At a Century's Ending by George F. Kennan
At a Century’s Ending: Reflections 1982-1995
by George F. Kennan
Norton. 351 pp. $27.50
Twentieth-Century American intellectual life has witnessed more than a handful of extraordinary political Odysseys connected with the USSR. In the most familiar pattern—exemplified by, among others, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, and James Burnham—a period of intense and youthful devotion to the Communist cause is followed by equally intense disillusionment, and then by a shift toward some new resting point on the ideological spectrum, quite often to the Right of the political divide.
One American intellectual who has moved in a different and quite peculiar direction is George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat who has spent the past 40 years—he is now in his nineties—engaged in scholarly pursuits at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His latest book, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily during the USSR’s final years, makes manifest the strange byway down which he has walked.
We meet the man at both ends of his long pilgrimage in At a Century’s Ending, in effect, we meet two George F. Kennans. The first—a brilliantly evocative eyewitness of contemporary history, and a stern proponent of resoluteness toward the Soviet Union—appears in chapters which bring us back to some key moments in his diplomatic career.
Thus, writing in the present tense, he recreates here the atmosphere in Moscow in 1937, when Stalin’s show trials were in full swing. Kennan was then serving as an aide to the new American ambassador, Joseph Davies, “a shallow and politically ambitious man who knows nothing about Russia.” Together the two Americans attended the trials—“the visible tip of the immense iceberg of terror and cruelty that is now crushing Soviet society.”
I, sitting next to him, whisper into his ear what I can of the proceedings. He understands nothing of what is really going on. He even thinks the accused are genuinely guilty of the preposterous charges to which they are confessing, and he sententiously pronounces this opinion, during the intermission, to the assembled American journalists. But I do know what is going on; and the sight of these ashen, doomed men, several of them only recently prominent figures of the regime but now less than 24 hours away from their executions—the sight of these men standing there mumbling their preposterous confessions in the vain hope of saving themselves, or perhaps, members of their families, from disaster, the sight of their twitching lips, their prison pallor, their evasive, downcast eyes—is never to leave my memory.
Almost ten years later, in the winter of 1946, Kennan returned to Moscow to assume the second ranking position in the embassy. A cable arrived from Washington expressing bafflement at Stalin’s uncooperative policy in the wake of World War II. “[F]illed with impatience and disgust at this naiveté,” Kennan writes, again recreating the scene in hindsight, “I sit down and draft a preposterously long telegram . . . describing, as though in a primer for schoolchildren, the nature, the ambitions, the calculations” of the men running the Soviet Union and the internal forces that made them seek “security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power.” This “long telegram”—distributed widely within the foreign-policy machinery of the government, and compulsory reading for senior military officers up and down the chain of command—would have a profound impact on the official U.S. view of the USSR.
The following year, Kennan, now in Washington in a senior State Department slot, presented his bleak vision of the Communist danger to the broader public, together with a proposal for dealing with it. Writing in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X,” he offered a strategy of “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Kennan’s article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” became perhaps the single most influential document of postwar American foreign policy, the intellectual scaffolding of the doctrine of containment.
If At a Century’s Ending offers a capsule introduction to Kennan’s career as cold warrior, it also provides more than an ample glimpse of his outlook 40 years on. By the 1980’s, as these essays make dear, his view of the world had come full circle, and even a few odd degrees beyond that. He was still an advocate of containment—no longer, however, of the USSR, but of a country he had come to regard as even more dangerous to peace on earth, namely, the United States.
Thus, in an essay written during the third year of the Reagan administration, Kennan saw the U.S. as driven by inexorable and dangerous internal forces very much like those he had perceived in the Soviet Union in 1947. One such internal force was the American military, “an establishment,” as he puts it here, “largely outside the perimeter of democratic control.” So “institutionalized” was the U.S. commitment to the arms race that the government was “very little responsive to public opinion or indeed to external pressures of any sort.” Indeed, the situation in this country had deteriorated to the point where the entire Soviet-American relationship bore the “familiar characteristics, the unfailing characteristics, of a march toward war—that and nothing else.”
If pressures in the United States were drawing the world toward Armageddon, the Soviet Union, by contrast, now possessed, in Kennan’s updated judgment, more benevolent intentions than we had been led by our journalists, politicians, and generals to believe. “What is called ‘Soviet behavior,’” he argued in another essay from the 1980’s reprinted in At a Century’s Ending, “is, in far higher degree than seems to be realized in Washington, a reaction by the leaders of that country to the manner in which we ourselves treat them”—which under the Reagan administration, with the President bent on forcing the Soviet leaders “to cry uncle,” was not very well at all. Instead of regarding the Soviet Union with a measure of respect and understanding, instead of recognizing that the Soviet leadership—Leonid Brezhnev and his associates—were “God’s creatures, embodying both good and bad,” we exaggerated their propensity to do evil, and thus a “forbidding image [was] assiduously built up and nurtured,” merely to provide a justification for those in the United States determined to acquire ever larger quantities of arms.
How to account for the great intellectual distance traversed by Kennan from the early days of the cold war to the 1980’s, and beyond? He, for one, insists that it is no distance at all. His outlook, he writes, has not changed; rather, his views were misinterpreted from the start.
