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. 

Moreover, Kennan’s tangible diplomatic achievements were nothing to write home about. Most spectacularly, the Soviet Union declared him persona non grata for committing what today we call a gaffe: telling the truth at the wrong time. While visiting Berlin shortly after becoming ambassador to the Soviet Union, Kennan compared contemporary life in Moscow to his detention (along with other diplomats) by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II. Being the first and only American ambassador to Moscow to be “PNG’d”—and by Stalin, no less—might be a badge of honor for some, but not for Kennan.

Before Moscow, he was the first head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, often labeled the department’s “think tank.” But “S/P” (as it is known in the bureaucratic nomenclature) has always struggled to find its niche, perhaps futilely, since its role depends entirely on the incumbent secretary of state. Does he or she want a stable for speechwriters and special assistants, or truly strategic thinkers? And how do “policy planners” relate to the regional and functional bureaus that carry out State’s day-to-day responsibilities? Pushed in one direction, S/P becomes little more than a perch for second guessers; pushed in the other, as Kennan did, the Policy Planning Staff becomes simply irrelevant (“a failure,” as Kennan confided to his diary). Thus, even his bureaucratic crown jewel was badly flawed, and Gaddis writes that, after just a year, “Kennan found himself becoming a policy dissenter once again. He had, he discovered, lost his footing. He never quite regained it.”

And that was in 1948! Kennan’s considerable reputation beyond X and the Long Telegram stems substantially from the innumerable opportunities for criticism his longevity afforded him. Whether that reputation is warranted, however, is a different story—as, for example, in the extent of his role in formulating the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. 

In reality, he was simply a verbalizer for ideas already swirling at the State Department, particularly those of Dean Acheson and Will Clayton, undersecretary for economic affairs. (Joseph Marion Jones’s classic account, The Fifteen Weeks, makes precisely this point.) Further, Kennan disagreed with Truman and Acheson on politico-military matters, opposing NATO’s creation as “a final militarization of the present dividing-line through Europe.” Kennan also reversed course on Germany, initially favoring its division to stabilize Europe, then advocating its demilitarized reunification, well before Western European economic recovery and rearmament. Fortunately, his path to reunification never became American policy, since it would have opened a Central European power vacuum ripe for Soviet exploitation. Dean Rusk correctly judged that “that approach .  .  . allows you to be nibbled to death, like ducks. Kennan couldn’t see that.” Remarkably, in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, Kennan wrote in the Washington Post that it was too soon to consider reunification!

At the outset, containment was seen as the weaker of the competing alternative grand strategies, with many Republicans arguing for “rolling back” Communist advances. (Who can forget Richard Nixon’s critique of “Dean Acheson’s College of Cowardly Communist Containment”?) Yet when the Eisenhower-Nixon-Dulles team took office, it adhered rigorously to containment, including allowing Soviet tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution rather than
intervening militarily.

The shadow figure lurking in Gaddis’s biography is Dean Acheson, far more successful politically, diplomatically, and, arguably, conceptually than Kennan. As the British ambassador Oliver Franks put it, “Having your thinking done for you, which is what the Policy Planning Staff stood for, was alien to Dean. .  .  . [He] was a man of action. He wanted actually to get things done.” Kennan had a more disdainful view: “[Acheson] was basically a Washington lawyer, not a diplomat. The fact that he looked like a diplomat confused people, but it didn’t make him one.” When Kennan, in a 1957 series of lectures, criticized NATO while advocating reuniting Germany outside it, Acheson roundly denounced him as one who “has never .  .  . grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes rather a mystical attitude toward them.” Even Harry Truman jumped in, saying Kennan was “not a policymaker” and only a good ambassador when Acheson was there “to tell him what to do.”

This debate reflects a lasting, ultimately destructive, cleavage within the Democratic party, which Gaddis vividly portrays. Typically unsuccessful in persuading others while at State, Kennan was much more successful as a scholar in weakening our national resolve, culminating in a May 1987 interview when he accepted the slogan “better red than dead.” Indeed, Kennan’s views ultimately prevailed over the Achesonian Democrats, who either fled as refugees to the Republican party or, if they stayed behind, now seem like lights blinking out one by one on a distant shore.

On Vietnam, Kennan reached a political zenith in his blistering 1966 attack on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy in hearings before Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee. And on strategic arms policies, his antinuclear views became increasingly unrealistic—but undoubtedly central to the regnant arms-control theology, now revived again by President Obama. Characteristically, Kennan’s later views on nuclear weapons were far removed from his 1947 stress on “the deterrent effect of overwhelming retaliatory power in the hands of this country.”

Ironically, in 1967, Kennan garnered enormous attention for his scathing condemnation of the New Left, saying, “that these people are embattled is unquestionable. That they are really students, I must be permitted to doubt. .  .  . The fact of the matter is that the state of being enragé is simply incompatible with fruitful study.” This was a cultural attack rather than a disagreement on Vietnam or broader policy, but that got lost in the ensuing controversy. His fellow academics, having fought the anti-Communist barbarians in the 1950s, could not grasp that the protesters were their intellectual progeny, and that the barbarians were no longer outside the university but in their classrooms, denouncing them as establishment tools, or worse.

Today, Professor Gaddis is perhaps the foremost teacher of “grand strategy,” often over sullen opposition from political scientists who deride his work as mere “history.” But the popularity and reputation of the Yale grand strategy program he leads with Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy, and widely emulated at other universities (over the opposition of other sullen academics), testify to the vitality of his approach. “Grand strategy” in academia is substantive international-affairs scholarship, not what political scientists, who believe more in algorithms and statistics, now churn out. While they are researching the globe’s political capillaries, mere historians like Gaddis are unraveling how American diplomatic strategy actually unfolded during critical decades.

Given the Cold War focus of Gaddis’s scholarship, it was no surprise he would be Kennan’s biographer; but it is quite surprising that the weight of the evidence reveals Kennan not to be the transformative strategist of mythology, certainly not on a sustained, consistent basis. Ultimately, the real strategist transforms his thinking into reality, or perhaps more accurately, transforms reality to be consistent with his thinking. This Dean Acheson accomplished, but George Kennan did not. While the Truman-Marshall-Acheson policies are remembered through X’s language, X was more a reflection of Washington’s evolving postwar thinking than an independent, causative force. And beyond the thinkers were the real actors, whom Kennan aspired to join but never did.

These recalibrations do not make Kennan irrelevant. Gaddis argues forcefully that Kennan’s skill as a historian and writer constitute greatness, and he doubtless spoke influentially in our national debate—wrongheaded though he was, if rarely so in government. Better appreciating what he achieved, and what he did not, is important background for the 20th century’s second half. Nonetheless, George F. Kennan leads to the conclusion that its subject was, like the proverbial stopped clock, right twice a day—or in Kennan’s case, twice in his lifetime. This judgment may be (in Dean Acheson’s phrase) “clearer than the truth,” but not by much. Kennan’s two most famous essays were distinctly out of character, idiosyncratic not because of his personal peculiarities but because of the vagaries of his own thinking on grand strategy. And that paradox justifies carefully reading this biography, to understand the realities, not the myths, of Kennan’s life.

John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during 2005-06, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.