A 1978 critique of Gaddis on Kennan (prepared in collaboration with John W. Coogan)

The names of George Frost Kennan and John Lewis Gaddis have become closely intertwined in the minds of diplomatic historians. Kennan figured prominently in Gaddis’ first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972). He was the model realist, preoccupied with defining the national interest, attentive to the ends of policy and the means available, and possessed of a keen understanding of great power politics. Against him was arrayed the isolationist sentiment, the political opportunism, and the misplaced idealism that afflicted the Soviet policy of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. When Foreign Affairs, the influential establishment outlet sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, wanted to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Kennan’s famous 1947 “X” article in that journal, the editor turned to Gaddis. And celebrate he did (in “Containment:A Reassessment” in the July 1977 issue). Kennan was once more the wise statesman who had wanted to make containment economic and political rather than military. Gaddis’ favorable reading of the record and his resolute stand against Kennan critics appear to have endeared him to Kennan. Now about thirty years later we are about to get the authorized study, George F. Kennan: An American Life (to be released by Penguin on 10 November), from the historian Kennan felt he could trust.

We were present at the creation of this entente. The late 1970s was a time of considerable excitement as U.S. government documents on the early Cold War entered the public domain as part of the venerable “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series. We were avid consumers of the new evidence, including what Kennan had written at the Moscow embassy, at the National War College, and at the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. The more we read, the more skeptical we became about the claims that he had made in the first volume of his wonderfully engaging if predictably self-serving memoir and that Gaddis had repackaged in his first book. Our doubts deepened as we shared impressions from the new evidence and as we directed senior essays by bright Yale undergraduates exploring one facet or another of Kennan’s official career.

Not only were we present at the creation of the Kennan-Gaddis entente; we now learn that we might have unknowingly facilitated it. The claims of Gaddis’ “X” celebration troubled us. Kennan had been neither so consistent nor so coherent as Gaddis seemed to think. We prepared a rejoinder focusing on three revealing cases illuminated by newly available evidence. (To save space we omitted Kennan’s 1947 suggestion of sending U.S. troops as well as Truman Doctrine economic aid into Greece as well as his pseudo-sociological analysis penned in October 1949 of why communism appealed to failed intellectuals and “maladjusted groups” such as African Americans, Jews, and immigrants. See FRUS, 1947, V, pp. 468-69; and FRUS, 1949, I, p. 404.) Our basic point was that Kennan, like most foreign policy advisers, said a lot of dumb things along with a lot of smart things and that we needed to pay less attention to his memoirs and more attention to the richness, complexity, and contradictions emerging from the archives.

James Chace, then Foreign Affairs managing editor, had no room for our little dissent. He had already agreed to a critical essay by Eduard Mark, then doing his doctoral thesis at the University of Connecticut. The policy establishment would be spared our rude archival challenge but not diplomatic historians thanks to Nolan Fowler, then editor of the Newsletter published by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. (Our comment appeared in no. 9 [March 1978], pp. 23-25 and available here as a pdf.) Gaddis, never one to miss a controversy, responded to our piece as he did to the Mark piece in Foreign Affairs. This avid, unwavering, and able defense of Kennan’s reputation helped settle the question of who would do the authorized biography.

Looking back, two things strike us. One is the “slippage” in the declassification process for the FRUS series. It takes longer than ever to get a volume into the public domain, and the documents made available have to fit into a much reduced number of published volumes. Moreover, attempts to get the CIA to account publicly for covert operations have largely failed. Forget bringing NSA into the picture. As a result, the documentation for critical episodes in past U.S. policy are radically incomplete, leaving historians to guess about the unknown unknowns.

The other is the comment of C. Wright Mills about U.S. policy as an expression of “crackpot realism.” Hans Morgenthau, the father of postwar realism with whom Kennan is often associated, seems to have come to the same opinion. His early doubts about postwar U.S. policy turned to open dissent as he watched the Vietnam commitment deepen from the mid-1950s. Christoph Frei’s illuminating Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001) identifies the sources of Morgenthau’s discontent. Realism as Morgenthau understood it required a cultivated rationality and far-seeing prudence. These qualities were evident in Kennan’s memoirs but not always so evident in his often vaguely formulated ideas or his tendency to shoot from the hip or his penchant for military solutions to complicated problems. It’s fair to say that the policy Kennan sought to shape was also deficient. Like Kennan, it was swept along by a Cold War nationalist orthodoxy that led to ideological and strategic commitments far beyond the U.S. capacity to sustain in the long run. Kennan, Acheson, and Rusk shared this national orthodoxy, even as they shifted positions over time and disagreed on specific applications such as in Vietnam. But this is a topic to take up another day in relations to current U.S. difficulties.

One Comment

  1. marc kagan
    Posted 12 December 2013 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Prof. Hunt – Isn’t the internet wonderful. I was one of those so-called ‘bright’ undergraduates. You said I was too much taken in by the Kennan myth, deservedly so, as I knew after a few more years of thought. Could you pass along to John Coogan that, with several graduate degrees under my belt, his Cold War simulation course is still the best and most memorable course I have ever taken? Thanks.

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