The Magazine

Wrong Telegram

The mysterious reputation of George F. Kennan.

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By JOHN BOLTON
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Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis has written an impressive biography of George Kennan, the Cold War strategist, Soviet expert, and intellectual icon of the liberal establishment. Well worth reading, it nonetheless raises the basic question of whether Kennan’s concrete contributions justify the many accolades he has received. While Gaddis may not have intended it, his exhaustive research, in fact, demonstrates how marginal Kennan’s public career actually was, but for a single, fleeting period. There is less to the Kennan mythology than meets the eye. 

Photo of George Kennan with the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State

Policy Planning Staff, Department of State (1950), Kennan fourth from left

Bettmann / Corbis

With two spectacular exceptions, Kennan’s strategies were losers—losers which, we must concede, became over time the American left’s prevailing strategic doctrines. In one brief, shooting-star moment, Kennan achieved his reputation for “grand strategy” by writing the legendary 1946 “long telegram” from Moscow, and the article signed “X” in Foreign Affairs (“The Sources of Soviet Conduct”), articulating the policy of containment which undergirded America’s Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union.

Undoubtedly, both essays are essential to understanding the Truman administration’s strategic thinking and its ramifications. But however astute and timely those two essays were, do they justify a reputation for “greatness” and the obeisance from universities, editorial boards, and the chattering classes that followed? Did they shift policy, or did they simply give voice to inchoate policy ideas which would have crystallized anyway? Is Kennan important simply because of constant repetition, there because he’s there?

X wrote unambiguously that America required “a policy of firm containment 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.” We had to recognize that Moscow’s policy combined both the Communist imperative to world domination (being a scientific philosophy obeying ineluctable dialectical laws) and historical Russian expansionism, both of which Kennan described compellingly.

Nonetheless, as Gaddis recounts, X’s article had not even appeared before Kennan began backing away from it and the Long Telegram. Kennan complained vigorously that he was being distorted, that he had never favored “counterforce,” threatened or actual, to the extent new converts to containment believed necessary. But his complaints ignore what he said repeatedly at the time. Whether or not he later choked on these words, they were his. The notion that he did not foresee containment almost inevitably requiring a significant military component is fanciful. Gaddis ruefully concludes, “After 1947, [Kennan] could never regard the doctrine with which he was credited as his own. That produced a dejection extending over dozens of Kennan birthdays to come.”

Kennan rarely seemed taken with his native land, writing his sister Jeanette in 1935: “I hate the rough and tumble of our political life. I hate democracy; I hate the press .  .  . ;
I hate the ‘peepul’; I have become clearly un-American.” In words those enraptured by China today would enjoy, Kennan said in 1936 that it was “time to drop ‘the angel of democracy’ as well as ‘the bogey-man of dictatorship.’ ” Little wonder that Gaddis stresses “one of [Kennan’s] most persistent paradoxes: that he understood the Soviet Union far better than he did the United States.” It certainly explains Kennan’s views of the Reagan administration, which he described as “ignorant, unintelligent, complacent, and arrogant; worse still is the fact that it is frivolous and reckless.”

And as his private writings reveal, Kennan gives pessimism and depression a bad name. His almost unrelievedly bleak diaries virtually compel the conclusion that his jaundiced views of mankind infused his erratic strategic thinking. Gaddis concedes that “Kennan always had trouble keeping his emotions apart from his strategies” and possessed “an inability to insulate his jobs from his moods.” Having interviewed Kennan’s family, friends, and coworkers, Gaddis concludes that, in daily life, Kennan was not nearly as gloomy as in his private musings, which perhaps provided a release valve so his tensions and concerns were not inflicted on others.

Of course, personality traits are not sufficient explanations of his grand strategies, which must stand or fall on their merits. A great power cannot be dependent on the mood swings of its supposed savants.