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Unhappy Warrior

Ivor Roberts

The Kennan Diaries, by George F Kennan and Frank Costigliola, WW Norton, 768 pp, £28, ISBN: 978-0393073270

At a time when there is so much loose talk of a re-emergence of Cold War, it is enlightening to remind ourselves how the original one began, as seen through the eyes of one of its founding fathers. George Kennan is far less well-known on this side of the Atlantic than he deserves to be. One of the most distinguished US public servants in the broadest sense of the twentieth century, he kept a diary for eighty-eight years, starting during the First World War as an eleven-year-old and finishing as a centenarian after the ill-fated Iraq war. He is best known for articulating the policy of 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”, a policy which was regarded as the lodestone for western policy-makers during the Cold War, the foundation of the Truman doctrine of support both military and economic for any regime facing a communist or Soviet threat.

But if all this suggests that he was a twenty-four-carat member of the Cold Warrior club, nothing could be further from the truth. While he was instrumental in launching the Cold War, he believed in containment as a political not a military confrontation, and in a respectful rather than antagonistic relationship with the Russians. He argued from the late nineteen forties onwards that it would have been possible to end the Cold War by withdrawing US and Soviet forces from Europe and reunifying Germany. He was moreover a consistent anti-interventionist, a realist rather than moralist, who decried attempts to export Western-style democracy throughout the world. He retired from the State Department in 1953 at the age of fifty and spent another fifty years writing and lecturing on international affairs. While lionised in many US and foreign capitals, he was constantly frustrated at the way his policy advice, as far as successive US administrations were concerned, fell on stony ground. His largely gloomy diaries, expertly and sensitively marshalled by Frank Costigliola, bear witness to this profound sense of frustration and disappointment, not just with US governments but increasingly with US society, from which he became substantially alienated.

Kennan was born into a bookish Milwaukee family: his father was a lawyer: his mother died of peritonitis when he was two months old, a blow which he continued to feel keenly into old age not least in dreams, aggravated by his mistaken belief that she had died giving birth to him. Her loss, he averred “had scarred [him] for life”. After Princeton, Kennan joined the embryonic US foreign service. His first posting was Geneva and shortly thereafter he was sent to Hamburg. His life was changed by his stage at the Berlin University Oriental Institute, where he studied Russian language, history and culture for three years. His posting to Riga in 1931 allowed him to focus on Soviet economic affairs and he then became an obvious choice to accompany the US’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union to set up the American embassy there in 1933. While fascinated by a country he had studied in depth, his time in Moscow was deeply frustrating given the restrictions on foreigners’ contacts with Soviet private citizens. It was a turbulent period, culminating in Stalin’s purges, and this coloured his view of Soviet communism until its demise in 1991.

On the eve of the Second World War, he was reassigned to Prague, only to leave for Berlin after the Axis takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939. In Berlin he assumed the administrative duties of running the embassy. His diary for 1939 incredibly carries little or no mention of the momentous events of that year, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the outbreak of the Second World War.

In the following year he had to arrange for his (Norwegian) wife and their children to be evacuated from Norway, succeeding in doing so only days before the German invasion. Again, his diary is meagre, though clearly his workload was immense. In 1941, after Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, Kennan was interned in Bad Nauheim and only released after six months’ negotiation. The rest of the war saw him in Lisbon, where he oversaw intelligence operations, and London, where he worked on future Allied policy towards postwar Germany, and finally Moscow, where he became deputy chief of mission to the celebrated US diplomat Averell Harriman in mid-1944. Shortly after his arrival, he had dinner with the Polish prime minister in exile. In comments in his diary on the following day, Kennan uses language which continues to find echoes today. “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbours of Russia, if they do not wish to be the one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” It was this brutally realistic assessment of Soviet policy which Kennan was increasingly able to sell to his political masters. Roosevelt, who died in April 1945, continued to believe in Stalin’s good faith till the end – “he has something of the Christian gentleman about him”, as he so ingenuously noted. With Truman’s accession to the presidency, Kennan’s analysis started to gain traction. It was at this juncture that he was at his most productive and influential. He correspondingly had little need to use his diary to vent his spleen or frustrations. In February 1946, in response to a request from the US treasury to explain Soviet behaviour, he produced his famous “long telegram” which argues that the Kremlin's “neurotic view of world affairs is the traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity”, which since the Bolshevik revolution had become overladen with Marxist ideology. Moreover, he argued, it needed a foreign enemy to justify its oppressive and autocratic rule, using communist ideology as a “justification for the Soviet Union’s instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict ... it is the fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability”. As negotiation with such an enemy was most unlikely to yield any dividends, he argued that the US should neither compromise nor seek military confrontation but seek to strengthen its own institutions and rebuild Western Europe in the hope that the Soviet regime in time would mellow.

