Clever cold war­rior

Ge­orge Ken­nan: A Study of Char­ac­ter By John Lukacs Yale Univer­sity Press, 224pp, $ 55

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley

TELE­GRAMS on oc­ca­sion change his­tory. The Zim­mer­man Tele­gram, a war­like dis­patch of Ger­man for­eign min­is­ter Arthur Zim­mer­man to Mex­ico, which was skil­fully ma­nip­u­lated by Bri­tish intelligence in 1917, was a lead­ing con­tribut­ing fac­tor in the en­try of the US into World War I.

More defini­tively, the Long Tele­gram, sent from the US em­bassy in Moscow to US sec­re­tary of state James F. Byrnes in Fe­bru­ary 1946, shaped the course of US for­eign pol­icy dur­ing the cold war. The au­thor of the 8000- word Long Tele­gram was Ge­orge F. Ken­nan.

Ken­nan was a re­mark­able Amer­i­can and his anal­y­sis of the Soviet Union un­der Joseph Stalin ex­em­pli­fies the bril­liance of his mind. His per­cep­tive con­clu­sions were grounded firmly in an un­der­stand­ing of Rus­sian his­tory, lan­guage and cul­ture.

Thus, al­though he never dis­missed the im­por­tance of Marx­ist dogma to the Sovi­ets, he saw the Soviet Union as an es­sen­tially Rus­sian con­struct. He wrote: ‘‘ At bot­tom of Krem­lin’s neu­rotic view of world af­fairs is tra­di­tional and in­stinc­tive Rus­sian sense of in­se­cu­rity . . .

‘‘ For this rea­son they have al­ways feared for­eign pen­e­tra­tion, feared di­rect con­tact be­tween West­ern world and their own, feared what would hap­pen if Rus­sians learned the truth about world with­out or if for­eign­ers learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek se­cu­rity only in pa­tient but deadly strug­gle for to­tal de­struc­tion of ri­val power, never in com­pacts and com­pro­mises with it.’’

Ken­nan saw Soviet sus­pi­cions of the out­side world for what they were, bor­der­ing on para­noia. It was re­flected in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and was a dom­i­nat­ing fea­ture of Soviet pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with se­cu­rity, as grimly de­picted in Arthur Koestler’s novel Dark­ness at Noon.

Ken­nan’s tele­gram ar­rived in Wash­ing­ton at ex­actly the right time. US for­eign pol­icy to­wards the Soviet Union was al­ready shift­ing. Harry Tru­man’s scep­ti­cism had re­placed Franklin Roo­sevelt’s op­ti­mism, last evinced at Yalta, that he could deal with Un­cle Joe. The Amer­i­cans were be­gin­ning to see the na­ture of the threat posed by their for­mer ally.

John Lukacs, in this su­perb bi­og­ra­phy of Ken­nan, sketches the im­me­di­ate post- war ter­rain elo­quently: ‘‘ The year 1945 was a great, per­haps the great­est, turn­ing point in the his­tory of the 20th cen­tury. It was the end of the Sec­ond World War; in­deed, the end of the era of great world wars; it was the end of the sec­ond, and last, Ger­man at­tempt to dom­i­nate Europe; it was the year of the first two atomic bombs; it was the end of the Ja­panese em­pire, and of many other things be­sides; it was the year when the di­vi­sion of Europe, and of Ger­many, and of Ber­lin be­gan. It was also a year of a slow turn­ing around of Amer­i­can- Rus­sian re­la­tions, a pre­lude to a com­ing cold war, and to the def­i­ni­tion of Amer­i­can pol­icy for it two years later.’’

Ken­nan’s sem­i­nal con­tri­bu­tion was ul­ti­mately en­cap­su­lated in the doc­trine of con­tain- ment, which in his view was best ex­pressed in con­fin­ing the Soviet Union in geo- strate­gic terms to its es­tab­lished sphere of in­flu­ence, in­clud­ing East­ern Europe, while meet­ing chal­lenges else­where vig­or­ously through po­lit­i­cal, diplo­matic and eco­nomic means.

