By general agreement, America produced in the years following World War Two some of the finest statesmen in its history. They were charged with both restoring a shattered Europe and resisting a Soviet expansion, and in both they succeeded. Among them was a State Department career officer, George Kennan, who authored the so-called containment policy that largely guided U.S. relations with the Soviets throughout the Cold War and ended with the victory that Kennan had predicted, though there were many bloody mishaps along the way. VOA’s Ed Warner reviews the life and thoughts of this veteran diplomat who has reached the age of 100.
It was a moment of utter frustration and disbelief. George Kennan, a young U.S. State Department officer stationed in Moscow, was translating the lurid confessions at a 1937 purge trial to U.S. Ambassador Joseph Davies. Though the event was obviously staged by Dictator Josef Stalin to liquidate opponents, the ambassador pronounced the defendants guilty as charged.
Half a century later, Mr. Kennan recalled the shock of that episode: “The sight of these ashen doomed men, several of them only recently prominent figures of the regime and now only 24 hours away from their executions, standing there mumbling their preposterous confessions in the vain hope of saving themselves or perhaps members of their families, their twitching, their prison pallor, their evasive downcast eyes – the sight is never to leave my memory.”
But back home in America, the ambassador was believed, not George Kennan, and a popular Hollywood film celebrated Mr. Davies’ close ties to a genial Stalin.
This was typical of Kennan’s efforts to get Washington to understand the nature of the Soviet regime. Not the massive purge trials, not the pact with Hitler, not the betrayal of the Polish uprising in Warsaw were able to sway officialdom from its benign view of the Soviet Union. Kennan was ahead of his time, says John Lewis Gaddis, professor of history and political science at Yale University. The Soviet Union was a U.S. ally in World War Two and so immune to criticism. “It was not politically correct in 1944 to be talking about the dangers that might emerge from the Soviet Union in the postwar period,” he says. “It was not politically correct to point out that Stalin’s dictatorship was the most authoritarian in the world save only Hitler’s dictatorship. It took the breakdown of superpower cooperation, the prospect of confrontation with the Soviet Union on the horizon to make Washington receptive to what Kennan had been saying all along.”
Finally in 1946, after the Soviets had taken over Eastern Europe and begun a new series of purges, Kennan received a plaintive message from Washington asking why they were not being more cooperative. “This was it,” thought Kennan. “Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do. They had asked for it. Now by God, they would get it.”
There followed one of the most famous documents in American diplomacy, the so-called “long telegram,” which explained Soviet behavior to a Washington at last prepared to listen. Driven by dogmatic Marxism, implacably hostile to the West, the Soviet Union, wrote Kennan, will expand as far as it can until it meets resistance. It is time, he said, to resist.
Professor Gaddis, who is preparing a biography of Kennan, says the telegram was written with pent-up fury: “The long telegram is one of these rare examples of a single document composed in great haste in Moscow under difficult conditions when Kennan was suffering from the flu and a toothache and a lot of other maladies, dictated in bed to his secretary, which nonetheless became a classic and you can point to only maybe two or three documents like that in the history of the 20th century.”
In a subsequent article, Kennan called for “a long term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies.” In time, he said, this would lead to the collapse of the regime.
And that it did, notes Richard Gardner, professor of law and international affairs at Columbia University and a former U.S. ambassador to Italy and Spain: “He said in a remarkably far-sighted prediction in that article that if the West could have the political will to contain the Soviet Union and prevent its aggressions without war, the system would fall eventually from its own internal contradictions, and that turned out to be correct. And it is very good that Kennan lived so long that he could see his predictions come true.”
Appointed to direct a newly created policy planning staff in the U.S. State Department, Kennan helped launch the Marshall Plan for the postwar reconstruction of Europe. He also intervened in the U.S. occupation of Japan to counter the communist influence that was hampering economic revival and embittering the otherwise compliant Japanese. These, he says, were his two most important contributions to government.
Before long, however, he began to doubt his own creation since containment seemed to be leading to military actions he opposed. He wanted to avoid a divided Germany and proposed an arrangement with Moscow to keep it united, disarmed and neutral. He did not prevail. A mystical approach, scoffed U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Professor Gaddis says Kennan felt he had lost control of the doctrine attributed to him. “Having articulated the strategy, he spent a lot more time being dissatisfied with its implementation than he was satisfied with it,” he says. “Containment went through a lot of permutations, alterations and many of these he did not approve of. But the single big idea we did hold on to all the way through, which was you did not have to fight a third world war with the Soviet Union. You did not have to appease the Soviet Union, as Nazi Germany had been appeased in the 1930’s. There was a third way.”
That way involves what is now called “soft power”: the use of political, economic and informational activities. It was Kennan’s idea, for example, to set up Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe to beam accurate information to the countries under Soviet control.
He was averse to military action except as a last resort, but he supported U.S. involvement in the Korean War, and according to biographer Wilson Miscamble, he was a steadying influence amid the panic that followed the massive Chinese intervention. While others were talking of withdrawal or hasty negotiations, Kennan advised against negotiating from weakness. Stabilize the military situation first, he said. Writes Mr. Miscamble: “He helped keep Washington together during one of the darkest moments of the postwar era.”
Though he subsequently served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Kennan has spent his later years largely writing and lecturing. His three-volume account of U.S.-Russian relations 1917-1920 is considered one of the finest works of American history.
Reflecting on his years of service, he remains a skeptic of government, including democracy, which he thinks can be as capricious as other kinds. In any government, he writes, a small “elite” tends to wield power and often as not misuses it. Democracy at least provides for a turnover of elites.
Professor Gardner says Kennan’s long-term geopolitical perspective led him to slight the importance of human rights in foreign policy. In a sense, he belonged to a departed era of American statesmen both learned and dedicated.
“People like Kennan and Acheson were rather contemptuous of the need to negotiate with so many different interest groups who they thought would interfere with the rational conduct of foreign policy, as for example, with the Soviet Union,” he says. “But we have democratized foreign policy with all that implies both good and bad. And it makes the conduct of foreign policy much more difficult. In the days of Kennan and Acheson, the secretary of state would not be spending half his time talking to the press and the Congress, as is now necessary. It was just a different world.”
Though that world is gone, many mourn its passing. Considering conditions today, they say another George Kennan would be most welcome.