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George Kennan's War

George Kennan: An American Life, by the preeminent Cold War historian John Gaddis, is a magnificent book about a brilliant but rather unlikeable man. In War in the Modern World, we had both Mr. Gaddis and Mr. Kennan force-fed to us. As a subordinate to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow postwar, Kennan famously wrote the "long telegram" that spelled out the strategy of containment that, with various ups and downs, defined American policy toward the Soviet Union for more than half a century. Very early, though, Kennan went from brilliant youth to paranoid old man, and if his later advice had been heeded as carefully as his long telegram, very likely the Soviet Union would still be with us, and Europe would still be divided. Here are my notes from the book:

1936: Kennan viewed Bolshevism "not as a turning point in history, but only as another milepost in Russia's 'wasteful, painful progress from an obscure origin to an obscure destiny...." If the purges continued, ... 'there would be nothing left of the Soviet system of government but rule by a small irresponsible group ... in short, fascism.'" p.97

In 1943, the Germans announced the discovery of mass graves of Polish soldiers at Katyn in the Ukraine. "At [Ambassador Averell] Harriman's request, Kathleen and John Melby inspected the site early in 1944, after the Russians had recaptured it. They reported that the Germans had killed the Poles, and Harriman accepted their findings. Kennan, still in London, had his doubts--correctly as it turned out--but with no evidence of his own, he fell in 'with the tacit rule of silence which was being applied at that time to the unpleasant subject in question.'" p.182

Kennan wrote in his diary: "The Russians have a long-term consistent policy. We have--and they know we have--a fluctuating policy reflecting only the momentary fancies of public opinion in the United States." Americans could only "bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people who have been our allies, whom we have saved from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends." p.182

Postwar, "The U.S.S.R. was thus committed to becoming 'the dominant power of Eastern and Central Europe' and only then to cooperation with its Anglo-American allies. 'The first of these programs implies taking. The second implies giving. No one can stop Russia from doing the taking, if she is determined to go through with it. No one can force Russia to do the giving, if she is determined not to go through with it.'" p.186

"Contrary to what everyone else assumed at the time, Kennan portrayed the Soviet Union as a transitory phenomenon: it was floating along on the surface of Russian history, and currents deeper than anything Marx, Lenin, or Stalin had imagined would ultimately determine its fate." p.187

"Nor did Kennan question the need for Moscow's assistance in defeating Nazi Germany. 'We were too weak to win [the war] without Russia's cooperation.' Nor could anyone doubt that the Soviet war effort had been 'masterful and effective and must, to a certain extent, find its reward at the expense of other peoples in eastern and central Europe.'" p.189

The "Long Telegram" characterized the Soviet government as " a regime of unparalled ruthlessness and jealousy, ... determined that no outside influence should touch them [the people]." Pointless to try to influence them by generosity. Best to "leave the Russian people--unencumbered by foreign sentimentality as by foreign antagonism--to work out their own destiny in their own peculiar way." (A lesson for our relations with North Korea?) p.200

The authority of Russia's rulers had always been "archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of western countries." Marxism, as made "truculent and intolerant" by Lenin, gave the Stalinists cover "for their 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...." p.220

In the Mr. X article, Kenned urged that United States attempt to influence Soviet actions "only by a long term policy of firmness, patience, and understanding, designed to keep the Russians confronted with superior strength at every juncture where they might otherwise be inclined to encroach upon the vital interests of a stable and peaceful world, but to do this in so friendly and unprovocative a manner that its basic purposes will not be subject to misrepresentation." Gaddis observes: "The objective would be Clausewitzian: to shift the psychology of an adversary. The manner, however, would be Chekovian." p.245

Marxism-Leninism justified "an amorality little different from that of Russian rulers as far back as Ivan the Terrible" (Gaddis). p.250

He foresaw "either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." p. 261 (Note that this was in 1947, and that Kennan himself would lose faith in his own prediction.)

"Here we have to bite and chew on the bitter truth that in this world you cannot even do good today unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, to take your share of responsibility, to make your share of mistakes, and to assume your share of risk." p.264

Suggests the Marshall Plan was Kennan's doing. Its purpose was not to create satellites but allies, because we needed German and Japanese help to resist the Soviet Union. Even if this were not the case, continued occupation of a conquered people "means eventually that you fall heir, unless you are very careful, to all the problems and responsibilities of that people." (Iraq! Afghanistan!) p.279

Kennan advocated "counter pressure," deploying strength against weakness, to effect a psychological change in the adversary, like playing chess. (Boyd!) p.284

Thirty years after the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was still "a sea of mud and poverty and cruelty." p.284

"One can search in vain through the annals of Russian diplomacy for a single example of an enduring, decent and pleasant relationship between Russia and a foreign state." p.314

Joseph Alsop writing about Kennan: "Although he regards himself as a total contemplative, I have always thought that George makes his best sense as a man of action, when there is a good, loud, cable machine at his elbow clacking out horrible problems all over the world. When George broods, he becomes a little silly." quoted p.397 Post 1950, Kennan begins to brood.

Dean Acheson had the better grasp of how things would work out. Gaddis: "It was enough, he [Acheson] believed, to have some vague sense of the destination toward which you were stumbling, to be of good cheer, and not to look back. The hyperconscientious Kennan could never reconcile himself to such an attitude." p.403 In my judgment, for his next half-century Kennan gets most everything wrong, though by all accounts he was a brilliant lecturer and teacher.

As ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952, he wrote that the country was "the most impressive example of hell on earth that our time has known." p.441

Avoid provocations such publicizing the 1952 congressional report blaming and his subordinates for the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre. No doubt true, but we're not about to shame a dictator whose victims ran "into the hundreds of thousands and probably millions." p.463

His diary: "love is at best a friendship and a practical partnership, complicated by an intensely intimate, impermanent, and ... unstable element that we call sex". p.493

Lovers huddled along the riverbank in Oxford: "Ah, love in England, so frail, so handicapped, so overwhelmingly without a chance, and so terribly poignant by consequence." p.522

He was in Berlin when the Wall came down, and he was depressed by the sight, because it resulted from a spontaneous uprising of youthful enthusiasm instead of careful planning. The young Germans were motivated "by the hope of getting better jobs, making more money, and bathing in the fleshpots of the West ... was this, over the long term, what we really wanted?" p. 675 What a sad end to a life that had begun with such wisdom!

Still, as a good biographer, Gaddis ends on the up note: "Only Kennan had the credibility to show, at a time when too many Americans still viewed the Soviet Union as a wartime ally, that for reasons rooted in Russian history and Marxist-Leninist ideology, there could never be a normal peacetime relationship with it: Stalin's regime required external enemies. Only Kennan could have said that so compellingly as to command immediate attention in Washington. And only Kennan foresaw the possibility ... that the United States and its allies might in time get the Soviet Union to defeat itself." p.694

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