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Book Review: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

Posted By Peter Bridges On January 19, 2012 @ 3:46 pm In Biography,Books,History,Non-Fiction Reviews | No Comments

George F. Kennan: An American Life
by John Lewis Gaddis
Penguin Press, 784 pp.
CLR Rating:


A Brilliant and Complicated American Statesman

George Frost Kennan was one of the most influential of all American diplomats, as well as an historian and writer who won two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. It was Kennan who, first in his “long telegram” sent from the American embassy at Moscow in February 1946, and then in his anonymous “X” article in Foreign Affairs the following year, laid out for policy-makers, and then for the American public, the true nature of Stalinism and Soviet policy at a time when some still took a benevolent view of our wartime Soviet ally. Kennan also deserves much credit for the Marshall Plan, for realigning American occupation policy in post-1945 Japan, and for the creation of NATO–a creation he came to regret.

Kennan was the son of a less than wealthy Milwaukee lawyer who sent his son to Princeton in 1921, when Ivy League tuition fees were far less onerous than now. The son would later claim that his Princeton years were bleak–and yet it was to Princeton that he would return, after a quarter-century in diplomacy, to spend a profitable half-century at the Institute for Advanced Study. Kennan decided early, when he graduated from college in 1925, on an international career. He had lived in Germany for two years as a boy, and had made his way to Europe during a summer vacation in college. There was a new career Foreign Service, that offered the possibility of promotion through the ranks to ambassadorships. Kennan took and passed the entrance exams.

Kennan was much influenced by the first George Kennan, his much elder cousin, for whom he was named and whose work in and on Russia made the younger man want to somehow “carry forward…the work of my distinguished and respected namesake.” The first George Kennan was both adventurous and hard-hitting. A surveyor in Siberia when he was still in his teens, in later years he returned to Russia and then published a smashing attack on the repressive Tsarist regime. This work, plus hundreds of lectures he gave across America, had a profound effect on the American public’s views of Tsarism. As our biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, says, this first Kennan became a close adviser to President Theodore Roosevelt on Russian matters. (One wishes Gaddis had written a page or two more about this intrepid older Kennan who in 1870, at 25, walked over a snowy high Caucasus pass into sunny Georgia; who reported fearlessly from Cuba on incompetent American generals during the Spanish-American War; and who in 1902 traveled to Martinique just after the eruption of Mt. Pelée killed 30,000 people, climbed the volcano while it was still active, and wrote an engrossing book about his adventure.)

Long before his death in 2005 at the age of 101, the “younger” George Kennan blessed Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale as his biographer. Gaddis has now produced this thorough, evenhanded, magnificent book, the result of years of research. He drew on almost every possible source, including Kennan’s own voluminous diaries, interviews with four dozen people, much published work, and American, British, Canadian, and Russian official archives. There must be more about Kennan in Russian archives than what Gaddis drew on, but access to these archives is said to be more difficult now than before the advent to power of Vladimir Putin.

Kennan had good friends, many of them in high places. He had a Norwegian wife to whom he was married for 74 years, despite dalliances on his part–it seems he had a thing for nurses–and he and Annelise had four children to whom he was, it seems, a good father. He was at the same time a proud, often melancholy and sometimes vindictive human, who hated the ugliness and mindlessness he saw in his own country and who eventually decided that the American democratic system was a failure.

His greatest mistake came when he was serving as American ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952, his third tour of duty at the Moscow embassy. It was the last year of Stalin’s awful reign, and Kennan was depressed. A then junior officer in the embassy, Richard Davies, recalled years later that the ambassador “projected his depression, his gloom, his discouragement on the rest of us. He thought we were in bad shape. I didn’t feel that way….” That September, just four months after his arrival, Kennan left Moscow for a meeting of ambassadors in London. When his plane stopped in Berlin he told the press that he felt more isolated by the Soviet police system than when he had been interned as an American diplomat in Nazi Germany. True, no doubt, but extremely indiscreet, and the Soviet government declared him persona non grata for his “slanderous remarks.”