The hardliners in the Truman administration used the “long telegram” to support their case for a far more hard-nosed policy towards their former wartime ally. After Kennan’s return to Washington, he became deputy commandant of the National War College and during his time there conceived and described the policy of “containment” towards the Soviet Union with which his name was forever after linked. The policy appeared under a pseudonym, “X”, in the influential Foreign Affairs journal in 1947.

In it, Kennan asserted that Russian policy was shaped by a combination of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which advocated revolution to defeat capitalist forces in the outside world, and Stalin’s determination to use the notion of “capitalist encirclement” as a fig leaf legitimising his oppression of Soviet society so that he could consolidate his political power. Kennan argued that Stalin could not and would not moderate the supposed Soviet determination to overthrow western governments and that consequently “the main element of any United States policy towards the Soviet Union must be a long-term patient and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies ... Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to gearshifts and manoeuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence”. The logic of this policy pointed to the withdrawal of all US forces from Europe. “The settlement reached would give the Kremlin sufficient reassurance against the establishment of regimes in eastern Europe hostile to the Soviet Union, tempering the degree of control over that area that the Soviet leaders felt it necessary to exercise.”

Although Kennan was not to know it, this period marked the high-water point of his career as a public servant. His authorship of the “X” article was soon widely bruited and with it came national fame. As he acknowledged in his memoirs: “My official loneliness had come to an end ... My reputation was made. My voice now carried.” The secretary of state, George Marshall, appointed him as the director of the new policy planning staff at the state department, in which role he laid down many of the foundations of the eponymous Marshall plan towards the end of 1947. But already in the following year his views had started to diverge from those of the Truman administration. Kennan insisted that containment, as he envisaged it, was a political strategy and not a military one and that as European recovery picked up pace, he felt the time was appropriate for negotiations with the Soviet Union on the future of the continent. His views were of course paradoxical: here was the key strategic thinker behind the Cold War already looking to limit its length and intensity.

This was also the period in which Kennan began to focus on US strategic interests in the Middle East. He saw that the plan to partition Palestine would require an outside agency to enforce it. “It is clear that once anything of this sort begins, there is no stopping point short of a state of affairs in which we would really have taken over the major military and police responsibility for the maintenance in Palestine of a state of affairs violently resented by the whole Arab world. I cannot conceive that this is in United States interests or that it would be tolerated by the United States people.” Finally he presented a proposed means of negotiation which should serve as a model of what should be occurring today, over sixty years later. He believed that Jews and Arabs should “face each other eye to eye without outside interference and to weigh with a sense of immediate and direct responsibility the consequences of agreement or disagreement. In the absence of this they would continue to react irresponsibly.” This detachment of the United States could, he recognised, have violent consequences. “But we Americans must realise that we cannot be the keepers and moral guardians for all the peoples in this world. We must become more modest and recognise the necessary limits to the responsibility we can assume.” It is this prescient thinking which impresses so much and makes one lament that greater attention was not paid to it, then and more recently.

Only four years after the end of the Second World War, Kennan was convinced that the four-power occupation of Germany should end and that it should be replaced by a neutral, reunified Germany. His new boss at the state department, Dean Acheson, was sceptical. The better to assess prospects, Kennan returned to Germany and found himself in Hamburg surveying the terrible destruction of the city which had been carried out in three days of bombing in 1944. It left him with the “unshakeable conviction that no momentary military advantage ... could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life and of material values”. These anti-war sentiments were to become a leitmotif in the Kennan diaries and in a period of increasing tension with the communist world ‑ the Berlin blockade, the Mao-led Chinese communist revolution, and the Korean War ‑ his views began increasingly to diverge from Acheson’s and the administration’s. He was highly critical of a series of moves at the time which he saw as unnecessarily antagonistic to the Russians and in particular he cautioned against entering into direct conflict with Russian troops north of the thirty-eighth parallel, dividing North from South Korea and opposed the rearmament of Germany which he saw as consolidating the Cold War and risking nuclear conflagration. Nevertheless he played a key role in helping achieve a ceasefire in Korea and at the end of 1951 was nominated as US ambassador to the Soviet Union.

