George Kennan Was No Friend of Democracy

Late in life, diplomat George Kennan became known as a “dove” on US-Russian relations. But after World War II his containment strategy played a major role subverting democracies in the name of fighting communism.

Former ambassador to Russia George Kennan, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 6, 1970. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In 1934, a young, bedazzled diplomatic team joined William C. Bullitt, recently appointed US ambassador to Moscow, at his handsome new Spaso House residence. Their arrival marked the first American diplomatic relationship with the Soviet government since it came to power in 1917. They reached the Soviet capital in a year that became legendary among the State Department’s foreign service officers.

Bullitt, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, had been deeply involved in negotiating the Versailles peace settlement in 1919. He returned to Washington deeply troubled about both the agreement and president Woodrow Wilson, infuriating the president by testifying against the conditions of the treaty. Bullitt’s private life was also at odds with the establishment. He was briefly married to Louise Bryant, the young widow of leftist writer, John Reed. A favorite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), Bullitt was sometimes described as a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Bullitt’s close-knit group at the US embassy in Moscow was to have an outsized influence on Soviet-American relations in the final years of World War II. One such old “Russia hand” was Charles “Chip” E. Bohlen, Roosevelt’s chief diplomatic aide at all the important postwar summits. Then there was Charles W. Thayer, Bullitt’s personal secretary, and a key member of the committee which drafted the terms of Nazi Germany’s surrender. He also authored the best-selling Bears in the Caviar, describing the high life in Spaso House.

But of all the Americans who reached the Soviet Union in 1934, it was thirty-year-old George Frost Kennan — a moody, often sickly young officer, born in Milwaukee and educated at Princeton University — who carved out the career that left the deepest mark on the twentieth century. Later characterized as one of Washington’s “wise men,” Kennan would be seen as a public intellectual who had some success at moderating the Cold War.

Kennan had particularly raised his profile in 1946 when he issued a fifty-five-hundred-word “Long Telegram” from his sickbed in Moscow. With his boss, Averell Harriman, away, Kennan’s missive was original and volatile. It proposed that the United States use a “containment” strategy to hold the postwar Soviet Union in check. Although it wasn’t spelled out in the telegram, Kennan would implement a heavy dose of covert activity — through a newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — to do this monitoring. He had already been deeply involved in such operations in neutral Portugal during World War II.

Unlike Bullitt, Kennan was far from a favorite of President Roosevelt. He detested everything about the New Deal. He had no patience for class conflict or trade unions. He disparaged — for many years — any and all diplomatic interest in what is known today as the “Global South” and its inhabitants. Many such countries would be violated and profoundly changed by the CIA actions that had already begun in Europe, with Kennan’s guidance, in the 1948 Italian election, where the agency “bought” the election for the Christian Democrats rather than tolerate the slightest chance of a Communist victory. In an unpublished work, Kennan suggested that women, blacks, and immigrants be disenfranchised. Although some of these opinions would be moderated or changed over the years, some of Kennan’s comments into the 1990s would raise questions about his “wise man” status.

In his recently released biography, Kennan: A Life Between Worlds, diplomatic historian Frank Costigliola delves into his approach. He notes that Joseph Stalin “was on a charm offensive with Americans in 1934. . . . Kennan and his friends approached Russia as an exotic, sensual frontier.” Kennan himself wrote that “American journalists and diplomats had all gone Russian in a big way and approached ‘the true bohemian.’”

Costigliola’s work on Kennan and the Cold War includes two earlier books: Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, and the Kennan Diaries, which he edited and was published in 2014. They add up to over two decades of research regarding the original Cold Warrior, who died aged one hundred one in 2005.

In all, Costigliola’s research, along with that of other historians, presents a disturbing picture of deep prejudice and outsized careerism that did much to shape American diplomacy throughout the twentieth century.

Sending the Russians to Hell

It was family connections that helped Kennan join the State Department in 1927 and begin work in Geneva, Switzerland. Strangely, he was offered a two-year stint studying the Russian language and history, described as an “education fit for a nineteenth-century aristocrat.” Kennan loved it, became a lifelong scholar of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, and developed a superior grasp of the Russian language. He felt as though he had a mystical connection to the city of Leningrad (today, St Petersburg) when he visited soon afterward.

But two years after their idyllic 1934 diplomatic tour, much of the same group of “Russia hands” — this time without Bullitt — returned to a grim Moscow shaken by Stalin’s purges, with their myriad victims. Nikolai Bukharin, just one of many Spaso House favorites, was executed by firing squad. Almost all communication between those in the embassy was erased and large numbers of armed police surrounded the building. It would have a profound effect on “Bullitt’s boys” and Kennan in particular.

