Except for a brief interval, George Kennan has lived his adult life in complaint. Early in his sad, haunting memoirs,1 he comments on a note he wrote to Loy Henderson in June 1941, in which he urged that the United States not follow Churchill’s lead in “extending moral support” to Russia in its struggle with Germany. Kennan says, “In this reaction . . . there was embodied the essence of the disagreement that was to hold me in opposition to our governmental policy for some five years to come; hold me in opposition until the movement of the pendulum of official thinking from left to right would bring it close to my own outlook in the years 1946 to 1948, only to carry it away once more in the other direction, with the oversimplified and highly militarized view of the Russian problem that came to prevail after 1949.” In a long career as a man of affairs, most of it in the time covered by this book, Kennan experienced the pleasure of working for purposes he accepted, for only two or three years. Anyone familiar with Kennan’s writings since 1950—works of political history deliberately conceived with the problems of the present in mind, and works of political analysis made sharper and more urgent by a sense of the mistakes and cowardices of the past—knows that after his retirement he maintained his posture of disagreement. All in all, close to power or standing on the outside, studying American diplomatic history or advising those who were making history, Kennan has been a deeply dissatisfied man. His recent statements on the war in Vietnam are simply the latest expressions of that dissatisfaction.
What then is the trouble? What are Kennan’s grievances? His first book, American Diplomacy (1951), contains the elements of his argument, which later books and now his Memoirs fill out and painfully illustrate. Kennan’s indictment is threefold. First, American foreign policy has traditionally been infected by a legalist tendency. American statesmen, from the time of the war with Spain, have had a fetishistic attitude toward rules, principles, treaties, international law, international organizations. Many of them lawyers, they have failed to see that words on a page, declarations of good intentions, pledges of honor and friendship, are only that—words on a page. If these words do not register the realities of power in the world, they are trivial and misleading. They are written to be violated; they have no autonomous strength of their own; they are not self-enforcing. “Covenants without the sword are but words.” To produce a treaty is not, by itself, to solve a problem. To think otherwise, to think as so many American leaders have thought, is to confuse the public, and to prepare the way for extreme and irrational disappointment, on the part both of the people and their leaders.
From that disappointment, as well as from other sources, comes the second main fault of American foreign policy, which is to place American conduct in bondage to very crude and undiscriminating moral precepts. Kennan is appalled by the national habit of picturing the struggles of nations as contests between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Once aroused from its self-absorption, America enters the world arena in a frenzy to do good and to punish the wicked; even more, to reform the wicked and remake them after the democratic model. The limitless energy of the American people has been too often employed in behalf of an arrogant, but unselfconscious righteousness that works dreadful cruelty in order to be overbearingly kind. It is as if the United States were incapable of moderation, and hence of realism. Its people cannot see that in most cases players and opponents in the international scene (including themselves) are equally driven by worldly or “sinful” motives, or are equally confronted by terrible necessities, or are guided by equally sincere though incompatible ideals. America has always lacked the tragic sense. And its leaders have done nothing to impart that sense. As an example of the failure of leadership Kennan recounts, toward the end of the Memoirs, his dispute with Dulles over the admission of China to the United Nations. He did not advocate its admission; he only wished that the United States not press for its exclusion. Dulles said America had to press: otherwise American public opinion would be con fused and lessen its support for the tough policies of its government. “I said that I could very well understand this but that I shuddered over the implications of it; for it implied that we could not adopt an adequate defense position without working our people up into an emotional state, and this emotional state, rather than a cool and unemotional appraisal of national interest, would then have to be the determinant of our action.”
The third charge made by Kennan is that American foreign policy has been frequently shaped by domestic political pressures of the most shortsighted and self-interested kind. Near the end of the Second World War, Kennan wrote in his diary,2 “Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy toward areas remote from its own territory. Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.” Too often a policy-maker asked himself not: “How effective is what I am doing in terms of the impact it makes on our world environment?” but: “How do I look, in the mirror of domestic American opinion, as I do it? Do I look shrewd, determined, defiantly patriotic, imbued with the necessary vigilance before the wiles of foreign governments?”
