This authorized biography of American statesman George Kennan has been 30 years in the writing, its publication being deferred until after Kennan’s death in 2004.  The writer was the first to be given full access to Kennan’s voluminous unpublished diaries.  Thus, the book devotes many pages to an exploration of Kennan’s inner life, at the expense of an explication of his ideas and influence.  These are better summarized in the much shorter recent appreciations by John Lukacs and Lee Congdon.  Like H.L. Mencken, Kennan is victimized by his own record-keeping.  His diaries were written in times of depression, as a means of self-confrontation and in fulfillment of Kennan’s view that “There is only responsibility and self-sacrifice; all else is meaningless; all else is vanity.”  A transcription of the secrets of the confessional may be titillating, but it does not convey an accurate impression of anyone’s life, and without these diversions into psychohistory, this book would have been half its published length.

The printed excerpts from Mencken’s journals caricature as a bigot a man who was the first critic to take black writers seriously, and almost all of whose close friends were Jews.  Gaddis’s use of private materials makes Kennan seem mercurial and morbidly pessimistic, as well as sex-obsessed.  But it is his active life, with its sublimation of the base impulses that afflict us all, that is of significance.

The book has its virtues.  It meticulously describes virtually every journey Kennan made and sheds light on the early portions of his career, including his internment in Germany in early 1942, his two years in Czechoslovakia after Munich, and his wartime service in Portugal.  It gives due credit to Kennan for the Long Telegram, accurately describes how the subsequent X Article deviated from the Long Telegram in stating a universalist doctrine that Kennan soon repudiated, and also describes its crystallization in the Acheson State Department’s NSC 68, proclaiming a doctrine of universal rather than selective containment.

The author describes Kennan’s persistent and recurring advocacy of disengagement in Europe, referring to the Acheson State Department’s Plan A; the abortive Molotov-Bedell Smith conversations, torpedoed by a leak from the Russians; and Stalin’s proposal of 1952.  (As we shall see, its later treatment of Kennan’s proposals leaves much to be desired.)  And Gaddis notes Kennan’s horror of nuclear armaments, and generously credits him with substantial influence on the Reagan administration’s proposals for fractional and proportionate reduction in the size of nuclear arsenals.

George F. Kennan: An American Life has three principal flaws.  The first is its dismissal of Kennan’s disengagement proposals in his Reith lectures of 1958 as premature and foredoomed.  Gaddis’s last reference regarding Churchill’s position on these matters is to his Iron Curtain speech in 1947.  He makes no mention of the fact that Churchill devoted much time during his postwar premiership (1951-55) to urging a conference with the Russians, his perception being that the Russians were having “digestive” problems with their Eastern European satellites.  Comparable efforts by Macmillan between 1956 and 1962 also go unmentioned, as does General De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, and the Polish Rapacki Plan.  There is likewise no reference to the Austrian Peace Treaty or to the Russian withdrawal in 1956 from the Porkkala naval base in Finland.  Washington’s derision of Kennan’s view that a residual American presence in German port cities and a militia defense was a sufficient deterrent to reinvasion is noted but not assessed.  In fact several European countries, including Finland, Switzerland, and, to a lesser extent, Norway, were well served by such a system during World War II.  (Such resistance as was offered to the German invasion in Norway was supplied by the militia, not the regular army, and Norwegian and Yugoslav guerillas tied down numerous German divisions that might have been better employed in Germany.)  The experience of the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Iraq suggest that the powers of resistance of aroused populations are not to be underestimated, even when the populations lack heavy armaments.

Kennan was not insensible to the dangers of a German-Russian alliance: If that happens, he thought, “we might as well fold up.”  He appreciated France’s desire either to divide Germany or to submerge it in European institutions: “The French know exactly what they want and are quite unreasonable about it.  We are the soul of reasonableness and have only the dimmest idea of what we are after.”

Gaddis’s treatment of the Reith proposals also suffers from his America-centered research.  He records having interviewed 40 people over 30 years, not a large number for a “definitive” autobiography, but the only Brits he spoke with were Sir Oliver Franks, Sir Frank Roberts, and Isaiah Berlin, and no French or Germans were consulted.  He met Alexander Yakovlev, but the book does not cite Jonathan Haslam’s study of Russia’s Cold War, incorporating relevant insights from the Soviet archives, nor does it assess whether there was a real likelihood of the much-vaunted threat of a tank invasion through the Fulda Gap.

A second deficiency is Gaddis’s penchant for heaping derision on George Kennan’s comments on domestic issues.  In 1938, immediately following the Anschluss, Kennan wrote an unpublished document expressing admiration for some of the accomplishments of the authoritarian Dollfuss and Schuschnigg governments and urging franchise restrictions in the United States, including the disqualification of aliens, naturalized citizens, professional women, and Negroes, the 15th Amendment then being a dead letter.  Of this, Gaddis, from the perspective of 2011, glibly observes, “Aliens could not be denied the vote because they had never been granted it.  Fears of ‘flat-chested women colluding with racketeers’ were to say the least bizarre.”  And Kennan’s argument that explicit paternalism was preferable to the fictitious enfranchisement of blacks was “redolent of slavery.”  What Gaddis seems not to realize is that aliens were enfranchised in some 20 states in both state and federal elections beginning late in the 19th century, the last such law (Arkansas’s) not being repealed until 1926, after Kennan’s graduation from college.  Viewed from the perspective of 1938, the principal effects of women’s suffrage were, as Daniel Okrent has demonstrated, alcohol prohibition in the United States and (according to studies by members of the Frankfurt School) the “Hitler maidens” in Germany, who voted for the Nazis while their unemployed boyfriends supported the Communists and Social Democrats.  Among the opponents of the “flapper vote” were Winston Churchill, Sir Horace Rumbold, the British ambassador to Germany in the early 1930’s, and Chancellor Brüning.

