Mark Danner

Review: Mark Danner on a New Biography of George Kennan

A review of Frank Costigliola's biography, Kennan: A Life between Worlds
Cover of Frank Costigliola's new biography: Kennan: A life Between Worlds

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Sometime in the early 1990s, in the lofty precincts of the White House and the State Department, there commenced what came to be known as the “Kennan Sweepstakes.” As the first post-Cold War President, Bill Clinton vouchsafed his senior officials a solemn task: come up with a single phrase that would characterize the goals of US foreign policy and replace the Cold War’s grand strategy of “containment.” It was diplomat George Frost Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia, who famously had coined that term in his celebrated “Long Telegram” from Moscow setting out US policy, and it was containment that had seemed to triumph on November 10, 1989, when the Berlin Wall gave way before the overwhelming press of freedom-seeking Germans. With the Soviet Union gone, what would take containment’s place as the lodestar of US policy? At a State Department dinner honoring the nonagenarian diplomat—as Frank Costigliola, Kennan’s latest biographer, recounts—Secretary of State Warren Christopher conveyed the president’s request. The Great Man was not amused. He took the opportunity to caution against employing a “bumper sticker” that would encourage “great and misleading oversimplification of analysis and policy.” President Clinton, informed of this grave admonition, laughed with delight. “Well,” he said, “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

Throughout his long life (he died in 2005 at the age of 101), Kennan was pulled between the poles of “Eros and Civilization,” or so Frank Costigliola assures us with wearying frequency. By this he means that the stalwart, conservative Midwesterner was whipsawed between the erotic, creative life (he had extramarital affairs and suffered endless guilt over them, he longed to be “free” to be a poet or novelist) and the demands of duty to his country and to the rational give-and-take of diplomacy. Perhaps. But it may be that Clinton, with his quicksilver intelligence, came closer to suggesting the dichotomy that turned Kennan’s lofty abilities and even loftier ambitions into tragedy. Kennan certainly achieved vastly more than all but a very few diplomats of the last century; but he wanted more, he wanted “to drive American policy” and in particular to put an end to the Cold War, and in that task, after his drafting of the Long Telegram in 1946 and the “X article” that followed the next year, he was forced to judge his life a failure. What’s more—and here is the hamartia of the tragedy—he’d failed because he’d trapped himself in his own success. “The containment of Kennan by the containment doctrine,” as Costigliola neatly puts it, had frustrated his ambition to negotiate an end to hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union: Kennan’s much touted grand strategy had produced a half-century Cold War that wasted trillions of dollars and perpetuated the risk of Armageddon. This—and especially the world-threatening reliance on nuclear weapons—Kennan deeply deplored.

So: A man has an idea and the idea is so powerful it seizes the imagination of … everyone who had the ability to make it a reality. But they get his idea wrong, and the man is fated to spend his life trying and failing to escape it. The so-called Wise Men who shaped foreign policy in the fifties and sixties—Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and Policy Planning chief Paul Nitze and others—understood containment as confronting the Soviet Union with the threat of military force and maintaining that threat until the adversary collapsed. Constant conflict, then as now, offered advantages and profits to many. But Kennan meant his version of containment to last only a decade or so and to serve as a foundation for rational negotiations (preferably carried out by America’s leading Russian expert: himself) that would produce a pullback of both superpowers from Europe, leaving a reunited and lightly armed Germany as the continent’s anchor. Kennan spent decades after the Long Telegram trying to persuade the government to negotiate an end to the Cold War and was confronted in turn with his very own policy, militarized—or, what is worse, nuclearized. It was like finding in the mirror every morning a distorted version of his own face.

It is a marvelous story and on the whole Costigliola tells it well. Apart from an annoying tendency to chide Kennan with anachronistic complaints about misogyny and other contemporary failings—rather than illuminating, the author condescends— Costigliola writes well and is well attuned to Kennan’s frustrations and his triumphs. His main problem is one he shares with all biographers whose subjects write better than they do. It is the quotations that stand out gorgeously with elegance and clarity. “The problem with George,” as his great adversary Dean Acheson put it in an oft-repeated quip, “is that he writes so damned well that he can convince you of anything, including some of the worst ideas.” So he could. Kennan writes captivatingly with a kind of weathered, grainy American prose that smacks of Henry Adams. From policy telegrams to descriptions of his beloved Moscow to diary excerpts about the mother he never knew, his prose glints and sparkles. He was cantankerous, dismissive of modernity, poisoned by racism and anti-semitism and other common sins of his generation; but reading so much of him, experiencing at first hand his precise and inquisitive and questing intelligence, his deep identification with the natural world and his eloquence about its destruction, gives a great lift to the narrative.

Only on the matter of love does one mourn a bit the man’s discretion, for of his many affairs he forbears to confide to his diary the pleasures or indeed any of the specifics, only the guilt he assails himself with afterwards. If only he hadn’t put his vast powers of description aside and settled for hints and intimations, we might have a sense of what kind of novelist he would have made. Alas his Midwestern decorum means we shall never know.

And who, finally, was the winner of Clinton’s “Kennan Sweepstakes”? After many months, Clinton’s national security adviser finally suggested, as the administration’s “bumper sticker” for a grand strategy of the United States  “expanding market democracies.” Containment it was not, and the phrase, mercifully, came and went with alacrity. More seriously, the opportunity for any meaningful realignment in post-Cold War Europe was wasted. Against Kennan’s fervent admonitions the Clinton administration and its successors settled for the “dead hand” of an expanded NATO in Europe—in effect, continuing militarized containment while moving it eastward. The risk they took, as Kennan foresaw, was that Cold War hostilities would one day return—and indeed they have. Once again the great man looked farther ahead than anyone else—and once again his warnings, however exquisitely phrased, were fated to go unheard.