A Life Between Worlds
by frank costigliola
princeton, 648 pages, $39.95
Another Kennan biography? The study of George Kennan—American diplomat, strategic mind, and architect of the “containment” doctrine that guided U.S. policy throughout the Cold War—is so persistent in academic and policy circles that it has become almost a sub-discipline in itself. America’s misfortunes and struggles abroad, from the War on Terror to the current proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, stimulate fascination with Kennan as a source of wisdom. It was Kennan who, as chargé d’affaires in Moscow, wrote the “Long Telegram” and the anonymous article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which argued for containing a brutal Soviet Union. In doing so, he marked out a prudent position between Soviet sympathizers and hardliners, arguing that the U.S. could block its expansionist efforts rather than capitulating to the Soviet Union or rolling it back.
The extent to which the U.S. was already devising such a policy can be debated, but Kennan’s early intervention helped define the terms of discussion until the Soviet collapse of 1988–1991. Kennan added the weight of his authority as a seasoned Russianist and diplomat, strengthening the consensus that Washington could counter Moscow’s imperial designs without going to the brink. He was also a keen observer of Western foreign policy, warning against the tendency to see the world narrowly through the lens of righteous moralism, and urging his compatriots to take into account practical limits, hard interests, and others’ perspectives.
Despite the crowdedness of the field, the historian Frank Costigliola’s weighty and penetrating study is a valuable addition. Costigliola had already done a fine job of publishing and annotating Kennan’s diaries in 2014. His new book, despite certain eccentricities, is an inspired synthesis of insights and arguments, lucidly written, and based on an accomplished historian’s painstaking attentiveness to primary sources.
If John Lewis Gaddis’s 2011 biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life, prioritized Kennan’s odyssey through American foreign policy as maker and commentator, this biography widens the frame. In Costigliola’s rich account, we get less of the fine-grained detail of Kennan’s Sovietology. As the historian Fredrik Logevall has already noted, Costigliola leaves out some important things. He portrays the Cold War as an unnecessary tragedy caused by Kennan’s inflated view of the Soviet threat. But as he makes this argument, some important context goes missing, context that suggests that the hostilities resulted as much from the friction of two mutually suspicious rivals as from bad doctrine. The author overlooks disagreements over Iran, Turkey, and Greece, as part of a wider breakdown in U.S.–Soviet relations in 1945 and 1946. We can’t resolve here why exactly the Cold War broke out, but it’s not enough just to emphasize an extravagant U.S. doctrine. Two ascendant states were colliding.
However, the author offers a fascinating study of Kennan the character, in particular Kennan as a man of multiple existences. As Costigliola demonstrates, Kennan was torn by contrary impulses: cool analytical reason versus overwhelming emotion, Russophilia versus Russophobia, the drive for pre-eminence in the capital versus the retreat to the farm. An alienated Cassandra on whom the foreign policy establishment nevertheless showered awards, Kennan longed to serve the same American society that he frequently despised.
The farm is a revealing point of entry. Kennan owned a farm in East Berlin, Pennsylvania, and went there often for sanctuary. On the dust jacket, Costigliola makes a point of indicating that he, like Kennan, has a hinterland. After the conventional identification of his academic post and previous works, there is this: “He raises grass-fed beef cattle in Storrs, Connecticut.” The farm as a device embodies Costigliola’s themes: Kennan’s nostalgic attachment to the land and aversion to the brutal depredations of industrialization and machines; his pursuit of stable equilibriums, both in seeking security in a hostile world and in resisting the tumult and mob politics of the democratic city; and his romantic attraction to the vast rural landscapes and culture of Russia, a lifelong fixation. There is also the ancient idea, bordering on prejudice, that the land is inherently more virtuous and wise than the big city, as though it were somehow more resistant to imprudence or vice. This view shaped Kennan’s anxiety about the Cold War, in particular his sense that the modern, commercial, materialist United States would have to correct its defects in order to prevail in the long contest with the Soviet Union.
But the romance of rusticity may deceive. The Soviet Union might not have enjoyed the material abundance of the U.S., but this fact hardly shielded it from materialist corruption and political decay. Kennan may have professed loathing of machines and of the consumerist destruction they wrought, but life before machines had its terrors. He would have struggled to compose his famous Long Telegram without the technology of the telegraph. And it takes cities to host the embassies that were at the core of Kennan’s world. Kennan would reportedly shanghai visiting diplomats into helping him build or repair things on his farm, underlining the eternal reality that self-styled home-on-the-range romantics are a pain in the rear. To Costigliola’s credit, he doesn’t project onto Kennan a progressive’s environmentalism, but recognizes that Kennan’s devotion to the land was rooted in an aversion to modernity itself, and a set of prejudices—racial, eugenic, aristocratic—that he nursed in private.
