George Kennan: A Great and Good Man

The temptation when reviewing a work with a subject about which one already has significant knowledge and opinions, is to allow those views to substitute for a dispassionate consideration of the work. Ronald J. Granieri’s recent review of Frank Costigliola’s biography of George Kennan fails to resist that temptation. Prior knowledge of the subject of a biography, of course, is essential for its reviewer, but Granieri falls into the trap of venting his own rather strong views on Kennan to the detriment of a fair consideration of Costigliola’s work.

Granieri thus opens his review article with the observation that, “[f]or a man who prided himself on intellectual rigor, [Kennan] was, in practice, a bundle of contradictions.” This is an unproven assertion by Granieri. Even if true it would be unremarkable. Most prominent men over the centuries—invariably proud of their intellectual and every other kind of rigor—were “bundles of contradictions.” Caesar, Frederick, Napoleon, and Churchill randomly come to mind. More comparable to Kennan in rank and statureand at least as complex and “contradictory” in various ways—were his exact or near American contemporaries Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara. In fact, it is hard to think of a significant historical figure free of “contradictions,” consistent in his public and private life, seemingly free of dilemmas. Genghis Khan, Calvin Coolidge, and Dean Rusk fall into that category, perhaps, which is why they are notably uninteresting to biographers.

More baffling is Granieri’s specific assertion that “Kennan’s name is inextricably linked to American national strategy in the Cold War era, yet he never held an office higher than ambassador and never had direct policymaking authority.” In fact, Kennan was the first director of policy planning at the Department of State (May 5, 1947 – May 31, 1949) with the rank equivalent to assistant secretary. This office has always been far above that of ambassador. Over the years it has been held by several very senior figures of the foreign policy establishment, including Kennan’s lifelong nemesis Nitze, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, Walt Rostow, as well as the current national security advisor, Jake Sullivan.

It is when he comes to Kennan’s lasting impact on the making of U.S. Cold War strategy and its aftermath that Granieri notably departs from the role of the reviewer and assumes the mantle of a critical biographer. Ironically, he says, “Kennan spent most of his very long life trying to run away from the idea that made him famous, claiming that subsequent policymakers misunderstood his concept of containment by overemphasizing the military aspects of confrontation with the Soviet Union and missing chances for negotiation.”

Granieri also makes several significant assertions about Kennan’s private views, proclivities, and lifestyle, which are debatable at best and tinged with what sounds like unnecessary irony:

In his private musings, this famous defender of American democracy against the Soviet threat was a lifelong Russophile who nurtured authoritarian dreams. A relentless critic of American materialism and consumerism, he sketched plans for supplanting raucous and unpredictable American democracy with government by experts like himself, insulated from the mindless enthusiasms that drove politics in the democratic American republic… Even as Kennan derided his fellow citizens for their irrational lack of self-control, he was also a hypochondriac and compulsive philanderer.

On balance there is nothing particularly “ironic” about Kennan’s predicament, over the years, in explaining and justifying his role in the development of the U.S. Cold War strategy. It often happens that the views of senior advisors get distorted and misinterpreted by top decision makers. Niccolò Machiavelli, who was not at all a “Machiavellian” in the popular, vulgar sense, was misunderstood and shunned by his would-be mentor, Lorenzo de’ Medici. The illustrious case of Count Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand and his ambivalent relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte also comes to mind.

A little known to the wider public yet poignant example of the same type of ironic predicament is provided by General Prof. Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), doyen of the German school of geopolitics. His name was initially used by his disciple and subsequent Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess to provide a “scientific” basis for the Nazi quest for the Lebensraum. This notion ultimately proved to be a racially-based utopian vision contrary to the foundations of geopolitical thought. Haushofer would have welcomed a German strategic war against the British but not the overtly racial one against the Russians, and certainly not both at the same time. He wanted a Heartland axis—Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo—and was marginalized as early as 1936. “Ironically,” however, some historians still associate Haushofer with the Nazi project of conquest.

Kennan did not believe that military force should be given priority over economic power—e.g. the Marshall Plan—in containing the USSR. His successor at the Department of State, Paul Nitze, disagreed. The revision of Kennan’s vision of containment was completed with NSC68 (1950). The U.S. would now intervene to prevent communists from coming to power not just in Europe but anywhere in the world. To that end a network of American military bases was created surrounding the Heartland: from Norway through divided Germany to the Bosphorus in Europe; from Asia Minor through Mesopotamia to the Punjab in the Middle East and Subcontinent; from Indochina and the Philippines via Formosa to Japan and South Korea in the Far East.

