This review appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

 

George Kennan for Our Time
By Lee Congdon
(Northern Illinois University Press, 2022)

For baby boomers, a first encounter with George Kennan likely came in a college history assignment to read American Diplomacy, the published lectures Kennan gave at the University of Chicago in 1951. Or perhaps with Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the historic essay, written under the pseudonym “X,” published in 1947 in Foreign Affairs. There Kennan distilled the message of the “Long Telegram” he had dictated from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow the previous year, crystallizing Washington’s thinking about how to deal with the Soviet Union in the new postwar era. 

A first-time reader might have sensed the beauty of Kennan’s prose, unusual for those writing about foreign policy. Then might have followed a realization that the arguments he made seemed like no one else’s. 

Foreign-policy debates during the Vietnam era fell almost invariably into two ideological camps. Some writers scorned the United States, finding fault with nearly every aspect of the country’s conduct because it was imperialist or bellicose or insufficiently humanitarian—the Marxist and liberal positions often overlapped. 

Others—most government officials and Cold War liberals and conservatives—presented American policies as an outgrowth of good or reasonable intentions, directed against genuine threats, or as efforts to right genuine injustices. If those policies were sometimes flawed or ineffectual, the purposes behind them were moral and sound. 

And here was Kennan, very much a part of the American establishment, yet highly critical of American policies. All too often they were, he argued, manipulated populist impulses disrespectful of the realities of power and arts of diplomacy. He lamented an American proclivity for legalism and moral posturing in foreign affairs, decried his country’s tendency to present America’s opponents as embodiments of evil, worried over America’s hubris and lack of humility. He concluded (in 1951) that we were a far less secure country than we had been in the nineteenth century. 

While several excellent biographies of George Kennan have been published, it’s not obvious that any of them give a better sense of the man or more reading pleasure than his own voluminous published writings. One of his biographers, the noted historian (and Kennan’s close personal friend) John Lukacs, says in George Kennan: A Study of Character that Kennan “was, and remains, the best and finest American writer about [interwar] Europe at that time: better and finer than hundreds of others, including Hemingway.” 

That judgment is based simply on Kennan’s verbal sketches and diary entries written as a young Foreign Service officer, stationed in interwar Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltics, well before he was famous. Fame did ensue after the Long Telegram and the X article, which led to a few years of genuine influence in government, followed by a lengthy post-government career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. There Kennan became a prize-winning diplomatic historian, producing after the age of fifty a body of scholarship which would exceed that of most Ivy League professors. 

In addition, he wrote two volumes of widely read and touted memoirs, some remarkable polemical sallies (most notably against the 1960s student left), and a best-selling work of political philosophy that was published when he was approaching ninety. 

Yet in Kennan’s diaries and memoirs there runs a skein of almost constant complaint about his own lack of influence over the direction of his country, regular expressions of woe that, while he was treated with a kind of respect, he was never (apart from the interlude of the late 1940s) taken seriously. 

Lee Congdon’s admiring new study, George Kennan for Our Time, illuminates Kennan by contrasting his views with those now dominant among the foreign-policy elites of both parties. By merit, Congdon argues, Kennan should be more relevant than ever—standing presciently against a bellicose neoconservatism and equally reckless neoliberal globalism in foreign policy, appropriately alarmist about mass immigration, prescient in the intensity of his environmental concerns, often despairing that American democracy as practiced is taking the country towards an abyss. 

Congdon discusses concisely the evolution of Kennan’s views on Russia and Eastern Europe, on China (he was for keeping a respectful distance), on the role of morality in foreign policy, and on diplomacy in avoiding war. He also provides an interesting discussion of Kennan’s Christianity: in an idiosyncratic way he was quite devout, more so than was common for a member in good standing of the Eastern establishment. 

It is more than slightly shocking to recognize how far Kennan’s views are from those of contemporary elites in both parties, in light of the fact that Kennan was at the very center of the American foreign-policy establishment during the period when American foreign policy was rightfully (and still is) viewed as at its most creative and successful. 

Congdon’s book differs from other major biographies of Kennan—including the quasi-official one by John Lewis Gaddis—which focus more on Kennan’s official activities in the early Cold War. Congdon’s Kennan is less a figure of official Washington, more a political philosopher whose main focus was America’s relationship with the world. 