Taken together, these elements add up to one of the most sustained onslaughts on American political capacities ever made. That Tocqueville suggested the same failings more than a century ago hardly makes it easier for Kennan to adopt a philosophical attitude. That other countries, especially other democracies, suffer from the same failings would doubtless give Kennan little consolation, even if such an easily demonstrable fact entered his purview. Kennan is quite obviously beyond consolation. Whenever a touch of satisfaction shows itself in any of his writing, its source is rarely the feeling that the American government has skillfully executed some policy intelligently prepared; luck or superabundant resources have come to its rescue.
It is the American character, in sum, against which Kennan mounts his attack. To be sure, he is generous toward individual Americans: almost every time he introduces a personage in his Memoirs, he finds something flattering to say. (A rare exception is Ambassador Joseph E. Davies.) Kennan is even nice to Dean Acheson, who a few years ago spoke scurrilous words against him in lectures delivered at the University of Connecticut. In the first volume of his study of Soviet-American relations during 1917-1920, Russia Leaves the War, Kennan has a just and beautiful sentence for John Reed, the author of Ten Days that Shook the World. Kennan writes of that young man whose romantic passion he finds unacceptable: “And through this tale, as through the whole bizarre record of his adventures and mistakes, there runs the reflection of a blazing honesty and a purity of idealism that did unintended credit to the American society that had produced him, the merits of which he himself understood so poorly.” In that small book of historical regrets, American Diplomacy, Kennan can still find it possible to say: “I should be most unhappy if anything said in these lectures should seem a mark of disrespect for such men as John Hay, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, or Henry Stimson. These men embodied that pattern of integrity of mind and spirit, moderation and delicacy of character, irreproachable loyalty in personal relations, modesty of person combined with dignity of office, and kindliness and generosity in the approach to all who were weaker and more dependent, which constitutes, it seems to me, our finest contribution to the variety of the human species in this world and comes closest to embodying our national ideal and genius.”
But it cannot be denied that there is an immense difference of temperament that separates Kennan from his country. His congenital tendencies to feel remote and distinct from all around him (described with a chilling honesty and remarkable expressive force in the first chapter of the Memoirs) were reinforced both by his vocation as diplomat and by hateful changes in American life. At the start of his career he realized, after a brief trip home, that “Increasingly, now, I would not be a part of my country, although what it had once been would remain a part of me. I, not being a part of it, would nevertheless understand it. It, being still to some extent a part of me, would nevertheless not understand me.” He says he is truly at home only in the 18th century, which for him was the time of clarity, awareness of limitations in life, and, most important, realism.
Kennan’s best statement of his realism is in Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954). Its underlying philosophical premise is that the good behavior we demand of individuals in a settled society cannot possibly be the standard for the behavior of states. Though not named, Hobbes stands in the background of Kennan’s thought. Relations among sovereign states are so filled with peril, yet additionally so filled with opportunities for aggrandizement, that ordinary human nature must be expected, in this anarchy, to be obsessed with power, with its acquisition, maintenance, extension, and display. Against this force of human nature nothing moral can prevail. “. . . Let us not assume that the purposes of states, as distinct from their methods, are fit subjects for measurement in moral terms.” The world is a bad place: “strife, suspicion, and rivalry” (as Kennan puts it in his great book, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin) are the facts of its international life. Worldliness is the only sanity, the worldliness which Kennan ascribes to the Haps-burg court in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire and which Western democrats found to possess “too much charm, too much skepticism and despair, too little righteousness, too great a tolerance of human weakness.” (Again, these words come from Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin.) Concretely, the American national interest is defined by the need “. . . to prevent the gathering together of the military-industrial potential of the entire Eurasian land mass under a single power threatening to the interests of the insular and maritime portions of the globe.” The five great centers of military-industrial strength are America, Britain, Japan, Germany, and Russia. Britain and Japan are safe; Germany must remain safe. That should be the key consideration of American foreign policy.
