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U.S. Cold War Policy Was Designed by a Bigot

George Kennan's diaries reveal just how much he hated America


The Kennan Diaries by George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola (W.W. Norton and Co.)

On a hot, dusty sunday in September 1959, George Frost Kennan welcomed to his Pennsylvania farmhouse a peculiar trio of political intellectuals. Trekking out to see the retired diplomat and renowned Sovietologist on that Labor Day weekend were the German-born psychologist Erich Fromm, the sociologist David Riesman, and Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party nominee for president. Their agenda was the creation of a new socialist party for the United States.

“What a strange quartet we were,” Kennan remarked in wonder. The “brilliant, subtle, and hugely imaginative” Riesman, he rightly observed, had never been enchanted “by the waning power of Marx’s magic spell”; but more to the point, Kennan himself “had little sympathy ... with the inherent self-pity of the socialist cause.” As Kennan recorded in his diary that day, Burke, Gibbon, and the nineteenth-century Russian novelists shaped his own thinking much more than any left-wing thinkers ever had. “All my Scottish-Protestant antecedents rose in protest against this egalitarianism,” he wrote. “This really wild belief in the general goodness of man, this obliviousness to the existence of original sin ... this grievous Marxist oversimplification of the sources of aggressiveness and bad behavior in the individual as in the mass”—it was all too naïve and wooly-minded. Predictably, the attempted meeting of the minds ended in incoherence, thrusting Kennan back into what he called “the organizational isolation where, evidently, I belong.”

This vignette is one of many gems in Kennan’s fascinating and damaging journals, now edited by Frank Costigliola, a skilled historian of American foreign relations, and it highlights a riddle of Kennan’s life: his policy ideas were utterly central to the foreign relations of the United States in the twentieth century, but he had no real home in its political system. Normally a supporter of Democrats—in the diaries, he voices support for the presidential bids of Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Frank Church (“promptly regretted it deeply”), and Bill Clinton (“without enthusiasm”)—Kennan was nonetheless profoundly conservative in his worldview. This conservatism was neither the belligerent cultural populism bequeathed to today’s Republicans by Richard Nixon nor the happy hawkishness championed by Ronald Reagan (both of whom Kennan abhorred). It partook, rather, of Burke’s chastened view of human nature, and of the declinism of Gibbon, and of the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner—often manifested, in Kennan’s case, in casual and appalling prejudices. Above all, it echoed the brooding anti-modernism and civilizational despair of Henry Adams, to whom, fittingly, Kennan likened himself in the winter of his life. The architect of the policy of containment, it turns out, crafted the policy in defense of a country he never much liked, filled with citizens he by and large despised.

Illustration by Bradley Jay

A relentless gloom pervades these diaries, which span from 1916, when Kennan was eleven, to 2004, when he was ninety-nine. There is, to be sure, much more in these copious pages: notes and excerpts of articles and lectures; idiosyncratic travelogues; above-average doggerel (a mark of his 1920s Princeton education); appraisals of leading politicians and diplomats; scenes from his social life (though few from his home life); and, especially when he served in government, trenchant analyses of the foreign-policy problems of the day. Time and again, however, Kennan reverts to his mandarin pessimism, his bleak and chilly ruminations on the broken world around him. Despite his many accomplishments—he not only laid fair claim to crafting his country’s cold war strategy, but also won virtually every major prize in American letters—he is forever despairing in these pages of ever influencing anyone or anything. Statesmen seek his counsel, editors solicit his articles, audiences invite him to speak. But no one ever seems to listen. Repeatedly he wonders about the point of it all.

