George Frost Kennan, a major architect of U.S. post-World War II policy, died recently at the age of 101. In the predictable chorus of media praise, Kennan was hailed as both the theorist who developed the “containment doctrine” against Soviet “expansion,” and the wise diplomat who eventually became a critic of Cold War policies. For anyone who remembers the nearly $10 trillion spent by the U.S. on Cold War activities, including the big “containment wars” in Korea and Vietnam and “little” counter-insurgencies that cost millions of lives, there is much to bury and little to praise in Kennan’s career.
George F. Kennan was a servant of the old Anglo-American cultural elite within the U.S. ruling class. Born in Milwaukee in 1904, he attended an elite private military academy and then went to Princeton University. Joining the Foreign Service in the Coolidge administration, he served in a number of posts and became a student of Russian language, history and policy. When the U.S. recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Kennan went to Moscow as part of the U.S. Embassy staff.
Kennan’s attitude toward the Soviets was extremely hostile from the beginning, and he joined with other specialists on Russia (later called “Kremlinologists”) to oppose any cooperative policy. Although Kennan was to claim that the Great Purges in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s were the source of his negative views, there is no evidence that his attitude was ever anything but negative. His aristocratic, “cultured” Czarist Russia had been destroyed by a motley crew of Bolsheviks, of various “polyglot” nationalities, the sort of people he disliked among the immigrant groups in the U.S., who were helping build the Communist movement in America. “These people” had “enslaved” the Russian people to an ideology that was at war with civilization as he saw it.
Others in the New Deal period had a much more sympathetic view of the Soviets and advocated building a united front with them against Nazi Germany. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies, Roosevelt’s troubleshooter Harry Hopkins, and a number of figures in the State and Treasury Departments were in that category. Kennan and his associates always sought to undermine Soviet-American cooperation, even during World War II when their hostility was muted.
When the war ended and the Truman administration began to “get tough with the Russians,” as the press called it, Kennan’s time had come. From Moscow, he sent an 8,000-word telegram to the State Department that served as an anti-Communist Manifesto. Soviet policy, Kennan argued, was “neurotic,” rooted in Russian insecurity, Communist ideology, and the need to sustain “dictatorship.” Because of their “Oriental secretiveness and conspiracy,” the Soviets would manufacture enemies and act aggressively. Resisting Soviet “expansion” and “aggression” was a necessity.
Kennan’s ideas, mixing pop psychology with geopolitics and racism, fit perfectly into a policy that the Truman administration was already carrying forward.
By 1947, Kennan was directing the State Department’s Policy Planning Unit, where he played a leading role in drafting the “Truman Doctrine” and the Marshall Plan, which served as foundations for what was being called a “Cold War.”
A policy of aiding anti-Communist armies in Greece and China, and threatening the Soviets over Eastern Europe, Iran, and other parts of the world, was already in effect by July 1947 when Kennan gave that policy a name — “containment” — in an anonymous article in the ruling-class journal Foreign Affairs.
In that article, Kennan advocated, in effect, an indefinite Cold War to both prevent a hot war with the Soviets and, over time, force them to abandon their system or collapse.
But Kennan found himself pushed out of leadership. As the Chinese Revolution triumphed and the Soviets followed the U.S. by exploding an atomic bomb in 1949, Kennan watched as his political enemies used his containment argument to launch a policy of all-out militarization. Kennan opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb, and criticized the National Security Council’s 1950 plan to quadruple military spending and re-arm West Germany. He also opposed an aggressive policy in the Korean War.
In an ironic twist, Truman “kicked him upstairs” by making him ambassador to the Soviet Union. Although Kennan began to fear that the policies he had helped to create might lead to World War III, he remained intensely anti-Soviet, and a comment he made comparing the USSR to Nazi Germany led the Soviets to declare him persona non grata.
Kennan returned to Princeton and became a distinguished scholar. He had a brief stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia under Kennedy.
As a political and social reactionary, George Kennan helped to create a Cold War world in which he, by the 1950s, had become a liberal. We will never know if the broad policy articulated by Franklin Roosevelt — of working with the Soviet Union to construct the United Nations, instituting, through the UN, global labor, social welfare, and commercial reforms to reduce the inequalities that produce war, and developing regional and global systems to stop wars — was really possible. We do know that the Cold War made those efforts impossible.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.