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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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.