George F. Kennan

The Book of the Week is “George F. Kennan, An American Life” by John Lewis Gaddis, published in 2011. This is the biography of an emotionally troubled American diplomat, an expert in Russian– the language and mentality– who became known for his historical writings on the Cold War power struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union; the struggles arose from the the two rivals’ weaponry and opposing ideologies.

Born in February 1904 in Milwaukee, Kennan was raised by his three older sisters and other relatives after his mother died in spring 1904. His father was 52 years old.

In 1910, Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor. The city was a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Northern European immigrants. Kennan graduated from a military school, then from Princeton University. The Foreign Service had recently become a civil service job, comprised of Northeastern elitists.

After passing its two exams, starting in 1927, Kennan was posted to Geneva, then Hamburg, then on to Estonia to learn Russian. He met his 21-year old wife in Norway. They eventually had four children. After stints in Riga in Latvia, and Prague, he spent most of the rest of his career in Berlin, Moscow, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.

In 1944, as WWII was winding down, Kennan tried to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sternly warn the USSR not to expand geographically. Roosevelt, in a tough position, argued that the Allies couldn’t win the war without the USSR’s military assistance, so he had to tread lightly with Stalin; Harry Truman, too. The president had to deal with one issue at a time. Those men in Los Alamos couldn’t say how soon the atomic bomb would be ready. That was the kicker.

Stalin tried a divide and conquer strategy– to drive a wedge between the United Kingdom and the United States so they would fight. Nevertheless, after the war, they became best friends.

For the second time, and it wouldn’t be the last, Kennan submitted a letter of resignation, as he perceived that his counsel and advice were being ignored. Nevertheless, he was convinced to stay on at the Foreign Service. He read the classic novels and plays of Tolstoy, Chekhov and others to understand the Soviets’ behavior.

In February 1946, Kennan sent a telegram which later became famous, urging the United States to take a hard line with the Soviets. But it was already too late. Six months later, he “…saw how Soviet ambitions, American complacency, and British weakness might combine to upset the balance of power in Europe.”

According to the author, Kennan’s input for the Marshall Plan– whose purpose was to financially aid the then-needy, war-ravaged European nations (with the true goal of warding off a Communist takeover)– was to suggest to offer such aid to the Soviets knowing Stalin would reject it. Stalin also told the Soviet satellites to reject the aid. The Americans then knew which countries needed help (in countering Communism).

In summer 1947, Kennan recommended that the sixteen countries split up the aid themselves rather than let the United States decide, so that way, the USSR couldn’t claim the United States was acting imperialistically. The recipients could spend the funds on food, arms– whatever they wanted.

Around that time, the US established the CIA. Kennan agreed that the organization should conduct covert operations to keep up with the KGB. He later regretted agreeing on that issue.

The US couldn’t afford to politically, militarily and financially help all nations vulnerable to Soviet domination, but Kennan advised President Truman on which regions were most at risk, and where America’s resources should be deployed. He told him to cease assisting Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai Shek because Stalin had already staked out strategic military locations within striking distance of China, and China posed a minor threat to the US, having a shaky economy anyway.

In short, Kennan believed in particularism– a practice of selectivity in taking action against the Soviets. The newly formed United Nations believed in universalism– all nations should share and share alike, regardless of cultures and ideologies.

In early 1948, the Soviets took over the Czechoslovakian government. In the spring, in a lesser wrong, America meddled in Italy’s election– threatening to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the government if people voted for the Communist party instead of the Social Democrats. Additionally, Italian Americans wrote lots of letters to the Vatican, which told Italian voters for whom not to vote.

In January 1957, pursuant to the Suez Canal Crisis, President Eisenhower signed legislation based on the doctrine that the United States would financially and militarily assist any Middle Eastern nations vulnerable to Communist influence.

In 1978, Kennan became a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Due to his prolific writing and prominence, he got special treatment– continued to be treated like a full-time professor. Private donors such as the Rockefeller family, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and Warren Buffett funded his continued tenure.

Read the book to learn why Kennan was expelled from the US embassy in Moscow, of a proposal that would result in German reunification in the 1950’s, of one step Eisenhower took in deciding the Soviet question, of Kennan’s activities after his Foreign Service career, of America’s relationship with Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito, and much more.