George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011), by John Lewis Gaddis


Gaddis’s biography of the seminal George Kennan, the father of the grand strategy of Containment in the Cold War, the famous Mr. “X” and author of the “Long Telegram” from Moscow, is fulsome, and I’d recommend it. My one wish is that Gaddis had found a way to display the range and complexity of Kennan’s ideas, the depth of his highly original mind, earlier in the drama. Kennan was a deep thinker early in his life, it seems evident by the time you reach the end of this book, but the strict chronological form seems to put off conveying it to the reader sufficiently before Kennan has left the foreign service and become chiefly a historian. Early on, what were his chief ideals? Who were his biggest influences? Gaddis had access to Kennan’s diaries, articles, family, friends, enemies. But for me there is not enough about the sources and inspirations of Kennan’s thought in the first two thirds of George F. Kennan.

Boiling down George F. Kennan: Here are two passages written by Kennan and cited in Gaddis’s biography:

“The city of Sankt Petersburgh–St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, call it what you will–is one of the strangest, loveliest, most terrible, most dramatic of the world’s great urban centers. The high northern latitude, the extreme slant of the sun’s rays, the flatness of the terrain, the frequent breaking of the landscape by wide, shimmering expanses of water: all these combine to  accent the horizontal at the expense of the vertical and to create everywhere the sense of immense space, distance and power. The heaven is vast, the skyline remote and extended. Cleaving the city down the center, the cold grey waters of the Neva move silently and swiftly, like a slab of smooth grey metal, past the granite embankments and the ponderous palaces, bringing with them the tang of the lonely wastes of forests and swamps from which they have emerged. At every hand one feels the proximity of the great wilderness of the Russian north–silent, sombre, infinitely patient.”


“It is not I who have left my country. It is my country that has left me–the country I thought I knew and understood. I could leave it without a pang: the endless streams of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshields, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, the hot-dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick boxes, the country-clubs, the bars-and-grills, the empty activity, the competitiveness, the lack of spontaneity, the sameness, the drug-stores, the over-heated apartment houses, the bus terminals, the crowded campuses, the unyouthful youth and the immature middle-aged–all this I could see recede behind the Jersey flats without turning a hair.”

Said simplistically, the  post World War Two grand strategy of the US toward the USSR that generally seemed to prevail in practice, if often with great tension, was, in various working versions through the different American presidential administrations, the idea that the West must contain Soviet expansion by enlightened and well-targeted and usually relatively lean policy means, not war(s): means within our national means; and, patiently, we must await the demise of the contained Soviet Union owing to its internal contradictions, these contradictions to include that “satellite” nations could not be controlled indefinitely by Moscow to preserve its empire and that other communist dictatorships, e.g., Yugoslavia and China, would not stay within the gravitational ideological pull of the Soviet Union and advance with it shoulder-to-shoulder to revolutionize the world but would each show a powerful nationalism.

Containment was a “realist” policy in sharply reining in the apparent original ambition of the Truman Doctrine, a passion to go forth in haste and free subjugated peoples wherever they might be. Alas, the Hungarians and the Poles and the others must wait for the liberating changes sure to come from the impossible dreams of Moscow in an uncertain future, though the West would do whatever it could short of war to hasten those changes.

Kennan may well have been the first truly thoughtful advocate of the approach. Yet he felt much of his working life as a diplomat, historian, writer and teacher to have been treated without the respect he merited, or so it seems to me from reading Gaddis’s detailed biography. Certainly the adversaries treated him badly: Stalin had Kennan declared persona non grata and removed as American ambassador to the USSR, apparently for comments of Kennan’s unfavorably comparing restrictions in Moscow in the 1950s to those in Nazi Germany. But Kennan seems sometimes to have felt slighted and neglected at home. Even his days teaching in American universities were painful–sometimes the courses brought him to a sense of regret about his students–they did not generally measure up, and he did not expect much from them then or later in their lives.

Out of Kennan’s long career, and reading between lines in Gaddis, Kennan’s idea of containment seems to have come from much more than “realism.” Kennan seems to me to have formed early in his imagination, and yearned throughout his life for, a sort of Golden Image of Russia and the East, a Poetic Ideal (not, however, to include the Middle East!) which came out of a Romantic literary bent displaying a great love of Checkov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and other Russian masters. You can sense it in the passage about St. Petersburg. The present specifics do not much matter-“call it (St. Petersburg) what you will”–but instead what is preeminent is a downright mythic sense of an abiding grandeur (“the great Russian north”), something like the imagined great and misty “classical age” framing the yearning and discontent in Pound, Eliot and other Modernists for an antiquity free of the modern cacophony and chaos (but which patient and thorough historians will show you never existed). Dostoevsky in such “prophetic” marvels as Notes From Underground convinced Kennan better than anyone that those “internal contradictions” sure to doom the Soviets are part of human nature itself, a saving “perversity” that will sabotage the Crystal Palace or, in Cold War terms, will not indefinitely abide authoritarian control based on an unrealistic ideology. Kennan’s beloved Checkov, especially in The Cherry Orchard, makes you love the Russian people and feel deep sympathy for them and hope they will someday be free. (Kennan, complicated, also reflects sometimes on the long tradition of Russian authoritarianism.)

My sense is that Kennan was finally hungry for a kind of splendid isolation in which he would wait in plausible hope for a world of freedom, high culture, general happiness. He spent much time away on his remote farm doing heavy work, but not enough time to suit him. While ambassador to the Soviet Union, he did not seek a meeting with Stalin. After Kennan was expelled from the USSR, he found himself going through lonely periods in the US during which he was not much consulted by US government leaders, even though Kennan’s reputation as prophetic about the Soviet Union was growing as events validated his policy ideas. Something about him–he did not much want to be in the midst of others?–put others off.

It is sad that he felt something of a stranger in his own country: imagine Walt Whitman reading the passage above by Kennan on America.

But an interesting speculation: his sense that he was an outsider made his policy thought more original and incisive.

Kennan, it would seem, was himself a certain kind of isolationist but in an imagined country and time. Needless to say, he sometimes had us all for company, though he must have been happy that we were invisible. Everyone, including Eve, is Adam alone in that realm.