Architect of the U.S. policy of "containing" the Soviet Union during the Cold War, George F. Kennan was one of this country's preeminent diplomats, historians, and public intellectuals.
In "Kennan," Frank Costigliola, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut, author of "Roosevelt's Lost Alliances," and editor of "The Kennan Diaries," provides an informative, clear-eyed, and compelling (if at times repetitious) account of a brilliant, conflicted, egotistical and emotionally volatile man, whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century.
In his personal and professional life, Costigliola demonstrates, Kennan tried to bridge the gap between the Victorian and modern worlds he inhabited. Obsessed with the death of his mother two months after he was born, his inability to establish a close relationship with his distant father, and marital difficulties, Kennan craved succor from a substitute parent, desirable women and the "virile, fertile" Russian people.
Impressed with the theories of Sigmund Freud, however, Kennan concluded that neither individuals nor nations could fully reconcile the sexual freedom, creativity and emotion of Eros, with the duty, discipline and cold rationality of civilization.
Although Costigliola does not, of course, excuse Kennan's xenophobia, racism and misogyny, he attributes his prejudices to formative experiences in predominantly white Milwaukee, WASP Princeton and Eastern Europe. Costigliola notes as well that Nazi atrocities against Jews did not seem to reach "deep into Kennan's heart."
Kennan's "Long Telegram" to the State Department in 1946 and his article under the pseudonym "X," which was published in "Foreign Affairs" in 1947, Costigliola reminds us, laid out in detail the grand strategy of containment. And they produced dream jobs for Kennan, as founding director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff and deputy commandant of the National War College in Washington.
Although Kennan later denied that his proposals necessitated a military buildup or a likely military confrontation, Costigliola makes a persuasive case that he had simplified the Soviet threat "to the point of distortion" and "helped create the monster of a militarized Cold War."
In any event, Kennan's support for negotiations with the Russians in the 1950s (and beyond) contributed to his loss of influence in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
In subsequent decades, as a permanent faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., Kennan wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning books and commented, often presciently, on contemporary issues. Kennan opposed the war in Vietnam because America had no vital interests there. He cautioned against U.S. dependence on China in commercial matters. He warned that pushing NATO's borders "smack up against those of Russia" was a colossal mistake, with "much trouble lying ahead in connection with the Ukraine." And Kennan became an outspoken environmentalist.
Appreciative of the many awards bestowed on him, including the Einstein Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Costigliola notes, Kennan complained that he was honored but not heeded.
Kennan's greatness, Costigliola concludes, was marred by his prejudices. But he deserves to be remembered as an iconoclastic outsider, at his best when serving as America's "conscience and our censorious judge."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Kennan: A Life Between Worlds
By: Frank Costigliola.
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 648 pages, $39.95.