George F. Kennan: An American Life, John Lewis Gaddis.

The Penguin Press New York, 2011

In 1957, George F. Kennan was invited to give the annual Reith lectures on the BBC. On six successive Sunday evenings, Kennan, who was a guest professor at Oxford, drove to the BBC’s London studios. “I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Kennan recalled. “Half of England was listening to these things.” Indeed it was.

Kennan had earned fame as the author of the “Long Telegram”, which warned about malignant Soviet intentions, and as Mr. X, who in the journal Foreign Affairs expounded upon the need for a strategy of containment of the Kremlin. He was, to use a contemporary expression, one of the first talking heads, someone whose opinion on weighty matters of international affairs that newspapers and magazines, radio and television, solicited, respected, and disseminated. Kennan’s voice, as he himself put it in his memoirs, “carried”. After the broadcasts began, he stopped by his Oxford garage to pick up his car: “The man behind the parts desk, with his greasy hands, when he heard me speak, said: Where did I hear that voice before?”

As John Lewis Gaddis reminds us in his superb biography, Kennan had caused quite a flap with the lectures, which poked at sacred cold war cows with a vengeance. Kennan, who had once dramatised the Soviet threat, now took a different stance. “Kennan Says Rule in Soviet is Shaky,” blared a New York Times headline after his first talk. Soon enough, the headline read, “Kennan Offers Plan on Neutral Germany.” Along the way he also decried the nuclear arms race as suicidal and suggested that NATO might be superannuated.

Such heretical remarks caused heartburn in the Eisenhower administration, which had to field a phone call from an irate West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who was aghast that a former American official would rehabilitate dreams of German neutrality. Then there was former secretary of state Dean Acheson, a close friend of Kennan’s but also an acerbic critic, who debunked him publicly. Acheson announced that Kennan “has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” Harvard president James Conant also chimed in. Kennan, he said, had produced “a blueprint for the appeasement of the Soviet Union.” It was all too much for the sensitive Kennan. His ulcer flared up and he checked into a Zurich hospital. It was classic Kennan. As Gaddis notes, he would repeatedly suffer health problems whenever he came under intense pressure or criticism.

Yet it never dissuaded him from entering the public fray. Over the decades, Kennan became the conscience of America, an oracle who repeatedly prophesied what would occur—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the perils of waging war against Iraq—but was, more often than not, respectfully heard out but seldom heeded.

Kennan was America’s greatest historian and intellectual since Henry Adams whose despair about America he wholly shared. He himself wrote in the early 1930s: “The America I know and love and owe allegiance to is Father’s America—the America of George Kennan the elder, and John Hay and Henry Adams and Roosevelt and Cleveland and the Atlantic Monthly and the Century. That is the world we were brought up in on Cambridge Ave., after all, and it stood for certain ideals of decency and courage and generosity which were as fine as anything the world has ever known.” Is there something a little sentimental, even bathetic, about these sentiments? Perhaps. But they formed the intellectual and emotional scaffolding that he clung to all his life, and may help to explain his deep, intuitive understanding of the past, exemplified in his historical works.

For many on the American left, the Soviet “experiment”, as it was known, constituted the greatest leap forward that humanity had ever known. Kennan knew otherwise. He first travelled to Moscow as an aide to American ambassador William Bullitt, who initially hoped that relations with the USSR could be warm and friendly now that the Roosevelt administration had officially recognised the Bolshevik regime. But Bullitt soon became a staunch anticommunist. Within a few weeks, Bullitt informed Roosevelt that the “honeymoon atmosphere had evaporated completely.” For his part, Kennan wrote back to the State Department of his “disgust with the bigotry and arrogance of its leaders, who not only refuse to recognise their own mistakes and limitations but pretend that they have found the solution of all the problems of the rest of the world in their crude interpretation of a worn-out doctrine.”

As Gaddis shows, Kennan’s understanding of the Soviet Union took shape during his tenure as a counsellor in the Moscow embassy in the 1930s, when Stalin’s purges were raging. He served as an interpreter to the pro-Soviet Joseph E. Davies, who noisily and outlandishly praised the show trials of Stalin’s old Bolshevik comrades such as Nikolai Bukharin as a sterling example of judicial impartiality and Stalin’s wisdom.

Kennan’s next stay in Moscow was during wartime, when W. Averell Harriman served as ambassador. Ever the realist, Kennan was mortified by the illusions that permeated the Roosevelt administration itself about Stalin’s intentions. Franklin Roosevelt liked to refer to “Uncle Joe”. Kennan, by contrast, thought he was most un-avuncular. If America wasn’t going to try to oppose a Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, he wrote in 1945 to his friend Charles Bohlen, who was at Yalta, why not at least try to cut a deal with it to salvage something— “spheres of influence—keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and keep the Russians out of ours?” But official—as opposed to de facto—recognition of spheres of influence, then as now, was taboo.

In his anguish and rage, Kennan penned the “Long Telegram” that fell upon postwar Washington like a thunderbolt in February 1946. Everyone read it, from Harry Truman on down. Its message was clear and simple: don’t try to be chummy with the Soviets. He amplified upon it in his 1947 “X” article, the one that would make and haunt him for the rest of his life. Urging vigilance, Kennan suggested that it would be possible to contain the Soviet Union by damning it up at every nook and cranny where it sought to extend its influence. But Kennan would soon protest that his message had been seized upon and distorted by cold warriors in Washington who saw in it a brief for the relentless expansion of the American military. He had in mind a different kind of conflict, one that relied upon alliances and cultural superiority as well as military might.

But the truth is that he never thought America was up to the job. In his 1968 book Democracy and the Student Left, he denounced what he saw as the farcical antics of protesting students. By 1976 he had concluded, as he told George Urban in a memorable interview in Encounter, that America was doomed to “succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope” and that he was revolted by the decadence of Europe as well. He had recently seen a Danish youth festival “swarming with hippies—motorbikes, girlfriends, drugs, pornography, drunkenness, noise—it was all there. I looked at this mob and thought how one company of robust Russian infantry would drive it out of town.” Once the Soviet Union collapsed, as he had predicted it would, he reckoned that it would succumb to the worst temptations of Western capitalism. He happened to be right about that as well.

But Kennan never believed that his counsel was ever fully appreciated. Asked toward the end of 1945 how it felt to be more of a hard-liner than anyone else in the embassy, he responded, Gaddis reports, by saying, “I foresee that the day will come when I will be accused of being pro-Soviet, with exactly as much vehemence as I am now accused of being anti-Soviet.” This, too, occurred. By the 1980s, Kennan was seen as a leading dove, calling for a ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons when it came to the Soviet Union and decrying the arms race generally. Was he wrong? In retrospect he and Ronald Reagan were closer in spirit than Kennan, who regarded Reagan with scepticism, may have realised. Gaddis mourns that Kennan never appreciated Reagan’s fundamental antipathy toward nuclear weapons.

Kennan was opposed to NATO expansion. He argued against intervention in the Balkans. In a tribute to Kennan reprinted in The Unquiet American, Richard Holbrooke recalled that Kennan asked him, “Why should we try to stop ancient ethnic hatreds?” Towards the end of his life Kennan denounced the George W. Bush administration for embarking upon war with Iraq. Once again, America, he thought, was displaying its egregious propensity for hectoring the rest of the world about its moral failings instead of minding its own knitting. And so it is not hard to imagine what Kennan would think of America’s Libyan venture, let alone the foreign policy of the Republican party, which consists, by and large, of extolling the virtues of bombing Iran and denouncing any attempt to meet with adversaries as a new Munich. Where is America’s George Kennan today?