On Friday, the man the Boston Globe called America’s “greatest living diplomat” died at age 101. George Kennan was the last survivor of the group of so-called Wise Men who guided American foreign policy at the onset of the Cold War, along with Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, Charles Bohlen, and Jack McCloy. Kennan also became the most celebrated, including winning a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. These accolades came despite, or perhaps because of, the seemingly huge reversal Kennan’s views underwent in the past three decades on virtually everything, from the Cold War and the Soviet Union to nuclear weapons and democracy.
Kennan authored the Cold War doctrine of containment in his famous “X-Telegram” published in Foreign Affairs in 1946, but he was also the first major American public figure to disavow it. A severe critic of Stalin and the Soviet system, he became a resolute anti-anti-Communist. The original architect of the Marshall Plan, he opposed American entry into NATO. He condemned the Vietnam War, even though it flowed from the very foreign policy he had helped to set in motion. As the original Cold Warrior, he lived long enough to blast Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an evil empire, and to push for a nuclear-weapons ban. At the end, he was a bitter opponent of the Bush doctrine and the war in Iraq, even though members of that administration cited him as one of their inspirations.
Yet, looking closely at Kennan the man, there were no inconsistencies at all. Everything he did or said as a diplomat, historian, Sovietologist, and foreign-policy sage over eight decades arose from his belief that democracies are inherently weak and unstable; that the American people can’t be trusted; that only an authoritarian elite can save the people from themselves, and that power is the only reality in a world devoid of principles or morality or hope. Although Kennan despised the Soviet system and its makers, and rightly warned Americans of their menace, he shared their bleak outlook more than anyone dares to admit.
“The trouble with this country,” he once told columnist Joseph Alsop, “is that it is a democracy and should be ruled by an aristocracy.” Kennan believed all his life that America’s elected leaders were ignorant boobs at best or dangerous demagogues at worst, like his fellow Wisconsinite Joe McCarthy (McCarthy from Appleton, Kennan from Milwaukee) and, later, Ronald Reagan. In neither case were they capable of understanding America’s true interests on the global chessboard, where in Kennan’s view, sovereign states blindly obeyed the dictates of history and geography, not ideas or ideology.
Kennan was a determinist, as well as a fervent believer in realpolitik. “Nations, like individuals, are products of their environment,” he wrote, and they could not escape their destiny. Although Kennan became the State Department’s leading Kremlinologist, he never took the Kremlin’s Communism seriously. He convinced himself that Stalin was just another authoritarian Russian czar, just as in the Thirties he argued Hitler was just another German nationalist, and both would act accordingly if prodded in the right direction. His whole notion of containment rested on that assumption: He was quite prepared to cede Stalin all of Eastern Europe to gratify what he saw as an ancient Russian appetite for empire, if it meant preventing a larger Soviet breakout in the West, and he scoffed all his life at the notion of “rolling back” the Communist tide. The fate of the millions who lived under the regimes the Soviets set up there, or Russia’s allies in China and North Korea, mattered little to him. Nor did the Third World. The interaction and strategic interests of the great powers were the only reality for Kennan.
The human factor left him unmoved. When he served in the embassy in Berlin in 1940, he complained bitterly about how keeping track of the fate of German Jewish refugees was adding to his workload. He blamed it on “powerful congressional circles at home,” who had been spurred into action by Jewish interest groups. In fact, Kennan believed America’s foreign policy was far too vulnerable to the demands of “vocal minorities,” and he had his solution for it.
Two years earlier, he had begun writing a book about how to guide America “along the road which leads through constitutional change to the authoritarian state.” The first step, he argued, was to create an enlightened elite pre-selected “on the basis of individual fitness for authority.” The second was to deny the vote to certain segments of American society: to blacks, whom Kennan believed would be happiest becoming wards of the state; to women; and to immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, including presumably Jews from Poland and Russia. After all, Kennan asked, would not the Founding Fathers “turn over in their graves at the mere thought of the democratic principle being applied to a population containing over ten million Negroes and many more millions of southern Europeans to whom the democratic principle is completely strange?”
Kennan never finished his book or published the chapters he wrote. But they were more than just an indiscreet youthful outburst; he was 34. In just eight years he would write the article for Foreign Affairs that would make him the most influential theorist in the State Department. Later, General Marshall would make him head of the policy-planning staff, where his words would provide background and perspective on policy for thousands of American diplomats. Kennan would do the same later at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for thousands of enthusiasts for a “realistic” American foreign policy that had no room for “simplistic” notions like rollback or reflexive anti-Communism–or spreading democracy in places like the Middle East.
In the end, Kennan was never comfortable with America’s “moral leadership of the planet,” in Robert Kennedy’s phrase, because he never believed it had any moral leadership to offer. In his eyes, it remained a fickle, dissolute democracy, unworthy of the awesome power fate had thrust upon it. In an interview in 1976, he was still yearning for a single “panel or pool of outstanding people” appointed by the Supreme Court or some other such body, from whom the rulers of the country would be selected.
By the 1980s, his pessimism–which had grown gloomier during the Vietnam years (the people of Vietnam and Cambodia who lived under Communism should expect America’s “deep sympathy,” he told Congress, but certainly not its help)–became almost total. Every day, he expected nuclear annihilation. “For a country to be ruled this way,” he told an interviewer as Reagan was about to be reelected, “disqualifies it from active participation in the world.”
Reagan, of course, disagreed. Today the Soviet Union is gone, as is the menace of nuclear warfare. A new era has dawned in Eastern Europe, and a new one is about to begin in the Middle East–all without Kennan’s help. In 1946, most Americans had the good sense to pay attention to Kennan’s advice. Since then, they have generally had the good sense to ignore it.
–Arthur Herman is the author, most recently, of To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.