Author Interviews
3:01 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

A New Look At The Man Behind U.S. Cold War Policy

Originally published on Wed December 7, 2011 4:55 pm

For much of the Cold War, George F. Kennan was America's best-known diplomat and a leading Soviet scholar. His reputation was based in large part on the 1947 essay he wrote on containment, the Cold War policy that said the U.S. should neither forcefully confront nor meekly appease the Soviets.

Rather, the U.S. should seek to contain Soviet expansion, power and influence in the belief that the communist system would eventually collapse on its own. The U.S. largely adhered to Kennan's road map until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian of the Cold War, had access to Kennan's diaries, even a dream diary, though he agreed not to publish his work while Kennan was alive. Kennan, who died in 2005, lived to be 101.

By the time Gaddis' book, George F. Kennan: An American Life, came out last month, Kennan, a man who for so many years needed no introduction, had become someone unfamiliar to a generation of Americans. NPR's Robert Siegel talked with Gaddis on All Things Considered.


Interview Highlights:

On George F. Kennan and his big idea:

"Well, if you had to single out one individual who probably did more than anyone else in coming up with the big idea of how the second half of the 20th century could be less dangerous than the first half was, I think Kennan would be right up there at the top of the list.

"Within the context of the end of World War II, when we went through this abrupt transition of the Soviet Union having been our glorious ally, and then suddenly emerging as an unexpected adversary, many people did see only two choices. One was World War III, and the other was appeasement of the kind that had indeed led to World War II. So what Kennan showed was the middle path between those two extremes."

On Kennan's criticism of American democracy and culture:

"A major theme in George's life ... was his extreme distrust of democracy. It's paradoxical, because history will regard him, I think, as one of the greatest defenders of democracy for the containment strategy. But George himself was extremely impatient with democracy because he saw it as interfering with the kind of precise thought that would be necessary to conduct an intelligent foreign policy.

"I think it's fair to say that George Kennan holds some kind of record for despair. He was never comfortable with what he was doing, particularly if it involved his own country and his own culture. But I think what he tried to do was to hold America to impossibly high standards."

On why the book wasn't published until after Kennan's death:

"We both felt strongly that the only way that you can write a good biography is to write it with the guarantee that the subject of the biography will not read it. George was a good enough historian that I did not have to persuade him of that. The only thing that surprised us both when we made this deal in 1978 was that we thought it would be coming out at some point shortly in the next decade or so. And it never occurred to either of us that he would live for 30 more years. And of course, George being George, regarded his longevity as a grave personal failing. So I would repeatedly, in the last 20 years or so, get phone calls in which he would apologize profusely for living and thereby delaying the biography."

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There is an ironic twist to the publication of John Lewis Gaddis's new biography of George F. Kennan. For decades, Kennan was America's most famous diplomat, the country's top Russia scholar, the author of the Cold War-era policy of containment of the Soviet Union. Even in retirement, when Kennan spoke, ambassadors and secretaries of state trembled and rushed to do damage control.

Professor Gaddis, who is a Yale historian of the Cold War, had access to Kennan's diaries - even a dream diary. And the agreement was to publish after Kennan's death. Kennan lived to be 101, he died in 2005 and that's the irony. By the time Gaddis's book, "George F. Kennan: An American Life," came out last month, Kennan - a man who, for so many years, needed no introduction - had become someone unfamiliar to a generation of American readers.

Professor Gaddis, welcome to the program.

PROFESSOR JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And for the benefit of younger listeners, by that I mean, say, people under 40, in a nutshell, who was George F. Kennan?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GADDIS: Well, if you had to single out one individual who probably did more than anyone else in coming up with the big idea of how the second half of the 20th century could be less dangerous than the first half was, I think Kennan would be right up there at the top of the list.

SIEGEL: Yes, we should explain that containment may have been decried from the left as a policy that provoked the Soviet Union into a Cold War that might have been avoided. And for the right, it was something far short of what was really needed - liberation of nations held captive to communism.

But really, after the Second World War, this was a way of saying the U.S. doesn't have to give in to Stalin and Moscow in everything, and that doesn't mean we have to have World War III.

GADDIS: That's correct. Within the context of the end of World War II, when we went through this abrupt transition of the Soviet Union having been our glorious ally, and then suddenly emerging as an unexpected adversary, many people did see only two choices. And one was World War III, and the other was appeasement of the kind that had, indeed, led to World War II. So, what Kennan showed was the middle path between those two extremes.

