By Chet Yarbrough
By John Lewis Gaddis
Narrated by Malcolm Hilgartner
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, even in small-town America, one remembers the name of George Kennan. Thinking back to that time, one cannot say why the name seemed important, but after listening to nearly 32 hours of John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of Kennan, the subliminal becomes extant.
Kennan became known as “the father of containment” during the Cold War. When Churchill gave his famous “iron curtain” speech after WWII, Kennan already understood the iron curtain’s implication and consequence. After the war, Kennan insisted on being relieved of duty in Russia and returned home to Wisconsin because President Truman was ignoring Kennan’s recommendations on a “sphere of influence” approach to the U.S.S.R. As a deputy head of the Moscow ambassadorship, Kennan sent the famous “long telegram” to then Secretary of State, James Byrnes. The memo explains how the Soviet Union should be handled after the end of WWII. The “long memorandum” made Kennan famous because it encapsulated what became U.S./Russian foreign policy for the next 30 years.
YouTube offers a decent summary of what was called the cold war: <iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/HpYCplyBknI” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Kennan, born in Wisconsin, went to Princeton after attending Wisconsin’s St. John’s Military Academy. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Princeton, rather than going to law school, he joined the newly formed American’ diplomatic “Foreign Service” and became a vice-consul in Geneva, Switzerland. However, on a chance visit back home, Kennan met William C. Bullitt, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and was asked by Bullitt to accompany him to the U.S. Embassy in Russia in 1933.
Kennan had an extraordinary foreign language ability; he was a fluent Russian language expert which made him an ideal protegé for Bullitt. Kennan was a student of pre and post-revolutionary Russian’ culture; and he used that knowledge to forge an American foreign policy to deal with Russian expansion after WWII.
Kennan’s prescient grasp of Stalin’s mind, and the Russian culture, allowed the United States to contain the Russian empire within Eastern Europe by limiting American overt and covert action through confrontation, black-ops, and diplomacy.
Of course, containment was not entirely successful, particularly with Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and its domination of Poland. However, Kennan’s assessment of communism’s spread to Yugoslavia and China was that they were independent formations of communist power centers, distantly rather than directly influenced by Russia’s communist ideology. History proves Kennan to have been correct.
Kennan analyzed Russia’s pursuit of world domination as a Marxian belief of inevitability. Kennan describes a Russian’ ethos that believed in persistence and patience, which he recognized as Russia’s ideological strength and its weakness. Kennan offered Truman the idea that the threat of Russian domination could be managed with American patience and persistent opposition.
Kennan suggested that the United States should directly confront Russian encroachment when economically and militarily feasible. When direct confrontation was not feasible, the United States should offer overt cooperation while covertly undermining Russian policy based on a Machiavellian’ assessment of any encroachment’s geopolitical importance. In other words, Russian expansion could be contained and managed by a prudent use of force and guile by the United States, without threat of war, because Russia believed that time was on their Marxian’ side.
The underlying belief that Kennan endorsed was that Russia’s ideology would fail because it was flawed; i.e. Kennan believed that the role of the United States was to contain Russia until it collapsed from the weight of its’ mistaken ideological belief. Kennan recognized Russia’s error in believing self-interest could be a collective rather than individual characteristic. In later years, Kennan’s containment argument was found correct but even he suggested that the cost was too high in lives and dollars and that Russia’s decline could have been accelerated.
George Kennan’s biography reinforces a belief that understanding another culture requires immersion in that culture. Ambassadors that are not fluent in a culture’s language and are not immersed in its cultural environment cannot understand what policies America should adopt that will promote world peace and freedom.
Kennan’s biography reveals the importance of self-interest in foreign policy and how a Machiavellian manipulation of events is essential for a verifiable margin of success. His insight to the geo-political importance of the North and South Korean and North and South Vietnam was clearly evident as early as 1950. He observed, through the prism of his understanding of the U.S.S.R., that the conflicts between the two Norths’ and Souths’ should be settled diplomatically without military intervention.
Kennan threatened to resign from State Department government service soon after writing a policy recommendation to Dean Acheson in 1950. He recommended that the U.S. settle on a Korean’ border at the 38th parallel between North and South with a similar solution, diplomatically pressed by the United States, on the French in Vietnam.
Kennan presciently understood that China’s support in these two theaters was a Machiavellian solution for an improved balance of power between the U.S.S.R. and the United States because China, as a rising power, offered a politically expedient and useful counter-balance to Russia’s pursuit of world domination. The political atmosphere of the time discounted Kennan’s recommendation and accelerated his decision to join academia at his former alma-mater. Princeton was home for the remainder of his professional career with back and forth assignments from the State Department, including an ambassadorship to Russia in the 1950s.
Kennan is revealed as a human being in this biography, not perfectly right or entirely wrong; subject to mistakes, personal biases, insecurities, and inferred romantic peccadilloes but blessed by a long marriage to a strong woman; i.e. he was grounded by life in a real world.
Kennan lived through many great events in world history, from WWII to Vietnam; to the rise of Chinese communism; to the fall of the Berlin wall; to the destruction and reconfiguration of the U.S.S.R.. His active professional life gave the United States what it needed most; i.e., perspective and pragmatic geopolitical advice.