In from the Cold: ‘George F. Kennan: An American Life’

The Cold War is an odd thing. Even the New York Times refuses to capitalize it. Instead of a declarative start and decisive finish, you have a gradual emergence after the Second World War and a decline during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The main combatants in the conflict – the United States and Soviet Union – did not actively fight one another, but instead employed a range of proxies – from China, to Israel, to Cuba, to South Africa – to engage in dirty, unconventional wars in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Moreover, the Cold War was not about territorial acquisition or sovereignty as such – key aspects of conflicts in the past – but instead a struggle over ideas. Compounding this intellectual dimension is the fact that the “heroes” of this war have often been experts outside the military, including scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, cosmonauts like Yuri Gagarin, and statesmen such as Henry Kissinger. Stanley Kubrick captured this wonky essence in the titular figure of his black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), with Peter Sellers conveying the morbidly abstract qualities of those behind the proverbial curtains, who made decisions of war often from the seated comfort of an armchair (or, in Strangelove’s case, a wheelchair, which Kubrick used to great symbolic and comic effect).

Enter George F. Kennan. It should be stated that Kennan possessed neither the historical stature of Kissinger or Oppenheimer, nor the menacing insanity of Strangelove (if that isn’t clear enough). But he is a crucial intellectual figure and even a culture hero of the Cold War for some, of the kind you might find lurking in the background on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Kennan is famous for sending the “long telegram” from Moscow to the U.S. State Department in 1946 that urged the Truman administration to take a more oppositional stance against Stalin and the Soviet Union in order to limit its influence in Europe immediately after the Second World War.

This position was elaborated further in a 1947 article published under the pseudonym of “X” in Foreign Affairs that outlined a more general policy of “containment” against the spread of communism. In short, Kennan authored two key documents that fundamentally shaped the origins of the Cold War, providing clarity and renewed purpose to American foreign policy in the wake of a global conflict that left tremendous political uncertainty, in addition to stoking once more the isolationist tendencies of the US.

This observation is also to say that Kennan inadvertently had a hand in influencing the Cold War culture that followed. The perceived threat of communism as articulated by Kennan not only generated military and foreign policy strategies, but created a cultural competition between East and West that could be seen through figures such as the American pianist Van Cliburn, the chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, and the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. It could be witnessed at the Olympic Games and at performances of the Bolshoi Ballet. And it animated Hollywood from the Blacklist of the ’50s to the Rambo action films of the ’80s, with Strangelove in between.

This range of examples is not reducible, of course, to the outlooks of Kennan or the motivations of the Cold War more generally. But the policy of containment did set forth a worldview that fundamentally shaped the social lives and cultural interests of many.

John Lewis Gaddis, a professor at Yale University, is perhaps the doyen of Cold War historians, having published a number of influential works since the early ’70s. He’s also the authorized biographer of Kennan. While Gaddis is less interested in the cultural impact of Kennan as just outlined, he is a lively writer who places Kennan in a distinct social and cultural context, not solely a world of bureaucrats, social policy, and diplomatic meetings. Indeed, the first chapters of the book position Kennan as an American figure similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Born in 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kennan like Fitzgerald, a fellow Midwesterner, made his way to Princeton where he flourished academically, particularly in languages. In fact, despite his seemingly unremarkable beginnings, Kennan did have a distant relative, also named George Kennan, who was an expert on Russia and Siberia during the late nineteenth century. This connection, in addition to an early childhood visit to Germany in 1912, appeared to presage his later experiences in the Foreign Service, which he joined after graduation and which profoundly affected the rest of his life.

It’s significant to note, as Gaddis’s book inevitably does, that Kennan’s life surpassed the life of the Soviet Union, beginning earlier and ending after. His approach to the USSR was consequently far more culturally-engaged and historically-minded than ideological. Yet, Kennan also witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany first hand as a diplomatic official stationed in Europe, including Berlin after the US entered World War II, which gave him an unparalleled view of the consequences of power. Gaddis discusses how these details influenced his views toward containment after the war, and equally how these traits and experiences informed his dual roles as a policy-maker and intellectual in the years that followed. Ultimately, the latter role took hold more firmly with Kennan spending much of his career at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, with only two brief postings as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1952) and U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1961-63) being the high points of his career in the State Department.

But beyond formal positions, one of the more compelling aspects of his life narrative is how he grappled with these two different worlds of ideas and policy. Although Kennan achieved respect early in his career and received a number of awards for his books (including two Pulitzers) later on, he also carried the burden of seeing his policy of containment lead the United States toward disaster in Vietnam – an intervention which he criticized – and a long-term military buildup that he viewed as dangerous and unnecessary.

In short, the political side of foreign policy ultimately compromised his recommendations, as it had his career in the Foreign Service. He did receive an ascendance of his reputation once more with the end of the Cold War, with many, including Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing his policy recommendations of the ’40s as decisively prescient. Yet Kennan’s own reaction was far more subdued. Kennan traveled to Berlin in 1990 to witness the unification of Germany, only to ask if cheering crowds of consumer-minded German youth really was the outcome that he and so many others had sought during this long period of tension and conflict.

Gaddis’s biography itself is a long one, and it’s unlikely that it will be surpassed any time soon. Indeed, Gaddis’s main competitor is Kennan himself, who wrote an extensive collection of personal memoirs in addition to historical and policy works. But the greatest achievement of George F. Kennan to my mind is not its comprehensiveness or literary finesse, but its respect for a certain intellectual and political type that seems to have been lost, or at least marginalized, with the end of the Cold War. In our age of rampant campaign donor appointments and foreign policy debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gaddis’s book serves as a crucial reminder of the value and importance of deep thought and old-fashioned commitment over the course of a long career.

Kennan reads like a character in a John le Carré novel, but his life was all too real. We owe Gaddis a great deal for bringing him in from the cold.

RATING 8 / 10