The Chronicle Review

The Kennan Industry

John Lewis Gaddis's Life of Mr. X

Eddie Hausner, The New York Times

George Kennan's major role in shaping American strategy in the cold war cannot explain scholars' unflagging attraction to studying an intellectual who, despite winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, wrote that it was probably "given in recognition not of my success but of my failure."
November 20, 2011

"It isn't easy being George Kennan," a neighbor of the diplomat reports, some 600 pages into John Lewis Gaddis's new biography. Indeed it wasn't: Kennan was a curmudgeon too old for his times even in high school (where the yearbook listed his pet peeve as "the universe"); before he was 40, he considered himself out of touch with his own time. And perhaps to his own regret, Kennan still had more than 60 years to live; he died in 2005 at the age of 101.

Nor was it easy being George Kennan's biographer, notes Gaddis, a historian at Yale University. Kennan's voluminous autobiographical writings are a doubled-edged sword, an extraordinarily rich source but full of conscious efforts to frustrate those hoping to analyze the diplomat's life and work. Of a poem that Kennan read to friends and family on the occasion of his 40th wedding anniversary, Gaddis complains in George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press) that its 15 stanzas were written "as if to humiliate future biographers."

Yet if it wasn't easy being Kennan's biographer, that hardly stopped scholars from trying. A veritable Kennan industry began in the early 1970s and boomed in the late 1980s and early 90s—all while Kennan was not just alive but obstructing research by limiting access to his personal papers stored at Princeton University. Kennan's interference hardly slowed the flow of work about him. A 1997 bibliography lists almost 180 accounts of Kennan and his writings. Since then scholars have written another 18 dissertations and dozens more articles and books illuminating one or another aspect of Kennan's long life. And, if the recent spike in the use of Kennan's private papers at Princeton is any indication, many more are on the way.

All this work for a man whose last official position was as John F. Kennedy's ambassador to Yugoslavia, and who frequently complained in public (and, we learn from Gaddis's biography, even more in private) that his ideas were ignored. Kennan considered his contributions to public life of such little influence that when George H.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989, he confided to his diary that it was probably "given in recognition not of my success but of my failure."

Medals of Freedom are not awarded to failures, of course, and Kennan's prize was no exception. President Bush praised his "unique contributions to the national security of the country," and rightly so. Even as Kennan constantly doubted his own value and importance, he was the architect of "containment," the strategic doctrine that shaped American foreign relations from the time Kennan coined the phrase in 1946 until the cold war wound down 45 years later.

Kennan's influence rested on two documents he wrote in the late 1940s, just as American policy makers began reckoning with a new world order in which Washington and Moscow—and no longer London, Paris, and Berlin—would be the centers of power. The first of those documents, his so-called Long Telegram, sent from Moscow in 1946, where Kennan was deputy chief of the U.S. mission, had a tremendous effect in spite of the fact that it was classified "secret." Moscow's 511, as it was known by State Department convention, was the right message at the right time. Just as President Harry S. Truman and those around him were trying to formulate a post-World War II foreign policy amid increasing Soviet intransigence, the Long Telegram diagnosed Soviet policy as driven by age-old Russian characteristics, with Communist ideology a mere "fig leaf of moral and intellectual respectability." The telegram also offered a prescription: Since Soviet leaders were "impervious to logic of reason" but "highly sensitive to logic of force," the American task must be to have sufficient force and suggest a "readiness to use it." (It speaks volumes about Kennan's ability to shape writings about him that dozens of scholars—myself included—have taken at face value Kennan's description of the Long Telegram as 8,000 words. To Gaddis's credit, he actually counted and found "just over five thousand" words.)

Moscow 511, the State Department's longest-ever dispatch, was probably its most important. It provided an explanation for Soviet belligerence and offered a road map for American strategy—precisely when American policy makers, from President Truman on down, were desperately searching for both. Kennan counseled patience and belief in the American way of life ("the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society"). That must have come as a particular relief to a haberdasher-turned-party-politician who was hardly known for his cosmopolitanism.

The Long Telegram catapulted the sensitive Kennan from his distant post into the maelstrom of policy making just as Washington began to reckon with the postwar world. His second document, appearing (under the byline "X") in 1947 in Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the American foreign-policy establishment, gave a name to the new policy. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" called for the "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies"—and thus was containment born. Kennan would later claim that his conception of containment was strictly nonmilitary, and he soon would disclaim responsibility for the militarized version that followed. Yet as Gaddis showed in his earlier works, and reinforces in his biography, although Kennan's containment may have been a political strategy, it required the possibility of military force. But those debates were for a later day.