Kennan does not fret about the underdeveloped countries, and is supported in his indifference by the weight of his temperament. At the beginning of the Memoirs, he tells us that he was never able to “identify” with the exploited anywhere. And in Russia, the Atom and the West (1958), he questions the urgency felt for rapid economic development, and rejects “. . . the suggestion that our generation in the West has some sort of a cosmic guilt or obligation vis-à-vis the underdeveloped parts of the world.” In an extraordinary and un-typically hasty judgment he says, “The Marxists claim, of course, that colonialism invariably represented a massive and cruel exploitation of the colonial peoples. I am sure that honest study would reveal the thesis to be quite fallacious. Advantages, injuries, and sacrifices were incurred on both sides. Today these things are largely bygones.”
In candor, it must be said that Kennan does not sustain his realism through all his writing. Leaving aside for the moment his response to Stalinist Russia, we can detect a number of serious qualifications of that realism. I point these things out not to censure Kennan, but only to suggest that he, like any realist, must now and then be mercifully led away from his philosophy to utterances and attitudes that betray some tenderness.
Of such qualifications the first is that with one part of his soul he hates politics. Though he has spent much of his life as a servant of power, he shows no delight in the horrible beauty of its effects; he never seems to have been intoxicated by the pleasures of action and manipulation. It can only be a deep moral sense that has kept him alive to the brute fact that the use of power means pain and loss for some, and corrupt pride for others. In this regard he resembles Senator Fulbright more than any other American statesman. Quite in passing, he refers in Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin to “the cruelty of politics and . . . the personal amorality which is the concomitant of high political authority.” But that passing remark is not casual: Kennan’s true mind is expressed. It is expressed again in a majestic passage in the Memoirs: “Objectives were normally vainglorious, unreal, extravagant, even pathetic—little likely to be realized, scarcely to be taken seriously. People had to have them, or to believe they had them. It was part of their weakness as human beings. But methods were another matter. These were real. It was out of their immediate effects that the quality of life was really molded.”
A second qualification comes out in Kennan’s reflections on the future of Soviet society. Writing in the 1950’s on this matter, he indicated that perhaps one day the Soviet Union could evolve into a nation that was more humane domestically. Supposedly, such an outcome would be beneficial because a less totalitarian society is less of a threat to the world: it contains fewer internal tensions which, in a sinister manner, are projected onto international relations. There was no need for Russia to become a democracy. In any case, it is presumptuous to insist that others be what we are: “. . . let us not assume that our moral values, based as they are on the specifics of our national tradition and the various religious outlooks represented in our country, necessarily have validity for people everywhere.” As a good American, Kennan could comfortably espouse such relativism. But no one who read him could doubt that some part of his hope for a better Russian future derived from the simple wish to see the Russian people enjoy more freedom and security—for their own sake. The mask of relativism falls off now and then to disclose a man who ponders other things than power.
A third qualification concerns Kennan’s role in the formulation of the Truman Doctrine for Greece and Turkey. He approved the assistance given to these countries for the purpose of resisting Communist pressure. But the reasons for his approval are inconsistent. On the one hand, he took exception to the passages in Truman’s statement that made it seem as if the United States were engaged in a struggle to defend democracy wherever it was threatened, or were indeed aiding Greece in order to keep it democratic. He found such language altogether too sweeping and too emotional—too unrealistic. On the other hand, he could warn in a speech to the War College that the defense of Europe against Communism was not a problem of “external security alone.” He said, “Remember that in abandoning Europe we would be abandoning not only the fountainheads of most of our own culture and tradition; we would also be abandoning almost all the other areas in the world where progressive representative government is a working proposition. We would be placing ourselves in the position of a lonely country, culturally and politically. To maintain confidence in our own traditions and institutions, we would henceforth have to whistle loudly in the dark. I am not sure that whistling could be loud enough to do the trick.” I imagine that this last opinion could be seen as a “higher” realism; but I would prefer to see it as an unmistakable moral commitment that does honor to its author.