For him, the memories of Stalin’s purges were never far away. He was moved to Berlin, serving there until war was declared on December 11, 1941. “For three-and-a-half years,” writes Costigliola, “Kennan saw the seemingly unbeatable Nazi machine up close.” Yet it never seemed to affect him as deeply as Stalin’s purges. Hitler’s most obscene crimes in the Holocaust were not mentioned in Kennan’s diaries or official analytical work. He would later, justly, be criticized for this vast omission. The Soviet victory over the Nazis in the history-changing battle of Stalingrad was all but ignored in his writings. In his diary, at the time, he instead wrote sourly about an extramarital affair gone bad.

Roosevelt had himself made a serious impression on Stalin. The Georgian Soviet leader once remarked to Andrei Gromyko and Vyacheslav Molotov, “Why did nature punish him so? Is he any worse than other people?” Ambassador Harriman’s daughter, Kathleen, remembered that Stalin “really admired Roosevelt and had great respect for him.” And Winston Churchill jealously complained that on one issue after another, “Stalin made it plain at once that if this was the President’s wish, he would accept it.” Not long before Roosevelt’s death, Stalin reportedly remarked, “Let’s hope nothing happens to Roosevelt. We shall never do business again with anyone like him.”

In his award-winning Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances, published in 2012, Costigliola insisted that the Cold War wasn’t inevitable — but only FDR could have avoided it. Even amidst deteriorating conditions when Harry S. Truman became president on April 12, 1946, Stalin repeatedly signaled that his aims remained limited and that he was open to compromise.

Initially, he permitted free elections in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He refused to aid the left-wing partisans in Greece and discouraged the large Communist parties in France and Italy from seizing power. Finland was given a significant degree of independence. Stalin did impose Soviet control over Poland, relegating the country to a “buffer zone” between the USSR and Germany. But he would also back down after the Berlin blockade, to permit renewed access to West Berlin.

According to Costigliola, while Roosevelt had emphasized “give and take compromise,” Truman said “the Russians could go to hell.” By January 5, 1947, he bluntly announced, “I’m tired of babying the Soviets.” So, too, were the Brits. The UK Foreign Office’s military chief Marshal Alanbrooke described the Soviet Union as not only a potential military threat, but a cultural and racial one, because “unfortunately Russia is not entirely European.”

Churchill’s melodramatic speech in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, had already cast the Soviets as a “growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization,” claiming that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” For Washington’s most powerful political columnist, Walter Lippmann, this intervention was “an almost catastrophic blunder.” Stalin’s response was immediate: he rejected the terms of a billion-dollar American loan (set up in such a way so that he would) and refused participation in the International Monetary Fund.

Cold Warrior

Churchill’s speech also came just days after the frustrated Roosevelt critic Kennan had launched his Long Telegram. The document was so influential that it would be duplicated all over Washington. It was the linchpin to organize the forces to underwrite a cold war — and it would be the professional making of Kennan.

He, like others, attacked Roosevelt for cravenly abandoning Eastern Europe. Yet in reality, Washington and its European allies had little leverage over the situation. “Stalin had the power to act; we had only the power to argue,” wrote Lippmann:

The West paid the political price for having failed to deter Hitler in the 1930s, for having failed to rearm against him. . . . With its overwhelming economic strength, its predominance in Latin America, its undisputed naval power in the Pacific, its incomparable industrial and military machine, its control over the world’s raw materials, the United States would have nothing to fear from a devastated and war-impoverished Russia.

Yet, Kennan’s influential Long Telegram described a nightmarish, evil enemy. Costigliola faults Kennan for selling Roosevelt short, claiming that the president was naive in his dealings with Stalin when, in fact, “Roosevelt was a world-class judge of personality.”

Lippmann, often a critic of Roosevelt in other areas, was deeply upset by Kennan’s overwrought perception in his telegram. “Although he harbored no illusions about Soviet beneficence,” argues author Ronald Steel in his classic Walter Lippmann and the American Century, “neither did he think the Russians were devils incarnate. . . . He believed that the Russians had real anxieties about their security, particularly with regard to Germany, and the American policy was intensifying those anxieties.” Lippmann’s view was that the British and Americans had “furnished the Soviet Union with reasons, with pretexts, for an iron rule behind the iron curtain, and with grounds for believing what Russians are conditioned to believe: that a coalition is being organized to destroy them.”