This should have been the pinnacle of his life in public service; instead it ended in a debacle. Kennan was horrified by the strident anti-Americanism publicly propagated in Moscow and the stifling restrictions on contacts between diplomats and ordinary Soviet citizens. He made the mistake of telling the media in Berlin that the restrictions were akin to those he suffered in Germany after the US and Germany went to war in 1941.Within a fortnight, he was expelled from the Soviet Union, declared persona non grata, a privilege accorded to no other US ambassador. His mission to de-escalate tension between the two superpowers lay in tatters and he concluded that a nuclear war was on the cards. “For the first time ... it seemed to me that war had to be accepted as inevitable ...” He returned to a Washington where his views carried so little weight that he had “lost the last shred of any desire to be associated with public life for any moment longer than was absolutely necessary”. His wish, if his diary entry is to be believed, was soon met. John Foster Dulles, the incoming secretary of state, told Kennan in April 1953, after an insultingly long delay, that he could see “no niche” for him at present in the state department or foreign service. Kennan therefore retired from the department in July 1953 and, apart from a short posting as ambassador to Belgrade under the Kennedy administration from 1961 to 1963, where he chafed at Congress’s unwillingness to grant “most favoured nation” trade status to Yugoslavia while Tito irritated Washington by courting applause from Third World countries, he was never formally a public servant again.

He was to spend the next fifty years writing and entering into public debate on foreign affairs, from his base at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. Already at this relatively early age, he had concluded that, if his views were neither welcomed nor acted upon by government, he should make his case to the public at large through his writing, lecturing and media appearances, much though he would prefer that his views should be heeded by policy-makers.

His diaries over his remaining fifty years were remarkably consistent. He focused on the dangers of a nuclear conflagration, argued in favour of a commitment by the US to a no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy and continued to worry that the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union was perilous to the point where a nuclear war was increasingly inevitable. To that end he regularly promoted deep cuts in nuclear arsenals and was disappointed when the US headed in precisely the opposite direction. In 1981, for instance, when accepting the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, his acceptance speech included a proposal for a 50 per cent reduction in the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. At a time of strident anti-Soviet rhetoric (President Reagan’s “the evil empire”) his proposal was bound to find no favour with the US administration, even if the publicity prompted animated debate and caused Kennan to reflect on the competing demands of scholarship and public education.

It was a source of great satisfaction to him when Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Kennan greatly admired, and Reagan agreed (at Gorbachev’s instigation) to a 50 per cent reduction in strategic nuclear weapons and the elimination of intermediate range missiles after their summits in Geneva, Reykjavik and Washington in 1986 and 1987. As the Cold War wound down, however, Kennan continued to fret that Gorbachev’s position was being undermined and that “however much of a myth I may be ... I am helpless. I have influence ... almost everywhere but where it counts” ‑in other words with decision-makers. His innate pessimism moved him to say of all the troubles the US government was suffering “I told you so.”, which he admitted was the most useless of statements. While he might have been expected to welcome the end of the Cold War, he remained wedded to his belief that the military-industrial establishment in the US had sought to prolong it unnecessarily. He was also anxious about the instability which would follow the too rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union and the freeing of its satellites in Eastern Europe. We cannot know how he would analyse Russian aims in the current Ukraine crisis but many commentators have linked the new Russian assertiveness with a profound sense of humiliation over the outcome of the Cold War as well as traditional Russian paranoia over encirclement. At the end of the Cold War, Kennan specifically warned against Western triumphalism and of the dangers of allowing NATO to expand to Russia’s borders. Once again his prescient words fell on deaf ears, the consequences of which are being felt acutely twenty-five years later.

We can perhaps glean something of what his analysis might now be by looking at his views on human rights. Far from supporting the West’s emphasis on human rights, which had played a not insignificant part in exposing Soviet society to Western influences, Kennan took issue with the whole idea. “Do we claim the right to govern ourselves as we like ... And would we resent an effort by any other government to prescribe for us changes in this governmental system? If so, do we nevertheless claim, on the basis of some supposed superiority of our own system, the right to intervene in just this way in the lives of other peoples and governments?” He continued, in language which would have grated with the neo-cons around George W Bush, who believed in exporting Western democracy to the Middle East: “[I]s it our view that our particular institutions have universal value? That they represent the best possible response to the need of all peoples, regardless of their traditions, taste etc, regardless of their history, regardless of their stage of development?”

His consistency extended to his opposition to war. From Vietnam, which he criticised before the Senate foreign relations committee in 1966, to Somalia (“a dreadful error ... in a situation where no defensive American interest is involved”) and to both George Bush’s Gulf Wars, the first of which he saw as a “dreadful involvement ... to which no favourable outcome is visible or even imaginable ... it is hard to see anything ahead but a military-political disaster”. And of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kennan, by this time ninety-eight, warned that it bore no relation to the post 9/11 war on terrorism and that efforts by Bush, Cheney et al to link al-Qaeda with the Iraqi dictator were “pathetically unsupportive and unreliable”. Few if any would disagree with those words now. More prophetically, in language which echoed Machiavelli in his History of Florence five hundred years earlier, he maintained that “war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the President [George W Bush] would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.” The current disasters in Iraq make his point brutally.