Qualified or not, realism is the principle by which Kennan professes to have governed his career of advice and policy-making. And the American response to the events of the 30’s and the war years constantly offended his realism. Kennan’s reputation since 1950 is that of a man warning against overreaction to Soviet moves, pleading for a non-military solution to the problems of divided German and communized Eastern Europe, cautioning against the view of the Soviet leadership as a band of devils, insisting that his principles could in no way justify American intervention in Vietnam. I suppose it would be fair to say that in the last fifteen years or so, he had been closer to Adlai Stevenson in outlook than to any other prominent American.
But the Kennan of the 30’s and 40’s would seem to be, at first sight, radically divergent from the Kennan we think of today. He would claim that he has been consistent all through the years; that his realism and awareness of limitations in life accounted for his earlier positions as they accounted for the more recent ones. He would claim that the death of Stalin, and the rupture between Russia and China, have radically transformed our relations to Communist states, and permit us to contemplate possibilities of cooperation with at least Russia. It may be remarked incidentally, however, that Kennan has never made clear how Russia’s international behavior has, in fact, changed since these momentous events. Some would say that the old Soviet malignity is still there, as cunning and as resourceful as ever, and has left the old and stable European field for fields more exploitable, like Africa and Latin America. Some would say that there is doubtless continuity in Soviet behavior from Stalin’s time to our own, but that that behavior has always been marked by essentially defensive and extremely prudent purposes: that Khrushchev and his successors are no different from Stalin, they are only more likable and use much less terror at home. A few would even say that Stalin’s successors have been interventionist and energetic in ways that Stalin himself would have found deplorable. Who can tell with any certainty?
In any case, a mere mention of what Kennan stood for as a young diplomat is truly amazing.
Making allowance for the later, and comparatively minor revisions which he records as he goes along, we still arrive at the following series of opinions of events as they unfolded. Writing about himself at the beginning of his career, he said: “Never—neither then nor at any later date—did I consider the Soviet Union a fit ally or associate, actual or potential, for this country.” A persistent theme of the Memoirs, as it is of much of his other books, is that the need to rely on the power of the Soviet Union in coming to terms with Nazi Germany was an unprecedented catastrophe—so monstrous was the Stalinist regime, so unyielding in its hatred of the West, so bent on destroying Western civilization was it. Russian fear for its security in the 30’s is discounted as not being genuine: the paranoia of Soviet ideology and the convenience of attributing hostile intent to outsiders for the purpose of intensifying repression at home are considered the main determinants of Stalin’s foreign policy.3 He deplored the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, because he felt that one of the props of European stability had been removed. (How odd of Kennan to think, as he does, that the problems resulting from World War I could have been solved by recreating the conditions that helped bring on the war.) In thrall to this nostalgia, he came to Prague at the time of Munich without that “sentimental enthusiasm” for Benes and the Czech Republic that others had. He gave a qualified endorsement to the Munich agreement; to the forces unleashed by Hitler, Czechoslovakia had been “tragically slow in adjusting herself.” He wrote off any possibility of cooperating with the Soviets to restrain Hitler. In 1940, Kennan could say that Hitler was “acting in the best traditions of German nationalism.” When at last Russia and America were wartime allies, he remained rigid in his antagonism, and wanted America to be as aloof from Russia as practicable. Needless to say, he was distressed by the Yalta agreements, and by the creation of the United Nations Organization. After the war, he opposed denazification, the trial of war criminals, and all policies that looked to retribution or punishment. And he opposed extending any further aid to the Soviet Union at the war’s end.
In explanation of the latter position, he recounts a journey he took through Russia shortly after the cessation of hostilities, when he saw the extent of the ruin. He acknowledges that “The sufferings they had recently undergone were enormous. These sufferings had been incurred partly in our own cause.” But our indebtedness to the Soviet Union should not be allowed to blind us to the enormity of Stalin’s regime. In a moral accounting that was, one can reasonably think, so delicate as to be callous, Kennan concluded: “People and regime . . . were bound together in a common dialectical relationship, so that you could not help people without helping regime, and you could not harm regime without harming people. In these circumstances it was better, surely, to try neither to help nor to harm, but rather to leave people alone. It was, after all, their predicament, not ours.”
