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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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.”