Jewish World Review April 13, 2005 / 4 Nisan 5765
A stranger at home
The news that George Kennan was dead at 101 had an antique feel to it, as if his obituary were describing a Metternich or Talleyrand. Why, it's been almost 40 years since the man published his "Memoirs."
George F. Kennan not only shaped the history of the Cold War but also lived long enough to write that history. His signal contribution was the long telegram he sent to Washington in 1946 as the second-ranking diplomat at the American Embassy in Moscow, and which he expanded the next year into an article for the July 1947 issue of "Foreign Affairs," the prestigious journal of the Council on Foreign Relations.
George Kennan would sign that influential article X because as a Foreign Service officer, he couldn't reveal his identity. Its formal title was "The Sources of Soviet Conduct,'' and it would sum up the theme of American policy toward the Soviet Union over the next half-century in a single word: containment.
In his prescient essay, this already seasoned diplomat prescribed a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies," and prophesied that the Soviet Union could be "contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy."
But when the Truman administration actually geared up to provide that counterforce, first in Greece and Turkey in 1947, George Kennan protested that no, no, that wasn't what he had meant at all. He had meant political, economic and moral force just about every kind of force but military. He was particularly disturbed at how President Truman was depicting the Cold War as some kind of fateful clash between two ways of life, communism and democracy, tyranny and freedom.
Well-trained, well-traveled and well-educated diplomat that he was, Ambassador Kennan thought of the coming struggle as more of a traditional clash between great powers with their competing interests rather than a worldwide ideological confrontation. Such a confrontation could be avoided, he hoped, if matters were left to professionals like himself.
No one could have been more surprised, or appalled, at how the policy he had suggested was carried out than George Kennan himself. It seems Harry Truman had taken Mr. X at his word, and, as was Mr. Truman's way, he didn't make fine distinctions between applying force and applying force. When the subtle diplomat realized how seriously his idea of containment was being taken, well, he could scarcely contain himself.
George Kennan's first reaction to what came to be known as The Truman Doctrine was to lobby against it, fearing that the Russians might even declare war in response. It seems his advice had not only been misunderstood but was being misapplied. And in what must have been the most galling turn of all, it worked. Containment, the forceful kind, succeeded. George Kennan had advised better than he knew.
From Harry Truman's decision to support Greece and Turkey to Ronald Reagan's deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe, containment was enforced, the arms race pursued, and the ideological contrast between communism and freedom emphasized.
Despite all his forebodings, which after a time became outright opposition to some of the main trends in American foreign policy, the world did not end. Instead, the Soviet Union did.
What a long, strange journey George Kennan's was:
He might have been wrong time and again when it came to waging the Cold War, but his central vision of how to win it proved right.
He was adept at learning the intricacies of other societies, yet grew increasingly estranged from his own. His sympathy and understanding for the Russian people, and appreciation of Russian literature and history was beautiful and moving, but his growing condescension and repugnance for his own, fast-changing society couldn't be disguised. In short, he was both an adept diplomat and the perfect snob.
With his usual eloquence, Ambassador Kennan once described how the professional diplomat ceases to understand his own country almost in proportion to his coming to understand another. He himself proved the most poignant example of that process. Even as he proposed the strategy that would preserve American values in the world, he lost touch with those values. The more he learned abroad, the more of a stranger he became at home.
The Nixon-Kissinger idea of detente with the Soviet Union, he understood; he might even have produced it himself if he had still been active in American diplomacy by the 1970s. But, as for those in Congress who thought they could use trade sanctions to force the Soviet Union to let its people go the cold warriors like Scoop Jackson, George Kennan didn't so much engage their ideas as dismiss them.
If these people were sincere about pressing the Soviets, they could bring on a nuclear holocaust. If insincere, they were just demagogues pandering to the passions of a fanatical minority rather than seeking to serve the national interest. Their ideas were and this may have been the harshest denunciation in his scholarly vocabulary: destabilizing.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet Union collapsed soon after, the grand architect of American strategy in the Cold War seemed at a loss, discombobulated by the victory he had inspired.
Like Henry Adams, who a century before had found himself a stranger in his own time, George Kennan was an elitist who took refuge in the aesthetic. I think of him as a J. William Fulbright who could write. His 101 years were filled with paradoxes and ironies. Given his literary sensibility, he doubtless appreciated every one of them. And if he erred, as he did, surely a fine writer can be forgiven much.
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