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.

Gaddis captures many of his subject’s contradictions, but in spite of the thirty years he has put into the research and writing of the book, he fails to illuminate them fully. Beginning in 1981, Kennan gave Gaddis a series of extensive interviews, as well as full access to his papers. No biographer could have asked for a more co-operative subject, and Gaddis fills his narrative with fascinating details from Kennan’s diaries and correspondence. The problem shows in his assessment of Kennan’s public significance. Over the last three decades, Gaddis has moved steadily to the right, a shift culminating in his book Surprise, Security and the American Experience (2004), an attempt to create a usable past for Bush’s doctrine of unilateral preventive war. As a consequence of Gaddis’s ideological shift, we get a curiously truncated picture of Kennan. Much admiring attention is paid to his career as a diplomat, and particularly his supposed rescue of US Soviet policy from the advocates of appeasement. But his second career, as a public intellectual and critic of the Cold War, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Such important details as Kennan’s support for Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential candidacy in 1968 are omitted altogether. And in a bizarre interpretation of Kennan’s critique of American nuclear strategy, Gaddis faults him for failing to recognise his own affinities with Reagan.

Since the end of the Cold War, Kennan’s critical perspective has again become marginal. In the received triumphalist narrative, the collapse of the Soviet Union vindicated the US strategy that preceded it – indeed caused it, most would say. Gaddis is among the believers. He assumes that no other strategic path could have led to a comparably desirable outcome, and that the destructive by-products of the Cold War, however regrettable, were redeemed by its happy ending. Kennan resisted this conclusion, and insisted that the Cold War had been too long and too costly. He lamented that the United States and its allies had demanded ‘unconditional surrender’, and that the splintering of the Soviet bloc rewarded this policy with apparent success. The long dénouement of the Cold War was, he said in 1994, ‘one of the great disappointments of my life’.

Kennan was born into a prosperous middle-class Milwaukee family in 1904. His mother died of peritonitis when he was two months old and his father, a tax attorney, was devoted but busy and distracted. George and his older sister, Jeannette, grew up in what he remembered as a ‘dark, strange household’, cared for by nursemaids. George identified with his grandfather’s cousin, another George Kennan, who had become famous for his intrepid reporting from Siberia in the 1880s and 1890s. Already Russia was exerting its fascination on a lonely boy, given to diary-keeping, doggerel and imaginative reveries. Kennan went to Princeton, where he had a hard time fitting in without much money. He worked as a postman in Trenton, and managed to get enough cash together to join an eating club. Largely friendless and suspicious of the motives of the other members, he soon resigned. He spent a summer in Europe, discovered he had a knack for foreign languages, and resisted returning to Milwaukee, or enrolling in law school, when he graduated in 1925. The recently upgraded foreign service beckoned. By 1927, he was vice-consul in Geneva.

He moved to Riga in 1929, the closest a diplomat could get to the Soviet Union before Washington opened diplomatic relations with Moscow. On a trip to Berlin for language training, he met a Norwegian girl, Annelise Sorensen, at a lunch arranged by her cousin. They were married in 1931 and were together for 73 years. She was an intelligent, humane woman with no intellectual pretensions. She raised four children in circumstances that were often extraordinarily trying, and endured, without exactly tolerating, her husband’s occasional infidelities. On one occasion she left her children with her parents and travelled from Oslo to Berlin, where he was posted, ‘to save the marriage’. The stability of the relationship was crucial, Gaddis observes, to counteracting Kennan’s tendencies to melancholy, self-pity and nostalgia.

As a young man, he was already preoccupied by his country’s moral decline, and he predicted a similar fate for the Soviet Union. If economic development succeeds under communism, he said, consumerism will set in and drain ideological zeal; if it fails, ‘anger over unkept promises will paralyse the regime.’ In December 1933, after Roosevelt’s formal recognition of the Soviet Union, Kennan was sent to Moscow to set up an embassy.

He stayed in Moscow for four years with the ambassador, William Bullitt. In 1937, Bullitt was replaced by Joseph Davies, and Kennan was sent to head the Russian desk at the State Department’s division for Eastern European affairs in Washington, where he had ample opportunity to observe his own country and brood about its prospects. American society in the late 1930s, he wrote after a cycling trip through the upper Midwest, embodied ‘the sad climax of individualism … of a people whose private lives were so brittle, so insecure that they dared not subject them to the slightest social contact with the casual stranger, of people who felt neither curiosity nor responsibility for the mass of those who shared their community life and their community problems’. Recoiling from this ‘diseased’ environment, he hit on the idea that, as Gaddis writes, ‘challenges – cataclysms of some kind – could be a good thing.’ Only a national emergency, Kennan decided, could rouse the society out of its self-absorbed lethargy.