Are these the views of a realist—even a qualified realist, a realist bred in the democratic tradition? By some narrow definition perhaps they are. But is a realist supposed to be so certain that a force he hates cannot be used to serve his own aims? Can a realist be so choosy in the matter of friends and enemies? Was there not something besides realism at work in Kennan’s mind during this period of time?
I suggest that Kennan sounds very much like a European burgher, filled with an evangelical anti-Communism, and prepared to sanction almost any remedy for Communism if a really manageable one could be found. By no means can Kennan lay claim to the tradition of Talleyrand. He may say that Germany “was a country with which I was never able to identify extensively in the personal sense.” It nevertheless is true that the sentiments—and sentiments there assuredly are—implicit in his whole line of reasoning in the 30’s and 40’s are unmistakably pro-German. They are the kind one associates with the old established classes in much of Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe.
A crystallization of these sentiments can be found in an anecdote Kennan tells on himself. In September 1945 he made a short trip to Finland from Russia. On entering Finland, he records, “A peasant cart drove up with a family in the back. The family might well be hungry, but the horse was fat and sleek and trotted with a happy briskness which no Russian horse possesses. Over the entire scene there lay the efficiency, the trimness, the quietness, and the boredom of bourgeois civilization; and these qualities smote with triple effect on the senses of a traveler long removed from the impressions of bourgeois environment.” Who would wish to deny him his revulsion for Stalinism? Still, revulsion is not the usual basis for a realist policy.
There are several places in the Memoirs where Kennan’s own emotionalism is vividly present. He says, “. . . I was opposed to any elaborate program of denazification. I had no sympathy with the Nazi leaders; but I was most reluctant to see us associate ourselves with the Russians in judging and punishing their conduct.” The sight of German prisoners of war marching through Moscow struck him as odious, and forced on him the recognition that “. . . I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would.” Knowledge of the Katyn massacre so unbalanced Kennan that he could say, “What was bothering Stalin was not, . . . just the desire to have a ‘friendly government’ on the other side of the Polish frontier. What was bothering him was the need for the collaboration of any future Polish political authority in repressing evidences and memories of actions by Soviet police authorities in the period 1939-1941, for which no adequate and respectable excuse could ever be found.” Stories of other Russian atrocities led him to ask, “Was this . . . the sort of victory we had hoped for? Was the price not such as to make a large portion of the victory unreal?” The Soviet occupation of East Prussia he reckoned as a disaster that “has no parallel in modern European experience.” He says shockingly that “I cannot recall that I felt any great elation over the end of the war in Europe” (and with marvelous candor then recounts his disdain for the victory celebration in Moscow).
A true realism is even-handed. It does not consist in believing that one crime excuses another or that an allied dictator is less heinous than an enemy dictator. But it does demand sensitivity to the distinction between the aggressor and his victim, however appalling the victim. It does demand more sensitivity to the deep, unfeigned fears of the Soviet Union in relation to Germany, and to the suspicions it had of the West. It does demand more sensitivity than Kennan had to the unbelievable sufferings endured by the Russian people during World War II—sufferings greater by far than those of any other combatant. It does demand understanding of the craving for restitution, even for revenge, by the victim. It does demand that the observer acknowledge that the primary Soviet motivation, after the war, was to make up for her losses at the expense of those who made war and inflicted such losses upon her. Kennan’s early and exemplary feelings about the use of nuclear weapons, his judgments concerning the Soviet anxieties that brought on the Czech coup of 1948, the first Berlin crisis, and the Korean war, are admirable. However, they do not compensate for what he says about events in the period of 1935-1948. And when one reads again the famous X article of 1947, one can easily see why it could be put to the unremitting and pugnacious uses which Kennan would eventually find so mortifying.
