Magazine | December 31, 2011, Issue

Prophetic Strain

George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin, 800 pp., $39.95)

George F. Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, lives as the author of the “Long Telegram” from Moscow and the “X” article in Foreign Affairs, essays that laid the foundation for Cold War containment. Yet Kennan had scarcely published his doctrine before he began to disavow it. Forsaking the belief that the West should resist Soviet aggression, he came to think that the United States posed a greater threat to civilization than Bolshevik Russia did.

John Leonard said that to lunch with Whittaker Chambers was to encounter by turns each of the Karamazov brothers. In his extraordinary book George F. Kennan: An American Life, John Lewis Gaddis depicts a diplomat whose inner life was as darkly Byzantine as Chambers’s. If Chambers seemed like a Russian, Kennan wanted to be a Russian. Two years before he composed the “Long Telegram,” he reflected in sorrow that “I will never be able to become part of them [the Russian people], that I must always remain a distrusted outsider, that all the promise of the white nights, of the lovely birches,” could “never be realized” by a 40-year-old American foreign-service officer.

The Russian language seemed to Kennan like one he had known in a previous existence, and he found in the cultural grammar of Russia a means of expressing aspects of his nature that were unrenderable in the Western idioms with which he had grown up. Kennan thought of himself as a prophet, and among his prophetic endowments was an intuitive perceptiveness akin to that of the misfits and holy fools of primordial Russia. The diplomat who experienced visionary ecstasy in the birch woods was the spiritual cousin of Leskov’s Alexander Ryzhov and Dostoevsky’s Makar Dolgoruky.

Kennan’s feeling for what he called the “vast organic process” that is “the spiritual life of the Russian people” enabled him to understand rather earlier than most observers that the Bolshevik Revolution was not, as Edmund Wilson thought, “a fundamental breakthrough” that shattered Russia’s primeval molds. On the contrary, Kennan wrote in a September 1944 dispatch, Stalin had “settled firmly back into the throne of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.” Six months later, in March 1945, Chambers, writing about the Yalta conference in Time, reached the same conclusion. In “The Ghosts on the Roof,” Chambers depicted the shade of Nicholas II smiling as Stalin outmaneuvered Roosevelt in the czar’s old palace. “We have known nothing like it,” Chambers has Nicholas exclaim, “since my ancestor, Peter the Great, broke a window into Europe by overrunning the Baltic states . . .”

Neither Kennan’s nor Chambers’s warnings that the Bolsheviks had swaddled the imperialist policy of the czars in the altruistic rhetoric of socialism opened eyes in FDR’s Washington. Diplomat William C. Bullitt, writing in 1948, quoted Roosevelt as telling him  that “if I give [Stalin] everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” When, however, in February 1946, Kennan dispatched the “Long Telegram,” Roosevelt was dead and the Iron Curtain was dividing Europe. “At [the] bottom of [the] Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs,” Kennan explained to the Truman administration, “is [the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” the fear of a “people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [the] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples.” The fear was compounded, Kennan said, by the dread with which Russia’s rulers traditionally looked upon the West, with its greater technical prowess and freer political forms, so different from the mud and absolutism of Eurasian Russia. In imposing the Soviet imperium on Eastern Europe, Stalin was continuing the czarist policy of using subordinate Slav states in Mitteleuropa and the Balkans as a buffer against the West.

Kennan had been impressed by Gibbon’s analysis of the vulnerabilities of states that undertake (in Kennan’s words) “the unnatural task of holding in submission distant peoples,” and in his July 1947 “X” article he identified imperial overstretch as the great weakness of Russia’s policy. The U.S., Kennan argued, could make Russia’s unnatural task even harder by forcing it to devote ever greater resources to the maintenance of its precarious empire. To this end he proposed “a policy of firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”

#page#Walter Lippmann pointed out that so broad a policy of engagement would lead to over-commitment. Kennan agreed, and was sorry that Truman described the first containment exercises, in Greece and Turkey, in the pretentious language of Wilson, using “universal formulae” to “clothe and justify particular actions.” The U.S., Kennan believed, should act “only in cases where the prospective results bear a satisfactory relationship to the expenditure of American resources and effort.” In time, however, Kennan would reject containment even in cases where the means-end ratio was likely to be satisfactory, as when Ronald Reagan fingered Moscow’s puppet regime in Poland.