War and Cold War provided the emergency. Kennan returned to Europe in 1938, ran the American legation in Prague, then served as the administrative officer of the embassy in Berlin until December 1941. He and the other US diplomats were then interned for several months in the decrepit Grand Hotel in the spa town of Bad Nauheim. After their release he was assigned to the American legation in Lisbon, where he negotiated a deal with the Salazar regime that allowed the US to use military bases in the Azores. He was also starting to articulate his idiosyncratic perspectives on foreign policy. He criticised the Casablanca agreement of January 1943, which made unconditional surrender the official Allied war aim; the policy, he wrote, required ‘a ruthlessness now foreign to our troops’, and a dangerous degree of unity between the Allies and the Soviet Union. The insistence on unconditional surrender meant that there was ‘no desire, and no real plan, for acquiring allies and helpers among the German people’. He was remarkably prescient about the lifespan of the Soviet Union. Soon after VE Day, he wrote an essay on the future of the Soviet empire, citing Gibbon on ‘the unnatural task of holding in submission distant peoples’. The Soviet Union, he believed, had overextended itself, and would find it impossible to administer its puppet states. The US needed to exercise patience and restraint.

This would not be easy in the morally charged atmosphere of the moment: dualistic moralism prevailed in Washington and London. Yet Frank Costigliola’s Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances makes clear that there was nothing inevitable about the Cold War. There could have been alternatives, Costigliola argues, if Roosevelt had lived and maintained his wartime alliances with Churchill and Stalin. Roosevelt’s willingness to work with Stalin was based on his confidence in his capacity to charm and persuade the dictator to join the Allies in running the postwar world, with each of the Big Three in control of his own sphere of influence. Stalin was capable of being charmed and persuaded. Costigliola considers the retrospective diagnoses of Stalin’s madness and finds them unconvincing. He cites Timothy Snyder’s contention that Stalin, unlike Hitler, ‘was able to restrain himself when necessary’. It was on the possibility of restraint that Roosevelt pinned his hopes for maintaining the Grand Alliance after the war.

Kennan’s long telegram finished off the US-Soviet alliance. Costigliola believes Kennan was embittered by Stalin’s suppression of internal dissent after 1934, and not merely because of its consequences for actual or imagined enemies of the state. It meant that diplomats were isolated in the embassy, cut off from Russian girlfriends or, in Kennan’s case, from the Russian culture that fascinated him. From this frustration, Costigliola claims, it was only a short step to the long telegram and the X article. This is a little unfair to Kennan, who was motivated by more than personal pique. Costigliola does not acknowledge the ambiguity of Kennan’s attitudes towards the Soviet Union before he wrote the telegram, when he stressed the legitimacy of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, or discuss Kennan’s almost immediate revulsion at what he had wrought.

Costigliola emphasises that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, along with their successors and subordinates, ‘behaved as people and not just as cool minds separated from actual bodies’. This seems a commonplace observation but is actually a breakthrough in foreign policy history. Despite their willingness to diagnose Stalin’s paranoia, few US historians have acknowledged that their own leaders might also have had less than rational motives. This was true of Kennan too. Returning to Moscow in July 1944 after a seven-year absence, he found the atmosphere ‘poignantly familiar and significant … as though I had lived here in childhood’, he wrote to his sister. Ordinary Russians exuded ‘tremendous, pulsating warmth and vitality’ that he absorbed with ‘an indescribable sort of satisfaction’. Better to be with these people, even in Siberia, than among the ‘stuffy folk’ of Park Avenue. Such feelings made it ‘harder than ever to swallow … that I must always remain a distrusted outsider’, isolated in the embassy. The 40-year-old diplomat concluded that ‘the peak of life … was definitely passed.’ Letting Kennan and other disillusioned Soviet experts define the story of the origins of the Cold War was like ‘relying on the participants in a series of bad marriages to be the best judge of why those relationships failed’, Costigliola writes. ‘They were too involved personally to render fair judgments.’ They sorely missed the days when Soviet and American diplomats had staged ‘whoopee parties’ with ‘Mrs and mistresses all together in an alcoholic haze’, as the diplomat Charles Thayer recalled. After Roosevelt died, US diplomats had a chance to act on their resentment.