The Long Tele­gram and a sub­se­quent ar­ti­cle in For­eign Af­fairs, signed X and en­ti­tled ‘‘ The Sources of Soviet Con­duct’’, were the ef­fec­tive seeds for the Tru­man doc­trine and for the Mar­shall Plan ( the Euro­pean Re­cov­ery Act).

The able pol­i­cy­mak­ers of the Roo­sevelt and Tru­man ad­min­is­tra­tions — Harry Hop­kins, Averell Har­ri­man, Ge­orge Catlett Mar­shall — re­spected Ken­nan and ac­knowl­edged him for the ac­cu­racy and hon­esty of his views. But Ken­nan strug­gled to nav­i­gate in the po­lit­i­cal shoals of Wash­ing­ton, DC, and ul­ti­mately was dis­carded by the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, a move re­flected in the nar­row rigidi­ties of for­eign pol­icy- mak­ing un­der John Fos­ter Dulles. As pres­i­dent, it was Jack Kennedy who called Ken­nan back into ser­vice, send­ing him as US am­bas­sador to Josip Broz Tito’s Yu­goslavia, a coun­try that Ken­nan un­der­stood well, in 1961.

Lukacs has an ex­tra­or­di­nary rep­u­ta­tion as a his­to­rian. It is ab­so­lutely jus­ti­fied. Among his pre­vi­ous out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions is the ex­cel­lent Five Days in Lon­don: May 1940, which traces the de­bate in the Bri­tish war cabi­net over whether to ne­go­ti­ate a peace with Nazi Ger­many while Bri­tain’s French al­lies were col­laps­ing. A later book, June 1941: Hitler and Stalin, analy­ses the im­per­a­tives and ef­fects in Ber­lin and Moscow of the launch­ing of Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa.

A some­times lonely fig­ure, Ken­nan was a bril­liant thinker, a gifted aca­demic at Prince­ton and Yale, an in­sight­ful diplo­mat, a pro­lific writer and a clear and con­sis­tent ad­vo­cate of pol­icy. What he was not was a warm hu­man be­ing.

This is il­lus­trated most graph­i­cally in his icy be­hav­iour as an Amer­i­can diplo­mat in Prague dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of the coun­try in March 1939. Ken­nan had no hes­i­ta­tion in turn­ing away Czech cit­i­zens — in­clud­ing those who were most vul­ner­a­ble within the Jewish com­mu­nity — from the doors of the Amer­i­can le­ga­tion. Al­though he ap­par­ently knew some of the peo­ple con­cerned, Ken­nan had formed the view that hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion in cen­tral Europe was not in the na­tional in­ter­est of the US. Po­lit­i­cal refugees were of pe­riph­eral or di­ver­sion­ary con­se­quence for the Ken­nan world view.

But there can be no dis­pute about Ken­nan’s in­flu­ence in post- war US for­eign pol­icy. It’s per­haps a pity that Ken­nan’s con­vic­tion that to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes, es­pe­cially the Sovi­ets, would ul­ti­mately prove self- de­struc­tive has not al­ways been the guid­ing prin­ci­ple in the pro­jec­tion of Amer­i­can force abroad.

Ken­nan would cite John Quincy Adams’s words of 1823 with ap­proval: ‘‘ We are friends of lib­erty all over the word; but we do not go abroad in search of mon­sters to de­stroy.’’

Lukacs has writ­ten a splen­did book, bal­anced and thought­ful, lauda­tory where ap­pro­pri­ate and crit­i­cal where nec­es­sary.

He is in a mas­ter­class of bi­og­ra­phers.

Stephen Loosley is a for­mer ALP sen­a­tor.

Mis­sion to Moscow: Ge­orge Ken­nan, right, poses with Soviet pres­i­dent Niko­lai Shvernik, cen­tre, and other of­fi­cials af­ter pre­sent­ing his cre­den­tials in 1952

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