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The Gift of the Wise Man: George F. Kennan's Clear-Eyed Worldview

By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page C01

The first time I set out to find George F. Kennan, in 1982, I had just turned 21, begun my final semester at Princeton University and noticed with astonishment that the senior thesis deadline had crept to within four months. It occurred to me that Kennan might make a worthy subject, and that the thing to do was go and tell him so. That had occurred to others, I found. At last count, the university archives hold 13 undergraduate theses with Kennan's name in the title.

Kennan, who died Thursday, declined the honor, and two years passed before we met. He had a pitiless rule against speaking to undergraduates. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and perhaps the best-known diplomat of his times, he had made the Institute for Advanced Study, a mile from campus, his home in exile from a government that had its fill of him decades before. He saw himself, at 79, as a man with his most urgent work before him and all too little time.

Kennan in his Princeton office. In lectures he described containment as a policy not of "counterforce" but "counterpressure." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Early in 1984, I sent Kennan the manuscript of a book I wrote, based largely on 38 boxes of his papers stored at Princeton's Seeley G. Mudd Library. (Another six boxes, more personal, were restricted until after his death.) Could he possibly look the book over, if only for errors? Some weeks later an envelope arrived, addressed in an elegant script gone wobbly with age.

"Compelled by weariness to lie down for a time," Kennan had taken a grudging break from work and picked up my manuscript. Though he was flattering enough, he admitted that there were passages to which he was tempted to reply. He did not. It was not proper, he said, to seek influence over the book.

That self-restraint should not be confused with lack of self-regard. World events, Kennan believed, had taken two disastrous turns, military and environmental. Kennan was sure he understood the truth and was tormented by failure to explain things clearly enough for others. John Lewis Gaddis, Kennan's authorized biographer and the only person yet to read his private diaries, said yesterday that they remind him of John Quincy Adams -- "lacerating himself" for "not living up to the standards that a very tough and demanding God might expect."

Not long after his letter arrived, Kennan invited me to the first of several lunches. He presented himself, rather ruefully, as an anachronism. Tall, blue-eyed and gravely dignified, with Wisconsin Presbyterian roots, he described himself as a guest of his times, a better fit for the 18th century than the 20th. He was nonetheless absorbed in -- oppressed by -- contemporary affairs.

Ever the outsider, even at the peak of his influence, Kennan had sunk into gloom. Modern industrial society, in thrall to the pernicious automobile, was poisoning the air and water in ways that might already defy repair. President Ronald Reagan, stepping up confrontation with the Soviet Union, was taking what Kennan saw as reckless risks in deploying new nuclear weapons to Western Europe.

What maddened Kennan was that Reagan, like his forebears since Harry S. Truman, prosecuted the Cold War in the name of Kennan's own seminal doctrine, "containment." In his "Long Telegram" of 1946 from Moscow, reprised in the pseudonymous "X article" in Foreign Affairs the following year, Kennan answered frustrated superiors who demanded to know why the Soviet Union -- so recently an ally -- was proving intractable after Hitler's defeat. He transformed the prevailing view of the communist government, describing it as implacably hostile, ambitious to expand, and yet fraught with internal contradictions that would lead to "the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." America's task, he wrote, was to buy time for that collapse, confronting the Soviets "with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world."

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Kennan came "as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history." After reading through Kennan's papers, and speaking to him at length, I became convinced that Kissinger was no more than half right. Kennan also had the misfortune to be credited with a doctrine he did not recognize or approve.

Kennan's containment was not a military endeavor. In lectures at the National War College, he spoke not of "counterforce" but "counterpressure." Containment's primary instruments, as Kennan saw them, were political and economic. As early as 1948, he took vehement exception to the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, predicting that it would cement the division of Europe into opposing military blocs. He bitterly opposed development of the hydrogen bomb, which multiplied the destructive power of atomic weaponry. And he despised the Truman Doctrine, which called for military support to governments threatened by communist insurrection, liberally defined, anywhere in the world. Later he became an early critic of the Vietnam War, called for abolition of nuclear weapons and disparaged President Bush's war in Iraq.

By 1950, Kennan's successor as chief of policy planning in the State Department, Paul Nitze, had redefined containment -- in a classified report known as NSC 68 -- as a major military buildup against a Soviet military threat. Thus it remained, with ups and downs, until Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union. Kennan's prediction had come true, but he took scant pleasure in the means.

When I heard the news of Kennan's death, I reread one of his most striking metaphors.

"I sometimes wonder whether . . . democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin," he wrote. " . . . He is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat."

Kennan was describing the roots of World War I. It occurred to me yesterday that Kennan's sardonic metaphor might have struck him anew in the "war on terror" he departed in progress at the age of 101.

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