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John Lukacs on George Kennan: The Conscience of America

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Yale University Press has published a small gem of a book, John Lukacs's George Kennan: A Study in Character. Reading it was both a delight and surprise.

First, the book was delightful, because Mr. Kennan (whom I've long admired) represented the United States at its best. As Mr. Lukacs concludes: "He was an extraordinary man, who not only represented but incarnated some of the best and finest traits of American character." [p. 1] Kennan was not only a justly famous diplomat, learned scholar, uniquely gifted writer and renowned Russia expert, who mastered German, Russian and French, he also was dutiful, patriotic, honest, self-effacing, decent, judicious, religious, practical and wise -- a singularly polished diamond in the American rough.

Second, the book was a surprise, because Mr. Lukacs showed himself to be a kindred spirit.

George Kennan was born on 16 February 1904. From Kennan's own brief description of his childhood, we learn: "I lived, particularly in childhood but with lessening intensity right on into middle age, in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them." [p. 13]

Perhaps, the key to his developing character was his impulse to write. As Mr. Lukacs notes, "some time around the age of twenty this shy and solitary young student started to write - to write for himself alone." And "he kept writing: diaries, letters, travel journals, notes for himself…[for] eighty years." Borrowing from T.S. Elliot, Mr. Lukacs believes that Kennan's motive for writing was his "desire to vanquish mental preoccupation by expressing it consciously and clearly." [p. 4]

And vanquish he did! According to Mr. Lukacs, Kennan became a better thinker and writer than Henry Adams [p. 6] and, by 1933, "the best and finest American writer about Europe at that time," even better than Hemingway [p. 30]

Yes, Europe. After four unhappy years at Princeton, where he remained one of the "lower-class 'pariahs,'" and after qualifying for a position in the Foreign Service, Kennan spent most of his next 25 years in Europe. He received his first permanent posting, as vice consul, in Hamburg.

Although he found Hamburg in 1928 to be fascinating, Kennan soon concluded that a career in the Foreign Service "did not suffice his mind." [p. 25] He planned to resign before learning about the Foreign Service's program for allowing "some of its young members to enroll in a European university for three years of graduate study, for the purpose of special language and area studies… Kennan chose Russian for his subject, and Berlin for his university." [p. 26] He spent the next five years abroad, mainly in Berlin, Tallinn and Riga (and marrying a Norwegian, Annelise Sorensen), before returning to the United States in 1933.

In the course of studying Russian and Russia, Kennan refined his anti-communism. Precisely because he concluded that "nationality was more decisive" than Marx's class struggle, he came to believe that "Russia was, and remained, Russia, communist or not." [p.33]

Significantly, Kennan's "visceral and intellectual" critique of Marxism and communism was matched by his distaste for liberal democracy and recent developments in the United States. Not only did he regard any state that permitted its domestic politics to prevail over the state's true interests to be "wrong and immoral," [p. 33] he "found a civilization dependent upon automobiles contemptible." [p. 37]

Neither did America's two main schools of foreign policy meet with his approval. Kennan soon "found the Wilsonian internationalist idea of Making the World Safe for Democracy illusory and dangerous, as well as the, for him, corrupting belief in American omnipotence, with its temptation of American involvement in any or every corner of the world. But the nationalist and populist isolationism of the twenties repelled him, …because of its shallow belief in America as a Chosen People, because of its narrow-mindedness, because of its willful ignorance of the rest of the world." [p. 23]

Such was the worldview that Kennan took to Moscow, as he accompanied William Bullitt, America's first ambassador, to the Soviet Union in late 1933. And, although he served four "good" years [p. 35] in Moscow, "Kennan came to see the prospect of American relations with the Soviet Union darkly, which he, himself, admitted was "a far cry from the outlook of FDR himself and particularly of those whom he was soon to choose as advisors on policy toward the Soviet Union.'" [p. 37]

Most serious, however, was Kennan's dark and fateful June 1941 observation, reaffirmed during the summer of 1944, that the Soviet Union would never be a fit ally of the United States. [p. 49] Not only did such a view put him at odds with the wartime Soviet policy of President Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill) and FDR's vision of the post-war world; when Kennan's dark views became national policy during the Truman administration, they helped to doom the U.S. and USSR to a post-war Cold War - regardless of future Soviet behavior.

Rather than viewing Kennan's dark views as a whole, Mr. Lukacs faults him for failing to see the Soviet Union as an indispensable wartime ally, yet credits his "Long Telegram" of February 1946, his singular contributions to the Marshall Plan and his famous "X" article (which, in 1947, laid the intellectual foundation for the "containment" of the Soviet Union) for persuading the United States to "react against the aggressive behavior of the Soviet Union." [p. 96]

Fatefully, Kennan's long telegram electrified officials in Washington during the months preceding America's successful test of the atomic bomb. Although, in 1946, he already found it necessary to deplore "the hysterical sort of anticommunism which…is gaining currency in our country," [p. 78] years later Kennan would acknowledge: "I seemed to have aroused a strain of emotional and self-righteous anti-Sovietism that in later years I will wish I had not aroused." [Kennan, At A Century's Ending, p.38]

Armed with self-righteous anti-Sovietism and the bomb, the Truman administration not only refused to acknowledge the spoils that should have gone to the Soviet victor in Europe (indeed, one should credit the Red Army, not U.S. or British forces, for winning World War II in Europe), it also hypocritically reversed FDR's policy of securing a Soviet pledge to enter the war against Japan precisely because, as Truman observed, "I was not willing to let Russia reap the fruits of a long and bitter and gallant effort in which she had no part." [Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, p. 164]

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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