In relation to the Soviets there is, then, a heavy moralism in Kennan’s own principles, heavier in the years of active service than later, but always there. Suppose, however, we ignore it, and take his realism at face value, take it as he wants us to take it. Suppose we pretend that all his advice derived from alarm at the possibility that the American national interest would be sacrificed to an ungrateful, inhuman, and unappeasable ally. Suppose we grant Kennan that an innocent, a childish inexperience permitted the United States to entertain hopes of working with Stalin to stop Hitler; permitted the United States to lend itself to some of Stalin’s schemes during World War II; permitted the United States to deceive itself, in the warmth of wartime feeling, into thinking that the Russians really could be won over by acts of trust and generosity; permitted the United States to remain blind, for a while after the war, to the real nature of Soviet ambition. Suppose, that is, that we grant to Kennan the periodic existence of moralism in the conduct of American foreign policy—to leave aside the other traits Kennan dislikes, the legalism and the influence of “vocal minorities.” Suppose that we assume that American moralism was entirely free of manipulation by any realists who may have held power in America. Suppose we pretend that moralism, whatever its intention, is wholly devoid of any ingredient of unconscious realism.
A large question still remains. In the abstract, which is to be preferred: Kennan’s realism pure, or America’s incurable moralism? Couldn’t a strong case be made for the latter? Notice what Kennan’s realism costs. It costs the range of impulses and feelings usually included in that vague but meaningful phrase, “democratic morality.” What would this country become, if its leaders and led were exclusively “realist”? It is sickening to think that all our power and energy would be spent without an accompaniment of generosity, sympathy, remorse, some measure of trust, some degree of optimism regarding the human nature of our adversaries as well as our allies. Indeed, what must this country have been like if it could determinedly set itself against Russia even before the war with Germany was over? Is such behavior to be expected from a democracy? What must this country have been like, if it did not feel “elation” at the war’s end? If it did not expect the world after the war to be better than it was before? If it did not forgive Russia something for its sufferings, and make some effort—naive and awkward though it was—to come to terms with that country?
Of course these impulses and feelings can go astray; worse, they can turn into their opposites, and produce recklessness and hysteria. But if suddenly they were to be choked off, what would that indicate about the domestic life of the country? Wouldn’t our democracy die from too much realism? What, besides pure power, would be left? To ask and say these things is not to be soft-minded or to overpraise our society—although it is to think more of it than Kennan is prepared to do.4 We sit and worry about the war in Vietnam, and Kennan sits and worries with us. But would it be too far wrong to say that if the war is not to go on indefinitely in its hideous way, the cause will lie in American “moralism”—not in cowardice or war-weariness, and certainly not in Kennan’s realism?
Ironically, it is not far-fetched to say, though he may deny it, that Kennan’s decency, not his realism, moves him to condemn the war. Given America’s preponderant power, which is aching to be displayed; given all the interests pushing American imperialism on; given all the troubles that seem to invite their solution at the expense of the outside world, Kennan’s style of realism and sense of limits do not stand a ghost of a chance of interposing a countervailing weight to the appetites and presumption of American leadership. It is excellent to rebuke American energy when it is mindless, as Kennan does when speaking of the Spanish-American War: “. . . the American people of that day, or at least many of their more influential spokesmen, simply liked the smell of empire and felt an urge to range themselves among the colonial powers of the time, to see our flag flying on distant tropical isles, to feel the thrill of foreign adventure and authority, to bask in the sunshine of recognition as one of the great imperial powers of the world.” Much of that still holds. But only moral outrage can tame or defeat it. Hope—if hope is thinkable—comes from the expectation of a surge of common, humane, perhaps innocent feeling. Isn’t such feeling the one potential check on the American empire? Isn’t such feeling the one possible hindrance to future Vietnams?
1 Memoirs: 1925-1950, Atlantic-Little, Brown, 503 pp., $10.00.
2 Selections from Kennan's diaries are interspersed throughout the Memoirs. Sometimes he follows a selection with a comment meant to qualify it in the light of afterthought or later events.
3 It must be said that in his Soviet Foreign Policy 1917-1941 (1960), Kennan's emphasis is greatly altered. His masterly exposition here stresses the perils Russia did indeed face.
4 See, for example, the cold comments made by Kennan at a symposium, and reprinted in Raymond Aron, ed., World Technology and Human Destiny (Ann Arbor, 1963).