Saturday, February 25, 2012

George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

George F. Kennan has long been one of my favorite historical characters, perhaps because he combined acting on the historical stage with criticizing the play’s production. I believe I first read his American Diplomacy, 1850-1950 when I was an undergraduate, although maybe it was late in high school. Later, when I was working in the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, I became interested in the broader geopolitical struggles behind the war in Southeast Asia, and I read Kennan’s classic 1946 “Long Telegram” from the USSR, his 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs, and his books Russia Leaves the War and Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin. Sometime after that, I read his The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order. The two volumes of Kennan’s memoirs sit on my shelf, but I confess that I have only begun the first. Kennan’s ability to bring a broad analytical perspective to the events of his own time and to the historical sources of those events, along with his talents as a writer and his reputation as one of the shapers of twentieth century American foreign policy, gave him a depth unusual among American public figures.
Biographer John Lewis Gaddis, a major authority in his own right on the Cold War, can certainly be counted as one of Kennan’s admirers. He ends this detailed but engaging biography with a brief essay arguing for Kennan’s claim to greatness. But Gaddis does not portray Kennan as a saint. He points out Kennan’s personal flaws of vanity and sensitivity (although I did wonder if these flaws might not have been normal human characteristics magnified by the self analysis in Kennan’s private journals. How vain and sensitive would we all appear if we recorded our private thoughts?) It also becomes clear in this biography that Kennan often advocated highly questionable policies, as when, in his Reith Lectures, he advocated U.S. withdrawal from a neutralized, unified Germany without sufficient guarantees against Soviet domination. Gaddis also makes clear that Kennan had little grasp of the role that domestic politics necessarily plays in American foreign policy, a strange shortcoming for a man who analyzed Soviet foreign policy in terms of the internal situation of the USSR. Gaddis acknowledges that Kennan spoke highly of President Kennedy, who flattered Kennan but largely ignored his advice and ideas in practice, and disliked President Reagan, who carried out much of the containment strategy Kennan outlined in the Long Telegram and X article, thereby hastening the collapse of the Soviet regime.
As Gaddis makes clear, though, Kennan did play a big part in many of the strategic decisions of the twentieth century.  In Portugal during World War II, Kennan was largely responsible for negotiating the use of the Azores as U.S. airbases. The Long Telegram and the article he wrote for Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X” helped turn official and public opinion away from the view that the only alternative to outright war with the Soviet Union was a Henry Wallace-style faith in the virtue and goodwill of the Stalinist dictatorship. As a policy planner after the war, he was more responsible than anyone else for the Marshall Plan.
Drawing on Kennan’s own papers, interviews with family members and others close to him, and on vast archival sources, Gaddis gives a detailed view of a man he clearly admires greatly, but not without reservation. Appropriately, he concentrates on Kennan’s intellectual and public life, considering the private life and passions only insofar as these shed light on temperament and motivations. I thought it particularly interesting that Kennan’s thinking on grand strategy emerged from his wide general reading, as well as his understanding of Russian history and culture. In particular, the idea of containing the Soviet Union until it collapsed due to its own contradictions and the strain of maintaining a vast empire apparently came to Kennan from his reading of Edward Gibbon.

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