Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Book Review (#82 of 2014) George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

George F. Kennan: An American Life 1st (first) Edition by Gaddis, John Lewis published by Penguin Press HC, The (2011)
I learned a lot from this authorized biography, the author was given "unrestricted access" to Kennan's journals, writings, and personal friends with the understanding that this book would be published after his death.

Kennan's thoughts and work have much to offer 2014 as we see an inter-Slavic conflict in Ukraine as well as the U.S. battling Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. Kennan would have understood very well Former Secretary of State Clinton's criticisms of the President for not having a coherent, consistent foreign policy. But he would also have been sympathetic to FDR's struggle with a hostile congress just as he was with JFK's struggles with Congress. After the breakup of the USSR, Kennan had argued for its non-alignment with NATO and criticized NATO expansion to Eastern Europe in the 1990s as unnecessarily provocative. He would probably see the current conflict as inevitable given the tensions that had built up. He would also see Putin's strongarm tactics as continuation of Russian history. Kennan was one of the first to recognize that the USSR was just the latest face on the flow of Russian history, led by strong autocrats with empirical ambitions and deep phobias about the Western world. He noted that dispatches written by diplomat Neal Brown from Russia in the 1850s could have just as easily been written in the 1950s, very little had changed.

But Kennan always quoted John Adams on foreign policy: Don't go abroad looking for monsters to destroy. The U.S. should be strong and set a definitive alternative vision for the world in contrast to Soviets, Islamic extremists, etc. Fight for freedom and democracy where feasible, but not every monster was a Hitler and some conflicts (like Vietnam, which he was fervently against) are best left avoided. Military strategy should be made concordant with political policy, and this is a theme I saw echoed in Robert Gates' recent memoir.

Kennan essentially had three fathers: His own, George Kennan (one of the first Americans to widely travel Russia and the Caucasus) who was Kennan's grandfather's cousin but shared both his birthday, name, and affinity for Russia, and Chekov. Every man has suffered a wound that shaped his development, Kennan's came from the loss of his mother in his infancy and rejection by family members-- including the above George Kennan's wife who made sure her husband had nothing to do with him (a shame, really). Nonetheless he was a "happy child" and a "normal boy" who got his first taste of overseas life (and learned fluent German) when his family lived in Germany for a time. From that he developed an appreciation of foreign culture and a wanderlust.

After a military high school, Kennan barely makes it into Princeton and wrote mix feelings about it, mainly finding it "homogenous" and remarks on the lack of foreigners or broader world view. He begins writing letters to his sister while at school, a lifelong endeavor that would be the source for many of his memories in this book. He got passport, took a boat to Europe one summer and fell upon the mercy of the U.S. consulate in Italy. After returning, he graduated from Princeton in 1925 and joins the newly-formed Foreign Service. After passing his exams, he is posted to Geneva, then Hamburg. Not enamored with complaints and lives of expats, he fell in love with a girl, and wanted to resign and also pursue graduate studies.

Kennan as bored, frustrated, physically exhausted, and cynical is a recurring theme. He often grows whimsical about doing other things, like farming, writing, or teaching. He is usually given a way out and a new chapter begins. This time, the FS sent to US for 6 months of leave where he elected to join a new program to train in critical languages-- he chose Russian in part out of family affiliation, even though the elder Kennan would have little to do with him. He was then stationed in Talinn, Estonia.
While studying in Germany, Kennan passes his Russian exam and marries a Swedish girl (Anna Sorensen). The Depression hits, bankrupting his parents, and Kennan begins to write very pessimistically about civilization. This would continue throughout his life. While professional and stable at home and the office, Kennan is crankily pessimistic, insecure, and often depressed. From 1931-1936, Kennan would be a part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to Moscow after FDR officially normalized relations with the USSR in 1932. Kennan became one of State Department's most respected Russian experts. When FDR negotiated diplomatic recognition of Moscow in 1932, Kennan warned that Russians would break any agreements signed. This would also be a recurring theme of 20th century history.

While Kennan made a decent salary, he was often physically ill, could not stand working for political appointee ambassadors, and received a transfer to Jerusalem only to later be sent back to Moscow when the State Department reorganized its affairs. The depth at which the Soviets had penetrated the State Department and other branches of government during this time was truly remarkable and disturbing. Kennan was definitely anti-McCarthy but recognized areas where he saw Soviet influence.

