Skip to main content
Review by Anders Stephanson

Interviews with George F. Kennan. Edited by T. Christopher Jespersen. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. Pp. 224. $35 cloth.)

“The truth is that Kennan, as a civil servant, was first and foremost not a diplomat but a policymaking analyst; it was here that his central achievement lay, the enormously productive record he accomplished as head of the Policy Planning Staff from 1947-1949.”

“George F. Kennan is America’s most famous diplomat:” thus the first sentence of the editor’s introduction to this collection. True? In a way. Kennan was a “diplomat” when he became famous but his fame did not derive from diplomacy. Rather, he became famous in 1947 for arguing that there should be no diplomacy, a position he would spend half a century regretting and critiquing, sometimes obliquely, sometimes very forthrightly. For William Appleman Williams was not altogether wrong in saying that Kennan was the first revisionist.

The question of Kennan as a diplomat is, however, not without interest. If diplomacy is a profession, a certain craft as it were, how good a diplomat was he actually? Here again the answer is curiously divided. In several respects, he was of course outstanding: polyglot with superior analytical skills, a developed sense for protocol and the intricate symbolic games that attend to it, keen awareness of the professional difficulties of colleagues on the other side, lack of any nationalism (a lack fundamental to the proceedings).

At the same time, Kennan was a bit too talented, too emotionally charged and too obsessed with language to achieve that consistent bearing of discretion and invisibility that marks the superior diplomat. He lacked patience with the boring and the humdrum, a trait that is also fundamental for professional success. Fate and circumstance, admittedly, did not allow him to foreground his diplomatic skills when, presumably, he had the chance: out of touch with Roosevelt’s political line in the Moscow of the 1930s and mid-40s, out of touch with Truman’s in the Moscow of 1952, certainly out of touch with the idiocies of the U.S. Congress with regard to the Belgrade of the early 1960s, where Kennan ended up serving, absurdly, more as Tito’s representative than an ambassador proper.

Still, the truth is that Kennan, as a civil servant, was first and foremost not a diplomat but a policymaking analyst; it was here that his central achievement lay, the enormously productive record he accomplished as head of the Policy Planning Staff from 1947-1949. I mention all this because it is of certain relevance as regards the genre, or one of the genres, to which Jespersen’s collection belongs, namely, that of the interview. One of the skills common to diplomat and analyst alike is the ability to give precise briefings of substance. Kennan gave superior briefings. Couple that with erudition (of a certain kind), curiosity, eloquence, exquisite style, and the result is a brilliant interviewee. Kennan never prattles. Almost always he has interesting things to say and he says them in interesting ways. A book of his interviews is thus in every way an excellent idea.

That said, it must immediately be pointed out that it is a bit of a misnomer to call this a book of interviews. Almost half of the book is made up of two oral histories, one on the Kennedy Administration (1965) and the other on John Foster Dulles (1967). Oral histories are perhaps in some manner “interviews;” but they are primarily “histories.” Their nature and object are very different from that of the typical interview intended for publication. A good deal has to do with setting a historical record historically straight and being quite formal about it. The editor might profitably have abbreviated the two here. We do not need an extensive, detailed account of Kennan’s humiliation at the hands of Dulles in early 1953, especially not since such an account is already available in Kennan’s memoirs. It one was to go beyond the interview proper, it would have been better to have included the questions and answers from the remarkable Senate testimonies Kennan gave on Vietnam in 1965.

In any case, Jespersen’s is on the whole a good selection of Kennaniana that spans four decades, from the interview with Joe Alsop in late 1956 to remarks made in 1996 when Kennan was ninety-two years old. Most of the central interviews are included. It is, to be sure, not “collected talks” as the back cover advertises but, precisely, as the editor actually says, a selection. Some exclusions, such as Kennan’s two interesting discussions with Ingegerd Galtung in Norwegian, are readily understandable, others less so. The most extensive, personal and controversial interview Kennan ever gave is not included, his discussion in 1976 with George Urban in Encounter. Perhaps Jespersen felt it was expendable because it appeared with replies as a book in 1979; or perhaps there were contractual problems. Nevertheless, it is a very serious absence.