One of Kennan’s most vindictive acts, described by Gaddis, was to prevent the promotion for some years of two younger Foreign Service officers, one of them Davies and the other Malcolm Toon. They had had the temerity to write an essay criticizing Kennan’s “X” article–and later found themselves serving under Kennan when he became ambassador in Moscow. It was over a decade later, in 1963, that Kennan, now ambassador in Belgrade, cabled the Moscow embassy his congratulations on a good report that the Moscow embassy’s political section–now headed by Mac Toon–had just sent to Washington. Toon commented to this reviewer that this was Kennan’s way of letting people know he had finally forgiven his former subordinate. (Kennan had hurt good men. Toon was, much later, ambassador to the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Israel; Davies served six years as ambassador to Poland.)

After Kennan’s own apprenticeship in the Foreign Service as a vice consul in Switzerland, he was sent to Berlin to study Russia and Russian, and to the American legation at Riga, the main American “listening post” for what was going on in the neighboring USSR, with which the US still had no official relations. By 1931 he had become expert in Russian matters and, Gaddis writes, his future seemed assured. In 1933, when US-USSR relations were established, Kennan was sent to the new American embassy in Moscow as an assistant to the new ambassador, William C. Bullitt. In 1937 Bullitt was replaced by Joseph C. Davies, a wealthy Washingtonian who would not believe Stalin was the horrendous devil that he was, and who arranged the departure of Kennan, who had tried to make him see the light.

A dozen years later, after Kennan had gone on to assignments in Washington, Prague, Berlin, and Moscow again, he was the State Department’s foremost Russian hand–although his friend Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen came a close second. In 1946 Kennan returned to Washington to become deputy commandant of the new National War College, where he gave a long series of lectures on foreign policy to the College’s students, up-and-coming colonels, Navy captains, and Foreign Service officers. Then, in 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall called him back to the State Department to create the Department’s first policy planning staff. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has written that Kennan was a rather junior officer when he joined Marshall’s “entourage.” Not so; Kennan was a senior Foreign Service officer of Class 1–equivalent to brigadier or major general–and had the only office adjoining that of Marshall, with whom he worked closely. (Kissinger as Secretary viewed the whole Department of State as his “entourage.”)

Professor Gaddis has set out clearly and not uncritically Kennan’s subsequent years as policy adviser and, indeed, policy maker. He had serious clashes. When, for example, in 1950, with the Korean War on, Kennan suggested the advisability of admitting Communist China into the United Nations, future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the press that Kennan was “a dangerous man.” After Kennan was declared persona non grata by Moscow in 1952, Dulles, now Secretary, would not give him another assignment. Kennan retired from the Foreign Service and took up residence at Princeton.

This was the beginning of his career as historian and writer, but not the end of his diplomatic career. HIs admirer President John F. Kennedy made him ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961 and he served in Belgrade for two years. Kennan developed a good personal relationship with Tito, Yugoslavia’s longtime Communist President who had broken with Moscow in 1948. Kennan was seriously disappointed when in 1962 the U.S. Congress, to demonstrate its Members’ anti-Communist credentials, denied Yugoslavia most-favored-nation trade status. After the Cuban missile crisis in late 1962, Tito visited Moscow, producing a further irritant in US-Yugoslav relations although, as Gaddis relates, Tito assured Kennan that Yugoslavia would not go back under Moscow’s wing.

Kennan, discouraged and in poor health, resigned his commission and left Belgrade in July 1963 to return to Princeton. This reviewer was told by a colleague who served as a junior officer under Kennan in Belgrade (and who himself later served as an ambassador) that Kennan had become thoroughly convinced that Tito–despite his assurances to Kennan–intended to take Yugoslavia back into the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. Kennan was wrong; his judgment was warped; perhaps it was well that he returned to academia.

There was much more to Kennan’s life than can be told here, but it is told in the Gaddis biography. Among lesser-known facts about the man is that he was an accomplished poet, who could both compose mocking doggerel and write at dawn on a long Atlantic flight:

…Let not this growing hemisphere of light
Seduce the home-bound pilgrim to elation:
He may not hope–against the dawn’s inflation–
To see his darkness passing like the night….

There was much darkness in George Kennan, much brilliance, and much good.


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