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The Paradox of George F. Kennan

By Richard Holbrooke
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page A19

George F. Kennan, who died last week at 101, was a unique figure in American history. I greatly admired him but disagreed with him profoundly on many critical issues, and, in the 35 years I knew him, I often reflected on this strange paradox.

His extraordinary memoirs had made the idea of a life in the Foreign Service seem both exciting and intellectually stimulating to me. He had watched Joseph Stalin at close hand, and sent Washington an analysis of Russia that became the most famous telegram in U.S. diplomatic history. This was followed closely by the most influential article ever written on American foreign policy, the "X" article in Foreign Affairs, which offered an easily understood, single-word description for a policy ("containment") that our nation was to pursue for 40 years -- with ultimate success.


George F. Kennan (1983 Photo Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)

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To a young, aspiring diplomat, Kennan's career suggested that good writing and the study of history -- both in short supply in the government -- could really matter. No one in government ever wrote better than Kennan, and this was a critical component of his success; the same ideas expressed less cogently by others did not have the same impact. But Kennan was deeply ambivalent about the writings that had catapulted him to world fame. He felt lonely, conflicted and even anguished over his famous works, which, in retrospect, he felt were simplistic and had been misused by people he deplored. Yet his work inspired the hardheaded power politics that shaped the Cold War.

As editor of Foreign Policy, I once edited Kennan, an experience not easily forgotten. On the 25th anniversary of the X article, I asked him for an interview. He refused because of what he felt was the imprecision of the spoken word, but he offered to answer questions in writing. It was a generous gesture toward a tiny, unknown journal then challenging the prestigious quarterly that had made him famous. But editing Kennan was beyond difficult. He agonized over every comma and every adjective and revised regularly as the deadline approached. Having written in his memoirs that his 1946 "Long Telegram" read in retrospect "exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees," and that his X article was riddled with "serious deficiencies" that "inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff," Kennan did not want to be misunderstood -- or misused -- again.

Dean Acheson once told a Yale student named Bob Woodward, who was writing a thesis, that Kennan reminded him of his father's old horse who, when crossing wooden bridges, would make a lot of noise, then stop, alarmed by the racket he had caused. I printed this wonderful description alongside the Kennan interview in Foreign Policy. (Wonder whatever happened to young Woodward.)

When Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, defected, she went briefly to Princeton, and I arranged to bring Kennan's old Moscow boss, Averell Harriman, to Kennan's house for dinner. We sat, transfixed, as she told us bitterly that she had longed to meet the two great Americans (and their daughters) in wartime Moscow but was forbidden to by her tyrannical father. It was a small footnote to history, but Harriman, Kennan and Stalin's daughter meeting for the first time, 30 years after Stalin had prevented it, gave new layers to the human dimensions of history.

In 1996 Kennan went to Columbia University to hear a speech by Pamela Harriman, Averell's widow and, at that time, ambassador to France. A distinguished group, including Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state and one of Kennan's greatest admirers, gathered for dinner afterward in the home of Columbia's president. After dessert we asked Kennan to speak, giving him no advance warning. The 92-year-old legend rose slowly, and in a weak, high-pitched voice, delivered a flawlessly constructed and fairly brutal attack on one of the pillars of the Clinton administration policies Talbott and I were most closely associated with, the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Kennan's warning that enlarging NATO would destabilize Europe -- "an enormous and historic strategic error" -- carried the dinner audience with its eloquence and sense of history. Events, of course, proved Bill Clinton right, and Kennan -- and the bulk of the liberal intellectual community -- wrong. But in a sense, Kennan that evening was fulfilling his true role in American foreign policy: not the brilliant architect of containment but an eloquent skeptic, forcing people in power to make sure their easy justifications stood up before his polite but ferocious criticism. In today's Washington, with its emphasis on orthodox thinking, such a person could never rise inside the government, and even in 1947 it was almost an accident. This is a great loss, because, as the life of George F. Kennan shows, individual, original thinking by one lonely person can sometimes illuminate and guide us better than all the high-level panels and commissions and interagency meetings.

We disagreed on many issues: his belief in the need for a "council of elders" -- really a plea for the power of elites -- to contain the excesses of democracy; his 19th-century attitude toward Africa; his view that the promotion of human rights and democracy was a terrible, morally arrogant mistake; and his advocacy of a deal with Moscow over American troops in Europe. He had accurately predicted, at the end of the Cold War, the outbreak of ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, but he did not understand the need for American involvement in the problem, let alone the use of military force to end the Balkan wars. "Why should we try to stop ancient ethnic hatreds?" he asked me one day in the dark-paneled library of his house in Princeton. He shook his head as I tried to explain. He had been ambassador to Yugoslavia, and I wanted him to understand -- to agree with me -- as a sort of stamp of approval from one generation to another in the Balkans. But, though, as always, he was polite and gracious -- and he loved the intellectual combat -- he was firm in his disagreement. He was our greatest diplomat, and I admired him for his intellectual courage, but there was no bridging the gap.

Richard Holbrooke, an ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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