John Lukacs on George Kennan: The Conscience of America

Yale University Press has published a small gem of a book, John Lukacs’s George Kennan: A Study in Character. Reading it was both a delight and surprise.

First, the book was delightful, because Mr. Kennan (whom I’ve long admired) represented the United States at its best. As Mr. Lukacs concludes: “He was an extraordinary man, who not only represented but incarnated some of the best and finest traits of American character.” [p. 1] Kennan was not only a justly famous diplomat, learned scholar, uniquely gifted writer and renowned Russia expert, who mastered German, Russian and French, he also was dutiful, patriotic, honest, self-effacing, decent, judicious, religious, practical and wise — a singularly polished diamond in the American rough.

Second, the book was a surprise, because Mr. Lukacs showed himself to be a kindred spirit.

George Kennan was born on 16 February 1904. From Kennan’s own brief description of his childhood, we learn: “I lived, particularly in childhood but with lessening intensity right on into middle age, in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them.” [p. 13]

Perhaps, the key to his developing character was his impulse to write. As Mr. Lukacs notes, “some time around the age of twenty this shy and solitary young student started to write – to write for himself alone.” And “he kept writing: diaries, letters, travel journals, notes for himself [for] eighty years.” Borrowing from T.S. Elliot, Mr. Lukacs believes that Kennan’s motive for writing was his “desire to vanquish mental preoccupation by expressing it consciously and clearly.” [p. 4]

And vanquish he did! According to Mr. Lukacs, Kennan became a better thinker and writer than Henry Adams [p. 6] and, by 1933, “the best and finest American writer about Europe at that time,” even better than Hemingway [p. 30]

Yes, Europe. After four unhappy years at Princeton, where he remained one of the “lower-class ‘pariahs,'” and after qualifying for a position in the Foreign Service, Kennan spent most of his next 25 years in Europe. He received his first permanent posting, as vice consul, in Hamburg.

Although he found Hamburg in 1928 to be fascinating, Kennan soon concluded that a career in the Foreign Service “did not suffice his mind.” [p. 25] He planned to resign before learning about the Foreign Service’s program for allowing “some of its young members to enroll in a European university for three years of graduate study, for the purpose of special language and area studies Kennan chose Russian for his subject, and Berlin for his university.” [p. 26] He spent the next five years abroad, mainly in Berlin, Tallinn, and Riga (and marrying a Norwegian, Annelise Sorensen), before returning to the United States in 1933.

In the course of studying Russian and Russia, Kennan refined his anti-communism p Precisely because he concluded that “nationality was more decisive” than Marx’s class struggle, he came to believe that “Russia was, and remained, Russia, communist or not.” [p.33]

Significantly, Kennan’s “visceral and intellectual” critique of Marxism and communism was matched by his distaste for liberal democracy and recent developments in the United States. Not only did he regard any state that permitted its domestic politics to prevail over the state’s true interests to be “wrong and immoral,” [p. 33] he “found a civilization dependent upon automobiles contemptible.” [p. 37]

Neither did America’s two main schools of foreign policy meet with his approval. Kennan soon “found the Wilsonian internationalist idea of Making the World Safe for Democracy illusory and dangerous, as well as the, for him, corrupting belief in American omnipotence, with its temptation of American involvement in any or every corner of the world. But the nationalist and populist isolationism of the twenties repelled him, because of its shallow belief in America as a Chosen People, because of its narrow-mindedness, because of its willful ignorance of the rest of the world.” [p. 23]

Such was the worldview that Kennan took to Moscow, as he accompanied William Bullitt, America’s first ambassador, to the Soviet Union in late 1933. And, although he served four “good” years [p. 35] in Moscow, “Kennan came to see the prospect of American relations with the Soviet Union darkly, which he, himself, admitted was “a far cry from the outlook of FDR himself and particularly of those whom he was soon to choose as advisors on policy toward the Soviet Union.'” [p. 37]

Most serious, however, was Kennan’s dark and fateful June 1941 observation, reaffirmed during the summer of 1944, that the Soviet Union would never be a fit ally of the United States. [p. 49] Not only did such a view put him at odds with the wartime Soviet policy of President Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill) and FDR’s vision of the post-war world; when Kennan’s dark views became national policy during the Truman administration, they helped to doom the U.S. and USSR to a post-war Cold War — regardless of future Soviet behavior.