Kennan observed with regret the distortion of the doctrine of which he was an early author. He believed that prioritizing military confrontation represented a confusion of ends and means and loss of strategic clarity. The domino theory and Vietnam proved him right.

Contrary to Granieri’s sarcastically tinged remark, there was no contradiction between opposing the USSR and being a “Russophile”—even if Kennan was one, which Granieri asserts without evidence. Appreciating a nation’s culture and character is not the same as cherishing an irrational “philia” for it. In any event, Lenin’s Bolsheviks hated Russia and all things Russian with a passion equaled only by the Nazis two decades later. Russia is the antithesis of the USSR, as evidenced by the fact that the current American nomenklatura—Blinken, Nuland et al—detests Russia with infinitely greater zeal than the USSR had ever been hated by their predecessors.

Kennan’s “authoritarian dreams” were soundly based misgivings of a concerned patriot, both regarding “American materialism and consumerism” and the ugly transmonster that “raucous and unpredictable American democracy” has become. The usual complaint of liberal interventionist critics of Kennan, like Granieri and the late Paul Hollander, is to attack him as a reactionary—which he most certainly was—who at the same time was soft on the Soviet threat to democracy and human rights. As Lee Congdon shows in his intellectual biography, Kennan was perfectly consistent in rejecting ideological wars. He also believed toward the end of his life that Western countries had become so decadent that they would do better to deal with their own problems than to engage in conversionary foreign policies.

In these horrid times we can only dream of a return to the representative government established by the founders, such as Kennan advocated. Personally, I would rather entertain an “authoritarian dream” of a patrician regime of latter-day Kennans who would be able to deal, decisively, with “the mindless enthusiasms that dr[i]ve politics in the democratic American republic.” Contrary to Granieri, today’s America is assuredly not a “republic.” It is mindless indeed, and totalitarian to its rotten core, but a res publica it is not.

There is an ocean of difference between the rainbow-colored, BLM-infested “irrational lack of self-control” exhibited by about one-half of today’s America, and a skeptical seer’s propensity to hypochondria and sexual escapades. How do they matter? Metternich was a famous philanderer who nevertheless instituted a continental conservative system which gave Europe decades of social and political stability. Otto von Bismarck was a notorious hypochondriac obsessing over his digestion, yet also a sober diplomatic realist and a towering political genius of his time.

Towards the end of his review Granieri notes, in a disapproving tone, “Kennan’s rejection of arguments about expanding NATO and his preference for U.S.-Russian understanding over the interests of the smaller states of central and Eastern Europe.” As the history of the past three decades has shown, however, Kennan’s arguments against NATO expansion were eminently sound.

Our readers have been warned by an array of authors over the years that NATO has morphed into a grotesquely totalitarian edifice which presents the greatest threat to peace and stability in the world. Kennan accurately predicted in the 1990s that its expansion would restore the tenor of the Cold War to all East-West relations. He implicitly saw U.S.-Russian understanding as being in the best interest of all Eastern European nations. Subsequent events, culminating in NATO’s disastrous proxy war in Ukraine, proved him right.

One consequence of NATO’s metamorphosis is that the Western Alliance now has a distinctly Soviet quality. Its 2022 Strategic Concept included purely ideological references to “the challenges posed by climate change” and “the importance of gender perspectives for the security of us all.” At the same time, the U.S. has been able to subject its European minions to greater subservience than the USSR had ever been able to do with its satellites before 1989.

As Granieri correctly notes at the end of his review, Kennan “never wavered in his love for nature, concern for the environment, discomfort with cities, and hatred for the hegemony of the machine.” He also opposed unrestricted immigration, urban America’s multiple addictions, and advocated a revival of religious faith. Indeed, in the final years of a very long life he concluded that the United States was “the world’s spiritual and intellectual dunce.”

How right he was on all counts. The results of rejecting Kennan’s counsel have been disastrous, and the ongoing failure to draw upon his wisdom is a tragedy. A courageous and prescient man. May God rest his soul.

(Correction: The original online upload of this piece misspelled the name of its subject in the headline.)

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