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 - 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 have Washington 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:
"It was not politically correct in 1944 to be talking about the
dangers that might emerge from the Soviet Union in the postwar period. 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, 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.
According to Professor Gardner, "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."
He also lived long enough to doubt his own creation or at least some uses made of it. He was skeptical of military intervention except as a last resort. He remained something of an elitist, not confident that democracy is the answer to all the world's ills. Professor Gardner says Kennan believed foreign policy should be in the hands of professionals like himself.
Professor Gardner says, "People like Kennan 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. But we have democratized foreign policy with all that implies both good and bad."
If there is the example of George Kennan's life, there is also the large volume of writing he leaves behind, including a monumental study of U.S.-Soviet relations. For those who conduct U.S. foreign policy, say many scholars, they should be required reading.