George F. Kennan: An American Life

A grand strategist of the Cold War era had moments of burnished majesty, learns Alex Danchev

December 22, 2011

George Kennan lived a long life. He died in 2005 at the age of 101. Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, educated at Princeton University, schooled in Berlin as one of the fledgling Russianists in the US Foreign Service, he was posted or outposted to Riga, on the Baltic coast of Latvia, in 1929. From this vantage point he was to study the Soviet Union. Unable to get any nearer because diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington had not yet been established, he became a Sovietologist avant la lettre. Part of his fascination now is that the arc of his life describes the whole history of Soviet-American relations. His prodigious meditations on how to live together (but apart) fairly pulsate with the intensity of Kennan's personal experience - and his awareness of its fabulous unrepeatability.

In 1934, Kennan helped to open the first American embassy in the unpromising, other-worldly Moscow that was the seat of Stalin's murderous paranoia. He returned as minister-counsellor (number two) in 1944-46 and ambassador in 1952, and later as a distinguished academician. Throughout the Cold War he observed and absorbed the behaviour and culture of the enigmatic power that was at once the great adversary and his great love. This Gibbonian mission - Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a prime text for construing Kennan - is replete with ironies and epiphanies.

In 1987, a typically self-conscious and dislocated Kennan found himself in Washington to attend a reception for President Mikhail Gorbachev at the Soviet Embassy. "Remembering my wife's admonishments not to stand uncomfortably in the background, as I normally do on such occasions, but to insist on meeting the guest of honour and adding my particular set of banalities to the others he was condemned to endure", he moved nearer to the crush around Gorbachev. "The latter, whom I was meeting for the first time, appeared to recognize me, and amazed me by throwing out his arms and treating me to what has now become the standard statesman's embrace. Then still holding on to my elbows, he looked me seriously in the eye and said: 'Mr Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you.'"

Kennan was stunned. Sixty years of Sovietology swam before his eyes. In his diary he offers a characteristic reading of this encounter, of Gorbachev's "extraordinarily gracious and tactful statement, worthy, when you think of it, of the finest standards of royal courtesy". For Kennan, it was a kind of valediction. "If you cannot have this sort of recognition from your own government to ring down your involvement in such a relationship, it is nice to have it at least from the one-time adversary."

We catch the echo of the prophet, and his proverbial fate. And something more: a throwback to an earlier era, of the courtly gesture and the unsent letter (in a telling phrase, Kennan called himself "an expatriate in time"); an acute sensitivity, tinged with melancholy; a sense of what is fitting (and what is not); an emphasis on civility and comportment, good habits and good manners, that is almost Chekhovian. Kennan was steeped in Chekhov. His cherished project was a biography of Chekhov, never written. "An American Chekhov is perhaps what Kennan would really have liked to be," speculated Anders Stephanson in Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (1989), "a placeless yet sympathetic observer of tragedy and detail, his essayist despatches thus in part the result of authorial desire not quite realised".

Kennan himself read that book - and all the others - and pronounced it "truly a great work". He was not always so complimentary. What would he have made of John Lewis Gaddis' tombstone biography? He asked for it, as one might say, and perhaps he lived to regret it.

Kennan and Gaddis came to an agreement in 1981, when Kennan was a mere 78. Gaddis had proposed a full biography, with Kennan's cooperation and with exclusive access to all of his papers, on the understanding that it would not appear for another 10 to 15 years. "Delicate negotiations followed," Gaddis reports, "in which neither he nor I used the term 'posthumous' even though we both had it in mind." The agreement, therefore, turned on privileged access and posthumous publication. Neither party anticipated Kennan's extraordinary longevity. His stubborn refusal to shuffle off postponed publication for another 30 years. It also changed the shape of the life under scrutiny. In the process, it served to reveal that subject and biographer were intriguingly out of phase.

Gaddis' qualifications for the project were abundantly clear. He had established himself as the pre-eminent historian of US national security policy of the late 1940s, precisely the period when Kennan's ideas had their highest salience among policymakers. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (1982) portrayed the father of that doctrine as a wise man and a judicious grand strategist. The biography concludes rather similarly, although the terms of reference have inflated. Kennan was a great man, avers Gaddis, and a better grand strategist than he knew. His greatness chiefly resides "in timeless, transcendent teaching". He quits the field a kind of philosopher-king.

That might have pleased him, up to a point. There is not much about the deep Cold War that Gaddis does not know; in his own domain the handling is deft, the analysis crisp and clear. In other domains, however, he is less convincing. As time goes on he seems in some ways to be out of sympathy with his subject. This may be true of Kennan's dissenting position on "the nuclear delusion" and the undue militarisation of the superpower relationship, not to mention his expressed opposition to the Iraq War. More fundamentally, Gaddis' treatment of Kennan's personality and psychology is often wanting. Kennan was at the same time straitlaced and unbuttoned. He once remarked to his biographer: "People who are a little unusual - the Boheme - they understand me better than do the regular ones." Gaddis is one of the regular ones, as Kennan surely knew.

Kennan was a complex character. Gaddis rightly draws attention to the sustained self-analysis of his diaries. He was often too mysterious for his chosen trade or his own good. But he had his moments - moments of burnished majesty (as he might have said). In the darkest hour of the Korean War, as official Washington despaired, he wrote this to his esteemed colleague Dean Acheson, the secretary of state: "In international as in private life, what counts is not really what happens to someone but how he bears what happens to him. For this reason everything depends from here on out on the manner in which we Americans bear what is unquestionably a major failure and disaster to our national fortunes. If we accept it with candour, with dignity, with a resolve to absorb its lessons and to make it good by redoubled and determined effort - starting all over again, if necessary, along the pattern of Pearl Harbor - we need lose neither our self-confidence nor our allies nor our power for bargaining, eventually, with the Russians. But if we try to conceal from our own people or from our allies the full measure of our misfortune, or permit ourselves to seek relief in any reactions of bluster or petulance or hysteria, we can easily find this crisis resolving itself into an irreparable deterioration of our world position - and of our confidence in ourselves."

The Author

John Lewis Gaddis, who was born in Cotulla, Texas, studied history after dabbling in ranching, farming, engineering, medicine, diplomacy and library science. The key moment came in his final year as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin when he was told that his paper on Elizabeth I's Muscovy Company might be publishable.

Although that didn't happen, Gaddis decided to stay on and pursue a PhD in history. He taught at Ohio University, where he founded the Contemporary History Institute, before joining Yale University in 1997. At Yale, he teaches five courses a year, including a seminar on the art of biography.

He often invited students to read drafts of his book on George Kennan and to critique it over dinner at his home. His wife, Toni Dorfman, "an equally enthusiastic teacher, director and playwright" who has run an undergraduate theatre studies course at Yale for years, also invites students for dinner. Gaddis says: "We quickly found we couldn't mix the two groups because hers are apt to improvise performances unexpectedly. The only time we tried, the suicide scene in Hedda Gabler caused my students to crouch in corners for protection, where they remained, shaken, the rest of the evening."

George F. Kennan: An American Life

By John Lewis Gaddis

Penguin, 800pp, £30.00

ISBN 9781594203121

Published 1 December 2011

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