The creative art of strategy

The essence of George F Kennan

George Frost Kennan, the father of America’s Containment policy, was the rarest of men, a prophet with honour in his own country. Kennan ultimately reached such a venerable age, that he not only outlived the Soviet Union, whose downfall he foretold, but his own celebrated vindication. By the time George Kennan died in 2005 at 101, America was enmeshed deeply in Iraq and the Cold War seemed to many Americans like ancient history and the public reaction to the death of the most important diplomat of the 20th century was markedly underwhelming. Today, seven years later, pundits pine almost weekly for Mr X, or any worthy imitator, who can offer America a grand strategy with the clarity and power of a George Kennan.

Photo: Pesky Library

The Long Biography: George F. Kennan, An American Life
John Lewis Gaddis

Penguin Press HC, 2011
800 pages

Into the breach strides eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, offering a magisterial 784 page biography, a quarter- century in the making, George F. Kennan: An American Life. Gaddis, a noted historian of the Cold War and critic of revisionist interpretations of American foreign policy, has produced his magnum opus, distilling not only the essence of Kennan’s career, but the origins of his grand strategic worldview that were part and parcel the self-critical and lonely isolation that made Kennan such an acute observer of foreign societies and a myopic student of his own.

Gaddis, who is a co-founder of the elite Grand Strategy Program at Yale University, had such a long intellectual association with his subject, having been appointed Kennan’s biographer in 1982, that one wonders on theories of strategy at times where George Kennan ends and John Lewis Gaddis begins. Giving Kennan the supreme compliment among strategists, that he possessed in the years of the Long Telegram and the Policy Planning Staff, Clausewitz’s Coup d’oeil, Gaddis does not shy away from explaining Kennan’s human imperfections to the reader that made the diplomat a study in contradictions.

Brilliant, intensely sensitive and a workaholic of fragile health, the deeply read Kennan was a polyglot linguist who “spoke the Russian of Pushkin”, which favorably impressed even the coarse and vulgar Stalin, and could be prone to “prolixity” in word and speech. Not because Kennan had the urge of a William Bullitt to dominate a conversation or of a Dean Acheson to impress, but because “he was operating on another level”. Kennan, alone among a legendary constellation of statesmen and policy makers, came to be regarded in the crucial years of 1947 -1950 as irreplaceable by his State Department superiors, who advanced Kennan’s career and protected him despite his frequent bouts of ill-health and periodic attempts at resignation born out of frustration, intellectual loneliness and physical exhaustion.

Kennan’s dark side was considerable. Dogged by a tendency to deep melancholy and self- imposed isolation, Gaddis reveals Kennan as a talented parvenu from the Midwest, who having climbed into the upper-reaches of America’s Eastern elite by merit, first at Princeton and then at the State Department, was awkwardly ill at ease and brooding. Kennan’s defense mechanism was an enthusiastic embrace of a reactionary kind of elitism that was less political than it was a sour, misanthropic, pessimism about society coupled with a paternalistic skepticism about liberal democracy that, for a short time, advocated authoritarianism. Strangely, this seemingly gloomy intellectual and loner could also muster well-concealed reserves of charm in the company of ladies and by Kennan’s own admission, he retained a wandering eye even into his advanced years.

Gaddis not only handles Kennan’s foibles with honesty and tact, but weaves them into explanations of Kennan’s rich but difficult relationships with key figures in America’s Cold War Establishment such as William Bullitt, Charles Bohlen, George Marshall, Averell Harriman, Loy Henderson, Dean Acheson, James F. Byrnes, James Forrestal, Robert Oppenheimer, Paul Nitze, John F.

Kennedy, Dean Rusk and others. Whether Kennan was a friend, mentor, deputy, rival or advisor these men all exhibited at one time or another, the sort of respectful tolerance and indulgence for Kennan’s eccentricities that one usually sees reserved for artists and musicians. If strategy is a creative endeavour, Gaddis demonstrates that Kennan suffered for his “art”.

Kennan’s virtues as a strategist and geopolitical analyst were tied, in part, to his flaws. It is hard to imagine George Kennan as a sunny optimist and State Department pragmatist penning the X article or persuading the Truman administration to change course with a cable from the embassy in Moscow. The long view and the humility about the limitations of power would not have been present in a cheerful soul. As Gaddis concluded:

“What Kennan opened up, on that bleak day in Moscow, was a way out: a path between appeasement that had failed to prevent World War II and the alternative of a third world war, the devastation of which would have been unimaginable. Might someone else have proposed the path, had Kennan not done so? Probably in due course, but it is hard to think of anyone else at the time who could have charted it with greater authority, with such eloquence, or within so grand a strategic framework.”

Let that judgment be George Frost Kennan’s requiem.


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