His Pennsylvania farm providing inadequate refuge, Kennan even fantasizes about retreating to New Hampshire or Vermont to farm—fantasies that, as the years pass, shift to ever more remote locales: Alaska, Norway, Antarctica. He is a relic of the nineteenth century, a misfit in modern times. The achievements of science, medicine, and technology leave him cold; he sees only the defilement of nature wrought by the automobile, and the corruption of the spirit brought on by consumer society, whose blight he laments with numbing frequency. (“With all due effort to avoid exaggerated pessimism and over-dramatization,” he writes, in a typical passage, from 1978, “I can see no salvation for the U.S. either in its external relations nor in the development of its life internally.”) From urban decay to the decline of the schools, from the media’s crass commercialism to sexual libertinism, he sees all about him a decadent society—late Rome—offering grounds only for hopelessness.

Who was this sour curmudgeon who thought so poorly of America’s future, and yet who also provided his nation’s leaders with the intellectual guide rope to grasp as they lurched through the cold war? Born in 1904 to a family of Wisconsin Presbyterians, he lost his mother at two months old—the wellspring of his lifelong melancholy. (Late into his life Florence Kennan would appear in George’s dreams.) Wallowing in his loneliness, he developed a tragic sensibility that he carried with him as an undergraduate at Princeton, where the self-pitying young scholar felt alienated from his fellow students’ Fitzgeraldian wealth and whimsy. Upon graduation he joined the Foreign Service and lived abroad for most of the next two decades; there he met his wife, a Norwegian named Annelise Sørensen, and developed his expertise on Russia—a subject that had also enchanted another George Kennan, an older cousin well known a century before for his explorations in Siberia and other remote regions of the country.

The younger Kennan found much to dislike about Russia—as he did about most places he visited—calling it, for example, “a filthy, sordid country, full of vermin, mud, stench, and disease.” But he also developed a love of it, and he immersed himself in its history and its culture. Early on he discerned the exhaustion of the communist ideal. “Will the pathos of the burly, over-alled worker, with his sleeves rolled up, brandishing a red flag and striding over the bodies of top-hatted capitalists, ever grasp the hearts of people as it did just after the war?” he wonders in 1935. “I doubt it.”

Kennan’s historical studies gave him a keen appreciation as well of Russia’s inflexible need for a sphere of influence along its western border. For Kennan this meant, among other things, forsaking at the end of World War II the so-called London Poles, Poland’s wartime government-in-exile. What’s more, it meant thwarting the hopes of all Poles for self-determination. After dining in 1944 with Stanisław Mikołajczyk, the leader of the London Poles, he notes in his journal that “I wished that instead of mumbling words of official optimism we had the judgment and the good taste to bow our heads in silence before the tragedy of a people who have been our allies, whom we have saved from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends.” Sure enough, the West could do little to stop Stalin from installing, in brazen violation of his commitments, a stooge regime.

Kennan’s consummate knowledge of Russia and his pessimistic temperament led him, while serving in the American Embassy in Moscow after the war, to draft his famous “Long Telegram.” This extensive analysis of the Soviet regime held out the most meager prospects for continuing the wartime alliance. Widely circulated in Washington, Kennan’s missive—along with an expanded articulation of his thoughts, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published the next year in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X”—gave rise to the doctrine of containment, which would guide American foreign policy for decades. Steering a middle course between the folly of war and the futile Wallaceite hope of cooperation, Kennan counseled containing the Soviet drive to expand its influence through the strategic application of American power. (The diaries, regrettably, contain little on this crucial period; Kennan diarized less when he was busy.)

By the time of the X article, Secretary of State George C. Marshall had named Kennan to run the State Department’s newly created Policy Planning Staff. It is a testament to Kennan’s legacy that the office has since been treated as a perch for the department’s resident intellectual. (Although, truth be told, the most notable cultural document to emerge from the office since Kennan’s day has probably been Anne-Marie Slaughter’s famous article on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”) In his diaries Kennan offers an explanation of why, even during his own tenure, the Policy Planning office was consigned to ineffectuality. “It is time I recognized that my planning staff ... has simply been a failure, like all previous attempts to bring order and foresight into the designing of foreign policy by special institutional arrangements,” he lamented in 1949. “The reason for this seems to lie largely in the impossibility of having the planning function performed outside of the line of command.... No one can regiment this institution in the field of ideas except the Secretary.” Meaningful planning couldn’t arise from an adjunct office; it had to flow from the top.

