K2: Kissinger on Kennan

I will be reading this book. Incidentally, Kennan’s own writings, notably his memoirs and his analysis of a totalitarian Soviet regime, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin are classics in the field of modern American diplomatic history, alongside books like Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. They are still very much worth the time to read.

The Gaddis biography will stir renewed interest and wistful nostalgia for Kennan at a time when the American elite’s capacity to construct or articulate persuasive grand strategies have become deeply suspect. Kennan himself would have shared the popular pessimism, having nursed it himself long before such a mood became fashionable.


Cheryl Rofer weighs in on Kennan at Nuclear Diner

….Although the telegram and article did not deal explicitly with nuclear weapons, they were the basis for the strategy of containing, rather than rolling back, the Soviet Union and thus the arguments in the 1950s against attempting to eliminate the Soviet nuclear capability and in the 1960s against the same sort of move against China. Similar arguments continue today with regard to Iran.  

 Kissinger writes a sketch of Kennan himself and adds some of his own thoughts on diplomacy. The historical context of Kennan’s insights that he presents is worth contemplating in relation to today’s situation. How much of Cold War thinking can be carried into today’s thinking on international affairs, and how should it be slowly abandoned for ideas that fit this newer world better?

Addendum II.

Some fisking of Henry the K. by our friends the Meatballs:

Kissinger refers to Dean Acheson as “the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period.”  False modesty or a ghostwriter?  Gotta be one or the other, but we are leaning towards the former because no Kissinger Associates staffer would risk the repercussions from making a call like that.

Kissinger – the great Balance of Power practitioner – admired that Kennan (at least at times) shared his Metternich-influenced approach:

Stable orders require elements of both power and morality. In a world without equilibrium, the stronger will encounter no restraint, and the weak will find no means of vindication.


It requires constant recalibration; it is as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise. It implies a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity. The practitioners of the art must learn to put the attainable in the service of the ultimate and accept the element of compromise inherent in the endeavor. Bismarck defined statesmanship as the art of the possible. Kennan, as a public servant, was exalted above most others for a penetrating analysis that treated each element of international order separately, yet his career was stymied by his periodic rebellion against the need for a reconciliation that could incorporate each element only imperfectly

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5 comments on this post.
  1. Cheryl Rofer:

    And you get a hat tip for suggesting this, which wound up as the Special of the Day at Nuclear Diner. I’ve added a few comments of my own.
    But did you steal the headline? I guess it’s pretty obvious. 😉

  2. zen:

    LOL! No, did not steal but great minds think alliteratively 🙂
    Will add your post in an addendum link…..

  3. Lexington Green:

    This one goes in the notional "list" for now.  But I do want to read it.  I have the Kissinger essay printed out to read later on.  Kennan’s discussion of how fast the USSR would fall apart once the Party’s grip on power weakened was amazingly prescient.  

  4. J.ScottShipman:

    Gaddis is such a good author I can’t imagine not eventually reading this title. That said, the reviews I’ve read seem almost enough. Kennan’s ideas about America don’t appeal to me — one reason I’ll eventually add this to the list, but not with enthusiasm.
    I’m reading The Forum and The Tower by Mary Ann Glendon (a Harvard law professor)—and she takes on tangentially the complaints of many of how we miss guys like Keenan—the trade-off between philosophers and politicians. Her chapters on Plato and Cicero are worth the price of three books. The Cicero chapter was good enough to read twice. {Complete disclaimer: I’m a big fan of Cicero.} 

  5. Joseph Fouche:

    Kennan and Kissinger understood the peril of American exceptionalism but not its promise. That is the tragedy of geopolitical nerds.