For­eign pol­icy ex­pert Ge­orge Ken­nan was revered but mis­un­der­stood

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Ge­orge Ken­nan (1904-2004) stands out among 20th cen­tury Amer­i­can spe­cial­ists on in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. As au­thor of the fa­mous Long Tele­gram in 1946, Ken­nan be­came an ar­chi­tect of U.S. for­eign pol­icy dur­ing the early stages of the Cold War. His ar­ti­cle “The Sources of Soviet Con­duct,” which ap­peared in For­eign Af­fairs in 1946 un­der the pseu­do­nym “Mr. X,” pop­u­lar­ized the con­cept of con­tain­ment.

Ken­nan later bridged the gap be­tween prac­ti­tioner and an­a­lyst over a long sec­ond ca­reer at the In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Study at Prince­ton, where he pro­duced thought­ful schol­ar­ship on Euro­pean diplo­macy and Amer­ica’s en­gage­ment with the world.

Iron­i­cally, Ken­nan’s renown makes him a fig­ure more of­ten dis­cussed than un­der­stood. Real­ists claim him as a vi­sion­ary, while their crit­ics seize upon Ken­nan’s skep­ti­cism to­ward democ­racy to dis­miss him as unAmer­i­can. Ken­nan of­ten thought him­self mis­un­der­stood, and thus felt com­pelled to ex­plain his opin­ions, with mixed suc­cess. View­ing him more clearly brings into fo­cus im­por­tant wider themes in the Amer­i­can study of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

John Lukacs’ il­lu­mi­nat­ing “Ge­orge Ken­nan: A Study of Char­ac­ter” makes a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion that fo­cuses on Ken­nan as writer and thinker. Even as a diplo­mat and pres­i­den­tial ad­viser, his in­tel­lec­tual bent shone through. Mr. Lukacs writes both as Ken­nan’s long­time friend and a lead­ing his­to­rian of the 20th cen­tury, and he grace­fully sketches a por­trait wor­thy of its sub­ject.

Born in Wis­con­sin to a solidly mid­dle-class Pres­by­te­rian fam­ily with New Eng­land roots, Ken­nan grew up in cul­tured sur­round­ings where his mother’s death and fa­ther’s re­mar­riage left lit­tle warmth. An out­sider at Prince­ton Univer­sity (the so­cial life of which F. Scott Fitzger­ald im­mor­tal­ized), Ken­nan had lit­tle con­nect­ing him to the Amer­i­can Mid­west ei­ther.

Ken­nan de­ter­mined on a diplo­matic ca­reer in the newly pro­fes­sion­al­ized For­eign Ser­vice and, fol­low­ing a rocky start, found that diplo­matic life suited him ex­cep­tion­ally well. Ken­nan found his metier re- port­ing on af­fairs in Ger­many and Rus­sia. His name­sake and cousin to his grand­fa­ther had been a noted Amer­i­can ex­pert on Rus­sia, and Ken­nan ea­gerly fol­lowed in his steps. Mar­riage to An­nelise Soren­son in 1929 gave him a vi­tal emo­tional and lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port.

Post­ings in Riga, Prague and Ber­lin gave him a close view of a Euro­pean world shat­tered by the up­heavals of the 1930s and ’40s. Deeply knowl­edge­able and re­flec­tive, he ap­proached Europe with an imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy few Amer­i­cans match: Mr. Lukacs calls him the best writer on Europe of his gen­er­a­tion. Reach­ing be­yond his own New Eng­land and Scots an­tecedents, Ken­nan sought to un­der­stand Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean cul­tures. Mr. Lukacs points out that Ken­nan’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Rus­sia and Ger­many made him skep­ti­cal about the vi­a­bil­ity of smaller na­tions in East­ern Europe. Ken­nan also crit­i­cized democ­racy, of­ten harshly. Demo­cratic pol­i­tics of­ten placed mo­men­tary ad­van­tages in do­mes­tic pol­i­tics above con­crete na­tional in­ter­ests, and he ques­tioned whether a great power could act within in­sti­tu­tions cre­ated for a small repub­lic. Ig­nor­ing prob­lems for the sake of keep­ing pub­lic opin­ion un­ruf­fled both­ered Ken­nan.

Con­temp­tu­ous of pop­ulism in any form, Ken­nan be­lieved gov­er­nance by a dis­in­ter­ested elite best served pub­lic in­ter­ests. While crit­ics later charged Ken­nan with turn­ing against Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples, his cri­tique fits within an au­then­ti­cally Amer­i­can genre of self-crit­i­cism. More­over, it also re­flected pop­u­lar cur­rents of opin­ion among Ken­nan’s gen­er­a­tion, which saw lib­eral so­ci­eties in cri­sis and dif­fer­ent strains of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism as the an­swer. If oth­ers changed their views, at least in pub­lic, Ken­nan stayed con­sis­tent.

When Amer­ica en­tered the war, Ken­nanserved­inLis­bo­nandLon­don be­fore tak­ing the job in Moscow that made­his­rep­u­ta­tion.There­he­sawSoviet pol­i­tics at close quar­ters. Ken­nan tu­tored Aver­ill Har­ri­man when he be­came am­bas­sador and later took on the job of ex­plain­ing Soviet pol­icy and its Rus­sian an­tecedents to of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton who had be­come rapidly dis­il­lu­sioned with their wartime ally.

Ken­nan’s anal­y­sis in 1946 came at an op­por­tune mo­ment that brought him, in Mr. Lukacs’ words, onto the bridge of the ship of state, where he helped Wash­ing­ton make sense of the sit­u­a­tion. A few years ear­lier his views would have been dis­missed as alarmist, and a few years later they would have been un­re­mark­able save for the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of their ex­pres­sion.

William An­thony Hay, a his­to­rian at Mis­sis­sippi State Univer­sity and se­nior fel­low with the For­eign Pol­icy Re­search In­sti­tute, is au­thor of “The Whig Re­vival, 18081830.”

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