Why the change of heart? Like virtually every intellectual since 1800, Kennan was appalled by what Matthew Arnold called “this strange disease of modern life.” His opposition to American policy was nourished by his conviction that America was the most prolific incubator of the contagion. “It is not I who have left my country,” Kennan wrote in 1955. “It is my country that has left me.” He was disgusted by “the endless streams of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshields, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling-stations, the hot-dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick houses.” Man, Kennan said, approvingly quoting Bullitt, “is a skin-disease of the earth,” and the most virulent leprosies were American. “Americanism, like Bolshevism, is a disease which gains footing only in a weakened body.”

The diplomat who had served in Moscow during the purges and Prague when the Germans marched in could no longer distinguish between venial and mortal sins. He had no means of gauging degrees of horror; to encounter, in Chicago in 1951, “girls, hardly more than thirteen,” who “chewed gum, and spewed profanity” was hardly less terrible for him than it was to encounter, in Prague in 1939, Czechs sought by the Gestapo begging for their lives in the American legation, their faces “twitching and their lips trembling when I sent them away.”

Unable to recognize the mildness of America’s shortcomings in comparison with those of her rivals, Kennan descended into prophetic hysteria. “I hate democracy,” he wrote in the 1930s. “I hate the ‘peepul.’” Only “strong central power” could save the Republic. In 1938 he called (privately) for an “authoritarian state” in America and a “very extensive restriction of suffrage.” Blacks, naturalized Americans, and nonprofessional women would lose the franchise; an elite selected “on the basis of individual fitness for the exercise of authority” and “unhampered by the necessity of seeking votes” would rule.

Kennan would later “soften” these views, Gaddis writes, but he was to the end of his life toying with “councils of state” and extra-democratic politburos that “would take decent account of the feelings and opinions” of the people, yet would “assure a sufficient concentration of governmental authority” and “a sufficient selectivity in the recruitment of those privileged to exert it” to permit the “implementation of hopeful long-term programs of social and environmental change.”

As Kennan aged, his messianic arrogances deepened. He was the lone prophet who could prevent the nuclear apocalypse Reagan was preparing. A note of megalomania crept into his utterances, and he spoke grandiosely of his “efforts to save civilization” from the popular president. Kennan now saw “his own country, not the Soviet Union,” Gaddis writes, “as the principal threat to international stability.” He trusted Andropov “more than he did Reagan,” and he regarded those who, like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, challenged their imperial masters as “dangerous enemies.” “He’s on their [the Russians’] side,” U.S. arms negotiator Paul Nitze concluded.

Kennan was blind, Gaddis observes, to the achievement of Reagan, “an instinctive grand strategist” who “refused to let complications obscure destinations, or to make conventional wisdom a compass.” Reagan “understood that, in order to lead, he could never despair.” Kennan “despaired constantly,” and left “it to Reagan to bring [containment] to its successful conclusion.”

Yet the prophetic office Kennan performed was not limited to the great state papers of the 1940s or the unbalanced jeremiads of later years. He rightly warned that modern man’s “sickly secularism” and readiness to prefer vacuous social science to “the more subtle and revealing expressions of man’s nature” found in the Bible and Shakespeare were destroying the cultural infrastructure of the West, an infrastructure that had enabled the Old Western man to balance individualism and commonalty, the claims of the flesh and the claims of the spirit, more ingeniously than his modern descendants. With the decline of the old culture, new forms of morbidity emerged; the “vigorous life of the English highway of Chaucer’s day,” Kennan observed, had vanished. The decline of civic art and the rise of solipsistic technologies made it possible for people to withdraw into neurotic cocoons — into “private lives” so “brittle” and “insecure,” Kennan wrote, that those who lived them “dared not subject them to the slightest social contact with the casual stranger.” It was, Kennan believed, “the sad climax of individualism,” a realization of the dark fate Tocqueville foresaw if democracy failed to practice cultural conservation.

The motive force for the rectification Kennan sought will come not, as he naïvely hoped, from the Left, which is as intellectually enfeebled as he was by its enchantment with philosopher-kings and elite control. Regeneration, if it is to come at all, will come from the Right, a Right that has learned to draw again on what is most valuable in the old Western culture that Burke and the post-radical Wordsworth, Newman, Ruskin, Eliot, and even Maistre in their different ways tried to conserve.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of Pathology of the Elites.

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