Kennan’s later writings on the American political structure did not address the franchise but rather indirect election, the “filtering” of unfit characters contemplated by Madison’s Constitution.  Before 1960, this service was performed by presidential nominating conventions predominantly composed of elected officials; just such a convention prevented the nomination of the famously bibulous Estes Kefauver in 1952.  Kennan also admired European cabinet government, which has fallen victim since 1937 to huge executive staffs whose important members are not confirmed by and answerable to the upper chamber.  In Kennan’s correspondence with John Lukacs, both men lamented the consequences of the nationalization of campaign finance; elections today are not even popularity contests, but publicity ones.

George Kennan was an early environmentalist, an advocate of outdoor recreation whose lessons have never been fully registered by the American public.  There is charm in his allusion to “gentleman farming, the only form of playing with toys that is not ridiculous in elderly men.”  He shared with Robert Hutchins and Learned Hand a concern with the concentration of the mass media, which have lately abandoned any pretense to neutrality and “fairness doctrines” in favor of the mass distribution of agitprop.  Kennan wistfully recalled

John Hay and Henry Adams and [Theodore] Roosevelt and Cleveland and the Atlantic Monthly and the Century—certain ideals of decency and courage and generosity which were as fine as any that the world has ever known.

The major media of his day had not been fully Murdochized and did not then combine fearmongering with the blackmailing of officeholders.  These concerns do not deserve to be dismissed by Gaddis as “rants” by a person who was “displaced,” rather than “detached,” from American life.

Other critics have charged that American education is excessively devoted to social purposes rather than to educational ones, but few ever said it so persistently and so well.  Unlike the members of the liberal establishment described by Geoffrey Kabaservice in The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, George Kennan lost neither his nerve nor his good sense in the tumult of the late 60’s.

Gaddis weakly defends Kennan against the charge of antisemitism, effectively apologizing for Mrs. Kennan’s reaction to the occupation of Prague: “I feel sorry for [the Jews] but not half as sorry as for the Czechs.”  Kennan had an abiding interest in the social roots of modern antisemitism and sought unsuccessfully to arrange for the publication of a scholarly work on the subject, the thesis of which was that the Jews’ involuntary role as the harbingers of modernity resulted from their exclusion from landowning and the army, which led to prejudice against them—an insight shared by Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century.  There was lack of self-consciousness about their influence in occupations that became more important as society industrialized, leading inexorably to “petty bourgeois jealousy which resents and ridicules any style of life more dignified than its own.”  “One sees today how much the Jews added to Germany.”  In the wake of the holocaust, this kind of objectivity is frequently stigmatized as “blaming the victim.”  But Kennan saw Nazism as well as communism as being egalitarian in its impulses: “it is always the few, never the many, who are the real obstacles in the path of the dictator.  Egalitarian principles are the inevitable concomitants of dictatorship.”

The third serious problem with Gaddis’s work is his failure seriously to address the last 14 years of Kennan’s life, to which he devotes a mere 14 pages, an elision that relieves the biographer of the obligation to comment on U.S.–Russian relations, the Iraq war, and the so-called War on Terror.  But Kennan was scarcely in his dotage when he vehemently opposed the enlargement of NATO, predicting that it would lead to a recrudescence of Russian militarism.  All Gaddis has to say about this controversy is that “his words would have no effect on Clinton and his advisers.”  Strobe Talbott told President Clinton that “Kennan had opposed NATO since its creation.  The Russians would go along with expansion, whatever he thought.”  But in 2008, the Russians denounced the restrictions on armaments contained in the Genscher-Shevardnadze agreement that was the effective settlement of World War II in Europe, only to be met in 2011 (soon after the publication of this book) by a reciprocal denunciation of the treaty by the U.S. State Department, now under the direction of Clinton’s wife.  These ominous events went all but unnoticed in the press, and the first of them by Gaddis himself.

Similarly, Kennan’s comments on the Iraq war, delivered in his 99th year, were more than ordinarily perceptive.  One effect of the American involvement in Iraq, he predicted, would be neglect of Afghanistan.  And Kennan noted, before the war started, the absence of signs of serious preparation by the United States to cope with the derangement of Iraqi life that hostilities were certain to produce, while warning also of the unpredictable consequences of war.  Kennan was no exponent of Rumsfeld’s “war on the cheap.”  Writing after Korea about the doctrine of nuclear retaliation, he observed that the United States

had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not to fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength.  Shorn of its strength, it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories. . . . [T]here rests upon western civilisation, bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory.

Likewise, he saw no valor in modern war: “the machine, in contrast to the sword, was best served by slaves.”  The only wars affordable today were “temperate and indecisive contests,” with “a political purpose directed at shaping not destroying the lives of the adversary.”  War among land powers produced “devastation, atrocity, and bitterness,” while the objective of “liberation” was inconsistent with international obligations, the Charter of the United Nations, and formal relations between states, imposing heavy responsibilities with little likelihood of success.

The last of Gaddis’s endnotes states that Kennan’s diaries are being edited for publication by Frank Costigliola.  Costigliola is the author of an article published in 1997 subtitled “Gender, Pathology and Emotion in George Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War,” about which Kennan observed, “Of such terrible motives the purer and more innocent spirit of [Costigliola] was happily unbesmirched.”  More recently, however, Costigliola wrote a discerning review of Gaddis’s biography for the New York Review of Books.  Perhaps Kennan may yet evade Mencken’s fate.


[George F. Kennan: An American Life,  by John Lewis Gaddis (New York: Penguin Press) 783 pp., $39.95]