San Francisco Chronicle -- April 8, 2007
George Kennan: A Study of Character
by Ian Garrick Mason
Yale University Press, 207pp, $26
The world, or rather the declining portion of it that has heard of him, thinks it knows George F. Kennan. In the public memory, Kennan was America's man in the USSR, the diplomat who, after World War II, alerted his compatriots to the threat posed by the Soviets, who wrote a famous article describing how to confront that threat via "containment" and who was briefly lauded after the end of the Cold War as the architect of America's winning strategy.
That's George Kennan, sure enough. But it is also a simplification, argues John Lukacs, that ignores far too much of Kennan's value as a writer, a historian and a man.
Lukacs doesn't deny the impact Kennan's memos and articles had in that remarkable period between 1946 and 1950: the "Long Telegram" on the roots of the Soviet regime's behavior, his "X" article on the political containment of Soviet communism, his speech to the War College identifying the economic recovery of Europe as his country's top foreign-policy priority. All of these played a pivotal role in America's shift from wartime ally of the Soviet Union to Cold War opponent. But he also recognizes, as Kennan did, that this window of influence opened not because the diplomat's arguments rationally persuaded top policymakers to change their minds about the Soviet Union but rather because the American "ship of state" had already begun to turn in that direction; his arguments served to validate and express a mind-set that hadn't existed only a year before.
"All this only goes to show," Kennan somewhat glumly noted in his memoirs, "that more important than the observable nature of external reality, when it comes to the determination of Washington's view of the world, is the subjective state of readiness on the part of Washington officialdom to recognize this or that feature of it."
After the spotlight moved away, Kennan continued to follow his own course. The diplomat was an engaged thinker throughout his long life -- he lived to be 101, and was writing for the public well into his 97th year -- and Lukacs believes that Kennan's thoughts throughout his entire lifespan remain as powerful and as potentially important to us as any he conveyed in the late 1940s.
In foreign affairs, Kennan was an anti-ideologue who believed that although an animating idea could have real power for a time, stronger forces of nationalism and history would always prove primary to understanding the behavior of peoples. His intensive study of the USSR -- he learned its language, its literature, its politics and history, and even considered writing a biography of Chekhov -- enabled him to distinguish between the rhetoric of international communism and the real limits of the Soviet state. He therefore saw America's relations with the Soviet Union as a problem not of communism versus capitalism but of two nations with different interests to promote and defend; indeed, the Cold War itself, with its mutual fear and hair-trigger belligerence, seemed to him largely constructed out of "a reciprocal misunderstanding" founded on each power's belief that the other had expansionist intentions.
But Kennan was not merely a realist, Lukacs is careful to point out; he was also an idealist. His idealism was the opposite of the armed and crusading Wilsonianism of the present administration; rather, its subject was the "mind and character of his native people," and the impact that America's foreign policy could have on that character. Such concerns led him to propose a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons in 1949, to oppose both the stridency of John Foster Dulles and the poisonous denunciations of Joseph McCarthy -- anti-communism, Kennan warned in a speech at Notre Dame in 1953, impels us "to many of the habits of thought and action which our Soviet adversaries, I am sure, would most like to see us adopt" -- and to criticize the overreaching of the United States in Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq.
At the time he expressed them, these were, by and large, unpopular positions; Dulles described him to a journalist as "a very dangerous man" and forced him out of government service in 1953. Though the second 50 years of Kennan's life, at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, were rewarding and phenomenally productive -- he won the Pulitzer Prize twice, once for a history of Soviet-American relations and once for his published memoirs -- he was out of the mainstream. Ignored or attacked by the political right, and ignored or misunderstood by the left, Kennan had become "a conscience of a nation," writes Lukacs. It was a lonely role.
Billed as "a study of character," the book is really an intellectual biography with a special sensitivity toward its subject's character traits. This is no defect, for it serves as a wonderful introduction to the importance and interest of Kennan's writings, both those completed during his time of greatest influence, and the larger volume completed during the decades when far fewer people were listening to him. To read Kennan's Memoirs: 1925-1950, for example, is to expose oneself to history as literature, to foreign affairs, morality and philosophy, and, more important, to the mind of a man who is reflective, self-critical and deeply civilized. Suffused with respect and friendship, Lukacs' book is perhaps the best way for new readers to approach Kennan, who has been too quickly packaged up, labeled and put on a shelf. Lukacs demands that we open the box again; there's far more to George F. Kennan than the man we thought we knew.
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