Rather than viewing Kennan’s dark views as a whole, Mr. Lukacs faults him for failing to see the Soviet Union as an indispensable wartime ally, yet credits his “Long Telegram” of February 1946, his singular contributions to the Marshall Plan and his famous “X” article (which, in 1947, laid the intellectual foundation for the “containment” of the Soviet Union) for persuading the United States to “react against the aggressive behavior of the Soviet Union.” [p. 96]

Fatefully, Kennan’s long telegram electrified officials in Washington during the months preceding America’s successful test of the atomic bomb. Although, in 1946, he already found it necessary to deplore “the hysterical sort of anticommunism which is gaining currency in our country,” [p. 78] years later Kennan would acknowledge: “I seemed to have aroused a strain of emotional and self-righteous anti-Sovietism that in later years I will wish I had not aroused.” [Kennan, At A Century’s Ending, p.38]

Armed with self-righteous anti-Sovietism and the bomb, the Truman administration not only refused to acknowledge the spoils that should have gone to the Soviet victor in Europe (indeed, one should credit the Red Army, not U.S. or British forces, for winning World War II in Europe), it also hypocritically reversed FDR’s policy of securing a Soviet pledge to enter the war against Japan precisely because, as Truman observed, “I was not willing to let Russia reap the fruits of a long and bitter and gallant effort in which she had no part.” [Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, p. 164]

Consequently, one can fault Mr. Lukas for failing to examine the role that self-righteous possession of the bomb played in the Truman administration’s attempt to confront the Soviet Union, especially given his opinion that “the American reaction in 1946-47 was not premature but overdue.” [p. 96]

Beyond Kennan’s own words about his role in arousing self-righteous anti-Sovietism, we also have a recent study by Mary Glantz (FDR and the Soviet Union), which asserts that, when one discounts the opposition by professionals in the State Department, “from 1943 to 1945 there was remarkable congruence in the most significant postwar aspirations of both the United States and the Soviet Union.” [p. 153] Ms. Glantz concludes that, after the death of President Roosevelt, “the formulation and implementation of foreign policy reverted to the very bureaucracy Roosevelt had ignored and mistrusted for twelve years.” [p. 177]

Moreover, although Mr. Lukacs certainly is correct to observe that, by 1948, Kennan’s views “of the Cold War and the world were drifting away, more and more, from the main course preferred by others,” [p. 99] in fact, as early as 1946-47, while teaching at the National War College, Kennan viewed the bomb’s “recent use against Japan as a regrettable extremism, born of the bad precedent of conventional strategic bombings of the war just ended and of the military fixations to which that war had conduced.” [Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion p. xiv]

Soon, Kennan would warn against “the militarization of ‘containment;’ against the permanent establishment of American military bases around the globe; against going beyond the 38th parallel in Korea; against the encirclement of the Soviet Union and attempts to overthrow its government.” [p. 128] By 1952, he recognized the impending rise to power of Nikita Khrushchev, whose secret speech of 1956 led Kennan to consider how new leaders in the Soviet Union might bring “significant changes in the condition of the Cold War.” [p. 136] (Such insights were reached at a time when most Sovietologists and military analysts were extolling the applicability of the bankrupt “totalitarian” model of Soviet politics.)

Increasingly, Kennan would excoriate the insatiable appetite of America’s military-industrial-complex and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy it fostered — while simultaneously observing how seldom the buildups and shrill rhetoric corresponded to actual Soviet behavior. Moreover, he was struck by “that curious law which so often makes Americans, inveterately conservative at home, the partisans for radical change everywhere else.” [p. 162]

Although the “collapse” of the Soviet Union proved that “the author of ‘containment’ had been right,” [p. 151] Kennan spent much of the Cold War period attempting to prevent or correct many of the U.S. policy abuses committed in its name. For his efforts, no less a personage than Mikhail Gorbachev honored him by asserting: “Mr. Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be a friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you.” [p. 151] One can only second Mr. Lukacs’s observation: “That was George Kennan’s apotheosis.” [p. 151]

It was from such an exalted position that Kennan would demolish claims, made by Republicans, that the militarism of the Republican Party, especially under the leadership of President Reagan, had won the Cold War. Demolishing with impeccable wisdom, Kennan asserted: “the suggestion that any American administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous political upheaval, in another great country on another side of the globe is intrinsically silly and childish.” [p. 181]

Unfortunately, such “intrinsically silly and childish” views were not only nurtured and propagated during the late 1970s and 1980s by America’s neoconservatives and militarists, during the late 1990s they were repackaged for use against Iraq by a “profoundly shallow” (as Kennan called him) president, George W. Bush.

In addition to Kennan, the world-class diplomat and Russia expert, Mr. Lukacs also finds Kennan to be a great historian. Thus, he devotes twenty pages to such significant books as, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, Russia Leaves the War, The Decision to Intervene, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin and two additional books, described by Mr. Lukacs as “magisterial;” The Decline of Bismarks’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 and The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War.