“A gifted communicator, Kennan moved others with his emotional language, striking analysis, and authoritative tone,” says Costigliola. His texts “crackled with emotion even as they claimed the authority of cool reason and realism”; and it was in the name of realism that the Long Telegram invoked “a fantastic scenario in which the Soviet Union loomed as an inhuman face, without morality . . . pathologically compelled to destroy almost every decent aspect of life in the West.”

By the time Kennan sent it, the Truman administration had already decided on a get-tough policy. But “Kennan had overreached,” insists Costigliola. “He mobilized his talent for emotion-evoking prose . . . to fashion a narrative so persuasive that it would dominate U.S. foreign policy for the rest of the Cold War and beyond.”

A Star Is Born

Kennan’s dramatic “overreach” would catapult him to a high-profile Washington job. He was founding director of the new and important Policy Planning staff in the State Department and deputy commandant at the National War College.

In summer 1947, over a year after the Long Telegram, he issued a second missive published in Foreign Affairs. In it, Kennan argued that the Soviets were governed not by rational considerations of security, but by a messianic ideology and a paranoid sense of insecurity. Lippmann reacted strongly. He disagreed with the whole premise of Kennan’s article, launching a fourteen-part newspaper series that would be turned into a book, The Cold War. At the center of Lippmann’s argument was the insistence that

The Russians were in Eastern Europe, not because of the demands of a messianic ideology . . . but as a result of World War 2. It was Hitler’s aggression, not Stalin’s, that had brought the Red Army to the Brandenberg Gate. Soviet troops remained there because of Russia’s deep-seated and historically-conditioned fears for its security — fears that had a rational basis and could not be dealt with as paranoid delusions.

But the entire thrust of the two texts Kennan had authored gave a powerful group of Washington defense hawks reason to believe that a military buildup was necessary to combat this Cold War enemy. So, in addition to a quickly ramped-up covert action plan — which would involve Eastern Europe, Italy, Iran, and Guatemala from 1948–1955 — there was also mounting pressure to sharply increase the Defense Department budget.

Later, Kennan would claim that he never meant “containment” to be taken primarily in a military sense, and he regretted that it had been. Yet “[a]t the time,” adds Steel, “when he could have disavowed the military interpretation Lippmann and others had put on his containment article, he did not choose to do so.” The respected Steel would later write in the New York Review of Books that “behind the Princeton recluse, obsessed with Russia . . . there stands the diplomat counselor, yearning to advise presidents, never quite understanding why lesser men are in such powerful positions.” He praised Kennan’s advocacy of détente with the Soviet Union in later years — but criticized his constant disparagement of the Global South.

Even the Christian Democratic Italian premier Alcide de Gasperi, who benefited from CIA interference in his country’s elections, was better able to credit his adversaries: “The Communists in Italy fought in the partisan and resistance movements and helped to set up our Republic,” he commented. And historian Kaeten Mistry, author of The United States, Italy and the Cold War: Waging Political Warfare, 1945–1950, notes,

Kennan was not pulled reluctantly into the shadowy world of secret operations. . . . The enthusiasm with which he approached covert activities revealed few moral or legal qualms. . . . Kennan was certainly in the loop . . . although it would be mistaken to consider political warfare as his exclusive project. Its continued expansion after he left the Truman administration is testimony to this fact.

From Hawk to Dove?

This Cold Warrior would, in later life, become known as a dove on Russian affairs. Costigliola reports Kennan’s 1990 discussions with an aide to Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he told that US animus toward Moscow resulted from “a full misunderstanding of Soviet intentions” because they suffered “from Cold War hysteria, an exorbitant exaggeration of Soviet might.” He said that for Pentagon planners, such hostility had become “not just their habit, but also their means for existence. It is their life.” And he assured Gorbachev’s helper that even when he wrote the “x” file, he had never believed that Moscow would attack the West.

With half a century of hindsight, most had forgotten — or more likely, never knew — the harsh, truculent tones of those early days after World War II. Kennan’s convenient “forgetting” or rewriting what actually took place under the inept, tough-sounding Truman, followed up by the dark days of McCarthyism, is itself disturbing. Yet, by 1998, Kennan told the New York Times that expanding NATO after the fall of the Soviet Union was a “tragic mistake,” explaining that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”

Kennan had spent the second half of his life at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, writing, researching, and lecturing — winning numerous awards for his many books. His reputation for working to create peace with Moscow was based on numerous, unending speeches, behind-the-scenes diplomatic forays, and a seemingly honest effort to avert war. His earlier prophecy that the Soviet Union would implode of its own weaknesses, and that NATO expansion could lead to war in Ukraine, proved correct. Roosevelt would have embraced his work, and rejoiced.