteria. Practical or occasional considerations of any kind will inevitably be swept away by strategy. After a certain level of the problem has been reached, legalistic thinking induces paralysis; it prevents one from seeing the scale and the meaning of events.

Unfortunately for Solzhenitsyn, this was a complete misunderstanding of Kennan. Indeed, in light of Kennan’s criticisms of Western moral decline, it is amazing to think that Solzhenitsyn once held Kennan up as an advocate of moral relativism. As I was discussing last week, there was a great difference between Kennan’s adherence to moral principles and his hostility to political moralizing designed to whip up the public to support confrontational and reckless policies. By 1978, Kennan was strongly committed to the idea of nuclear disarmament, which seemed disastrous to Solzhenitsyn. In the end, the two prophets ended up speaking past one another, and neither of them was ever fully at home in his own country.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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