George F. Kennan is best known for his role in shaping American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II. The turning points in Kennan’s career—the “Long Telegram” of February 1946 and the nom de plume “X” article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published a year later in Foreign Affairs—formed the basis of America’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union. Although briefly serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia in 1952, Kennan’s useful input as the State Department’s chief expert on Russia contributed to a successful, long-term, Cold War strategy that prevented military confrontation, avoided nuclear war, and eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was Kennan’s sharp intellect, knowledge of history, wise counsel, common sense, and sound judgment that formulated the realpolitik strategy of containing Soviet expansion that served U.S. national interests so well.
Considering the recent neoconservative saber rattling over Russia’s use of military force to control Crimea and Ukraine, Kennan believed U.S. foreign policy should rest on sound principles that advance our vital national interests, not moral posturing that imposes “democracy” and “human rights” in some ambiguous vacuum via military force. Contemporary foreign policy blunders—destabilizing nations in volatile regions in the name of “spreading democracy,” “promoting equality,” “liberating” aggrieved minorities, “protecting the rights of the LGBT community,” etc.—may bolster the careers of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, but such policies also unleash real havoc, death, and destruction abroad. Kennan warned about the consequences of forcing other regions to conform to Western moral standards, or what remains of them, in a perceptive article, “Morality and Foreign Policy” for Foreign Affairs (1985),
There have been many instances, particularly in recent years, when the U.S. government has taken umbrage at the behavior of other governments on grounds that at least implied moral criteria for judgment, and in some of these instances the verbal protests have been reinforced by more tangible means of pressure. These various interventions have marched, so to speak, under a number of banners: democracy, human rights, majority rule, fidelity to treaties, fidelity to the U.N. Charter, and so on. Their targets have sometimes been the external policies and actions of the offending states, more often the internal practices. The interventions have served, in the eyes of their American inspirers, as demonstrations not only of the moral deficiencies of others but of the positive morality of ourselves; for it was seen as our moral duty to detect these lapses on the part of others, to denounce them before the world, and to assure—as far as we could with measures short of military action—that they were corrected….
Interventions of this nature can be formally defensible only if the practices against which they are directed are seriously injurious to our interests, rather than to our sensibilities. There will, of course, be those readers who will argue that the encouragement and promotion of democracy elsewhere is always in the interests of the security, political integrity and prosperity of the United States. If this can be demonstrated in a given instance, well and good. But it is not invariably the case. Democracy is a loose term. Many varieties of folly and injustice contrive to masquerade under this designation. The mere fact that a country acquires the trappings of self-government does not automatically mean that the interests of the United States are thereby furthered. There are forms of plebiscitary “democracy” that may well prove less favorable to American interests than a wise and benevolent authoritarianism.
In his Diaries, Kennan’s genuine nature, thoughts, and sentiments reveal firm convictions, often running counter to modern fads and fashions. Kennan’s thoughts on Nelson Mandela and the future plight of Whites in South Africa are a good example, as the were markedly different from contemporary Western diplomats and public officials. In 1994, just before Mandela’s release, Kennan wrote,
Evening before last we saw on television the Prime Minister of South Africa announcing, to a troubled and silent parliament, the removal of the ban on the African National Congress and promising the early, but definite, release of Mr. Mandela.
Concerning the second of those undertakings, I have no special feelings. I know nothing about Mr. Mandela, other than he has been imprisoned for a very long time and resolutely refused to abandon the use of violence to obtain for his movement the power he would it to have. I know of no pearls of wisdom that have fallen from his lips, or of any other evidences of great nobility or high statesmanlike qualities on his part. That he is better off, from everyone’s standpoint, outside of prison than in it I have no doubt. That he will be brought to Washington, permitted to address the Congress, and given an ovation by people who know nothing about him but want to curry political favor with black voters, is obvious and of little importance, just another manifestation of American domestic political posturing ….
I have no confidence in the prospects for anything like a mingling of the races in South Africa, nor can I permit myself to hope that the whites will be permitted to retain very much of the quality of their own lives, or indeed of the vitality of the economy, in a country dominated, on the principle of one-man, one-vote, by a large African majority. I would expect to see within five or ten years’ time only desperate attempts at emigration on the parts 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.
On foreign policy, Kennan increasingly viewed himself as an isolationist. The U.S. national interest guided Kennan’s judgment and refined views on foreign policy. Kennan biographer Lee Congdon emphasized this in his book George Kennan: A Writing Life. Not surprisingly, he opposed both the creation of the state of Israel and the Vietnam War. On Israel Kennan said, “I see no reason why we should work ourselves into positions which tend to make the State of Israel a permanent ward and military liability of the United States.” In 1991, Kennan writes,
An attempt, as Chief of Planning Staff, to warn the U.S. government in 1948 of the fact that in co-sponsoring the establishment of the state of Israel in the face of the continued opposition of the Arab leaders we were creating a problem to which we have no peaceful answer, had no result other than to earn me a reminder from the Undersecretary of State that ours was a country in which domestic political considerations, even when involving the interests of only a minority of our citizens, took priority over considerations of national interest….
Kennan was irked by the treatment he received from the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) after submitting diary entries and letters during his formative years as a U.S. diplomat. Here is Kennan’s entry of December 17, 1987:
Some weeks ago I took to New York and delivered to Harriet Wasserman [Kennan’s literary agent] the five binders containing items from my diaries and letters describing scenes and landscapes. The idea that a collection of these might be published originated with John Lukacs, who strongly urged me in that direction….
[William Shawn, the reader for the publisher,] was concerned and upset because he found in it nothing from my war years in Germany. He suspected, I gather (it was all very vague) that I must have been concealing something from that time. She did not want to say more over the phone, and insisted that she would come out here on the 18th—i.e., tomorrow—to talk to me about it.