Here are two complaints about the book’s judgments. First, Costigliola’s diagnosis of Kennan’s Long Telegram is acute but too easily accepts Kennan’s version of events. Costigliola goes along with Kennan’s later claim that, in his 1946 telegram and 1947 article, he primarily meant that the Soviet Union had to be politically and economically checked from menacing the vital power centers of Europe and Asia. It was no part of his intention, Kennan said, to make a case for urgent militarization, or for the conduct of the long contest through larger defense budgets and increased interference abroad. This strategy would turn into an exhausting commitment to defending not just strongpoints but any point along the perimeter, paving the road to Vietnam and associated political hysterias. Kennan regretted that his telegram had stirred up the force he then spent years trying to resist, the over-militarization of Cold War containment.
As the author tells it, Kennan only accidentally touched off a militant Cold War mindset. But the fact is that Kennan, at this early stage, was far less alarmed by the prospect of over-militarization than he was later on. As deputy commandant of the National War College and then head of the Policy Planning Staff, he entertained many contradictory ideas and impulses, but among them he indulged the notion of preemptive nuclear war against Soviet “war-making potential.” He also proposed the seizing of Taiwan and strongly supported the dispatch of U.S. troops to Korea, America’s most intense Cold War military exertion by a significant margin. And despite his stature as a visionary of stability and restraint, in the early years he advocated destabilizing the Soviet Union to a violent end. Because of Kennan’s central role in writing the history of his own career and time, Costigliola finds it hard to avoid projecting the Kennan of later years back onto the younger, more risk-acceptant man, especially as his diaries in those decisive years were thinner.
The other criticism arises from a macro-disagreement. As a superb historian of diplomacy, Costigliola assumes and asserts that the Cold War was largely avoidable. Allegedly, it began because Washington took the lead in needlessly escalating it, nudged along by Kennan’s overblown portrayal of the Soviet menace. In this picture, the structure of international power fades, and the makers of history supposedly had great discretion and latitude from 1945 to create a different world. Stalin’s state, in Costigliola’s telling, was just seeking security after being ravaged by Operation Barbarossa. Stalin’s initial concessions to countries such as Finland and Greece suggested a country that just wanted stable coexistence. Though this is no place to relitigate fully the debate, this will not do. The Soviet Union had ruthlessly expanded before Barbarossa, acting as a de facto Nazi ally from 1939 to 1941, seizing the Baltic states and partitioning Poland. It sought security in a hostile world, but it sought it by means of imperial measures. Indeed, the two impulses, imperial aggrandizement and security-seeking, are harder to separate than the author assumes, both then and, in Putin’s Russia, now.
More fundamentally, the Cold War’s origins were surely more structural than Costigliola allows. A major war had precipitately elevated two powers to dominance and proximity. Both had survived surprise attacks, then forged an uneasy alliance in order to defeat a common threat. That threat having been eliminated and other powers reduced, there was now a bipolar world in which mutual fear, rivalry, and a growing sense of power made suspicion, conflict, and first-move incentives hard to avoid. The Americans, confronted by Stalin’s promise-breaking repression of Eastern Europe and the scale of the Red Army and its proximity to U.S. forces and allies in Europe, found it difficult to trust that the Soviets just wanted a stable, mutual sphere-of-influence arrangement. Hence the Truman doctrine, which perceived an expansionist force that needed containing.
It was hard, too, for Moscow to regard, say, exclusion from postwar Japan, atomic secrecy, or the rehabilitation of Germany as anything other than the coming of a dangerous rival—hence the Novikov telegram, the Soviet response to Kennan’s telegram, which identified an American bid for dominance and the need for buffers against it. Perhaps Kennan and his counterparts could have tried harder to constrain policies and find a modus vivendi with Stalin. But in the wake of World War II, the eyeball-to-eyeball presence of two determined powers would always have made a more limited containment strategy, let alone a power-sharing agreement, hard to accept.
All that said, Costigliola’s achievement is undeniable. His biography is one that could only emerge from decades of immersion in the sources, and from a sophisticated dialogue between the questions thrown up by the present and the author’s careful excavation of the past. The work has great salience for our time. The predicaments faced by Washington, and Kennan, are still with us. For contending with Kennan and the worlds he moved between, this biography will likely endure as a landmark work.
Patrick Porter is professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham.
Image by Library of Congress via Creative Commons. Image cropped.