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George F. Kennan, 1904 — 2005
March 19, 2005 12:20 PM   Subscribe

The Wise Man. George Frost Kennan, (Feb. 16, 1904 — Mar. 17, 2005). Architect of the Cold War, father of the Marshall Plan and the doctrine of containment in the "Kennan Century".
In February 1946, as the second-ranking diplomat in the American Embassy in Moscow, he dispatched his famous "Long Telegram" to Washington. Widely circulated, it made Kennan famous and evolved into an even better-known work, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which Mr. Kennan published under the anonymous byline "X" in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. More inside.
posted by matteo (22 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
From his Wisconsin high schoolyearbook -- where his entry lists his pet peeve as "The Universe" -- to his elegant if sometimes morose memoirs, Kennan has never shied from describing his alienation from and unhappiness with the modern world. On various occasions, he has called himself "an expatriate in time" and even "an 18th-century person" stranded in a very different age.
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The "realities of American foreign policy" (a term Kennan used frequently) dictated cutting American losses in Vietnam, seeking nuclear disarmament, and working to reverse environmental degradation -- policies he defended strictly in terms of national interests. Within a decade after devising containment, Kennan denied paternity for it, saying it relied too heavily on armaments (especially nuclear ones) and not enough on diplomacy. Kennan was a more of a Cold Warrior than a warrior.
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And three years ago: "George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq"

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Kennan on WWI:
"I sometimes wonder whether . . . democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin . . . He is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat."
posted by matteo at 12:22 PM on March 19, 2005


This is very good. Thanks, matteo; I'll be thinking about this for a while now.
posted by koeselitz at 12:53 PM on March 19, 2005


From your last link:
"A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct and dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain situation then prevailing, and as a response to it."
Kennan always struck me as a slightly tragic figure. He appears as someone who understood the nature of the threat posed, and a nuanced means of confronting it but had his words hijacked to justify dogma. It's no surprise to hear his memoirs are sometimes morose...

This Guardian obit is worth a read too, especially the description of Kennan writing his 'Long Telegram'. Quite evocative.
posted by pots at 1:09 PM on March 19, 2005


Makes you wonder if the world would have been a better place without cranks like this ratcheting up the artificial competition between the Soviet Union and western countries especially the US.
posted by pixelgeek at 1:13 PM on March 19, 2005


Alfred Kazin, reviewing in the NY Review of Books, November 1972, Kennan's "Memoirs 1950-1963", wrote that

George Kennan's only real failure has been his failure to understand that he has been struggling against his natural ambition to be Kissinger. But only Kissinger can be Kissinger, as only Rostow is Rostow. There is a coarseness there, a lack of moral imagination, that George Kennan does not suffer from. What he does suffer is the fatality of wanting to be nothing but an insider—while thinking like an outsider. Which is why he writes and writes. And can be read.


Four years earlier, in the same magazine, Ronald Steele wrote in his review of "Memoirs 1925-1950" that


For all its limitations, this is an important book, both as diplomatic history and as intellectual biography. These memoirs are more than a recollection of a distinguished, if disappointing, career in diplomacy. More than an explanation of how the embassy in Moscow is run, or what the author thought of Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, or how the Russians took over Eastern Europe. They are about a man as much as about a time: a man of intelligence and integrity whose effectiveness was hobbled by insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and a tendency toward selfpity. A man who counsels the virtues of being, like himself, "a guest of one's time and not a member of its household"; who was "concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it"; who recognized "that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would"; ...
(...)
Forever giving warnings that went unheeded and penning diplomatic dispatches that remained unread, Kennan shows himself in these memoirs as one who struggled to protect the interests of the United States in distant lands, yet who became increasingly estranged from his own compatriots. His book is an effort at self-analysis—a thinly-disguised confessional. What he reveals is not always flattering, but it offers a fascinating insight into a career which fell short of what it might have been, and suggests why this may have been the case.
Kennan is perhaps the most impressive figure ever to have emerged from the shadowy labyrinth of the American diplomatic establishment. His quarter-century in the Foreign Service was marked by loneliness and frustration, by dubious triumphs, and finally by the taste of ashes. These memoirs end with his departure from the Foreign Service, and with his frustration when he felt that he would never be able to translate his views into policy. By 1950 he decided that his usefulness was at an end, and, as he left the State Department to begin his second career as an historian at Princeton, he wondered, speaking of himself and his friend Chip Bohlen, "Whether the day had not passed when the government had use for the qualities of persons like ourselves—for the effort at cool and rational analysis in the unfirm substance of the imponderables."

