Sunday, December 25, 2011

George Kennan


Kennan was one of the most complicated and intelligent people ever to serve as an American diplomat, and so it should not be surprising that his life was full of contradictions.  The author of the Cold War Containment policy, he decried the way his policy was misinterpreted and militarized by succeeding administrations.  The master analyst of Soviet affairs, Kennan proved to be pitifully unable to compete in the byzantine bureaucracies of Washington.  An American patriot, he was at the same time an elitist, who viewed most Americans as hicks from the sticks.  A political realist, he was also unaccountably gloomy and pessimistic in his general approach.  He was always thinking of reasons why things could not be done, and unfortunately, he was generally correct.  In short, his was a life that was as fascinating as it was long.

What follows below are my own reminiscences of George Kennan, whom I met only once, in Moscow, but who left me with a lasting impression.

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.5
Moscow 1977-1979

George Kennan.
In the summer of 1977, I met George Kennan for the first and only time. He had come out to Moscow on a historian exchange program, and had been prevailed upon to talk with members of the Political and Economic sections about reporting on the Soviet Union. We met him in the Political Library, and he talked with us for about an hour. I had long been an admirer of Kennan for his prescient Long Telegram of February 22, 1946, his “X” article in the July 1947 issue of “Foreign Affairs” on the “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and of course for his elegant writing style. I also agreed with his oft-expressed view that Russia can have only two kinds of neighbors, vassals or enemies. I had read a couple of his books on U.S.-Soviet relations when I was at St. Louis Country Day School and it was one of the things that had initially attracted me to a Foreign Service career.

Kennan spoke articulately and brilliantly, but for all that, I can't remember much of what he actually said during our hour-long meeting. It was just a pleasure to listen to him. Kennan was in his mid-seventies at the time, and I recall thinking that he looked quite frail. One of my friends remarked afterward, “We were lucky we met him now -- he's so old he can't last much longer.” I agreed, but Kennan fooled us all by hanging on until 2005, living to the ripe old age of 101 and writing all the while.

Kennan’s Memoirs.
I’m especially sorry that I never had another opportunity to meet with Kennan, because years later I finally read his memoirs, and realized that we shared many common experiences. In fact, when he discussed his tours not just in Moscow, but throughout his career, it was almost like I was reading my own memoirs and not his. It was a great opportunity lost. In addition, I would have wanted to question him more closely about his views on the Soviet Union, with which I often disagreed.

Kennan’s thinking was profound and multi-layered. He was particularly good at descriptive writing, and he outlined the situation prevailing in the Soviet Union in compelling terms. There were certain areas where I agreed with him completely, such as his harsh criticism of Ambassador Joseph Davies' disastrous tenure in Moscow, and the Roosevelt Administration's role in perpetuating, for political reasons, a sentimental enthusiasm about Stalin’s Soviet Union. I also found convincing his searing portrayal of the dysfunctional Washington bureaucracy of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in which the random actions of minor bureaucrats and failures of communication often trumped all efforts to construct a rational and realistic foreign policy. I especially admired what Kennan himself called his greatest achievement: his role in the creation of the Marshall Plan for the economic revival of Western Europe. Kennan also took a very dim view of the United Nations, and thought it would be more of a negative than positive influence in world affairs, a conclusion on which the jury is still out.

On other issues, however, I found fault with Kennan’s views. For example, I did not agree with many of his prescriptions for dealing with the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Kennan’s general approach seemed to be to take no steps that might be construed as approving of or legitimizing the Soviet regime, while refraining from direct opposition or action except in the most extreme circumstances. This was the line he took with regard to the creation of NATO and the separate Peace Treaty with Japan, despite the provocative actions that dictated these prudent defensive steps, i.e., the communization of Eastern Europe and China. His opposition to doing anything that might cause an aggressive Soviet reaction ignored the fact that such a passive policy might actually tempt the Soviets to reach still further, in the belief that they could continue to push the West without fear of consequences.

This might seem to be a strange criticism of the person generally credited as the author of America’s containment policy, but, as Kennan himself repeatedly pointed out, his “X” article was completely misunderstood, and the containment policy adopted by U.S. policymakers was not the one he advocated. Whereas Kennan believed in the containment of Soviet ambitions by political means, and only when our vital interests were threatened, the widely-accepted interpretation of containment policy at the time was to oppose the Soviets both militarily and politically, wherever their ambitions manifested themselves around the world. My own views stand somewhere between these two extremes, although in the end I am more comfortable with the containment policy that was eventually adopted than I am with Kennan’s version, which, in my estimation, would have led inevitably to disaster.

I was also a little bit surprised to find that Kennan’s discussion of his tenure as our Ambassador in Moscow was unusually naïve, particularly his ruminations on why the Soviet leadership gave him the back of its hand (he imputed some deeper political motives to the Kremlin, when in actuality Soviet leaders treated all American Ambassadors badly, unless they were thought to have a direct line to the White House). I also disagreed with his criticism of our military attachés in Moscow, whose activities he found provocative.

In reading his memoirs, I found myself a little disapproving of Kennan’s personal manner. Kennan was a classic elitist, an attitude that clearly came across in his characterizations of those of his fellow Americans who were not as schooled in foreign policy as he (his discussion of his interactions with St. Louisans, whom he obviously considered to be hicks, was very revealing in this regard). Kennan, who had very fluent Russian and nearly bilingual German, seemed academic and remote to many of his Foreign Service colleagues, and often seemed more comfortable with foreigners than his own countrymen. In addition, Kennan’s writing style, while eloquent, was at times fussy and equivocating.

At one point in his chapter on his Moscow Ambassadorship, Kennan noted that he had been a reluctant diplomat, and was much happier in the world of Russian literature and culture than “the world of politics and diplomacy into which Fate had thrust me.” I would certainly agree with that assessment, and, on reflection, it is no wonder that he and Ambassador Toon did not get along: ideologically, they were poles apart. As for me, I find Kennan and his thinking to be endlessly fascinating. I might disagree with many of his conclusions, but I would never fault his gift for description or his intellectual brilliance.

1 comment:

  1. gaddis isnt half as smart as kennan. wasnt gaddis initially an anti-us interpreter of cold war?

    ReplyDelete