Like Lukacs, Congdon is an historian of modern Europe, which might explain why he is completely untroubled by Kennan’s elitist side. While Kennan came from a middle-class Midwestern family and wrote with admiration of the struggles of his pioneer forebears, his sensibility more resembles a certain type of conservative intellectual aristocrat—Tocqueville perhaps, or the Germans who conspired unsuccessfully against Hitler. It is a type that hardly exists in the United States, where there is no aristocracy and a belief in the wisdom of common man is ritually affirmed and widely accepted. 

George Kennan’s singular political accomplishment was to put forth, in a way official Washington could embrace, a viable strategy for the United States to counter an expansive and well-armed Soviet Union without fighting a nuclear war. The containment doctrine he proposed in 1946 and 1947 was a patient strategy, political as much as military. As the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, he was instrumental in forging the Marshall Plan to revive Europe’s prostrate economies and in developing the CIA. 

Kennan was, at least in the early Cold War years, no dove, and a major government voice arguing that an American military response to North Korea’s advance over the 38th parallel was essential. But he never overestimated Soviet power, arguing that if met with appropriate counterforce, it would eventually wither. As foreign-policy debates evolved from the 1950s through the 1980s, Kennan became increasingly dovish, often viewing American policies as too militarized, though he was far too much a cultural conservative ever to become a part of the left. 

His first noticeable split from the establishment came in 1957, when he proposed (in the then hugely prestigious Reith Lectures, broadcast by the BBC) that the United States at least explore the possibility of negotiating a neutral and disarmed Germany and a withdrawal of American troops from Europe. From the beginning, he deplored the Vietnam War as a waste of blood and treasure and national prestige. In the 1980s, he became a passionate voice against what he saw as America’s overreliance on nuclear weapons. 

A key question for any Kennan biographer is whether to view his career as an exemplary success, a story of the emergence and triumph of a measured and intellectually brilliant Cold War insider, or to see him as a nearly tragic failure, a man whose later insights were rejected by his establishment peers. 

Congdon comes down clearly in favor of Kennan’s views over the globalist neoliberalism currently regnant in the nation’s capital. But the story of how a man whose opinions were once central to the Washington consensus became relegated to the periphery is a complicated one whose result Congdon decries without really explaining. To get some feel for it, it is useful to read Kennan’s diaries, which he kept regularly well into his nineties. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union was, on the surface, a triumph for the aging Kennan. America had won the Cold War and avoided nuclear Armageddon. Kennan was celebrated as the last surviving wise man of the postwar establishment, interviewed frequently, honored in a major dinner at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy team made a huge show of deference to him. Strobe Talbott—Clinton’s Oxford classmate and later the key post-Soviet affairs official in the White House—invited Kennan to small dinners with top foreign-policy officials. The new president hailed Kennan publicly as a “visionary.” He was invited to draft some of Clinton’s remarks and later to accompany the president on his trip to Moscow to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. (Health concerns prevented Kennan from going.) 

Despite such ostentatious deference, Kennan’s opinion was rejected on the most critical and consequential question the administration faced. Kennan’s diary began 1997 with the prediction that NATO expansion would provoke an extremely negative reaction in Russia, unearthing “the time-honored vision of Russia as the innocent object of the lusts of a wicked and heretical world environment.” Russia could be expected to expand its military ties with its near abroad and seek to strengthen its relations with China and Iran. 

Weeks later Kennan wrote in his diary that the NATO expansion project was “the greatest mistake of the entire post–Cold War period.” He could find no reason for this “colossal blunder.” 

He wrote to Talbott, expecting to be ignored, and was. He then passed his letter to the New York Times, where it was published as an op-ed and quickly circled the globe. On pulling Poland into NATO (Ukraine was not yet the question), Kennan wrote, “I see nothing in it other than a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia. I see also a total, tragic and unnecessary end to an acceptable relationship of that country to the remainder of Europe.” 

Ultimately, Russian pique at NATO expansion into Poland and the Czech Republic turned into something more dangerous when a militarily stronger Russia faced the prospect of the alliance moving into Ukraine, a country which had actually been part of the Soviet Union and was deeply linked to Russia’s history. Moscow launched an invasion. At the time of this writing, U.S. military advisors are on the ground in the former Soviet Union, overseeing the training of Ukrainian troops in the use of what has become a massive flow of sophisticated U.S. weaponry. 

If the NATO expansion against which Kennan warned was not the sole cause of the invasion, it was likely the greatest one, and even if the current war escalates no further, one can see on flamboyant display every American foreign-policy tendency Kennan deplored, from intense moralism to a complete refusal to try to understand the perspectives or interests of rival powers. Kennan was often alienated from the modern United States—at various points he inveighed against the cultural centrality of the automobile, rampant commercialism, what he saw (pre-internet!) as the proliferation of pornography—but one cannot imagine him more anguished than he would be by the hatred of all things Russian brought about by this tragic interaction of Russian fearfulness with Washington’s insistence on expanding its military bases to Russia’s border. 