posted by matteo at 1:24 PM on March 19, 2005


(the articles quoted above are available in full to nybooks.com subscribers)
posted by matteo at 1:26 PM on March 19, 2005


pixelgeek: "Makes you wonder if the world would have been a better place without cranks like this ratcheting up the artificial competition between the Soviet Union and western countries especially the US."

In what sense exactly was the competition "artificial? If the Soviets hadn't decided on communist dogmatism and opposition to democracy, the cold war could have been wholly avoided; so it certainly wasn't necessary. And maybe the USA could have, as some people bitterly say nowadays, spun a miracle out of nothing and appeased the fairly bloodthirty Russian system of dictatorship into living in peace. But Kennan makes pretty clear in that telegram that the Soviets had decided on conflict; and once one side decided on conflict, the conflict was real, not imaginary. Wasn't it?

By the way, the "coarseness" of which the first quotation given by matteo above speaks, apparently in reference to Kissinger, might have been a good thing, not a bad. A lot of people nowadays, many of whom seem to work for the New York Review of Books, underestimate Kissinger's wisdom on world affairs. Shrewdness is not evil.
posted by koeselitz at 2:18 PM on March 19, 2005


Daniel Drezner has some thoughts on Kennan that I think are worth reading.
posted by diftb at 2:23 PM on March 19, 2005


"artificial competition"?

I doubt anyone at the time thought the struggle between two historically antagonistic governments was the imagination of a delusional crank. The post-war arrangement of armies in Europe, atomic hubris, ideological arrogance and Stalin's mania all ensured an unhealthy competition for dominance in Europe. You only have to look at the behaviour of the USSR at Warsaw in 1944 and the post-war imposition of puppet governments throughout E. Europe to see why Western leaders were concerned.

Kennan if anything comes across as someone who saw beyond the fear and produced a moderate, if firm stance.

And koeselitz , here's a quote from the Daily Telegraph today:
Bugmenot for Telegraph: please@dontbugme.com / please

"What he knows about strategy could be inscribed without too much congestion on the back of a Green Shield stamp" - Lord Chalfont, the former Foreign Office minister.
posted by pots at 2:34 PM on March 19, 2005


In what sense exactly was the competition "artificial?

In that it was based on the "containing" a system that after the death of Lenin didn't want to expand. Stalin was, IIRC, opposed to the idea of exporting the communist revolution.

If the Soviets don't want to expand then what do we have to contain them from?

Soviet post-war expansion (and aside from Afghanistan its anly real expansion) was based on agreements that the western powers made with the soviets so if those expansions were so onerous then why did we make them in the first place?

Most of the west's approach to the Soviet Union was formulated by anti-communist idealogues and then that fire was expanded by the reports of people like Gehlen who had an obvious agenda as well.

We "fought" a Cold War that was based on the very distorted opinions of anti-communists who took their own agenda and made it into a national and western obsession.

Mind you the attacks/occupations made against the soviet union during the civil war by western troops probably points to an anti-communist agenda on the part of the west prior to WWII.
posted by pixelgeek at 2:37 PM on March 19, 2005


I doubt anyone at the time thought the struggle between two historically antagonistic governments was the imagination of a delusional crank.

Today on dueling strawmen...
posted by pixelgeek at 2:38 PM on March 19, 2005


But Kennan makes pretty clear in that telegram that the Soviets had decided on conflict; and once one side decided on conflict, the conflict was real, not imaginary.

