Beware Biographers

Jackson Lears

  • George Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
    Penguin, 784 pp, £30.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 1 59420 312 1
  • Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War by Frank Costigliola
    Princeton, 533 pp, £24.95, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 12129 1

For nearly six decades, the figure of George Kennan has loomed over US foreign policy. Long before his death in 2005, at the age of 101, he had become a professional wise man: institutes and libraries were named after him and he was the recipient of mandatory encomia on official occasions. John Lewis Gaddis’s biography is a tombstone-sized tribute, based on unlimited access to its subject and his papers. Not bad for a mid-level policy planner whose most senior diplomatic postings were a brief ambassadorial appointment to Belgrade and an even briefer one to Moscow.

The standard explanation for all the attention paid to Kennan is that he conceived and named the policy of containment pursued by the United States during the Cold War. It was, he said, ‘designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world’. The policy was set out in a 5000-word telegram he sent from Moscow to the US State Department early in 1946, and named a year later in an article in Foreign Affairs published under the byline ‘X’ (State Department protocol required anonymity). The ‘long telegram’ and the ‘X article’ acquired canonical status in the tale that Cold War liberals told themselves, the story of a doughty band of realists, inspired by Kennan to steer a middle course between sentimental dreams of appeasement and apocalyptic fantasies of pre-emptive attack. (There was always a whacked-out right wing to make bellicose liberals look moderate.) In the self-congratulatory atmosphere that enveloped American public discourse after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan’s doctrine became the key to what in retrospect seemed inevitable.

One problem with this account is that it leaves out Kennan himself. Almost as soon as he articulated the idea of containment, he began to regret its consequences: the creation of a bipolar world in the minds of policymakers and the public; the support for corrupt dictatorships that opposed communism; carte blanche for US military intervention wherever Soviet aggression was observed or imagined. Kennan was appalled by the way his ideas were used, and became a major critic of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Unlike most intellectuals with ties to the foreign policy establishment, he rejected the revanchist militarism that set in soon after the US defeat in Vietnam: the distrust of détente, the renewed demands for nuclear ‘superiority’, the revival of bullying moralism in international debate. As the Washington consensus slipped towards Reaganism and reaction, Kennan remained a voice of sanity. He was the only critic of the national security state who retained some legitimacy with its establishment. Though for decades he had predicted the demise of the USSR, when it finally happened he refused to join the victory celebrations. He thought the costs of confrontation had been too high. The world should not have had to endure a superpower rivalry that produced so many wars on the edges of empire and came within an ace of blowing up the planet. The Cold War, he thought, had not been inevitable. Kennan went to his grave regretting the role he played – however indirectly and ambivalently – in starting it.

He was a man of fundamental contradictions: architect of Cold War strategy and critic of its execution, éminence grise of the nuclear freeze movement and admirer of Henry Kissinger. Historians tried to reconcile these contradictions by labelling Kennan a realist who believed that foreign policy should follow the national interest rather than legal or moral axioms (he felt he shared this view with Kissinger). There is something to be said for this characterisation. Throughout his career Kennan remained sceptical of universalist commitments, beginning with Harry Truman’s promise in 1947 to protect ‘free peoples’ everywhere from the threat of ‘subjugation’. But realism in foreign policy had different meanings at different times. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, realism signalled a willingness to use military force, up to and including nuclear weapons. Not for nothing did C. Wright Mills coin the term ‘crackpot realists’ to describe the masterminds of the nuclear arms race. And the elasticity of the phrase ‘national interest’ compounds the difficulty: could it be used to justify Nixon and Kissinger’s carpet-bombing of North Vietnam, or the overthrow of Salvador Allende? To his credit, Kennan understood that most definitions of reality were rooted in emotions and beliefs that might or might not match up with facts on the ground.

Kennan’s own emotions and beliefs created a compound that could be called classical conservatism, to distinguish it from the economic and religious fundamentalism that currently passes for conservatism in America. He distrusted the indiscipline of democracy, admired the harmony of hierarchy; one of his favourite passages from Shakespeare was Troilus’ ‘speech on degree’: ‘Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark! What discord follows!’ He hated mass culture and often ranted about American moral decadence. The only place he felt at home in the United States was on his farm in the village of East Berlin, Pennsylvania, where he periodically retreated. He warned against environmental pollution before it was fashionable and urged an attitude of stewardship towards the earth. He spent much of his life in melancholy brooding.

The notion of stewardship – as well as, perhaps, the melancholy – came in part from Kennan’s version of Presbyterian Christianity. It was a very different version from that of the fervent Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under Eisenhower. Like Dulles, Kennan recoiled from both the brutalities of Soviet rule and the ideology used to justify it. The long telegram and the X article were expressions of Kennan’s belief that Soviet leaders, in thrall to Communist dogma, could not be engaged through conventional diplomacy. Yet Kennan soon distanced himself from this stance. As he grew more religious, he developed an Augustinian belief in the scrutiny of the self. Augustine’s emphasis on human fallibility suited his assessment of human nature. Gradually he grew aware (as his contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr wrote) that ‘the evil in the foe is also in the self.’ This undermined the Manicheanism of the Cold War and underwrote Kennan’s increasingly critical perspective on US policy.

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