Take the key term “containment” This, he asserts, is a notion he employed “lightheartedly”; his aim was never to hem in the USSR with military power, but merely to promote “political negotiation,” “accommodation,” and “sensible compromise” in order to overcome “misunderstandings” that had arisen between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War II. And as for his “long telegram,” all he will say now is that “I seem to have aroused a strain of emotional and self-righteous anti-Sovietism that in later years I will wish I had not aroused.”
But the pronouncements of the second Kennan are—to use one of his own favorite words—preposterous, and historical revisionism of the most blatant and disreputable sort. Like many of his recent statements about America and the USSR, they also present a riddle: how to reconcile the two George Kennans, the wise and the fatuous one? No obvious key to that riddle can be found in this collection of essays, and perhaps there is none. To judge by the shifts and modulations within these pages alone, the tendencies exist coterminously, untrammeled by self-contradictions and irreconcilable facts.
On one point, to be sure, Kennan is correct. His disagreements with America’s course in the cold war can indeed be traced as far back as the late 1940’s, when he resigned from the government. But his thoughtfully framed criticisms in those years hardly resemble the crude, cliché-ridden theses he would come to advance during the 1980’s—as when, for example, he insisted (in 1987) that if
the Soviet Union [were] to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.
The Soviet Union did, in effect, sink under the waters of the ocean; and the American military budget was pared, in constant dollars, by almost half—but without the slightest dent being made in Kennan’s disputation with his country.
If few clues to the Kennan conundrum are contained In At a Century’s Ending, one plausible solution to the mystery may be suggested by an earlier book, Around the Cragged Hill (1993), an attempt at elaborating “a personal and political philosophy.” In that work as in this one, Kennan mixes many sage observations with a good number of quirky, cranky ones. He warns, for example, of an impending water shortage in the United States. Soil, too, he forecasts direly, is in short supply. The automobile is the “enemy of community”; discount postal rates for “junk mail” amount to a “monstrous distortion of burdens”; and advertising “constitutes a massive abuse of the capacity for concentrated thought on the part of countless millions of people.”
Modernity itself, American-style, discontents Kennan. He suffers, he has said, from “discomfort” with the 20th century, and owns to an “inherited partiality” for the 18th. In particular, he seems to feel that, with the expansion of social equality after World War II, something of great value in our civilization has been squandered and irrevocably lost. One institution “of particular importance” for which he pines is domestic service—“I cannot somehow picture Tocqueville combining his serene meditations with the washing of pots and the removal of trash from the kitchen premises”—but his discomfort extends all the way from the daily horror of washing dishes to basic questions about the direction of American society. “We must ask ourselves,” he writes in At a Century’s Ending,
what sort of example is going to be set . . . by a country that finds itself unable to solve such problems as drugs, crime, decay of the inner cities, declining educational levels, a crumbling material substructure, and a deteriorating environment.
Finally, Kennan seems to harbor a profound mistrust of democracy, a mistrust tinged with personal bitterness. That bitterness, it would appear, is born of our political system’s refusal to listen to and heed his words. In recent years, he has repeatedly proposed that we alter our constitutional order and establish a council of experts charged with dispassionately examining problems which the federal government is not capable of coping with well—above all, arms control.
The elite body Kennan envisions would be charged with responsibility for telling “both legislative and executive branches of the government the things they must do, whether they like it or not” (his emphasis). In addition to imparting a “sober and deliberative voice,” such a council would offer a useful place and role for the “elder statesmen” of our country “who are found in some abundance . . . but whose experience, as things now stand, goes largely wasted.”
Hell, it may be, hath no fury like an elder statesman ignored.
As a diplomat, there can be no question that George F. Kennan made a significant contribution to the security of our country at a particularly parlous moment. As the author of a shelf-ful of historical books, some of them excellent, he has added much to our understanding of Russia in the modern era. As a writer, he is a master of a certain manner and style (and he displays that mastery in a number of remarkably powerful essays in this book). By virtue of these considerable accomplishments, he long ago gained a solid reputation with the public and the respect—better, the adulation—of many in the opinion-making elite. But the outlandish pronouncements that punctuate At a Century’s Ending and other works are not merely the eccentricities of an aging, cultivated reactionary. Precisely because of Kennan’s indubitable accomplishments, precisely because of the authority attached to him as the architect of containment, they must be taken seriously, and seriously dismissed.
For, suppose we had listened to this venerable wise man’s pleas for one-sided disarmament; his entreaty to admit the Soviet leadership into polite society; his insistence that America itself had to be perfected or remade before it would deserve to be defended from its enemies. The world today, it is safe to say, would in all likelihood be a very different and more dangerous place.
To our immense good fortune, the cold war came to an end, and on terms that Kennan—at least in his second incarnation—neither wished for nor predicted: namely, American triumph and Soviet disintegration. One might argue, therefore, that as his declarations turned out to be largely inconsequential, they might easily be overlooked or forgiven. But it is not easy to overlook the damage Kennan has done and continues to do to the cause of historical truth—no trivial charge against a professional historian. And it is not easy to forgive the spectacle of a man dispensing opinions no less wrong, and no less “sententiously pronounce[d],” than those of Ambassador Davies in 1937, thereby besmirching a brilliant and illustrious page of 20th-century biography: to wit, his own.