Based on what evidence did he make this conclusion?

One quote from Stalin in 1927 and a series of comments that could have easily applied to Britain pre-WWII?

He makes comments like this:

"Experience has shown that peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence of capitalist and socialist states is entirely possible. "

But does nothing to back it up and the comment is made without any reference to the historical reality of the Soviet union. We, the western powers, actively aided and abbeted the "other" side suring the civil war there and occupied portions of Russia.

So if he wants to make this sort of statement ihe can but the historical record certainly tells us that the reason for this, if it is true, is that capitalist societies are as antagonistic towards non-capitalistic ones as they proclaim socialist societies to be towards capitalism.

You can't start a fight and then argue that you need to contain the person you started the fight with
posted by pixelgeek at 2:44 PM on March 19, 2005


Pixelgeek, do you really think that the actions of Stalin (and later leaders) in Eastern Europe after the war was a sign of moderation and a desire to live in peace?

What about the 1946 speech by Stalin in front of the Supreme Soviet? The occupation of Czechoslovakia and Hungary after the War? What about the 1948 Berlin Blockade?

And Soviet expansionism was real. Even if you ignore Soviet moves in Africa and the Middle East, what about Europe? The invasion of Prague in 1966? Hungary in 1956?
posted by blahblahblah at 3:01 PM on March 19, 2005


Pixelgeek, do you really think that the actions of Stalin (and later leaders) in Eastern Europe after the war was a sign of moderation and a desire to live in peace?

Was Stalin a monster? No question.

Did we enable his actions in Eastern Europe? No question

Is Stalin the issue? No

The case, AFAICT, the Kennan makes ins't about the monsterous nature of Stalin but the inevitablility of conflict with Communism and the need to counteract it.

You can trot out the effigy of Stalin to try to excuse those actions but frankly that situation was no different than Iraq and Saddam only on a much bigger scale. We worked with Stalin and made agreements with him to give him large areas of Eastern Europe so claiming that as a excuse for the Cold War when the west had an existing and ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union starting in the 20's is silly
posted by pixelgeek at 5:55 PM on March 19, 2005


So, pixelgeek, are you saying that the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe for 50 years was the fault of the West? That the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States was entirely the result of western support for the White Army?

What, exactly, should the United States have done differently? What should Kennan have written in the Long Telegram?
posted by Chanther at 8:14 PM on March 19, 2005


pixelgeek, your reading of history is, in a word, obtuse.

it was based on the "containing" a system that after the death of Lenin didn't want to expand. Stalin was, IIRC, opposed to the idea of exporting the communist revolution.

1939 -- The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact:
For its part, the Soviet Union was not interested in maintaining a status quo, which it saw as disadvantageous to its interests, deriving as it did from the period of Soviet weakness immediately following the 1917 October Revolution and Russian Civil War. Soviet leaders adopted the position that conflict between what they characterized as rival imperialist countries was not only an inevitable consequence of capitalism, but would also enhance conditions for the spread of Communism.

Of course, in their defense, they thought they might have to fight Hitler without the help of the Triple Entente. But clearly a healthy postwar USSR was viewed by many Communists as an essential starting point.

If the Soviets don't want to expand then what do we have to contain them from?

1948 -- the fall of China. The global population under Communism (or in the sphere of Communism) went from around 200 million -- to 750 million. What conclusion would you draw from this event?

Soviet post-war expansion (and aside from Afghanistan its anly real expansion) was based on agreements that the western powers made with the soviets

The "agreements" of which you speak (Yalta, Potsdam) -- largely informal diplomatic matters of trust, not inscribed in treaty form, since they were broadly illegal in terms of international law (certain sovereign nations making decisions about the fate of other sovereign nations) -- included such points as democratic elections in the occupied lands, equal and pacific mutual military occupation of Axis powers, and postwar management of disagreements through the United Nations. Although you may see Yalta et al. as ipso facto Western betrayal -- certainly many do -- you can hardly argue that the Soviets lived up to their end of the bargain. Where were Poland's free elections? Where was the mutual occupation, after the Berlin Blockade? Where was the UN cooperation, after the USSR walked out rather than vote for unified elections in Korea?

so if those expansions were so onerous then why did we make them in the first place?

