Solving for X: On George F. Kennan

Article by Andrew Bacevich.


For students of twentieth-century American statecraft, George Kennan has long ranked as an intriguing figure, second in that respect only to Henry Kissinger. But unlike Kissinger, who served as both national security adviser and secretary of state (for a time holding both offices simultaneously), Kennan never occupied a top-tier position. A career diplomat who never actually dictated policy, he provided a rationale or framework for those who did. As Kissinger once wrote, “Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” Yet power resides not with the author of a doctrine but with those who order its transformation into policy and then control its implementation. This Kennan never did.

 Nearly ten years have passed since Washington set out to redeem the Greater Middle East. In the pursuit of its saving mission, the American messiah has pretty much worn itself out.

Very much like Kissinger, however, Kennan continued to cast a long shadow for decades after his nominal departure from public life. He remained a presence. What he said and wrote mattered—or at least seemed to. The Kennan mystique derives less from the imprint he left on policy than from the elusiveness of his outlook and character. When it came to expressing his views, Kennan was never one to hesitate. He wrote compulsively. Over the course of a long life—he died in 2005 at age 101—he left behind an enormous paper trail, consisting of official documents, Congressional testimony, lectures, essays, well over a dozen books (including his two-volume memoirs), letters, diaries and even poetry. Kennan the poet will never rank alongside Robert Lowell or William Carlos Williams. As a prose stylist, however, he could display an almost ethereal grace, which either explains or makes more mystifying his perpetual complaint about others never quite grasping what he meant. Throughout his life, he remained—and almost certainly wished to remain—difficult to label or to pin down.

John Lewis Gaddis’s achievement in this comprehensive official biography is to unwrap the Kennan enigma. Enjoying unprecedented access to all Kennan’s papers, having interviewed Kennan and members of his family, Gaddis has taken the measure of his man. Yet even while insisting resolutely on his subject’s claim to greatness, Gaddis succeeds chiefly in revealing Kennan’s frailties and foibles. The man in full turns out to have been all too human.

Born in Milwaukee in 1904—his mother died shortly after his birth—Kennan grew up in a strait-laced middle-class household where propriety took precedence over affection. After graduating from a nearby military high school, he enrolled at Princeton, where he demonstrated an aptitude for history while also immersing himself in contemporary American fiction, with fellow Princetonian F. Scott Fitzgerald being a particular favorite. The Great Gatsby, he later recalled, “went right into me and became part of me.” In his memoirs, Kennan portrays his college years as a melancholy period of isolation and loneliness. Gaddis demonstrates that the truth was otherwise: Kennan enjoyed himself at Princeton, cheering for the football team, playing in dance bands and participating as an upperclassman in the ritual hazing of first-year students.

A summer spent rambling through Europe with a college chum convinced Kennan, at loose ends regarding his future, that diplomacy might provide a suitable career. Upon graduation from Princeton in 1925, he successfully applied for a position in the newly created Foreign Service. After a diplomatic apprenticeship in Geneva and Hamburg, he jumped at a State Department offer to train as a Soviet specialist—this at a time when the United States had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It was a life-altering decision. Kennan became a Russophile, with an abiding fondness for Chekhov.

His affinity for Russian culture and admiration for the Russian people were matched only by his loathing of the Soviet system, which he encountered firsthand in 1933. With commercial considerations uppermost in mind, the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, decided that year to restore relations with the Kremlin, appointing William Bullitt as US ambassador. The State Department posted Kennan to Bullitt’s staff and charged him with reopening the US embassy in Moscow, closed since the Bolshevik Revolution. Kennan remained in Moscow until 1936, having by then long since concluded that anyone expecting a “friendly” Soviet-American relationship to bloom was simply naïve.

Assignments to Prague, Berlin (he was interned for five months after Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941) and Lisbon followed. By 1944 he was back in Moscow, serving as right-hand man to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. Courtesy of Hitler, the United States and the Soviet Union were now allies of a kind. Yet Kennan’s second posting in Moscow did nothing to improve his opinion of the Soviet system.

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The Soviet-American alliance did not survive the collapse of Hitler’s Reich. And in February 1946, with US officials already gripped by an increasingly anti-Soviet mood, Kennan—chargé d’affaires during Harriman’s temporary absence—sent Washington the most influential cable ever drafted by a career diplomat. According to Gaddis, a leading scholar of the cold war who teaches at Yale, the so-called Long Telegram—more than 5,000 words in all—was “the geopolitical equivalent of a medical X-ray, penetrating beneath alarming symptoms to yield at first clarity, then comprehension, and finally by implication a course of treatment.”

Yet as in business or entertainment or politics, so too in statecraft: timing is everything. In this instance, Kennan’s was exquisite. “Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do,” he wrote in his memoirs. “They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.” Mustering all the assurance acquired during the years spent studying and dealing with the Soviet government, he unleashed a thunderbolt. Further efforts to get along with the Kremlin were pointless. Soviet ambitions and US interests were irreconcilable. Protecting those interests required a radically new approach—a sustained and comprehensive effort to prevent any further expansion of Soviet power. Over time—not likely to be very long in Kennan’s estimation—such a strategy of containment would cause the Soviet Union to collapse from within.

As an exercise in expository writing, Kennan later remarked, the Long Telegram resembled “one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Kennan classified the Soviet leadership as “neurotic” and the Soviet system as “archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.” Whatever the accuracy of this assessment, in policy circles it elicited an enthusiastically positive response. Kennan’s missive, Gaddis acknowledges, served in effect to “provide the rationale for the course upon which the [Truman] administration had already embarked.”

In an instant, Kennan’s reputation was made. Summoned back to Washington, he soon became director of policy planning, a position created by Secretary of State George Marshall to address questions of basic strategy. As the go-to guy on all matters related to the Soviet Union, Kennan bent himself to the task of converting containment from concept to policy. Out of the ensuing period of intense activity came all manner of large initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO and early experiments with covert dirty tricks, some succeeding (funneling money to anti-communist Italian political parties, for example), others failing abysmally (attempting to subvert the Kremlin-aligned government of Albania). In each of these episodes and more, Kennan was in the thick of things.

Not least of all, an essay called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the handiwork of a mysterious “X,” appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, instantly becoming a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in public policy: here was the definitive explanation of why the USSR behaved as it did and how the United States needed to respond, the essential themes of the Long Telegram repackaged for public consumption. The roughly five minutes it took enterprising journalists to identify Kennan as the essay’s author catapulted him from influential insider to intellectual celebrity. In the world of ideas, doors swung open. Publishers, editors, columnists, the presidents of universities and foundations: everyone wanted a piece of Mr. X.

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