The Soviets were hardly innocent bystanders. As the Red Army advanced, its soldiers seemed intent on confirming Western stereotypes of their barbarism. They raped German women en masse; they left their shit on sidewalks, floors and kitchen counters. And they didn’t behave very well to freed American POWs, whom they assumed to be cowards. Stalin refused to allow American planes to take POWs out of Poland; instead the soldiers were forced to hitchhike to railway stations, where they were picked up and taken to Odessa to be evacuated by sea. None of this sat well with American public opinion.

When Kennan sent his long telegram on 22 February 1946, Costigliola writes, it ‘invoked a fantastic scenario in which leaders of the Soviet Union appeared as an inhuman force, without morality, beyond the appeal of reason, unable to appreciate objective fact or truth, and compelled to destroy almost every decent aspect of life in the West’. At the end, Kennan assured his readers that the Soviet Union did not want war, was weaker than the US and could be contained if the US and Western Europe met Soviet expansion firmly. But what really grabbed attention was his emotional depiction of the Soviet threat and his references to the ‘logic of force’. He never mentioned the wartime alliance, never referred to the Russians as people rather than abstractions and repeatedly resorted to the sexually charged notion of ‘penetration’ in describing Soviet expansion. Yet as Costigliola observes, ‘Kennan was such an effective prose stylist that readers of this phantasmagorical document praised its “realism”.’ The manifesto was perfectly timed to reinforce the drift towards Cold War, even while it undermined far-right arguments for military confrontation.

Stalin’s primary postwar aim, as Costigliola tells it, was protection against German and Japanese aggression. He, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed that despite the lofty aspirations of the United Nations charter, their countries would more or less divide the world between them and police it. The whole problem, as Soviet leaders saw it, was the West’s failure to treat the USSR as an equal. Compared to the imagined costs of negotiation, Costigliola writes, the actual costs of the Cold War were appalling: ‘deadly proxy wars, the atomic arms race (the full price of which we have perhaps not yet paid), the militarising of US society and, probably, the deepening and prolonging of Soviet aggression’. The elder Kennan would have agreed.

The younger Kennan became the man of the moment in 1946. ‘My reputation was made,’ he recalled. ‘My voice now carried.’ And it has carried down to our own time, shaping the views of historians like Gaddis. The long telegram, he writes, ‘set an international standard for analytical reporting’, and provided an alternative to pious hopes that the Soviet Union might be induced to join ‘the family of nations’. Now that liberal accommodators had been banished from the circle of respectable opinion, Kennan’s main concern shifted to the right wing. ‘If we can now only restrain the hotheads and panic-mongers and keep policy on a firm and even keel, I am not pessimistic.’ But he soon had cause for pessimism. An aggressive agenda could be draped in the rhetoric of redemption. The Truman Doctrine, announced in 1947 when Greece was in the midst of a civil war, typified the strategy: Greece and Turkey would be given economic and military aid to prevent their falling into the Soviet sphere, and so would ‘free peoples’ everywhere. Kennan marvelled at Truman’s leap from Greece to the world, and wondered, in Gaddis’s words, why ‘a crisis in a single country’ should ‘become the occasion for an open-ended commitment to resist oppression everywhere’. Still, Kennan didn’t bother to alter the proofs of the X article in order to emphasise his disagreements with the Truman Doctrine. The doctrine and the X article merged in the public mind, Gaddis writes, but Kennan ‘could never regard the doctrine with which he was credited as his own’. The popular notion of containment became the strategy of local military confrontation with Soviet expansion, whenever and wherever it appeared or seemed to appear.

Kennan was quickly identified by Washington insiders as Mr X, and spent the next few years backing away from the role. He counselled the need for restraint and patience, and insisted that the conquered countries of Eastern Europe were a source of Soviet weakness, not strength. By November 1949, he was citing John Quincy Adams’s line that America ‘goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy’. He was also changing his attitude towards nuclear weapons. In ‘The International Control of Atomic Energy’, a 79-page paper commissioned in 1950 by Dean Acheson, the secretary of state, Kennan argued that nuclear weapons could never be used, and could not be treated as strategic weapons like any other. Recalling Henry Adams, he reflected that technology was surging ahead of the moral capacity to manage it and recommended policies of ‘minimum deterrence’ and ‘no first use’. At about the same time, Paul Nitze, Kennan’s hawkish successor as director of policy planning, produced a paper that could be read in two minutes. Nitze’s crisp, technocratic belligerence was the future. Kennan, Gaddis writes, ‘had become prophetic but no longer relevant’, at least not to policymaking.