Yet, notwithstanding his many accomplishments, Mr. Lukacs’s believes that George Kennan’s most significant contribution to the world derived from his stature as “the conscience of America.” [p. 152]

According to Mr. Lukacs, by 1953, Kennan came to conclude that the evils of American anticommunism were a greater danger to the country than communism. [p. 130] In fact, Mr. Lukacs found Kennan’s opposition to American anticommunism of sufficient historical significance to merit the appending of Kennan’s courageous 1953 speech at the University of Notre Dame to his book. It was during that speech that Kennan confronted the terrors of McCarthyism — at a time when few were willing to challenge the great witch hunter. (That speech and its applicability the witch hunting practiced by would-be media McCarthyites today will be examined in Part Two of this article.)

Mr. Lukacs also take great pains to demonstrate that the rise of American conservatism since the 1950s “advanced together with the popular belief of American omnipotence, with the spreading of hundreds of American military bases all around the world, with the willingness to employ American military power halfway across it, with the sense of an American hegemony, moving inexorably and with few interruptions from the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon through Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.” Thus it seemed to be quite ironic that Kennan, “this profoundly conservative and traditionalist American found that his worst adversaries were American ‘conservatives.'” [p. 131]

Yet, if one agrees with a few of Mr. Lukacs’s definitions, conservative (especially neoconservative) opposition to Kennan becomes easy to understand. After all, Kennan was a patriot, not a nationalist: “becuase patriotism is defensive, while nationalism is aggressive; because patriotism is traditionalist, while nationalism is populist; because patriotism is the love of one’s land and of its history, while nationalism is a viscous cement that binds formless masses together. A patriot will be concerned with a nation’s faults.” [p. 132]

In Kennan’s view, American nationalism, if not the American mind in general, suffered from “a willful ignorance beneath which there was something worse, a kind of national self-adulation.” [p. 153] Thus, in 1982, he felt it necessary to caution America’s nationalists about the destructive effects of a nuclear war:

“[T]he readiness to use nuclear weapons against other human beings – against people whom we do not know, whom we have never seen, and for whose guilt or innocence it is not for us to establish – and in doing so, to place in jeopardy the natural structure upon which all civilization rests, as though the safety and the perceived interests of our own generation were more important than everything that has ever taken place or could take place in civilization: this is nothing less than a presumption, a blasphemy, an indignity – an indignity of monstrous dimensions – offered to God!” [“A Christian’s View of the Arms Race,” The Nuclear Delusion p. 207]

And in 1984, Kennan asked Americans to consider that the power of example is far greater than the power of a hypocritical commandment, instruction or order:

“Let us present the world outside our borders the face of a country that has learned to cope with crime and poverty and corruption, with drugs and pornography – let us prove ourselves capable of taking the great revolution of electronic communications in which we are all today embraced and turning it to the intellectual and spiritual elevation of our people in place of the enervation and debilitation and abuse of the intellect that television now so often inflicts upon them. Let us do these things, and others like them, and we will not need 27,000 nuclear warheads and a military budget of over $250 billion [ahem!] to make the influence of America felt in the world beyond our borders.” [p. 179]

Unfortunately, one only needs to look at the ease with which “profoundly shallow” President Bush, Darth Cheney and the jingoistic neocons manipulated Americans into supporting their illegal, immoral war in Iraq, to see how little influence even the great and moral George Kennan has exerted over this God-forsaken United States.

Yet, even here, Mr. Kennan may again have the last word. In February 2003, just a month before Bush unleashed his evil war against Iraq, Kennan wrote the following letter to his nephew:

“I’m finishing this letter on the morning when, according to the press, the United Nations Security Council (weeping over the absence of the French) is supposed to take some action giving sanction to an early attack, almost exclusively by ourselves, on the present regime of Iraq. There is now not the slightest reason to doubt that this action will be undertaken at the earliest day, probably some three weeks off, when the military preparations are complete. What this is doing has already acted like a burning match to dynamite for the American media, particularly television, which immerses itself delightedly in what it already perceives as a new war. I take and extremely dark view of all of this, — see it, in fact, the beginning of the end of anything like a normal life for all the rest of us. What is being done to our country today is surely something from which we will never be able to restore the sort of country you and I have known.” [p. 187]

We should all applaud John Lukacs, not only for giving us such a fine character sketch of “the conscience of America,” but also for courageously publishing Kennan’s letter to his nephew, notwithstanding Kennan’s request that it be destroyed. Lukacs knows, as does this reviewer, that thanks to Bush, Cheney and the despicable neocons, “we will never be able to restore the sort of country you and I have known.” Still, we must try.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.