Oral histories aside, my reading of these tracts is an experience of re-reading, in most instances after an interval of twenty years. It becomes, inevitably, a combined experience of new things, aspects visible only in hindsight, and impressions reconfirmed. One immediate reflection is that Kennan is usually a lot more circumspect in his diagnoses and predictions than his journalistic interlocutors wants him to be. When Alsop tries to get him to announce that the Hungarian upheavals really affirm Kennan’s early projection of Soviet disintegration in Eastern Europe, he prudently says that, though this might be right in the long run, it has “come to pass more slowly than we anticipated.” He actually turned out to be wrong about the Hungarian events: the Soviets reimposed rule, brutally and, in a way, successfully.

By 1963, in fact, he is emphasizing that “our adversaries are not that weak”; and, not for the first time, he is arguing that the West should find some reasonable grounds for negotiation to end the cold war. The alternatives, to him, are obvious: either try “to destroy all these Communist regimes and inevitably have war,” or “take advantage of such elements of moderation as may appear in some of Them.” To insist, then, on the “capitulation of Communist power” is in effect to insist on war. Kennan wants none of it.

Khrushchev, “for all his angularities,” as he was to describe him in a marvellous phrase after the Soviet leader was gone, had been “a man of Peace.” Further along, in 1972, Kennan has reason to ponder the surprising longevity of the Soviet system, supposedly doomed by its own contradictions: its rulers now are “in the pleasing position of being able to be borne by the system… instead of having to carry it.” Since the United States by then had accepted much of the existing geopolitical realities in Eurasia, there was in Kennan’s view “for the first time, no serious territorial-political conflict with the Soviet government” except for the Middle East. The arms race, therefore, was delusory, it had “no foundation in real interests.”

The Yugoslav materials here have in retrospect a certain melancholy pertinence now they did not have before. It is good today to be reminded that, in 1965, this country harboured a man “living peacefully in California… who had been the Minister of the Interior in the Nazi Croatian government,” a regime “which had declared war” on the United States, “destroyed its own Jews at Hitler’s instructions” and “carried out appalling atrocities together with the Nazis against the Serbs and the Moslem inhabitants.” Kennan, one is reminded, was not only a friend of Tito but also a friend of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state. Kennan hated ethnic nationalism, which he always held responsible for the First World War, in turn, in his view, the fundamental reason the West went awry along with pretty much the whole of the 20th century.

Containment, not surprisingly, given his countless attempts to explain what he really meant by it and in view of its questionable validity as prescription and prediction, is a looming shadow throughout. I am struck here by his reluctance (certainly more pronounced than it is in the first volume of the Memoirs) to confront what was really wrong about the whole analysis from the beginning. He is certainly right, against almost every commentator since, to assert that it was never a “doctrine” and, to the extent it meant anything general or strategic, that it was not meant to encourage the kind of militarization that actually ensued. Yet, just as he never sent his long, plaintive letter to Lippmann in 1948, Kennan never confronted afterwards the essence of the pundit’s incisive critique of the X-Article, viz. that it assumed that one could not negotiate with forces that had fundamentally different viewpoints. Kennan effectively took over subsequently Lippmann’s contrary stance, that there was no intrinsic reason not to negotiate matters of mutual concern such as the division of Europe; and thus Kennan became an eloquent critic of the emergent cold war. However, he never truly interrogated precisely what he had been wrong about in 1946-47. Typically, instead, it became a problem of misunderstanding, exaggeration and incompleteness. What was wrong about the erstwhile containment analyses, as Lippmann perceptively saw, was that they looked upon the Soviet regime as an object unto itself, as a state without any dialectical other, as though, in Kennan’s own language, Moscow were a parasite to be isolated and examined under a microscope. This view became, in fact, much to Kennan’s later chagrin, the operative aspect of what made the cold war a cold war (and also essentially a U.S. project, but that’s another story).

What I used to call his “organic conservatism,” his conservative communitarianism in the parlance of today, gets ample room, especially in the important interview in 1960 with Melvin Lasky. This was a moment when he was particularly disgusted with American mass culture and, in the wake of the disengagement controversy, particularly alienated from the political establishment. This is the moment, then, when scandalously he begins to see parallels between the political systems of the United States and the USSR, as the “integral body of banality and platitude” that marked U.S. official culture essentially amounted to a kind of one-party system. Hence, too, the sense of his own “internal emigration.” The character and deeper significance of that internal emigration has always fascinated Kennan’s friends and foes alike. In the end, it is impossible to sanitize Kennan, to rid him of his angularities.End.


Anders Stephanson teaches U. S. history at Columbia University. His Manifest Destiny: US Expansionism and the Empire of Right appeared in Italian translation last year.


Comments are closed.