I don’t know what it is really about, but sense that it all bears some relation to my views, or lack of views, or suspected views, on the fate of the German Jews. I will find out tomorrow, in any case, what it is all about.
Kennan spent the day perusing notes, diary entries, and letters from that period in the Mudd Library, the institutional archives at Princeton University, trying to get a sense of what was causing so much unease at FSG. On December 20, he describes his meeting with his literary agent,
Well, day before yesterday Harriett Wasserman came out to Princeton, it was her insistence, and told me about this episode. It was, more or less, as I suspected. Shawn had seemed very upset about the absence of any diary items from the period of my service in Germany. The Farrar company, for which Shawn now works, had declined the manuscript, and the latter had been returned to her. She suspected it had something to do with references to “Jews” in the early diary entries (all, incidentally, from my service in Germany and the Baltic states in the years before the Nazis were even in the picture). She was herself furious about this but also, I thought (and understandably), concerned over the question of how it might reflect on her and her business. She was going to talk to them further about it, and Shawn had said he was going to phone me about it at some point. (The head of the Farrar firm, I should have noted, had said something to her about Kennan’s “German problem,” whatever that may have meant.)
I am concerned about this whole episode, but for Harriet’s sake rather than my own.
In February 1989, just before his 85th birthday, Kennan recalls the sordid ordeal with FSG. The New York publisher dubiously rejected his diary extracts for publication, which FSG originally seemed eager to publish,
Harriet, if I remember correctly, had thought it possible that the book would be published by the very Jewish firm of Straus & Farrar, for which, at that time, Mr. Shawn was functioning…as a consultant. But Straus & Farrar then declined to publish the book, giving as a reason (in a letter to Harriet) “this German thing” on Kennan’s part.
I have never been anti-Semitic, but I must admit that this episode brought me as close as I have ever been to becoming one. Those of us who served in the Berlin embassy during the war were under no illusions about the Nazis. We had not chosen this assignment, which for some of us was a strenuous and exhausting one. Why should it be thought that I should have burst out in prose, expressing my horror of the Nazis? I was not a reporting officer, but an administrative one. To whom should I have addressed such outpourings? To the government? How? Through my superiors in the embassy? They would have thought I was mad. They knew what the Nazis were as well as I did. So did our government. Who would have been enlightened? And what good would it have done? A weird idea these critics of 1988 had of life and work in the Foreign Service in Berlin, 1940!
Writing about the scandal that was engulfing Bill Clinton’s presidency, Kennan referred to “Mr. Clinton’s relationship to his Jewish girl intern [Monica Lewinsky].” Kennan thought Clinton should have resigned given that the scandal was dominating too much of his time and likely impacting his ability to maintain his responsibilities as president. He also writes, rather perceptively,
On the foreign policy front…I find myself wondering why we cannot regard another country, in this case Iran, as one more country which we would regard as neither friend [n]or foe, with whom we are prepared to deal on a day-to-day basis, neither idealizing it nor running it down, keeping to ourselves only in those aspects of its official behavior which touched our interests—maintaining, in other words, a relationship with it of mutual respect and courtesy, but distant.
No doubt Kennan would have denounced the foreign policy blunders of the Bush and Obama administrations, getting the U.S. embroiled in the internal affairs and civil wars of various countries, including Libya, as well as the push to intervene in Syria and Iran. He would consider as sheer lunacy the neo-conservative crusade to spread “human Rights” and “democracy” on nations that have historically known neither.
In January 1994, Kennan, one month from turning 90, identified two disturbing trends in American society and also firmly pinpointed the decadence of contemporary culture,
What concerns me most deeply are two phenomena, obviously closely connected, which have something to say to us about the mental and emotional state of large portions of our population. The first is the unrestrained decadence that has overcome so much of our social and cultural life: the delivery of most of the process of journalistic, electronic, and cultural communication into the hands of the entertainment industry and then the dreadful uses that industry makes of its near monopoly, not merely the low intellectual level but the shameless pornography, the pathological preoccupation with sex and violence, the weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble, and promising way of life, and in general the sweeping permissiveness and lack of moral leadership on which these distortions thrive.
Beyond this, there is something that is to my mind even more menacing, and that is the evidence of real emotional instability in considerable portions of our population, particularly in the universities and among young faculty and portions of the student body. I have in mind the bizarre effects of such contagious hysteria as “political correctness,” but also something that is an unavoidable component of such hysterias, namely the total loss of a sense of humor.
Kennan’s description of the influence of the entertainment industry and the “low intellectual level” of content that bombards American households was rather tame twenty years ago compared to the trash that today passes for entertainment. The explosion in raunchy “reality” shows on cable television resembles something right out of Idiocracy.
Another indication of Kennan’s incisiveness as a cultural critic was his concerns over the widespread “hysteria” of political correctness. Again he was ahead of the curve, pinpointing what has evolved into a politically and intellectually repressive era. His published Diaries unambiguously confirm that this high-level diplomat, loyal public servant, and foreign policy expert viewed himself as a stranger in his own country.
Close friend, historian, and biographer John Lukacs puts Kennan’s life in perspective in George Kennan: A Study of Character,
When George Kennan was born, in 1904, there were about eighty-one million Americans. When he died, one hundred and one years later, there were about two hundred and eighty million: so many more, and a different people, and a different country. When this book is published I fear that to the vast majority of Americans his name will be unknown. This is, and will remain, regrettable. He was an extraordinary man, who not only represented but incarnated some of the best and finest traits of American character.
Indeed! Honest scholars and public servants, who are guided by deep convictions and sound instincts, are a dying breed!