The Fault Lines of George Kennan
The writer of the "Long Telegram” knew the Soviet Union better than he knew the United States, argues Frank Costigliola in his new biography.
by Frank Costigliola (Princeton University Press, 648 pp., $39.95)
George Frost Kennan, who lived to the age of 101, earned a reputation as one of the great American wise men of the 20th century. Through his deep immersion in Russian history and culture, and his diplomatic service in and around the USSR from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s, he became one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Soviet Union and the key American strategist of the early Cold War.
But was Kennan really always so wise? Kennan has been the subject of several biographies, including an authorized one by the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. Now we have another, Kennan: A Life between Worlds, by the University of Connecticut historian Frank Costigliola. Though Costigliola is an admirer of Kennan, particularly the later Kennan who emerged as a critic of America’s “Cold War hysteria”—Costigliola’s words—his biography has the virtue of not hiding his subject’s considerable flaws. If I emphasize those flaws here at the expense of Kennan’s undeniable achievements, that is only an effort to restore balance to a reputation in which great influence has become confused with personal greatness.
In 1926, at the age of twenty-two, Kennan, freshly out of Princeton, entered the Foreign Service and began specialized training in Russian language, history, and culture, throwing himself into it with extraordinary passion. Before long, in his mid-twenties he was writing research reports that, owing to their excellence, were widely circulated within the State Department, Commerce Department, and Treasury. A series of diplomatic postings followed: Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia—all listening posts on the USSR—and finally Russia itself, where he penned vivid and masterful diplomatic cables. The immediate postwar era found him at the pinnacle of his influence, outlining the strategy of containment in two of the most important strategy documents of the Cold War—the “Long Telegram” (1946) and the anonymous “X” article (1947) in Foreign Affairs—and serving as the founding director of the Office of Policy Planning in the Department of State.
The intellectual journey that took Kennan to that juncture is extraordinary, and Costigliola lays it out in close detail. The early Kennan, as Costigliola’s account makes plain, was not always so clear-eyed about what he was seeing. Upon the death of Soviet secret police chief Vyacheslav Menzhinsky in 1934, Kennan concluded that the change might create “a semblance of legal guarantees for individual rights in place of the unbridled and irresponsible authority” hitherto exercised by the secret police. Of course, that was not to occur; quite the reverse. In a 1935 letter, Kennan declared that while he was “no Bolshevik,” he nonetheless found “some of the visions of the more intelligent Communist leaders [as] the most impelling and inspiring human conceptions which it has been my lot to encounter.”
The great purges of the 1930s, which Kennan witnessed up close, attending some of the show trials, left a profound impression on him. But remarkably, as Costigliola writes, at least initially “Kennan appraised the accused as guilty to a significant degree.” As Kennan cabled to Washington about the defendants, “From the point of view of the regime, they have probably done plenty . . . to warrant their humiliation and punishment.” The application of torture to extract confessions went unmentioned. Kennan was to become far more realistic as the horrors of the Stalinist system continued to unfold before his eyes.
As Gaddis observed in his biography, one of the paradoxes of the early Kennan is that “he understood the Soviet Union far better than he understood the United States.” On that score, in the late 1930s Kennan began work on a book titled The Prerequisites, which remained unfinished and unpublished, but which became a sensation when it came to light in the 1970s, at which point Kennan attempted to withdraw it from scholarly scrutiny. In Costigliola’s summary of its points, Kennan argued “for taking away the right to vote of naturalized citizens, nonprofessional women, and ‘the negroes.’”
Bizarrely, American women were a particular target of his ire. They had become, “in comparison with the women of other countries, delicate, high-strung, unsatisfied, flat-chested and flat-voiced.” In diary entries from roughly the same period, he embraced the thinking on eugenics that was current in his day, taking up the problem of “inferior races” and declaring that education and discipline were useless “as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young.” Kennan was much later to disavow The Prerequisites, ascribing it to his own political immaturity.