Kennan—whose bouts of self-loathing alternated with egotistical claims about his unique prophetic vision—was here underselling his contributions at State. In particular the Marshall Plan, the most widely praised pillar of Harry Truman’s cold war policy, drew direct inspiration from Kennan’s arguments about the need to bolster postwar Europe economically. But Kennan was also right that his influence had peaked. He finished out Truman’s presidency with a largely fruitless stint as ambassador to the Soviet Union before being rudely forced into retirement by the incoming president, Dwight Eisenhower, and his haughty secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who vowed to replace containment with a more aggressive plan of “rollback.” (The Hungarians learned in 1956 that it was hollow rhetoric.) Kennan repaired to the Institute for Advanced Study to write history and to brood about the imminent demise of Western civilization.

In historical perspective, the concept of containment served American policymakers well, though not without costs as they argued about what it meant. In later years, a simplistic critique of the doctrine would argue that it led the United States into terrible misadventures, especially in Vietnam. But, as is well known, and as the diaries amply attest, Kennan opposed the war in Vietnam from early on; one of Johnson’s first bombing raids, he writes on February 7, 1965, “is a sort of petulant escapism, & will, I fear, lead to no good results.” Containment, Kennan always held, did not mandate intervention in non-strategic places as far away as Southeast Asia, nor was it primarily a prescription to use military force. Kennan also deplored McCarthyism, promoted Radio Free Europe, and opposed the arms race: which is to say, he was right about some of the most vital issues of his time.

But if Kennan found it easy to fault other policymakers’ misinterpretations of containment, he did not make it easy for them to know what he meant by it. As with most grand doctrines, the devil was in the details, rendering the doctrine less than reliable in its specific applications. Famously, Kennan called for the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” But not every president or policymaker would necessarily identify the same pressure points, and the ground for bitter disputation was sowed. As early as 1947, Kennan was critical of the Truman Doctrine—the president’s pledge to help free peoples resisting communist subjugation—because he thought it too expansive (though he favored helping Greece and Turkey resist communist subversion). In short, no sooner had he formulated the idea of containment than he feared it was being corrupted. When, in 1947, Walter Lippmann subjected the X article to a thoroughgoing critique in a series of columns in the New York Herald Tribune, Kennan himself found himself endorsing many of Lippmann’s criticisms, or so he later said.

And yet, as the diaries also remind us, Kennan hardly abjured the military altogether, as some dovish interpreters of containment have claimed. He was extremely hawkish in support of the Korean War. Kennan frankly endorsed extending the idea of containment from Europe to Asia, calling for a hard-line stance against the North Koreans and their Soviet and Chinese sponsors, even if that required putting more American troops under arms than first planned. “We had to go through with our purpose in Korea, come what may,” he wrote in July 1950, lest the Russians smell weakness. To his colleagues, he argued that it “was a question of our will and not our capability.”

Interestingly, Kennan was a hawk on Suez, too. In 1956, when Israel, Britain, and France tried to stop Egypt—with Soviet backing—from brazenly nationalizing the Suez Canal, Kennan faulted Eisenhower and Dulles for capitulating to the Russians and “selling out French and British interests there.” (He never cared much about Israeli interests.) He feared that the Russians might “dominate the area and use the oil, to the extent they could control it, as an instrument of blackmail against the West.” Given this constantly shifting advice, depending on the “geographical and political points” at stake, it would be wrong to surmise crudely that containment applied in Egypt and Korea, but not Eastern Europe or Vietnam. It would not be wrong, however, to wonder if containment, at least as George Kennan intended it, applied pretty much wherever George Kennan thought it applied at any given moment.

