George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis. Published by The Penguin Press, New York 762 pages, 2011.
John Lewis Gaddis is important to students of the Cold War, and for those interested in understanding how the ideas of America’s grand strategy are formulated. He has written several books on the subject of the Cold War, and his latest is a long overdue extensive biography of George F. Kennan, popularly known as “The Father of Containment.” Kennan did much to provide American leaders with the ideas and language to address moves from the Communist world generally and subsequent Soviet premiers from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Never in the history of the United States are the voices or rationality and reality without hysteria is needed for our nation. America faces a myriad of threats and challenges from Iran, the changing landscape of the Arab Spring, Militant Islamist cells which threatens Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the ascendancy of regional challengers in China and Russia. Reading Gaddis’s biography of Kennan is a breath of fresh air, for he captures the synthesis of ideas that defined the Cold War, and our stand-off with the former Soviet Union.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1904, he would earn a place in Princeton, but was not the gregarious socialite needed to fit into the college. For instance, he was accepted into a college dining club and then resigned within the week concerned about the compromises he would have to make to “fit in.” In many ways it is a testament to a culture that rewards socializing versus the intellect in undergraduate studies. Yet Kennan would always invest in his intellect, and his entry in the State Department allowed him to attain higher studies in Berlin, Germany. This is a man who is cultivating his mind, and immersing himself in the culture, politics, and history of Europe and Russia. Kennan would witness firsthand the collapse of the German Weimar Republic, and wonder if the impacts of the Great Depression in Europe could replicate itself in the United States.
During World War II, the book discusses Kennan’s relatively comfortable internment with other allied diplomats until an exchange with the Germans could be arranged. In this internment, Kennan took charge of the Americans and even conducted lessons on Russian politics and history, finding his talent and enjoyment for teaching. While Kennan is better known for his ideas on Soviet Russia, he did help in diplomatic negotiations on basing rights in the Portuguese held Azores. The book really takes off in the section after 1946, in which Kennan synthesizes everything he has learned to draft the longest and perhaps most influential cable in American diplomacy. Despite the mythology, “The Long Telegram,” is not commenting on Stalin’s refusal to join a trade pact, Kennan was commenting on an aggressive speech Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was making against the United States. It was a sophisticated argument that centuries-old Russian nationalism that is concerned with encroachment, a nation that had been invaded by Napoleon and Hitler from the west drives partly Moscow’s thinking.
From the Long Telegram, the Truman Administration was coming to grips with Soviet forces reluctant to evacuate from Iran, and meddling in war torn Europe to include Greece and Turkey. Gaddis takes you into Kennan’s refinement of ideas, and how it would be shaped by other American thinkers both inside the government and out, from Presidents to cabinet level officers like Secretary of State Dean Acheson. His months spent teaching at the National War College saw a Kennan who drew intellectual energy from students consisting as today of senior military and civilian officers. In the environment of Fort McNair, site of the National War College, he would write his famous Mr. X article in “Foreign Affairs,” entitled, “Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Part of the essay discusses the psychology and ideology of Marxist-Leninism, and that truth is not a constant but is constantly created by the Soviet leaders themselves.
The book goes on to discuss his career as ambassador, teacher, and how Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who lead the creation of the Atomic Bomb would bring him to Princeton to continue refining his ideas on national strategy. Kennan’s history is the history of America, and he dies in 2005, at the age of 101, still advocating, and still challenging the United States to understand the nuances of national security affairs. Kennan’s ideas differ from the popular portrayal of Soviet containment, and he advocated differences between Chinese, Vietnamese and Soviet communism, but was sidelined by policymakers at the time.
What is enjoyable is the struggle of Gaddis to capture the complexity and nuances of Kennan’s ideas from the Long Telegram to papers, Pulitzer Prize winning books, to advising America’s presidents, his most intimate intellectual relationship would be with President Kennedy. Gaddis’s biography is an important contribution to understanding Cold War history, and the ways in which grand ideas are formulated from a deep pondering of cultures, histories, and even literature.
Commander Aboul-Enein teaches part time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces at Fort McNair in Washington D.C. He is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010) and has a new book being published this April, “Iraq in Turmoil,” also by Naval Institute. CDR Aboul-Enein wishes to thank the National Defense University Library for providing Gaddis’s biography and a place to write this column.