George Kennan (by John Lukacs)

Cold War Realist

Sunday, April 22, 2007


A Study of Character

By John Lukacs

Yale Univ. 207 pp. $26

The messy collision with reality that has befallen the Bush administration's freedom agenda and democracy crusade in the Middle East has meant a comeback for the foreign policy doctrine known as realism. But lest we become too enamored of unadulterated realism, with its unsentimental insistence that national interests take precedence over ideals, it's useful to study one of realism's foremost philosopher-practitioners, the Cold War diplomat and historian George Kennan. John Lukacs is the perfect writer to provide an assessment that is insightful, respectful and (less intentionally) cautionary. A distinguished historian and political philosopher in his own right, Lukacs was a friend and longtime correspondent of Kennan, who died at age 101 in 2005, and they shared an aversion to populism and a preference for rule by enlightened elites.

Kennan was at his best as a diplomatic observer, whose polished dispatches were clear-eyed and prescient. He relished being an outsider, but one of his cables made him the Truman administration's most influential inside strategist at the outset of the Cold War. In February 1946, when he was the No. 2 man in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he wrote an 8,000-word missive, the "Long Telegram," outlining a strategy of Soviet containment.

Kennan went on to write an influential piece, whose author was identified only as "X," in Foreign Affairs magazine and then helped to put together the Marshall Plan to rescue war-ravaged Europe. But he soon drifted back to the sidelines of power as a pessimistic commentator, and by 1950 moved to Princeton, where he spent most of the remaining half-century of his life.

Kennan's roots as a realist thinker came from a cold view of national interests, narrowly defined, and a dark view of human nature. That made him a traditionalist and a conservative, even though his sharpest critics came from the right. In a passage that gives a revealing taste of his book, Lukacs goes so far as to paint him, admiringly, as a lonely dissenter among the worshipers of progress: "He believed that people, and especially Americans, have reached a time when they must rethink the entire idea of 'progress.' That alone may -- I shall not say it will -- qualify him as more than an intellectual, more than a conservative, more than a traditionalist: a lone voice of prophet, a conscience of his nation."

Lukacs remains sympathetic throughout this brief book, but he provides grist for those who might have qualms about Kennan's brand of realism. From his early days as a foreign service officer to his later ones as a sage in Princeton, Kennan was unabashedly dubious about democracy. He approved of authoritarian regimes and was contemptuous of America's middle class. He also disdained the role of morality, as opposed to calculated national interests, in foreign policy; he resisted allowing more Jews to immigrate to America after Hitler took power, and he was cool toward America's entry into World War II.

Others, most notably the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, will eventually produce fuller biographies of Kennan. Lukacs's literate, elegant and slim volume is more of an appreciation than a biography. Yet in that regard, it is both useful and timely, especially as the United States begins yet another century of trying to weave together its national interests, which Kennan understood so well, and its moral impulses, which he did not. *

-- Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, is the author of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

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