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