Foreign policy expert George Kennan was revered but misunderstood
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.”