“Unto ourselves, our own life is necessary; unto others, our character.”
For John Lukacs, George F. Kennan was
A Man for All Seasons, a triumph of character, a man of principles more than of ideas. He had his prejudices, and some of them were odd ones; but he could recognize them looking into his own mental mirror; and, more, there was such goodness, such compassion, such charity in his heart that were sufficient for his mind to correct them.
Yet this posthumous tribute, paid by one friend of many years to the memory of another, is in no sense a eulogy: It is a meditation on the exemplary connection between the content of a man’s character and the content of his ideas and opinions. We are all too inclined to disconnect the two, with such assurances as, “Everyone is welcome to his opinion,” or, “Yes, So-and-So does think that, but his heart is in the right place.” Lukacs’s “Study of Character” implicitly confirms the link, without ever suggesting that Kennan’s opponents and critics were men of bad character. The forbearance displayed in this respect can stem only from the Christian charity and humility (as well as the ideas) shared by subject and author alike.
John Lukacs perceives in certain of Kennan’s obituaries “a sense of respectful distance . . . a sense that George Kennan was part of a now unretrievable past.” There is truth in this perception, Lukacs admits. Between 1904, when Kennan was born, and his death on March 17, 2005, the population of the United States increased from approximately 80 million people to 280 million—“so many more, and a different people, and a different country.” The scion of a solid, but neither wealthy nor professionally distinguished, family, George Kennan, descended as he was from old American Protestant stock (James Kennan arrived in New England in 1720 from Dumfries, Scotland), belonged nevertheless to what, in American terms, amounts even now to the patrician class. An inviolably private and reserved man, he was shaped instinctively by his ancestry, which he venerated. (His book An American Family: The Kennans, the First Three Generations was completed when the author was 96 years old.) By the time of his passing, Americans of his type had become a rare and endangered breed. As a man of letters too, Kennan in his old age was increasingly an anomaly among what Lukacs describes as a “herd of otherwise educated people less and less capable of knowledge and reflection” (and, he might have added, literate composition). And he was not a celebrity, nor did he desire to be one. A lovely phrase, written by Raymond Chandler to describe Somerset Maugham, applies: He was, indeed, “a lonely old eagle,” who, to a certain extent, was in youth as much a displaced man as in old age. As early as 1936, when he was only 32 years old, Kennan was saddened by what he saw on a bicycle trip through his native Wisconsin. America, he understood, was part of his world no longer. Duty required that he remain loyal to his country. “But it would be a loyalty,” he later wrote, “despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification.”
George F. Kennan was a thoroughly grounded man, one who knew who he was and where he came from, possessed of what Lukacs calls “an independent sense of self-esteem.” Moreover, patrician that he was, there was in his makeup not an iota of that aggressive banality we call vulgarity—and that amounts to more than a want of taste and dignity, being, at bottom, a moral flaw. Both of these considerations go far to explain Kennan’s immunity to popular opinion; to the clichéd, timorous yet excitable, conformative, and profoundly unimaginative thinking of government officialdom; and to the mass hysteria that characterized America during the Cold War. (“My mental processes,” he once mused, “will never be understood by anyone else.”)
“Throughout his life,” Lukacs writes, “he regarded the primacy of domestic politics over the true interests of the state as wrong and immoral.” A “visceral and intellectual critic” of communism, he deplored as well much or most of all that liberal democracy stands for and entails. In 1938, Kennan made a start on a book in which he planned to advocate restrictions on immigration to the United States and a restriction of the suffrage, then put it aside. For him, America’s history, her very being, was inseparable from Europe present, but also Europe past, an insight reflecting what Lukacs describes as
the spirit of Kennan’s love and respect for an older Europe, so characteristic of his thinking: musings about history that are more than nostalgic illusions of a past but fundamental perceptions of the then present—a compound of his idealism and his realism.
It was Kennan’s groundedness that produced and allowed for both his independence of mind and the moral courage required to defend and sustain that independence. “No people,” he wrote in 1940, “is great enough to establish world hegemony.” Clearly, he was morally, intellectually, and personally unsuited to serve for long in any federal administration at least since 1896; thus, his tenure “on the bridge of the ship of state,” in Lukacs’s metaphor, was not a lengthy one. As a Foreign Service officer in Berlin at the beginning of World War II, Kennan quietly regretted the war and President Roosevelt’s foreign diplomacy, wishing for the defeat of the Third Reich but not the obliteration of the German people, with whom he had great affinity. Similarly, he believed that Roosevelt’s expectations regarding the Russians were really illusions. (This, despite a sympathetic fascination with Russia and all things Russian that exceeded even his feeling for Germany.) By 1944, he had reached the conclusion that to place any trust whatsoever in the Soviet Union would be deleterious to the interests of the United States. It was at this historical moment, and on precisely this point, that George Kennan’s thinking converged with that of the political establishment in Washington.