In their own time, Kennan's Long Telegram and Foreign Affairs article stood out from the flurry of public pronouncements and classified memoranda for their analytical insight, their answers to policy makers' pressing questions, and the elegance of their prose. America's most prominent commentator on foreign affairs, Walter Lippmann, offered the highest form of respect for Kennan's ideas when he wrote a 14-part response to Kennan's Foreign Affairs article, far longer than Kennan's original essay. Lippmann's columns, quickly collected and published in the fall of 1947­—30 years almost exactly to the week after the Bolshevik Revolution—gave the brewing new conflict a name; the slender collection was called The Cold War. In two statements, then, Kennan defined both the conflict and the American response.

Kennan then spent two busy years as chief of the State Department's in-house think tank, the Policy Planning Staff. While there, he wrote an impressive set of reports on American long-term interests, potential dangers, and policy options around the world that were cosmopolitan and far-reaching—but at the same time (as Gaddis notes) "strikingly solipsistic," solely reflecting Kennan's advice to his boss, Secretary of State George C. Marshall. The reports were at once impressive and (with one exception) ignored by all but historians. After being eased out of the State Department, Kennan began his half-century affiliation at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he was free to write, lecture, and offer advice to officials without any obligation to teach. That situation was interrupted only twice, for ambassadorial appointments: a stint in Moscow that ended after only four months, when the Soviet Union declared him persona non grata, and a decade later, two years in Belgrade.

Kennan's role in shaping the cold war cannot explain scholars' continuing attraction to studying him. Other figures, less often studied, have had a greater impact on American policy. Take, for instance, Kennan's friend Paul Nitze—who disagreed with just about every policy Kennan proposed. Nitze authored NSC-68, calling for the militarization of America's cold-war defense posture, which Kennan came to oppose. Nitze served under all 10 presidents from FDR to George H.W. Bush, and was present at most important moments of cold-war policy making. Kennan's moods, meanwhile, moved in a recurring four-year cycle in tune with presidential administrations: Just after each election, he waited in vain to be called upon, whereupon he fell into despair for a political system that had no place for him. Measured by shelf space, though, Nitze can't match Kennan as a biographical subject; there were only two books on Nitze before the appearance two years ago of a biography he shared with another diplomat. And the author of that joint biography, Nitze's grandson Nicholas Thompson, was hardly immune to Kennan's gravitational pull; he devoted the other half of his book, The Hawk and the Dove (Henry Holt), to Kennan.

There are three reasons for the size and continued growth of the Kennan industry, all of them amply visible in Gaddis's substantial biography. First, Kennan's own life was filled with paradoxes that attracted attention and sympathy, even—especially?—from scholars who questioned his policies. He was, at best, an intellectual's policy maker. At worst, Kennan was yet another intellectual at sea in the world of politics and power—but this might have endeared him all the more to scholars. Second, Kennan flattered the career choices of historians. Many of the American diplomatic historians who wrote about him worked in a field that was in direct dialogue with policy makers. In the words of the historian Anders Stephan­son, author of Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (Harvard University Press, 1989), his fellow diplomatic historians "took as a kind of civic duty" to "argue from the point of view of a fictive national-security adviser." And yet here was a diplomat, one of unquestioned influence, who became a historian. Finally, Kennan's belief in his own historical importance—a belief that long predated the crucial decade of the 1940s—provides a source base of rare breadth and depth.

Kennan lived a life of ironies and paradoxes, documented exhaustively in Gaddis's biography. Start with basics of time and place. For a man who came to define American foreign policy for much of the 20th century, Kennan knew little of his own country and cared for it even less. His denunciations of American life reeked with disappointment and even fear. Kennan, not surprisingly, was well aware of this tendency; as he confided to his sister in 1935, "I hate democracy; I hate the press ...; I hate the 'peepul;' I have become clearly un-American." He was no more comfortable in his time than in his country; he was in many respects a man of 18th-century sensibilities, railing with increasing frequency against the industrialism, commercialism, and mass culture that he believed were destroying the United States. Such sentiments were on display, for instance, on Kennan's 1938 visit to his native Milwaukee. He railed, in particular, against the rise of the automobile, linking it to the "sad climax of individualism" and the demise of "the spirit of fellowship" among his countrymen. Not that Kennan sought "fellowship" with many of his compatriots anyway. It is therefore tempting to read Gaddis's subtitle, An American Life, as inadvertent irony.

