Review of George F. Kennan: An American Life

This book review was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 3.

By Martin J. Cool

Of all the wise decisions George Frost Kennan made in his life, surely one of the best was choosing John Lewis Gaddis as his biographer. After reading the lengthy but eminently readable George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), one is struck by the general absence of sensible decision-making by a man with incredible foresight in international affairs.  Gaddis seamlessly weaves together Kennan’s life of inconsistencies and philosophical vacillations, producing a coherent biography of a figure misunderstood both by his contemporaries and by his modern-day admirers.

Kennan, born in Milwaukee and raised by sisters who would serve as anchors throughout his life, is best known for his “Long Telegram,” which he sent as a diplomat in Moscow in 1946, and an article he published in Foreign Affairs a year later under the pseudonym of “Mr. X”, which publicized the ideas of the secret telegram. Both writings contributed to laying the foundation for American policy towards its Soviet Union rival for much of the Cold War: the Soviet Union. Kennan’s ideas on the implacable nature of the Soviet regime and the policy of “containment” designed to block its expansionist nature became accepted wisdom for the cold warriors of his generation, as well as many of those who followed.  Kennan, however, soon fell out of favor with many of the leading policymakers of the day, in large part due to his frustration with what he perceived as a misinterpretation of his ideas and the resulting policy manifestations.

It is this dynamic — one of successive presidents, secretaries of state, and other foreign policy thinkers misapplying Kennan’s thoughts on containment — which acts as a protagonist for much of the action throughout Kennan’s life as presented by Gaddis. To Kennan’s chagrin, no one was able to adequately apply his diplomatic philosophy. As a result, as Gaddis writes at the conclusion of the chapter on “Mr. X”, after 1947, Kennan “could never regard the doctrine with which he was credited as his own.”

Gaddis, however, makes it clear that the fault lies more with the egoistic Kennan and his perception of the policies enacted than with his containment disciples. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and later President Reagan, were all more sympathetic in utilizing Kennan’s ideas when making policy than was President Kennedy, Gaddis writes. But, whereas the former flattered Kennan little, the latter personally and persistently praised Kennan for his contributions. Kennan’s desire for recognition, which is evident in his speeches and writings, is a consistent theme throughout the book. Yet by viewing his own ideas through the prism of the personalities at the White House, Kennan eventually became blind to the part he played in the formation of American foreign policy.

In bringing the personality of the author of the “X” article in from the cold, Gaddis has completed a monumental achievement, which required more patience than Gaddis may have expected. Not unlike the drawn-out Cold War conflict, the completion of the book, some thirty years in the making, was delayed by Kennan’s unexpected longevity. “Poor John Gaddis has seen his undertaking being put off for years while he waits for me to make way for it,” Gaddis quotes Kennan saying in 2003, two years before he died at the age of one hundred and one. With unrestricted access to his papers, diaries, and dream journals, which together represented 330 boxes worth of materials, one presumes additional time was not something a Kennan biographer would begrudge.

Gaddis was able to draw on a wealth of information in part because of Kennan’s talent as a writer. Kennan’s literary skills are especially evident in his many correspondences, diary entries, and published works. Evoking the beauty of the Russian countryside or the persistent yet mesmerizing monotony of a long train ride, Kennan makes evident why he periodically wondered whether he should have been a novelist rather than a diplomat. “I could take more pride in one page of decent writing than in being an Ambassador,” Gaddis quotes Kennan writing, years before he would become Ambassador to the Soviet Union for an abbreviated period of time in the early 1950s.