You do realize that we had a few speedbumps along the road to Berlin? I believe they were called the Wehrmacht. Now, if you're seriously proposing that we should have kept Patton driving for the Brest-Litovsk line, you've got some 'splainin' to do.

Lordy, it's true, we had our share of paranoid nutjobs; but you know, some of their paranoia (if not their methods) was justified. Even if you take a completely amoral Realist view, it's clear that the national interest of the USSR in the postwar period was to create a balance of power with the US, which required a certain amount of aggression as a basis of strategic instability. Pretending otherwise is, well, what they call simplisme.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 PM on March 19, 2005


dhartung: And what's your point re China? That the conclusion U.S. leaders had of tying Russia and China together, and thus getting involved in East Asian affairs was only rational? Are you saying the "domino theory" wasn't ridiculous?

According to your own link, the Soviet Union wasn't expansionist in regard to China. It hedged its bets between the Communists and Nationalists instead. And the Soviets and the People's Republic of China were not particularly friendly. Our failure to see that led to disaster.

Kennan's own belief about China in 1949 was, essentially, that it wasn't powerful, and wasn't going to be, so its "loss" to communism didn't matter much. However, he saw, correctly, that the Soviets couldn't control China and more or less urged American leaders to play out a divided and conquer strategy among the communist nations. No one tried this until Henry the K. and Nixon did, decades later.
posted by raysmj at 12:04 AM on March 20, 2005


re Berlin: Carolyn Eisenberg, in her book, proves pretty clearly that the decision to divide Germany was essentially an American decision, opposed by the Soviets (who, by the way, were busy burying all the cannon fodder they had happily provided the Americans to defeat Hitler). and if you check out good old Allen Dulles letters from the 1943 on, you'll see that he was already fighting the Cold War then. the USA and the USSR badly needed an enemy -- they needed each other, for very different reasons.
those who -- in academia, in certain dive bars and apparently on MeFi -- try to blame the Cold War entirely on the big bad Soviet wolf are, well, funny. the Twentieth century isn't really FDR's and Stalin's -- it's Wilson's and Lenin's. empires need enemies to define themselves, as recent history sadly demonstrates.

dan, I'll ignore the fact that no Wikipedia bukkake can make it safe for anybody to state that a little shot of McCarthyism did America good because, well, a few commies may or may not have given useful info to the Soviets. the good Senator from Wisconsin is a stain in American History, simple as that, and Americans in 2005 should be very wary of your argument -- replace anti-Red paranoia with a little anti-Muslim paranoia and you can justify, well, lots of bad stuff going on right now. loyalty oaths aren't justified by what the Rosenbergs may or may not have done. especially now that some people on the Right seem pretty nostalgic of them.
posted by matteo at 8:16 AM on March 20, 2005


ray & matteo, I humbly thank you for your efforts to keep my own writings less off-the-cuff and more carefully reasoned and phrased.

First, regarding China and bet-hedging, note that phrase refers to the early war dating back to the 1920s -- again, a time when the USSR was weak and such a strategy was advisable. After WWII the position of the PLA improved dramatically and Soviet support became more overt. Regarding a definitive linkage of the two, let's quote Mao:

Internationally, we must unite with all peace-loving and freedom-loving countries and peoples, and first of all with the Soviet Union and the New Democracies, so that we shall not stand alone in our struggle to safeguard these fruits of victory and to thwart the plots of domestic and foreign enemies for restoration. As long as we persist in the people's democratic dictatorship and unite with our foreign friends, we shall always be victorious.

I'm certain that it satisfies pragmatism both to view alliances as inherently temporary, if your time scale is long enough, and also valuable, at least to the parties involved. I don't think it's a criticism of Kennan to note that the other Communist superpower came with its own kitbag of interests, nor that playing them off against each other necessarily invalidates containment. Was the US opposed to Soviet expansionism, or the expansion of communism? I think the answer is "both".

