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The passing of George F. Kennan has not gone unremarked in the blogosphere and the MSM but it was a curiously underwhelming reaction to the death of the author of the most important grand strategy in American history since Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Perhaps, had Kennan died in 1992, the posthumous commemoration would have matched his achievement. By dying at the venerable age of 101 in 2005, Kennan lived to the point where the end of the Cold War had become, to the iPod generation, ancient history. Lumped vaguely together with Vietnam, Fireside Chats and perhaps the Gettysburg Address.

The most intellectually suitable response to Kennan’s death that I read anywhere can be found at The Glittering Eye. Dave Schuyler undertook a serious examination of Kennan’s ideas and contrasted them with those of Walter Lippman, Containment’s most reasoned critic and the godfather of modern punditry. It was a superb post. From a historigraphic standpoint, I must strongly recommend the efforts of independent scholar Russil Wvong and Marc Schulman of The American Future, both of whom offered an extensive set of links and bibliographical resources for those who wish to experience George Kennan’s view firsthand.

A noticeable and negative ” revisionist” tendency appeared in many of the Kennan articles and posts as writers felt compelled to qualify Kennan’s ideas with his pessemistic outlook and misanthropic, reactionary views on democracy. Daniel Drezner commented:

“Even when his writing was clear, Kennan’s foreign policy vision was not always 20/20. He opposed NATO expansion in the nineties, convinced it would have disastrous consequences. When he was in power, he bitterly railed against congressional influence over foreign affairs, and then changed his tune later in life. Kennan never gave a flying fig about the developing world, believing that it never would develop. Kennan’s narrow world vision consisted only of the five centers of industrial activity — the US, USSR, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. By the early nineties, when he wrote Around the Cragged Hill, he clearly believed the U.S. to be doomed to decline and devoid of “intelligent and discriminating administration.” And the less said about Kennan’s view of non-WASPs, the better. “

From the Chicago Tribune, historian David Engerman wrote:

“But Kennan’s most curious writing in the 1930s–and the most infamous among the large circle of academic Kennanists–was an essay called “The Prerequisites.” It argued that providing the vote to women, immigrants, African-Americans had degraded American politics (and perhaps American women). Better, he thought, to have a group of statesmen care for these “dependents” than allow them to control their own destiny, let alone their nation’s. He seemed surprised when the essay came in for criticism in a dissertation in the early 1970s; only then did he remove “The Prerequisites” from Princeton’s archive.

But by the late 1970s, Kennan proposed that a Council of State, selected by the U.S. president from a slate of worthies, look after America’s interests.Kennan’s anti-Democratic impulse underlay his foreign-policy positions. His call for “realism” in foreign relations–acting solely on the basis of national interest–was a plea for the fickle American public to leave diplomacy to diplomats like himself better able to discern the country’s interests.”

Drezner and Engerman are correct that George Kennan held some incredibly archaic philosophical views on important subjects. Frank charges of sexism and racism can be made and while that would not be unusual in a man born in 1905, Kennan’s disdain for his countrymen was of a more general misanthropy. The frequent media comment is that Kennan’s elitism was more at home in the 18th century than the 20th or 21st. This is not quite correct, Kennan would have been uncomfortable with the Enlightenment optimism of the Founding Fathers except perhaps with Hamilton and Adams when they were in their darkest and most skeptical moods. Kennan, it seems to me, had more in common, psychologically and politically, with the Patrician optimates of Cicero’s day than with even the American revolutionaries who later became high Federalists.

In any event, while true, such observations about Kennan, when juxtaposed to his ideas give the former a false relevancy. Historically, Kennan’s sour ruminations on fellow Americans are interesting but relatively insignificant. Had Kennan launched a movement to say, repeal the 19th and 15th amendments that had even a moderate political impact, then these rants might be worthy to lay side by side with The Long Telegram. Their inclusion in his obits have a lot to do with bowing to current academic fashion, lest the authors be accused by PC critics of covering up Kennan’s warts. It is a good thing for Kennan that he was a man of conventional sexual tastes or we’d surely be treated now to lurid stories of cross-dressing or sexual harrassment in the Moscow embassy.

More relevant was how Kennan’s growing antipathy for his own country affected his foreign policy views. Over time,Kennan gradually came to reject substantial aspects of Containment which he regarded as ” overly militarized” and provocative to the Soviets. Indeed, he believed that much of what constituted the Cold War could have been avoided and was strangely uninterested for a geopolitical strategist in the large swaths of the Third World that were coming under Soviet influence in the 1960’s and 1970’s. By the early 1980’s, Kennan was substantially at ease with the implications of the Brezhnev Doctrine and viewed the Reagan administrations attempts at what Kennan would have called ” counterpressure” with suspicion. Given Kennan’s trepidation over nuclear armaments a fair argument could be made that he had been daunted by the potential costs of opposing Soviet military power. Or sought to use Soviet might as an excuse to urge his country out of the superpower role in world affairs that Kennan found distastefuly unrealistic.

Even this caveat, remains secondary to the magnitude of Kennan having crafted the Containment strategy, a tool that proved useful for the United States even when it swiftly moved from Kennan into the hands of other wise ( and not so wise) men. A strategy sound enough to survive errors in execution many times over for a span of decades.

George F. Kennan was a giant.


Two Kennan retrospectives worth reading come from two blogs intimately involved in foreign affairs. CKR of Whirledview writes of Kennan:

“Kennan’s so-called errors came out of his search for balance, hence his trepidations about admitting the Baltic States into NATO. Much as I appreciate the value of extending this military umbrella to people I love, I can also see that repercussions of this decision may eventually be more negative than positive. We haven’t seen the full outcome yet, and I just don’t know that Kennan won’t be proved right.”

A useful point to remember for American policymakers.

And at the Daily Demarche, Dr. Demarche sees the resonance in Kennan’s analysis of the Soviet challenge with today’s struggle with militant Islamism:

“The Cold War may be over (I reserve the right to comment on that topic later), but Kennan’s 1947 piece still rings true today, and is just as applicable to the struggle against Islamic radicals as it was against communism. Read the following excerpt of the X piece and substitute Islam or Islamo-fascists for Russia/Soviets/Soviet Union “.

The germ of a good cross-blogospheric debate is in that paragraph.

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