Kennan is the ultimate expatriate, who knows one can never truly go home again. While he loves America, he also loathes its bad characteristics increasingly on every home visit. Kennan was fluent in Russian and well-versed in its history but remarkably ignorant of U.S. history. In 1938 he writes of how America needs a stronger central government led by elites with women and blacks kept from voting. It echoes the "Gentleman" concept of the late 1700s and the Founding Fathers but the author doesn't mention this; Kennan was just ignorant of previous American thought. Kennan later softens after seeing the brutality of fascism, Stalin's purges, and other acts of brutality by non-democratic governments. But he hopes America can rebuild from the Depression in such a way that the proletariat doesn't take the reigns as they did under Hitler in Germany. His journal writings come across as fairly anti-semitic, but he did work to get Jews out of Eastern Europe and Germany before America entered World War II, something he did not get much credit for.

Kennan is stationed in Prague during early days of the war and witnesses Nazi occupation. His wife's father was tortured by Germans when they took over Norway. Kennan Meets Germans in Prague who are against Hitler, but little anyone can do. He found the hypocrisy of the German army toward the Jews detestable. Kennan had missed the Soviet-Nazi pact, didn't forsee it. He is transferred to Berlin where he is later interred with other Americans after Pearl Harbor. While in Berlin, Kennan had affairs, which led his wife to leave kids with sister in U.S. and return to Europe. The details of Kennan's affairs are always a mystery but he has a roving eye his entire life, despite loving his wife. After being released, Kennan is stationed in Portugal where he negotiates on behalf of FDR for the use of Portugese land and bases. Eventually, he returns to Moscow under Ambassador Harriman. He is disturbed by the Roosevelt administration's lack of concern with human rights, especially with how FDR quashed talk of Polish mistreatment by Russia for election purposes. Kennan called Russia correctly, writing that they cared/talked only of international cooperation when they needed Western assistance, otherwise it was about grabbing power. Kennan warned various administrations not to let atomic knowledge fall into hands of Soviets for this reason.

Kennan again grows frustrated and weary. He tried again to resign in 1945 but was discouraged by his superiors because of his expertise and value. After Stalin's 1946 speech denouncing rest of the world, Kennan wrote "the long telegram," and 8,000 word document that essentially explained Soviet policy and established U.S. policy in addressing it. This made Kennan famous in Washington and then England and USSR compelled own ambassadors to write similar reports. It essentially launched Kennan's modern career. However, in 1947 he again wanted to resign again from foreign service, felt he could only do so much as diplomat. He had traveled Russia, Siberia (for his namesake) and seen more of the country and read more of its literature than any other American. Eventually, he was given an appointment at the newly-established War College in D.C., being paid well and able to teach/lecture to Army, Navy, and FSOs. Was making $15,000, a decent sum for the time.

An article penned anonymously by him appeared in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs that outlined a policy of containment, which essentially became the Truman Doctrine. Kennan, more than any other diplomat before or since, had shaped U.S. foreign policy for the century. Kennan worked Worked under Sec. of State Marshall, and I enjoyed that this book gave me a different chapter on Marshall after reading Thomas Ricks' The Generals which focused much on Marshall's leadership and management style. Kennan helped craft the Marshall Plan, basically saying that U.S. policy should be to confront Russia on every front politically, even clandestinely. His recommendations in regards to Yugoslavia and China were also accepted-- China was to be left alone. Kennan was even sent to Japan and did brilliant end-run around McArthur and his "psychophants." He recommended independence for Japan along with aid, like Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan took Stalin by surprise.
However, in 1948 Kennan began a "great reversal," going back on previous recommendations after becoming alarmed by the U.S.'s increasingly militarized response to Soviet aggression and fear of a third World War. Kennan had recommended pushing for a unified, neutral Germany and wanted to formulate an end of the Cold War rather than it go on indefinitely.

He was Director of Policy Planning-- and the book shows importance of this role in light of today. In 1949 Dean Acheson replaces Marshall as Secretary of State. Kennan advocates separating Communism from Russian Emperialism, which would help isolate Kremlin from places like Tito's Yugoslavia. He also recommends supporting Tito's communism as affront to Kremlin. However, many in Congress do not distinguish "good communists" from "bad communists" and Kennan's views are out-of-step again. He comes to loathe McCarthyism and the far right-wing of the Republican party. Sec. Acheson viewed Russian threat as primarily military and disregarded much of Kennan's policy advice. Kennan believed the Russian people would eventually "come around," and generally wanted peace, but was pessimistic that a peaceful outcome would be reached by the powers.