As we have seen, Kennan had already been highly critical of US policy towards the Middle East. As far back as 1976, he lamented “the hopeless loss by the Americans of all independence of policy with relation to the Levant, afraid as they [the US] were to stand up to the Arabs because of .unwillingness to get along without Arab oil, and ... similar unwillingness to stand up to the Israelis for fear of offending the Zionist lobby at home”. He particularly criticised Jimmy Carter for being “prepared to give an unlimited blank check to the Israelis to dispose of American resources at their will”. He was reflecting a very traditional US isolationism (he accepted the title of isolationist, noting in his diary in his nineties that he was “guided strictly by consideration of national interests as opposed to a plethora of other ones”) but also a belief that the US should husband its own resources, give up its love affair with the motor car (a constant refrain) and find alternative, preferably domestic, energy supplies rather than Arab oil. No doubt he would have been pleased at the recent US success in reducing reliance on external oil and gas supplies through fracking.

In another area of the world, Kennan’s views might appear far short of what one would expect from someone educated in a white liberal tradition. While he claimed not to wish to appear as an apologist for apartheid, he saw nothing wrong in principle if, in a multiracial society, “the respective communities were to live and develop side by side ... on the principle of separate but equal ... rather than being subjected to a process of forced homogenisation”. With the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela, he predicted accurately that Mandela would be feted in the US and invited to address Congress “to curry political favour with black voters”, but gloomily and wrongly forecast that there would be “only desperate attempts at emigration on the part of the whites, and strident appeals for American help from an African regime unable to feed its own people from the resources of a ruined economy”.

Kennan’s distaste for what he called “the mingling of the races”, extended to his own country, where he was strongly opposed to what he saw as the homogenisation or, even worse, the Hispanicisation of US society, particularly on the West Coast. “Could it be that the settlement of this western Piedmont [California] by Protestant Anglo-Americans was an historical misunderstanding ... that this was a region which should properly have been populated by Iberian settlers, who would have exploited and wrecked it in their way?” Later he noted that in Los Angeles the majority of births are to people of Latin origin, and where people of British origin ... are not only a dwindling but a disintegrating minority... lost as a source of tradition and identity ... The Latin, Levantine, African and Oriental elements that now make up so large a part of this population: they too are destined ... to lose their character, their traditions, their unique coloration, and to melt into a vast polyglot mass ... a sea of helpless colorless humanity, as barren of originality as it is of nationality ... one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness”. How perverse that such a cultured man should fail to recognise American virtues as such instead of as defects.

Many of the entries in his later diaries reflect this sense of distaste for modern American society, which had removed itself too far from the guiding principles of the founding fathers: a consumerist hedonistic culture anxious to export, if not impose, its modern views to parts of the world often highly unreceptive to this message.

Perhaps some of the most striking features of his diaries are the elliptical references to affairs and womanising and the relative paucity of references to his Norwegian wife of seventy-three years. Annelise outlived Kennan only briefly ‑ she had by then begun to suffer from dementia ‑ but had been a loyal co-operator, tactful and socially at ease anywhere. She was not in any sense, however, an intellectual and it can be surmised that someone like Kennan might have found her very often boring. He confided to his daughter that he found it painful to be with her mother as he couldn’t talk to her. As the editor of the diaries summed up, “Always thin-skinned, he turned elsewhere for succor, solace and, probably, sex.”

And so Kennan, hypochondriac that he was, constantly expecting to die, lived on until 2005, his 102nd year. Honoured by innumerable institutions, winner of virtually every award apart from the Nobel Prize, given standing ovations by the Senate foreign relations committee, consulted by presidents and secretaries of state, constantly complaining at the vast number of invitations landing on his desk taking him away from his writing and research, Kennan still nursed a major grievance that for half a century, while his views were listened to with respect and courtesy, there was scarcely ever any sign that they had taken hold or registered with those he wanted to influence most, the policy-makers.

It could hardly be said that he was a prophet without honour in his own country (no contemporary has been more honoured), but what he hankered after, the implementation of policy as he would have formulated it, eluded him for his last fifty years. It was as though he never found a US government worthy of his intellectual input and strategic advice. And, although only the diaries reveal the extent of his alienation from his own country and society, his epitaph could well be that offered by his former boss in Moscow, Averell Harriman: “He understands Russia but not the US.”


Sir Ivor Roberts was a career diplomat and British ambassador in Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy before becoming president of Trinity College, Oxford in 2006. He edited and was a major contributor to the most recent edition of the classic work on diplomacy, Satow’s Diplomatic Practice (OUP, 2009).