Even so, that convergence was far from complete, limited as it was to agreement on an effective strategy in respect of the Soviet Union that in no way extended to a general comprehension of Stalinist Russia. In Moscow in August 1944, Kennan recognized that here was the moment for the Allies to demand of Stalin that he define his objectives in Eastern Europe. That opportunity having been missed, the Western powers would need to make the best of the situation as it stood. This, in Kennan’s opinion, did not include making fateful concessions to Moscow in order to bring the Soviet Union into the United Nations (an institution upon which Kennan, who believed that national interests must trump those of international organizations, cast a stonefish eye), which was what happened. Yet the threat Kennan perceived in the Soviet Union was of the traditional nationalist-imperialist variety, not the ideological-revolutionary sort. That same year he said as much in a 35-page memoranda, “Russia: Seven Years Later,” posted to his ambassador, who forwarded it to Washington. Here, Kennan argued that, during the Moscow purges of the 1930’s, “the ship of state had been cut loose from the bonds of Communist dogma.” Stalin, he thought, should be regarded as a peasant czar rather than an international revolutionary. As Lukacs notes, more than 60 years after George Kennan wrote this analysis, its accuracy has yet to be recognized by most historians. Small wonder, then, that the White House and the State Department have yet to grasp this solid truth, let alone that most (with the exception of Averell Harriman) overlooked the insight when Kennan first offered it. Today, his perceptiveness is attested to by Putin’s increasingly adversarial stance toward the United States, which is by no means attributable solely to George W. Bush’s tactless and aggressive diplomacy but continues the Russian nationalist tradition of suspicion toward the West, now that ideological grounds for hostility have been removed.
George Kennan was “on the bridge of the ship of state” from 1946 to 1950, “one of its highest officers, close to the table charting its course, subordinate only to a few men.” During these years, Lukacs insists, he demonstrated a marked consistency of conviction, despite seeming contradictions that indeed were noted by his contemporaries. Hence, it is unsurprising that his views and policy recommendations were far from a perfect fit with those of his colleagues. After lecturing on the Soviet Union at the National War College, Kennan was sent on a speaking tour around the country to address audiences chosen for him by the State Department. Addressing academic gatherings, he found (Lukacs writes) “a deadening incapacity to think at all realistically about the world as it was, together with a cramped and dishonest unwillingness to think at all realistically about the Soviet Union.” Conversely, he found reason to state, in a speech delivered at the University of Virginia, “I deplore the hysterical sort of anticommunism which, it seems to me, is gaining currency in our country.”
Early in 1947, Dean Acheson, the undersecretary of state, called George Kennan to his office to request his presence at a meeting of a special committee convened to discuss a request by the British government that the United States assume the burden of supporting the Greek government against the indigenous communists. Kennan made the vote unanimous by voting in the affirmative. He was dismayed, however, when he read the draft of what was to become the Truman Doctrine speech, and said so. His objection was to the stated American commitment to support any people threatened by “armed minorities or outside pressures.” Not only was a universal commitment unwelcome, he thought, but it greatly overstated the extent of America’s national interests. Here was the first of Kennan’s disagreements with the undersecretary. Lukacs writes that both Acheson and Kennan
could see, in 1947, how American popular sentiment and public opinion were changing; for instance, how former extreme isolationists became radical interventionists, for whom no American move against the Soviet Union could be drastic enough.
Acheson was willing to accommodate that sentiment. Kennan, with his lifelong resentment of the American tendency to subordinate foreign policy to untroubled public opinion, was not. Nevertheless, charged with putting together a Policy Planning Staff, he oversaw the writing of the Marshall Plan, for which he accepted hardly any credit. Then, five days later, Kennan delivered an address to the War College (May 6, 1947) in which he rejected the Truman Doctrine as a global commitment, dismissed the possibility of coming to agreements with the Soviet Union over the future of Germany, and urged the restoration of Western Europe.
The following month, “The Source of Soviet Conduct,” by “X,” was printed in Foreign Affairs. The article argued for Western resistance to the Soviet Union—and the communist ideology—by a process of “containment” relying primarily on political means. The author’s identity was promptly revealed by Arthur Krock, but scarcely ahead of the ensuing wave of enthusiasm. Yet the author himself was displeased by the article’s reception. He regretted his failure to mention Eastern Europe, an omission that could be taken to imply that Kennan believed the division of the Continent to be an acceptable situation. And he chastised himself for not having drawn clearer distinctions between acceptable political and military means for opposing the Soviets.