SIEGEL: And if the U.S. to the middle path, as Kennan saw it, it would not respond to every Soviet or every communist advance in the same way. It would decide where should we check Stalin's advances; where is it worth it; where can we succeed.

GADDIS: I think that's right. We had to decide, in our own minds - as Kennan saw it - first of all, what was important to our security. And he did not believe that maintaining some kind of a global military presence was that important. But he also had a second idea and this was that Stalin, although he is a totalitarian, he's not Hitler. He does not have some kind of fixed timetable for aggression.

And so, if you put these two things together and then add one third component, which is the illogic of the Soviet system, Kennan was arguing there was time. If you could be patient, the Cold War could eventually end peacefully. And really, to a remarkable extent, in 1946-1947, he sees how it ends in 1989-'91.

SIEGEL: I want to play you something that George Kennan said on NPR in 1993, when he was already pushing 90. He was despairing of the influence of politics on the making of foreign policy during, as he said, during 26 years in the foreign service.

DR. GEORGE F. KENNAN: We were supposed to be acting in the national interest and to report to our government, to inform our government as to where the national interest was with relation to given countries. And for that reason it's been very hard for many of us, who are in the career, to forgive our government for its flaccidity and its weakness in the face of special political interests.

SIEGEL: What are you hearing there?

GADDIS: Well, I hear someone who is in very good shape as he's pushing 90. But I hear something else that was a major theme in George's life, which was his extreme distrust of democracy. It's paradoxical because history will regard him, I think, as one of the greatest defenders of democracy for the containment strategy.

But George himself was extremely impatient with democracy because he saw it as interfering with the kind of precise thought that would be necessary to conduct an intelligent foreign policy.

SIEGEL: He seems also to have despaired of American consumerism, American highways, automobile traffic...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...American big-city life, American culture - and generally, Americans.

GADDIS: I think it's fair to say that George Kennan holds some kind of record for despair. He was never comfortable with what he was doing, particularly if it involved his own country and his own culture. But I think what he tried to do was to hold America to impossibly high standards.

SIEGEL: Professor Gaddis, one of the most appealing and impressive things about George Kennan, as he emerges from your biography, is that his approach to foreign policy analysis went way beyond smart and even creative. He was imaginative. He wrote like a novelist. He wrote poetry very often. And he thought you could understand Russia better by reading Chekhov and Dostoevsky than by reading Marx and Lenin.

GADDIS: Absolutely. He drew enormous influence from Russian novelists and writers of the 19th century. So, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and especially Chekhov. George regarded himself, in the end, as a failure in life because he never completed his biography of Chekhov. And that's what he really wanted to do.

SIEGEL: He was a very tormented soul in many ways. He seems to be a man who was programmed to feel that he wasn't doing good enough.

GADDIS: Well, I think you're right on target. And this is partly a Calvinist upbringing in Milwaukee. But I think the real key to it is something that he mentioned to me the very first time we talked about the biography. He said you have to understand that it's very important that my mother died two months after I was born, and that I was scarred for life by not having a mother. And I think that's the key to understanding much of his inner torment.

SIEGEL: I'm trying to understand the arrangement with George Kennan, that this book be published posthumously. That was something that you worked out...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You worked out many decades ago.

GADDIS: Yes, we did.

SIEGEL: How old was George Kennan when he said, okay, but wait till I'm dead?

GADDIS: George was 78. I was 40. We both felt strongly that the only way that you can write a good biography is to write it with the guarantee the subject of the biography will not read it. The only thing that surprised us both, when we made this deal in 1978, was that we thought it would be coming out at some point surely in the next decade or so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GADDIS: And it never occurred to either of us that he would live for 30 more years. And, of course, George being George, regarded his longevity as a grave personal failing. So I would repeatedly, in the last 20 years or so, get phone calls in which he would apologize profusely for living...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GADDIS: ...and thereby delaying the biography.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: I have to say that since nearly every chapter seems to include a hospitalization or a serious illness, the notion that he would break a hundred is not entirely obvious. Wouldn't be obvious...

GADDIS: It is not entirely obvious, not at all. And yet, he was a pretty robust character in the long run.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Gaddis, thank you very much.

GADDIS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University. He is the author of "George F. Kennan: An American Life." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.