Don't split hairs, ray, and do keep track of your own links -- after all, that article does say that in 1950 the USSR and PRC signed a treaty of friendship and assistance, which sounds like an alliance to me, and also that Moscow continued to try to manipulate Beijing with that treaty, which sounds like Soviet attempts at puppet-mastery, even if they were destined to fail.

matteo, first of all, give me the respect of not misrepresenting my words. Tailgunner Joe, the paranoid nutjob as some have been known to call him, did America no good, but though his methods were unsound, there was indeed a real threat from the USSR to American security. If anything, his pogroms aimed at Foggy Bottom and Arlington made that threat more dangerous. I shouldn't have brought him up; there were better ways to make that point. As for "Wikipedia bukkake", I apologize for my whitebread, overly-processed sources (I spend a lot of time there now, it's just easy), and will work harder to mill the whole grain stuff next time (like the MetaFilter of old). But I didn't include them to make the argument of which you accuse me of making.

the USA and the USSR badly needed an enemy -- they needed each other, for very different reasons

This is my point, phrased more elegantly.

those who -- in academia, in certain dive bars and apparently on MeFi -- try to blame the Cold War entirely on the big bad Soviet wolf are, well, funny

I was rebutting a claim that laid the blame entirely on "cranks" such as Kennan. Maybe the Soviets were secretly really, really, super-nice, but I think history speaks for itself here, and I don't give totalitarians a whole lot of slack.

Remember, matteo, unless you didn't know, I'm someone who actually attended the New York Marxist School. I'm also someone who decided he couldn't respect commies when they wouldn't even discuss the mild proposition that the impulse toward Marxism was in tune with other utopian movements of the 19th century. I suppose they thought I was a College Republican mole, when I'm just someone who hates cant.
posted by dhartung at 12:22 AM on March 22, 2005


dhartung: Well, his famous article did refer to "Soviet influence" and not "communist influence" per se. It begins with this sentence, "The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances: ideology inherited by the present Soviet leaders from the movement in which they had their political origin, and circumstances of the power which they now have exercised for nearly three decades in Russia."

The rest of the piece is something that it would help to refer to when discussing Kennan. He refers specifically to a Leninist Marxism as the ideology to be primarily contained here, although it has to be noted that Chinese communism wasn't an issue at the time this was written (and Kennan later thought it no big deal, given the lack of Chinese power, the inability to create a Russian-style empire, something central to his fear of Russian communism). And dividing and conquering is still a means of containing influence, by keeping the nations distracted, no?


After all, that article does say that in 1950 the USSR and PRC signed a treaty of friendship and assistance, which sounds like an alliance to me, and also that Moscow continued to try to manipulate Beijing with that treaty, which sounds like Soviet attempts at puppet-mastery, even if they were destined to fail.


But how does this justify our East Asian policies and Vietnam, etc.? Does it? Even you realize the "alliance" was largely wishful thinking or an outright mirage, destined to fail. I did keep up with your link, thanks.
posted by raysmj at 4:47 AM on March 22, 2005


Ray. Containment was a rational response to spreading Soviet influence, whether or not that includes China. Kennan was not the cause of US-Soviet antipathy; if anything, containment represented a moderated approach. In 1943 it didn't take a genius to recognize that an alliance with Stalin was temporary at best -- that the US could not stay allied indefinitely with a superpower that was at its heart undemocratic and at times genocidal.

That said, why am I being raked over the coals for every misguided policy of the Cold War, here? Availability? Deeply unfair of you. I stuck my neck out for Kennan, not Dulles. I, too, deeply wish we had followed a different course in Southeast Asia.
posted by dhartung at 7:31 PM on March 22, 2005


The March 26-April 1st issue of The Economist also has an obituary on Kennan.
posted by sindark at 5:04 PM on March 31, 2005


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