Yet it was his combination of linguistic skill, writing talent, and enviable timing that enabled Kennan’s success at the State Department. Commenting on the fortuitous timing of the “long telegram,” Gaddis writes that Kennan later recalled that, “six months earlier this message would probably have been received . . . with raised eyebrows . . . six months later, it would probably have sounded redundant.” After the “long telegram,” he was given the opportunity to help shape American policy closer to home. While teaching at the recently created National War College, Kennan explored themes just coming into vogue, such as how the U.S. might project world leadership after World War II. What Kennan called “measures short of war”—ideas that might be recognizable to the international relations student of today who has studied Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power”— included such concepts as using actions with “psychological effects”, increased economic ties with like-minded nations, and participation in international organizations like the United Nations. All of these policy tools were integral to Kennan’s containment strategy. As the years passed, they would grow in importance, even as policy-makers in Washington used them less and less, Kennan believed, risking nuclear war with their bellicose actions towards the communist world.

As Gaddis tells it, the risk of nuclear conflict was a principal reason for Kennan’s increased support for a less confrontational stance. Indeed, it was principally this aversion to conflict that caused Kennan to turn his back on the “application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points,” words he used in the Mr. X article. Eventually, Kennan reached a point where he seemed eager to concede to Soviet leaders in order to reduce the risk of nuclear conflagration.

Although branded a founder of the Realist school of international relations theory, only the earlier Kennan philosophy can be said to align tangentially with its precepts. As Gaddis explains, Kennan’s American Diplomacy: 1900-1950, a collection of lectures which in written form firmly established Kennan within the realist school of thought, is a realist conception of the world written by someone that had never read Thucydides. “It was yet another example of Kennan’s strange tendency,” Gaddis says, “to be remembered more for what he said in haste than for what he took the time to ponder.”

Gaddis presents a wonderful tableau of the historian at work, guiding the reader’s attention ever so slightly so that we are left with the impressions of an artisan plying away at his trade. Gaddis’s subject offers a malleable object with which to craft, especially during Kennan’s belated but ultimately successful attempts at writing history himself. “He had a historian’s consciousness of the past,” Gaddis writes, “which gave him a visionary’s perspective on the future.”  Sometimes including quotations of questions he asked Kennan directly and the answers he received, Gaddis takes the time to distill for the reader the obligations of a biographer, writing that they must “place their subjects within the period in which they lived.” At times, he includes direct quotations of the questions he asked Kennan and his verbatim responses. He also adroitly addresses many of the quirks of writing about someone else’s life. Like a Renaissance painter etching his likeness into the corner of a painting, Gaddis’s imprints are evident throughout the book. “All diaries entangle fiction with truth,” Gaddis writes, “so there’s little point in seeking to sort out here which was which.”

Gaddis is at his most compelling when interweaving Kennan’s professional pursuits with his family life, especially his weekends at his farm in Pennsylvania and the strains of his frequent international travel. However, whether it’s because Kennan’s diary writing became sparse during the time he was most influential in D.C. policy circles, or perhaps for some other reason, such accounts are sparse during Kennan’s monumental decisions, like when crafting the Marshall Plan. This is a noticeable flaw in the book. Gaddis also makes it clear that he will only allude to potential indiscretion in Kennan’s marriage, never making a decisive statement one way or the other, but dutifully presents the evidence for the reader to decide.

In the end, the book itself reads like an entanglement of fiction and truth due in large part to the combination of Kennan’s advanced literary skills and to Gaddis’s conception of plot. In understanding the hard reality of domestic political maneuvering, Kennan was a complete novice, never adjusting to the nuances of how to make his recommendations palatable to the policy-making community, no matter how well they were crafted. He expected instead that the “mere statement on a single occasion of a sound analysis” should be accepted without question. Writing in his memoirs, Kennan acknowledged this “mysterious” policy-making process so prevalent in democracies. But it was his own self-centeredness, Gaddis writes, that prevented him from recognizing it sooner. Whether or not it was selfishness that caused Kennan to choose a historian with the inimitable skills of Gaddis as his biographer is unclear. In any case, we should be as thankful for that choice, as we are for the clarity and foresight with which Kennan was able to delineate the policy that would guide a nation for more than fifty years in its struggle against communism.


Mr. Cool  is an MA candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an active-duty officer in the United State Air Force and a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Global Security and Intelligence Studies undergraduate program.

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