Kennan befriends Robert Oppenheimer and worked for the Institute for Advanced Study, writing and lecturing. Both Kennan and Oppenheimer publicly opposed developing a hydrogen bomb, convinced they would be used if they were ever made. He got onto the Princeton faculty with some considerable controversy and eventually his published books are acclaimed enough to justify his position there. Kennan also sponsored Russian dissident organizations, helping exiles get incorporated into American life. He published book, a "realist" view of foreign policy based on his surprisingly very popular lectures at U. of Chicago. Kennan's works would win a couple Pulitzer prizes. While lecturing at Princeton, he advises the State Dept. to negotiate an end to the Korean War. Kennan ends up being the conduit the Soviets choose to send the message--the Russians told him in a private meeting that they urged N. Korea & China to accept American truce proposal. This earned Kennan more favor with the Truman Administration, and Kennan is appointed Ambassador to the USSR in 1951.

Kennan found life in Moscow harder, like being in prison. He was lonely and isolated. At one point he requested the CIA provide him with suicide pills ostensibly because he thought war was inevitable, didn't want to be tortured and put in solitary. He also possibly had an affair and feared the news leaking. His wife eventually was able to come and didn't find it so intolerable. Kennan took everything personally, thought Stalin was out for him; indeed he was given a test by a fake dissident proposing assassination. Like a later Ambassador McFaul, Kennan made statements that enraged Kremlin and was banned. Kennan said his ambassadorship reminded him of his internment in Berlin (said while in Berlin). This comparison with the Nazis engraged the Kremlin and it Seems Stalin himself made the call to banish him.

Kennan eventually retired in 1953. He was succeeded in Moscow by Charles Bohlen, who was a long-time colleague and intellectual adversary that was also seen as too much of an "appeaser." Bohlen was later demoted, forced out in 1957, and Kennan had to defend him and others from accusations of collaboration with the Communists. Kennan lives the life of an expatriate and scholar. He becomes critical, almost spiteful, of his own country and its faults. "I didn't leave my country. It left me."

After Kennedy's election, Kennan is consulted for advice by JFK, who would meet with him 14 times in his Administration and exchange many letters. JFK gives Kennan the choice of ambassodorships, Poland or Yugoslavia, and Kennan chooses Yugoslavia. JFK pushes a crucial Trade Act through Congress, but the conservatives strip provisions in the bill that would maintain Poland and Yugoslavia's most favored nation status, something that would be a brutal blow to those countries. JFK gave promises about aid to Poland, Yugoslavia, but reneges. Kennan himself had lobbied Congress in person and made calls from Yugoslavia. JFK even promises to criticize while signing, and further reneges. Oddly, Kennan did not fault the President for not keeping his word, or the political situation. Domestic politics wins, and JFK wanted to look tough on communism. JFK later meets with Tito and apologizes while Kennan resigns his post. Kennan writes an article for Foreign Affairs on how the lack JFK's foreign policy is actually the fault of a paralyzing Congress eager to block the President at all turns (sounds familiar). LBJ is mentioned only briefly and comes across as distant, brooding.

The Kennans became world travelers while George lectured and wrote his memoirs. He also cultivated "friendships" with various ladies, including Stalin's daughter who defected in India. He became increasingly concerned about policy toward Southeast Asia and testifies before Congress (on national television) against intervention in Vietnam, which polls showed actually swayed public opinion.

Kissinger spoke highly of Kennan and Kennan had apparently tracked Kissinger's intellectual progress. Kennan was initially critical of detante but supported the idea of greater dialogue. Natan Sharansky (whose Case for Democracy I remember) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn later widely criticized Kennan. I would agree with them on this point, according to dissidents life got better for them when the U.S. took a harder line; it got worse when it got what it wanted through detant. Kennan was criticized for lack of moral clarity, but Kennan believed the U.S. could have little impact on what USSR did with its citizens. He appears to misjudge the U.S.'s influence on this point.
Reagan oddly enough echoed Kennan's writing, speeches, and policy-- negotiating arms reduction with USSR, but Kennan gave him no credit and was constantly critical. The author contrasts this with Kennan's affections for JFK who lied and did nothing, while Reagan actually opened dialogues and reduced the danger. Kennan was simply more cranky and vain in his old age. He probably hated Reagan for being from movies and ads, part of what he hated about America. He still assumed nuclear war inevitable.

To understand Kennan's worldview one need read a lot of Russian literature, primarily Chekov, along with Carl Von Clausewitz and Gibbon's Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon's work was instructive in developing Kennan's thoughts on the USSR. He felt that, like Rome, the Soviets had conquered too widely and spread their defenses too thin. Eventually the Soviet bloc territories and sattelites would be too expensive to maintain.
One weakness of this book is the lack of mention of hardly anything else in the State Department at this time, and how Kennan's work influenced other Russian/Soviet policy experts who came afterward. I would look for that aspect in another book, this one solely focuses on the man and his immediate impacts.
I give this book 4.5 stars and recommend it, especially to those interested in foreign policy vis a vis Russia.

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