For the student of American foreign policy, Kennan’s accounts of dealing with his Russian counterparts, his arguments about strategy in the Korean War, and other such material all add up to a tremendous historical resource. But in the latter half of Kennan’s life, when his interactions with power were fleeting and usually ceremonial, what dominated the journals were heavy ruminations about life, career, and humankind. Sometimes these are provocative, sometimes petty, and over seven hundred pages they grow wearisome. Curiously, Kennan himself had a similar impression. “I have been reading over the diary entries from 1964-1984, and have derived little pride or satisfaction from the effort,” he writes in 1987. “Where they were not personally plaintive, they tended to be repetitive.”

What spoils the tedium, what compels fascination despite the monotony, are the astonishing outbursts of bigotry and misanthropy. Apparently, the value of these splendid rants against all manner of ethnic groups was lost on William Shawn, who by then had left The New Yorker and was an editor at what Kennan calls “the very Jewish firm of Straus & Farrar.”

Having been shown the diaries for possible publication, Shawn told Kennan’s (very Jewish) agent Harriet Wasserman that Kennan’s “German problem”—something of a cryptic phrase—was too toxic. Shawn appears to have been bothered that the journals were littered with disparaging comments about Jews and the Jewish people, although Kennan seems not to have noticed those asides in his own re-readings. “I have never been anti-Semitic,” he insists in response, with a breathtaking lack of self-awareness, “but I must admit that this episode brought me as close as I have ever been to becoming one.” (Ten years later he is still seeing Jewishness as only an anti-Semite would. “The scandal of Mr. Clinton’s relationship to his Jewish girl intern ...” one entry begins.) There is poetic justice in the likelihood that the publication of these diaries will do more to tarnish their author’s reputation than the publication of any collection of private writings since H. L. Mencken’s.

The diaries establish beyond any doubt that Kennan was given to gross and derogatory generalizations about virtually all foreign peoples. (Historians have known about Kennan’s ugly qualities, but the diaries lay it bare for any reader.) His belief in national character was strong, and if it led him to important insights about Russian behavior, much more often it led to repulsive and ill-informed slurs. The shockers start early. During his junior year at Princeton, he writes about a conversation with a friend called Army. “He half-converted me to his ‘extermination of the lower races’ idea,” Kennan writes. “I cannot see why it is wrong in principle.” As a twenty-eight-year-old Foreign Service officer, he remains convinced that the world’s problems are “essentially biological” in that “We have a group of more or less inferior races.... No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young.” Nor does Kennan learn, in his long globe-trotting career, to see this rubbish for what it is. At the age of eighty, he is still confiding to his diary his enthusiasm for eugenics. “If I had my way...” he muses, “Men having spawned more than 2 children will be compulsively sterilized. Planned Parenthood and voluntary sterilization will be in every way encouraged.” Policy planning indeed. (Immigration, too, “will be effectively terminated.”)

Who were these “inferior races” whose perpetuation Kennan deplored? Jews, to be sure. But the Jews were in good company. In fact, it is hard to find an ethnic group that escapes his contempt. An Italian he meets while traveling is a “typical dago—wears a cap, a bushy, black, moustache ... talkative in a weak, ignorant, furtive, sneering way.” The Georgians, he proclaims, are “a lazy, dirty, tricky, fiercely proud, and recklessly brave people. They never seem to work unless they have to.” The Iraqis he encounters on a trip to Baghdad are “a population unhygienic in its habits, sorely weakened and debilitated by disease, inclined to all manner of religious bigotry and fanaticism, condemned by the tenets of the most widespread faith to keep a full half of the population, namely, the feminine half, confined and excluded from the productive efforts of society by a system of indefinite house arrest.”

No group is too small or too far outside Kennan’s expertise to elude his confident condescension. Zambians are wracked by “suppressed anger” and “ostentatious cockiness.” Lithuanians are “foolish.” What he finds ugly about southern stretches of New England—the landscape “grown over by scrub forest”—he attributes to the “Italians and Portuguese, the tone set increasingly by the Catholic Church.” Even the Norwegians—of whom his wife was one—“for all their admirable characteristics ... have small regard for subtleties & refinement of thought.”

