This reading week, George F. Kennan won’t be far from my mind.
“George who?” my friends ask. Some with blank stares. Some reaching into their distant memory of AP U.S. History.
Maybe Henry Kissinger is right: our generation has largely forgotten about Kennan, the diplomat who introduced the theory of containment during the Cold War. For those of us who paid attention in history class, he seems more like an oracle rather than a real man. Although Kennan was a polyglot who wrote dozens of books, the popular imagination only remembers his “Long Telegram” and the “X Article.”
In his new book “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” Yale history professor John Lewis Gaddis paints an engaging and detailed portrait of his subject. At 784 pages, it is not a pop-biography, nor is it an academic tome. At times, Gaddis follows Kennan and his family like a Super 8 camera, capturing his domestic life with poignancy. At other times, Gaddis draws upon his strength as a Cold War scholar to critically analyze Kennan’s policy papers.
Though Gaddis’s biography is not a light read, you should not simply give it to your father as a Christmas present. The patient Yalie will find much richness in the narratives, particularly in Gaddis’s account of Kennan’s college days. A middle-class Midwesterner, Kennan arrived at Princeton University as a misfit — and he remained one. Miserable at his eating club, he left it his senior year and had to eat with the “rejects.” In his diary, he wrote, “But I’ve become quite a stoic; I play not; neither do I smoke.” Even though he felt ignored for most of his life (by policy makers, presidents and Joseph Stalin), this stoic individual spirit remained with Kennan. He voiced his opinions, even when he changed his mind, repeatedly. Most of the time, his concerns fell on deaf ears.
The young Kennan took a long time to figure out his own narrative. After graduating in 1925, he decided to join the newly established Foreign Service. Again, he did not fit it and almost quit a year into the job. It was not until 1928, when Kennan began studying Russian, that he found himself on a path that would jump start his future career. “This great Russian language—rich, pithy, musical, sometimes tender, sometimes earthy and brutal, sometimes classically severe… was… an unfailing source of strength and reassurance in the drearier and more trying reaches of later life,” Kennan wrote. Indeed, he would later imagine his life in terms of Chekhov’s dramas.
Ultimately, Kennan persuaded others through his storytelling. His “X Article,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, not only exposed paranoid nationalism as the source of Soviet aggression but also presented the struggle between communism and democracy as the Providence’s challenge to America. “It’s hard to think of anyone else at the time who could have charted [U.S. foreign policy] with greater authority, with such eloquence, or with so grand strategic a framework,” Gaddis writes.
Grand narratives may be necessary, but they have the potential to unravel—sometimes dangerously—once released into the real world. Serving as the head policy planner in the State Department, Kennan became frustrated with transforming his theory of containment into reality. How to intervene in Italy’s 1948 election? What to do about the Nationalists’ imminent defeat in China? What to make of Tito’s defection? Kennan and his staff attempted to answer these questions: sometimes they were correct, sometimes they were not.
But even when Kennan was correct, his tendency to revise his opinions meant he was often unable to influence policy in Washington. Given access to Kennan’s diaries, Gaddis details his subject’s anxiety and depression. Occasionally, Gaddis offers readers a glimpse into Kenna’s melancholic poetry — a rare look inside the mind of an unconventional statesman.
Kennan eventually saw his non-militaristic containment theory morph into armed U.S. interventions around the world. Testifying against the Vietnam War on television, he remarked, “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.” America’s narrative is one of democracy, Kennan continued to assert in his later years, but it must not be one of imposing democracy on other states.
Our world has become more complex since the Kennan’s active years during the Cold War. Laptops and smart phones bombard us with information, and yet true knowledge seems to evade us. According to Gaddis, Kennan believed that “it was not given to human brings to know the ‘totality of truth.’” Perhaps — as Gaddis himself does so artfully in this biography — the best we can do is to weave together seemingly disparate strands of facts and beliefs.