George Kennan was a brilliant man. He could write quickly and fluently, hold lecture audiences mesmerized, use languages he learned as an adult as if he were a highly literary native speaker. His 1966 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Vietnam was a sensation: twenty-three years later, before the same committee, he affirmed that Gorbachev’s reform efforts  were significant and sincere, and when he left after two and a half hours, the room, including the assembled senators, burst into applause. Asked when that had ever happened before, the Senate clerk responded, yes, it had happened once, after Kennan’s Vietnam testimony. 

He was influential for only a few years in government as the Cold War started, one of the few men in the room deciding in the 1940s how the United States should respond to the North Korean push into South Korea or the alarmingly successful Chinese attack on MacArthur’s overextended forces. Out of government his books won countless prizes and enthralled thousands of readers and editors. Yet after helping to launch the strategy of containment, Kennan was on the losing side of every subsequent policy debate. By his late eighties he would comment dryly to his diary that he was perhaps the most celebrated private citizen in America whose advice was the most ignored, treated as a sage floating about on kind of a magic carpet, an honoree without influence. He wondered whether this was due to some character flaw of his. Flaw or not, the answer probably does lie in his character. 

“I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner,” Kennan wrote in his diary—at the age of twenty-two. It’s not an observation that one can imagine someone who really did match well with the demands of his time—a Churchill or de Gaulle, for example—would ever make.

I have noted Kennan’s hatred of the automobile, which he saw as a symbol of environmental spoilage, a contributor to the collapse of cities and to suburban sprawl, a destroyer of the proper shape of urban life. One of the few cheerful passages in his diaries comes in October 1973, at the onset of the Arab oil embargo. “The day was also notable,” he wrote, “for the announcement by the Saudis that they are terminating oil shipments to the U.S. Never, I must say, has any news pleased me more.” 

A defensible thought, perhaps, and one which today’s global warming concerns make all the more plausible. But it probably cannot be the thought of someone who wanted their opinions to carry weight inside the American establishment. Kennan dined at William Bundy’s house that evening, and it is unlikely he kept this idea to himself. 

Around the Cragged Hill, a book of political and moral reflection Kennan published in 1993, at age eighty-eight, was a national bestseller. In it, he suggested exploration of the devolution of the United States into smaller self-governing regions, a freeze on immigration, and the creation of a Council of State composed of eminent figures to advise the president and help to circumvent the demagoguery to which democracies are prone. The last hardly seems a wise recommendation: whom would a President Trump or President Biden appoint to such a body? And on what basis could we assume that American elites would be wiser than the mass of voters? 

In any case, bestseller or not, no one in that era of End of History triumphalism was interested in engaging seriously with Kennan’s ideas. The book was reviewed respectfully but not really contended with. To his diary, Kennan lamented that when David Gergen had him on for a long TV interview, all he was asked about was the postwar containment doctrine. 

If Kennan were alive today, he would almost certainly be subject to a campaign of vilification by leftist students and faculty at Princeton who would seek to have him fired from the Institute for Advanced Study. It would be child’s play to go through his writings and find passages that could be deemed offensive to various ethnic groups. Even in his own time, the State Department thought it best to stash some of his official writing (about the upper classes of Latin America, written after a 1951 fact-finding tour of the region) safely away where junior foreign service officers wouldn’t read it.

The intellectual battles Kennan waged most actively—over the Cold War, Vietnam, America’s reliance on nuclear weapons—are ones baby boomers grew up with, so for some of them he was always a relevant voice. This is not the case for younger people, even conservatives, for whom Kennan as a political thinker may seem no more relevant than Henry Adams. 

Congdon stresses Kennan’s unheeded pleas for foreign-policy realism and his general hope that the United States could find a certain equilibrium in dealing with post-Soviet Russia. But there is no policy faction of serious weight in the contemporary United States now opposed to a Manichean view of Russia. 

Perhaps Kennan’s long-term worries about America’s domestic trajectory resonate more. There are Kennanesque echoes in parts of the contemporary American right, about immigration and (more esoterically) about the size of the American nation-state. Even self-styled monarchists now get a respectable hearing for the view that democracy is not automatically the best form of government for Americans. It is a view that Kennan would have understood, if not shared. A Kennan revival among younger generations is unlikely—but cannot be ruled out. 

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.