No sooner had Kennan coined the term "containment" then he disavowed its application at the hands of Nitze (who succeeded him as Policy Planning chief) and others, leaving him as "architect" of a policy that he considered an eyesore. The more that subsequent presidents invoked containment, the more vocally Kennan inveighed against it. His 1966 congressional testimony against deepening American commitments in Vietnam was an early and powerful dissent from Lyndon B. Johnson's policies. Antiwar liberals loved the testimony, conveniently ignoring Kennan's reasoning: America should withdraw from Vietnam because the country wasn't worth the trouble and its inhabitants weren't suited for democracy. His vocal opposition to nuclear arms in the 1970s and 1980s—when he was joined by liberal groups and Catholic bishops—endeared him to liberals in exact proportion to how much he was alienated from ascendant conservatives. Yet here, too, his reasoning was uniquely Kennanesque, emphasizing human fallibility (he would later title a chapter of a book "Man, the Cracked Vessel"). Kennan was so profoundly conservative in an 18th-century, Edmund Burkean way that his policy ideas often squared with 20th-century American liberals. Gaddis notes these contradictions without dwelling on them, thereby missing the chance to use Kennan's ideas to shed light on the political world in which he so frequently if so uneasily participated.

When he joined the Institute for Advanced Study, Kennan took seriously the charge that he must become a scholar. He made what one critical historian called a "Pilgrimage to Clio" with enviable success. His two-volume history of American-Russian relations in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution was masterful in design and execution, based on extensive archival research as well as personal knowledge of the institutions (and many of the individuals) discussed. The first installment, Russia Leaves the War: Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920 (Princeton University Press, 1956) won a garland of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award—proof, Kennan wrote with typical self-deprecation, only of the paucity of quality nonfiction that year. Feted at historians' meetings, invited to join the faculties of America's most prestigious universities, Kennan's career as a writer lasted far longer than his years in the Foreign Service. Indeed, Kennan's history was joined later by a second Pulitzer and another National Book Award, this time in biography for Memoirs, 1925-1950 (Little, Brown, 1967).

The second Pulitzer Prize speaks to the final reason why Kennan has been such a compelling historical subject: He devoted much of his own life to writing his life story. He drafted his first (unpublished) memoirs at the tender age of 34, while still a midlevel functionary at the American Embassy in Moscow, and before he had accomplished much of anything. Titled "Fair Day, Adieu!"—a quotation from one of Shakespeare's historical plays—Kennan portentously declaimed about Russian character and Russian history, ending with his trip out of Russia, "turned loose in a Western civilization for which [he] had become definitely out of touch." At the top of the original manuscript, among his papers at Princeton University libraries, Kennan wrote a message to future historians who would be reading "Fair Day, Adieu!" In his small and delicate script, he reminded readers of its age (written in 1938) and the fact that it was "blanketed" by Kennan's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir published 30 years later. Both memoirs are rich sources for historians—the unpublished one for what it revealed of Kennan's sensibilities about Russia, and the published one for illustrating how Kennan understood his own ideas and importance. Writing with grace and elegance, Kennan managed to tone down his usual self-excoriation to mere modesty, and a gentlemanly modesty at that. The published memoirs (a second volume came out in 1972) were a first-rate literary achievement that offered a firsthand perspective on how the cold war had begun. What's more, they appeared just as a debate raged among historians and policy makers on that question.

In other cases, Kennan went far beyond handwritten reminders. Soon after he authorized Princeton to open his personal papers to researchers in 1970, Kennan was, apparently, shocked that a young historian, C. Ben Wright, would focus so closely on a 1930s draft essay called "The Prerequisites." It called for "an authoritarian state" that denied suffrage to those unable to wield it properly—that is, to immigrants, women, and blacks. Wright, who greatly admired Kennan, quoted extensively from "The Prerequisites" in his dissertation. Wright also had the temerity to suggest that Kennan's version of containment might have a military component after all, using Kennan's letters and speech drafts from the 1940s to support his interpretation. Kennan flew into a rage, trying to strike the offending quotations from Wright's work and—in Gaddis's telling—ultimately driving Wright out of the profession. The offending documents (if that is the right description) were removed from Kennan's papers, and photocopying from the remainder of the collection was forbidden.