Unsurprisingly, given the foregoing, the Kennan of the pre-war era held a decidedly illiberal outlook on politics. He mused pessimistically to himself about “whether a radical anti-democratic party, a fascist party in essence, could have any success in America.” This was not, explains Costigliola, because a fascist party “loomed as a threat, but rather because it seemed out of reach.” “I believe in dictatorship, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat,” wrote Kennan at a time when dictatorships in Europe were seething with energy. “I hate the rough and tumble of our political life; I hate the whole damned system; I hate democracy; I hate the press . . . I hate the ‘peepul.’
Stationed in Prague when the Nazis moved in following Chamberlain’s betrayal at Munich, he sent the State Department a lengthy study of “The Jewish Problem in the New Czechoslovakia”—the “New Czechoslovakia” being a euphemism for the Nazi-occupied land. Writes Costigliola, Kennan “accepted without question the racist categories of ‘full-blooded Jews,’ ‘Aryans,’ and ‘non-Aryans,’ and their relevance to the ‘Jewish question.’” The ban on Jews serving in government, he explained to Washington, was not a serious blow as it “applied only in the case of full-blooded Jews,” numbering only about a thousand, who would in any case receive a modest pension. As the nightmare of persecution was in full swing, Kennan reported that “very little has happened in Prague to justify the panicky atmosphere . . . in Jewish circles.”
More broadly, in Kennan’s view, as summarized by Costigliola,
‘the Jewish problem’ demanded attention. . . . In rural Slovakia, he reported, Jews exercised a dominant economic role [in society] ‘partly through their superior intelligence’ and ‘partly—the Slovaks feel—through their trickiness and unscrupulousness, . . .and through an incurable clannishness and nepotism.’
Kennan extended such sentiments to America, claiming, as Costigliola relays, “that the most ‘dangerous prejudice’ lay in ignoring the ‘Jewish problem in our country.’” Kennan concluded that the “only way to head off the ‘degrading ugliness’ of pogroms or Nazi-like persecution was for the U.S. government to limit the extent of ‘Jewish penetration’ in the professions, business, and the arts.” Costigliola castigates Kennan for his “anti-Semitic prejudice,” and also labels him “xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist—not to mention naively unrealistic and nearly fascist.”
Remarkably, for all of this darkness, Costigliola’s biography is still overwhelmingly laudatory and sympathetic. Employing a heavily psychological approach, he takes readers through Kennan’s personal life, the loss of his mother at age two months and the lifelong craving for intimacy—and the concomitant philandering—it seems to have inspired. Kennan himself was in thrall to Freud, and Costigliola sees Kennan in a constant struggle between “Eros and Civilization,” a phrase Costigliola hammers to the point of tedium.
At the same time, Costigliola offers a very detailed account of Kennan’s soaring influence in the early Cold War, his aborted five-month stint as ambassador to the USSR in 1952, his tenure as John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, and his half century in private life at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. The early pre-war Kennan appears as a brilliantly evocative eyewitness of contemporary history, yet also as a kind of nasty crank and eccentric misanthrope (“man is a skin-disease of the earth”). Meanwhile, the later Kennan emerges in Costigliola’s account if not as a saint then at least a prophet unheeded in his own land.
In his “X” article, Kennan had called for containment of the USSR based on the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” But from 1950 onward, Kennan devoted his energy to distancing himself, Costigliola tells us, from what he believed had become a militarized misconstrual of his doctrine. Kennan, writes Costigliola, sought “desperately to get Washington to negotiate with Moscow to defuse the threat of nuclear war.” And there were no shortages of opportunities, according to Costigliola, for “despite their bluster, the Soviets repeatedly signaled their openness to such diplomacy.” That is a questionable judgment; one of many in a volume that often veers into a revisionist reading of the Cold War.
Costigliola also hails Kennan for warning that extending “the NATO alliance into the former domains of the Soviet Union would incite nationalism and militarism in Russia, doom its infant democracy, and poison relations with the West, effectively restarting the Cold War.” That is also a contestable proposition. But even if one disagrees with Costigliola (and with Kennan) about the wisdom of NATO enlargement, as I do, and bemoans the fact that Kennan spent the second half of his life attempting to erase the plain meaning of his greatest contribution to the Cold War struggle, one can still put down Costigliola’s biography of Kennan having learned a great deal about the man.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
Image: George Kennan in profile, 1975, Constance Goodman.
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