Still, he could not resist when Acheson offered him the ambassadorship to the Soviet Union in July 1951. For months he pondered the gulf between his own views and those of the Truman administration, and concluded that he could only be a gadfly in such a government. Despite his desire for restraint and reconciliation, he could not contain his disgust when he was again confronted with Stalin’s repressions. Within a few months of his appointment, he landed at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin and announced that the Soviet Union under Stalin was like Germany under Hitler. It was an egregious breach of protocol. The Soviets declared him persona non grata. On 29 July 1953, Dulles, the new Republican secretary of state, ‘retired’ him after 27 years of public service. He moved to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton and began his second career as a public intellectual.

He was still a gadfly. In December 1957, he gave the Reith Lectures, in which he criticised Nato, agreed that Europe should become neutral and provoked the hawks into accusing him of appeasement. When Acheson and other Truman administration spokesmen distanced themselves from him, he realised that the Democrats were just as committed to the follies of the arms race as the Republicans. Kennedy promised for a time to break the mould, and even appointed Kennan ambassador to Yugoslavia. But he too proved unwilling to relent from Cold War orthodoxy and to embrace Kennan’s modest agenda for thawing relations with Belgrade. Kennan left government for good in May 1963.

Yugoslavia’s estrangement from Moscow, unrest in Poland, rebellion in Hungary, Khrushchev’s destalinisation campaign and the Sino-Soviet split made it apparent that the notion of a monolithic communist threat was no longer justified by the evidence. This argument became the basis for Kennan’s opposition to the Vietnam War. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ‘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.’ The statement displayed his willingness to change his mind in public and gave unprecedented legitimacy to opponents of the war. Yet by the early 1970s, militarist intellectuals were already reviving all the old fears, warning about the dangers of détente and disarmament, insisting that the Soviet Union had a new aggressive strategy, and clamouring for increased military spending. In 1976, Richard Perle, Nitze and other frustrated hawks formed the Committee on the Present Danger. They believed Nixon and Kissinger had been insufficiently belligerent towards communism, and that Kennan was preaching appeasement. In every public venue he could find, he was reminding Americans that times had changed since the 1940s, that Brezhnev’s state was not Stalin’s, and that both superpowers should take ‘reciprocal unilateral steps of restraint’ to move towards ending the arms race. His views were vindicated when the Soviet archives were opened in the 1990s. They confirmed Kennan’s picture of the Soviet leaders as a frightened, overextended gerontocracy.

With Reagan’s election in 1980, Kennan thought, the militarists were back in charge. Gaddis disagrees, and argues that Reagan and Kennan shared the same fundamental goal – the elimination of nuclear weapons – but that Kennan refused to acknowledge the convergence of their views because ‘he allowed sensitivity to style and susceptibility to emotion to cloud his judgment.’ Reagan embodied everything Kennan despised about America: its denial of conflict and complexity, its bland pudding of pop-culture optimism. Gaddis, however, asserts that Reagan was ‘an instinctive grand strategist’ with a coherent plan for world peace. The claim doesn’t stand up to even cursory inspection. It depends, first of all, on overlooking the power of Reagan’s hawkish advisers, who dominated the national security bureaucracy. It also depends on treating Reagan’s sentimental paeans to peace as serious policy pronouncements and overlooking the confusion that was already afflicting him by the end of his first term. And it depends, most egregiously, on giving Reagan a free pass with respect to the Strategic Defence Initiative – his plan to create a missile defence system in outer space. Kennan criticised SDI as a boondoggle: a giveaway to defence contractors and a destabilising acceleration of the arms race. Gaddis thinks that by rejecting both the older strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction and ‘the first serious effort to move beyond it’ – which is how he characterises SDI – Kennan was simply being perverse.

This is an astonishingly benign view of a technically unworkable, strategically dangerous programme. Reagan’s attachment to SDI not only proved a deal-breaker in his Reykjavik talks with Gorbachev in 1986, but also revealed the fundamental confusion of the president’s thinking. If Reagan was indeed determined, as he said, to ‘have a deterrent and see that there is never a nuclear war’, he failed to see that SDI marked a rejection of deterrence – a fundamental change in strategy that the Russians could only perceive as a threat. With its promise of invulnerability from nuclear attack or counter-attack, SDI made an American first strike seem plausible, even probable to the Russians. Free of the fear of retaliation, Americans could indulge the fantasy of a winnable nuclear war.

Kennan survives Gaddis’s ideological treatment. While Gaddis ends with a paean to the glories of containment, he can’t help showing that Kennan grew increasingly dismayed by the militarisation of his doctrine and spent the second half of his life trying to undo the misapplications of his ideas. By documenting this private (and sometimes public) struggle, Gaddis’s biography more than accomplishes its main task. Through the fog of interpretation, Kennan the man shines through: his persistent contradictions, his unending self-doubt, his indispensable courage.