Unsurprisingly, blacks do not rank especially high in Kennan’s estimation. In one extraordinarily lunatic rant, from 1978, he envisions all of humanity destined to “melt into a vast polyglot mass,” with only the Chinese, Jews, and blacks remaining apart. “Could this mean that these three minorities are destined to subjugate and dominate all as an uneasy but unavoidable triumvirate the rest of society—the Chinese by their combination of intelligence, ruthlessness, and ant-like industriousness; the Jews by their sheer determination to survive as a culture; the Negroes by their ineradicable bitterness and hatred of the whites?” (And Kennan was worried that he had a “German problem”!) His racism toward African peoples extended to his evaluation of South African apartheid. “It is not my purpose here to appear as an apologist for the practices of the South African government in racial questions,” he writes in 1967, “but....” The telltale but! He proceeds not only to excuse apartheid but also to warn that “a reversal of South African policy designed to force racial segregation on a reluctant white population” would produce results as bad as those “in many a number of great American cities.” Even as late as 1990, with democratic change sweeping the country, he remains impassive. “I have no confidence in the prospects for anything like a mingling of the races in South Africa, nor can I permit myself to hope that the whites will be permitted to retain very much of the quality of their own lives.”

Ethnic and racial bigotry, alas, did not exhaust Kennan’s reservoir of prejudice. Equally hideous were his attitudes toward women. He conceived of the sexes as wholly different creatures, with women invariably subordinate. “A woman, as she grows older, should become more sociable,” he reflected in midlife, “and should seek her compensation in service to others, without asking too much from them.” This was hardly an uncommon view among his generation, but Kennan’s penchant for orotund pronouncements in these diaries renders his precepts about women’s roles especially obnoxious—such as his argument that biblical injunctions against adultery were conceived when polygamy was the norm, and thus “it was easier to observe when you had 35 of them.” And then there was homosexuality. Kennan saw the rising visibility of gays in American life as another harbinger of the nation’s moral rot. “The weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble, and promising way of life” he grouped with “shameless pornography” and “the pathological preoccupation with sex and violence” as a mark of America’s “unrestrained decadence” at the century’s end.

The more time one spends with Kennan, the more one sees that this general disdain for the various peoples of the world was part of a thoroughgoing misanthropy. Even as a young man, he expresses disgust with regular people. In one case it is a group of Rotarians with whom he shares passage from Europe on the George Washington, whom he deems “nice people” but without “a real lady or gentleman among them.... They are children, and it is a bore to have to protect children from their environment when you cannot discipline them and teach them to protect themselves.”

Encounters with the masses leave him angry and scornful, complaining to his diary about Americans’ love of television, cars (in ice storms he takes pleasure from the sight of motorists sliding on the roadways), instant gratification, and—waxing lyrical—the culture’s “wretched sexual encounters in the back-seats of cars, its proudly-worn gonorrheas, its hangovers, its cruelties, its bad faith.” Even when he seeks refuge from America’s vulgarity in the refined climes of old Europe, his countrymen annoy him. “‘These damned American tourists,’ so goes my inner protest, ‘with their lousy clothes—their exposed undershirts, their California-style ‘casual’ shirts, their jeans and tennis shoes: Why do they have to be here in the Zurich airport?’”

Kennan’s contempt for his fellow Americans may be the most startling of all his hatreds. It is hard, after all, to reconcile his loyal career in government with the low opinion he held of the United States and its people. “For me this country presents no interest whatsoever,” he writes while on a train from Washington to Princeton in December 1953. “This is an infinitely boring country, which, though it has not the slightest idea about this, is condemned to a sad and pitiful fate.” Or, a few years later: “For my own country, I have not a shred of hope, not one.” Two decades later, more of the same: “More and more it is borne in upon me how little I have in common with, how little I belong to, this polyglot accumulation of people in the meridial part of North America.”

