K2: Kissinger on Kennan


George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

Former SECSTATE and grand old man of the American foreign policy establishment, Dr. Henry Kissinger, had an outstanding NYT review of the new biography of George Kennan, the father of Containment, by eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis:

The Age of Kennan

….George Kennan’s thought suffused American foreign policy on both sides of the intellectual and ideological dividing lines for nearly half a century. Yet the highest position he ever held was ambassador to Moscow for five months in 1952 and to Yugoslavia for two years in the early 1960s. In Washington, he never rose above director of policy planning at the State Department, a position he occupied from 1947 to 1950. Yet his precepts helped shape both the foreign policy of the cold war as well as the arguments of its opponents after he renounced – early on – the application of his maxims.

A brilliant analyst of long-term trends and a singularly gifted prose stylist, Kennan, as a relatively junior Foreign Service officer, served in the entourages of Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. His fluency in German and Russian, as well as his knowledge of those countries’ histories and literary traditions, combined with a commanding, if contradictory, personality. Kennan was austere yet could also be convivial, playing his guitar at embassy events; pious but given to love affairs (in the management of which he later instructed his son in writing); endlessly introspective and ultimately remote. He was, a critic once charged, “an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling.”

For all these qualities – and perhaps because of them – Kennan was never vouchsafed the opportunity actually to execute his sensitive and farsighted visions at the highest levels of government. And he blighted his career in government by a tendency to recoil from the implications of his own views. The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.

John Lewis Gaddis was George Kennan’s official biographer, a relationship that can contradict and complicate the task of a historian to tell us “like it really was” by growing too close and protective of the subject. On the other hand, Kennan’s unusual longevity and undimmed intellectual brilliance into his tenth decade permitted Gaddis a kind of extensive engagement with Kennan that was exceedingly rare among biographers.

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