Not all of Kennan's efforts to shape his own life, though, were directed toward covering up. When a precocious Princeton undergraduate wrote a thesis that attempted to piece together a philosophy from Kennan's diffuse published and unpublished writings, Kennan responded with his own philosophical statement, published as Around the Cragged Hill (Norton, 1993). In modern parlance, Kennan tried to control his own narrative.

And, with Gaddis's huge biography, Kennan in many ways continues to control the narrative, even from the grave. The effort began after Kennan and Gaddis agreed, in the early 1980s, that the historian would have exclusive access to a wealth of materials (more than 90 linear feet) that Kennan had not yet deposited in Princeton's library. In exchange, there was a tacit agreement between biographer and subject that Gaddis's book would appear posthumously. Gaddis makes extensive use of this remarkable cache of materials unavailable to other scholars: Many volumes of Kennan's diaries (kept over many decades), including his diaries recording his dreams. Kennan hoarded material on his own life—well into the 1980s, he kept research assistants busy clipping articles about him from around the world—and during his lifetime bestowed those materials on his biographer alone. For three decades, then, the richest materials about Kennan's life were held in trust for Gaddis, one of the most honored and prolific diplomatic historians of his generation and one who has shared (in smaller doses, to be sure) Kennan's concern with the challenges of undertaking an effective foreign policy in a democracy.

Even a historian with Gaddis's experience, though, seems overwhelmed by the extent and richness of the sources available to him. The book itself takes its cue from its sources, and especially from Kennan's diaries and letters written to, from, or about him in family circles. The biography is so full of its subject's own words that Kennan still shapes the tone and pace of the chapters on the diplomat's early life and rise through the Foreign Service ranks. As the diaries thin out during Kennan's brief moment in the sun during the late 1940s, we learn less of Kennan's interior thoughts and domestic arrangements and much more about his foreign policy. Then, for the second half of the biography, Kennan's self-doubts return; by the time the retired diplomat meets his future biographer in the early 1980s, the diaries are filled with self-pity, self-excoriation, and increasingly frequent and elaborate visions of death. The biography provides such a good account of Kennan's own perspective on his own life that Gaddis functions as much as amanuensis as he does as biographer.

For those in the field of Kennan studies—and I would count myself as a card-carrying member—the biography is at once revelatory and familiar. We knew of Kennan's propensity for self-criticism, but not necessarily its extent, frequency, and black depths. We wondered about his 70-year marriage, but learn about his numerous affairs—serious enough to prompt his wife, Annelise, to travel to Nazi Germany to "save the marriage." We knew, from Wright's notes on "The Prerequisites" and other writings that Kennan could not control, of the diplomat's retrograde views of modern American life and those who lived it. Yet Gaddis's biography reveals those views to be systematic and carefully thought out—if at the same time frequently channeled or papered over because of Kennan's entirely reasonable fear that they might offend. In sum, much like the vaunted opening of the Soviet archives, the new material on Kennan seems more likely to confirm and add texture to previous conjectures than it will offer up surprises.

Yet that early assessment may change soon. The Princeton archive has already made available hundreds of boxes, including the diaries, long held back at Kennan's insistence—and has made it easier on researchers by allowing photocopies. More important, the archive has launched a project, led by Gaddis's fellow diplomatic historian Frank Costigliola, of the University of Connecticut, to publish the diaries, which Gaddis rightly calls one of the most extended accounts of a 20th-century American life now available.

Kennan's combination of brutal self-examination and thin-skinned responses to critics (be they policy makers or historians) gives the impression that he hoped to have a monopoly on Kennan criticism. Surely aware that even a sympathetic scholar like Gaddis would have points of disagreement, Kennan protected himself by insuring the biography wouldn't appear in his lifetime. While some books put an end to the study of a subject, it seems more likely that Gaddis's monumental work marks only the beginning. We can now read Kennan not just for his powerful but fleeting influence on foreign policy, but also for social and psychological insights from one of the most introspective figures of modern American life. And who can predict what the future generations will make of the 20th century's most influential 18th-century man?

David C. Engerman is a professor of history at Brandeis University. His most recent book is Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts (Oxford University Press, 2009), recently reissued in paperback.