Later, after Acheson became secretary of state, Kennan was to fault what he called the “militarization” of his containment policy. Meanwhile, he found himself in disagreement with General MacArthur and the Republican Party regarding the seriousness of the threat posed by Red China. The Republican Party line was that the success of the communist insurgents against the Nationalists would be disastrous for the United States. Kennan, believing that the Soviet Union had much to lose if the Chinese Communists won, demurred. Whether a victorious China would be a catastrophe for the Democratic Party was probably a matter of little, if any, concern to him; if so, his principled nonpartisanship would be ill-repaid by John Foster Dulles who, upon succeeding Dean Acheson as secretary of state in a Republican administration, immediately clashed with him. It was, indeed, around this time, Lukacs writes, that Kennan began to lose his footing at the State Department.
What contributed to that was his nondemocratic (rather than antidemocratic) conviction that his job was to represent and help chart his country’s interests in their relation to other states but not to the politicians of Congress, for many members of which he had little or no respect.
Another contributing cause was that, unlike his colleagues, Kennan remained unwilling to contemplate the continued division of Europe between West and East.
Superficially, George Kennan might, for a time, have passed for a Cold Warrior. In 1948, he played a major part in establishing the Central Intelligence Agency (“The greatest mistake I ever made,” he later said), proposed “a ‘directorate’ for overt and covert political warfare,” and recommended the creation of an Office of Special Projects at the State Department (a suggestion approved by President Truman) that would, among other activities, engage in covert operations inside the Soviet Union. Yet he also drafted a memorandum, “U.S. Objectives Towards Russia,” arguing that attempts to promote the dissolution of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe should not be extended to the Soviet Union itself. In this last effort, the tendency of Kennan’s thought suggested itself. George Kennan, Lukacs writes, wished to correct, not terminate, the division of Europe. He had high hopes for the “Finlandization” of parts of Eastern Europe and was prepared to back a plan by which both the United States and the Soviet Union would withdraw reciprocally from their spheres of influence. But, Lukacs adds,
That was not the main American policy in 1948-49 and not for more than forty years. What the ruling powers in Washington accepted were marginal policies affecting eastern Europe, with their purpose of causing troubles for the Soviet Union.
And so, when, at the end of 1948, General Marshall was replaced by Acheson as secretary of state, Kennan, while remaining an important government advisor, found his position an increasingly chilly and unsheltered one.
In 1953, James Burnham published Containment or Liberation? in which he attacked George Kennan for having embraced an essentially liberal policy toward the Soviet Union—a charge John Lukacs rejects on Kennan’s behalf. Rather, he says, by 1953 Kennan believed that anticommunism was a greater danger than anti-anticommunism. More was involved, he thought, than foreign policy. “Kennan’s concerns were with nothing less than the mind and character of his native people,” with his country’s relationship with itself. George Kennan, a conservative and traditionalist patriot, was discovering that his worst adversaries were the nationalist (populist) “conservatives.” He deplored the determined ignorance of Americans and the self-adulation that confrontation and comparison with other cultures encouraged in them. He grew increasingly distressed by the decline of American culture and civility—and of American politics. As one who disbelieved in a supposed responsibility on the part of the United States to overthrow despotic or simply unpalatable regimes, he considered Washington’s military involvement in Somalia in the early 90’s as an adventure the Founding Fathers would surely have condemned. Contemplating the inevitability of the coming Iraq War, he wrote in a letter, “What is being done to our country today is surely something from which we will never be able to restore the sort of a country you and I have known.” Disgusted by the self-congratulatory posturing of the “conservative” party following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he wrote (in the New York Times):
The suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous political upheaval, in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish. . . . [This] is not a fit occasion for pretending that the end of [the Cold War] was a triumph for anyone, and particularly one for which any American political party could properly claim credit.
The voice is that of a patrician—and of a prophet: In it, Lukacs perceives “a conscience of a nation,” summoning the American people to reconsider the meaning and the end of “Progress,” which includes that vast, collective, mobilized, nationalizing effort that has gone unchallenged and unquestioned by them for more than a century and a half.
It was his character that formed, shaped, and directed that voice; character of a sort that should in no way be diminished because it was too sterling to heed, or care about, the adverse worldly consequences to itself that its honesty and truthfulness ensured.
[George Kennan: A Study of Character, by John Lukacs (New Haven: Yale University Press) 207 pp., $26.00]