Kennan’s revulsion toward the mediocrity that he saw as endemic to America was connected ultimately to a hostility to democracy itself. Though he deplored Soviet communism, and put his intellectual and diplomatic skills to fighting it on his country’s behalf, he never had much regard for the alternative. He never grasped that the price of loving democracy is tolerating—even enjoying—its messiness and conflicts, its interest-group jockeying, its coalitions and deal-making, its pluralism. Any citizenry can of course be ill-informed and shortsighted, and we rely on good leaders to respond to public opinion with not just respect and sensitivity but also independence of judgment. But then Kennan never really loved democracy, with its unelevating give-and-take and its appeal to public opinion. “I believe in dictatorship,” he wrote as a young man, during the Depression, “but not the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, like a well-brought up child, should be seen and not heard. It should be properly clothed and fed and sheltered, but not crowned with a moral halo, and above all not allowed to have anything to do with government.”

In the diaries, Kennan does not sing the praises of outright dictatorship after his 1930s flirtation, and he surely knew that the United States was not going to renounce its open political system. Yet throughout his life he continued to imagine “better” alternatives, such as “hereditary oligarchy,” which he believed history had shown to be a far more reliable custodian of the public welfare than self-government ever was. Later in life, as if resigned to the permanence of democratic forms in the United States, he takes pains to make clear that he supports only “representative government” and not direct democracy; and he contends that the public should be restricted in its voting choices to a slate of candidates selected by some other elite body. “It is not in the election of representatives that our system fails; it is in the process of nomination. That is an extremely complicated problem.” By the time Kennan published Around the Cragged Hill in 1993, another volume of lugubrious reflections on all that is wrong with everything, he arrived at a solution that he called a “Council of State,” an unelected body that would take over certain functions of government. Reviewers, who generally treated the idea as eccentric but charming, failed to recognize that it was only the most gentle of Kennan’s anti-democratic tendencies, one of the few he was willing to publish.

Kennan’s dim view of democracy, of America, of humankind, is of more than passing interest, more than a quirky sidelight to a distinguished intellectual career—like Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidopterology or Dwight Macdonald’s nudism. It forces a reconsideration of his much-praised realism, the cold-eyed interest-based pragmatism that he prescribed for American foreign policy. In making notes for an article for Foreign Affairs in 1953, he writes, “What I would like to show is that the conduct of the foreign relations of a great country is a practical, not a moral, exercise. What is at stake is the adjustment of conflicting interests.” This nostrum makes sense in considering how to handle a rival superpower, but it has some glaring limitations when it comes to peoples whose interests are not represented at the great powers’ bargaining table in the first place. Foreign policy should not be sentimental, but neither should it be inhumane. Kennan’s “realism” was inextricably tied to a callous willingness to see other people suffer, a gaping moral deficiency that permitted him far too easily to distance himself from his fellow human beings, even his fellow countrymen. “For my entire literary life, as I now see it,” he writes at one point, “has been one long effort to gain understanding for the outlooks of others and to reach their understanding for my own.” Never did a statement show less self-awareness.

He was at his best when he could engage with given geopolitical realities and apply his chessboard thinking and pragmatic judgments. In these self-pitying pages, he likes to note those occasions on which he was astute or prescient in assessing big problems: “In the case of the Soviet Union, I was one of the first to recognize the essentiality of the ideology to the regime ... that you cannot expect to have normal relations with people who have a great deal of blood on their hands.” And again: “I was one of the first, and the few, to recognize that the weapons of mass destruction invalidated all previous thinking and doctrine concerning the value and uses of armed force.” To be sure, he was right—and profoundly influential—on many of the most important questions of the day, although sometimes right for the wrong reasons. But America was spared the full consequences of his uglier ideas because he always played a subordinate role to men who were superior politicians—superior in part because they had a greater love for the people of the United States and the people of the world: Franklin Roosevelt, Averell Harriman, George Marshall, Harry Truman, John Kennedy. It was all to the good that these superiors, even as they drew on his understanding of the Soviet regime and his strategic acumen, confined him to his advisory roles, and never allowed George Kennan, as he himself might have written, to have very much to do with actual government.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (Norton), among other books.