Kennan's 'American Diplomacy' Turns 70

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Almost 70 years ago, the University of Chicago Press published George F. Kennan’s American Diplomacy, a book that traced U.S. diplomatic history from the Spanish-American War to the early years of the Cold War.  The book consisted of a series of lectures Kennan delivered at the University of Chicago plus two papers he wrote about the birth of the Cold War. Nearly 70 years later, the book still inspires awe for its erudite prose and penetrating insights. 

The book appeared while Kennan was still serving in the State Department, but during a time when his influence in the Truman administration had been eclipsed by Paul Nitze and others. Kennan had risen to prominence after writing the “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946, which warned of the growing Soviet threat to the post-World War II balance of power, and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs in 1947, which explained the need for the policy of containment of Soviet power. He was also the intellectual father of the Marshall Plan and served as the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. 

Why Kennan’s influence waned

Kennan’s influence began to wane when he promoted the idea of a U.S.-Soviet mutual withdrawal from Europe and opposed the formation of NATO. He also began distancing himself from the more vigorous aspects of the containment doctrine, forgetting that he had once recommended U.S. “counterforce” along the periphery of the Soviet Empire. 

John Lewis Gaddis, the premier historian of the Cold War and Kennan’s best biographer, noted that American Diplomacy was Kennan’s first book and “sold better than anything else he ever wrote.”  The American Political Science Association named it the “best book of the year in the field of international relations.”

In American Diplomacy, Kennan sought to identify and explain what he called the “rhythm of international events” for the half-century covered by the book. At the outset, he noted a historical contradiction that gave him pause: during this time period, U.S. foreign policy was formulated and implemented by “outstanding Americans — men of exceptional intelligence and education, deeply respected for their integrity of character and breadth of experience” — yet over those 50 years U.S. security “had suffered a tremendous decline.” He explained this decline as follows: “A country which in 1900 had no thought that its prosperity and way of life could be in any way threatened by the outside world had arrived by 1950 at a point where it seemed to be able to think of little else but this danger.” 

That analysis was not conventional history, which instead taught that the United States became a great power after its victory in the Spanish-American War, emerged from the First World War in a better relative power position than the other major combatants, and achieved global preeminence after its victory in the Second World War. Kennan didn’t see it that way.

Technology, science shrinking the world

In hindsight, the 1898 war with Spain confirmed the wisdom of those few American strategists who understood that technology and science was shrinking the geography of the globe. Kennan praised Brooks Adams and Alfred Thayer Mahan for recognizing that U.S. security was linked to the balance of power in Europe and Asia. America became an imperial power, Kennan explained, because of “contingent necessity.” If the United States did not take the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, some other country or countries would. 

Kennan next discussed America’s policy towards the Far East after the Spanish-American War. It mainly consisted, he believed, of ad hoc arrangements with other interested powers unguided by any doctrine or overarching policy. It was, he wrote, “a vast and turgid process, involving immensely powerful currents of human affairs over which we Americans had little control or influence.” U.S. policymakers frequently failed to recognize “power realities” in Asia. Far too often — and this would be a recurring theme throughout the book — American policymakers projected their values and domestic political considerations onto other nations’ domestic political arrangements with disappointing results.

All roads lead back to WW I

Perhaps the most interesting and revealing chapter in the book is Kennan’s discussion of the First World War. Writing shortly after the larger and more physically destructive Second World War, Kennan called World War I the “forgotten factor,” yet he wrote that “all the lines of inquiry … lead back to it.” It is during the period 1914-20, he explained, that “the real answers should be sought.” 

World War I, explained Kennan, produced a “peace which had the tragedies of the future written into it as if by the devil’s own hand.” It was the sort of peace you got, he wrote:

when you allowed war hysteria and impractical idealism

to lie down together in your mind, like the lion and the

lamb; when you indulged yourself in the colossal conceit

of thinking that you could suddenly make international

life over into what you believed to be your own image;

when you dismissed the past with contempt, rejected the

relevance of the past to the future, and refused to occupy

yourself with the real problems that a study of the past

would suggest.

This was a devastating critique of President Woodrow Wilson and what has since been called Wilsonianism. 

‘Equilibrium of Europe’ shattered

The First World War, Kennan wrote, shattered the “equilibrium of Europe.” Germany and Russia were outcast states, but still potentially powerful and separated by weak and politically divided states in Central and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Britain and France reeled “from the vicissitudes of the war, wounded far more deeply than they themselves realized, the plume of their manhood gone, their world positions shaken.” Kennan later called the First World War the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Kennan’s chapter on the Second World War was informed not just by his careful reading of history but also by his participation and observation of events. He served in the early 1930s at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, during the time that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was tightening his grip on power by eliminating potential enemies at home. Kennan later served in Czechoslovakia at the height of the Munich crisis that dismembered that country and ripened it for plunder. When the United States entered the war, Kennan was in Berlin and along with other U.S. Embassy personnel was taken prisoner by the Nazis until released in a diplomatic trade. 

How war with Japan could have been avoided

Kennan wrote in American Diplomacy that war with Japan could have been avoided with a more careful and realistic policy in the Far East. But war with Germany was necessary, he wrote, and an alliance with the Soviet Union was essential to winning the war. He is quite critical, however, of U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union during the latter period of 1944 until the end of the war. The Roosevelt administration mistakenly provided “indiscriminate aid” to Soviet Russia “at a time when there was increasing reason to doubt whether her purposes in eastern Europe … would be ones which we Americans could approve and sponsor.” Again, Kennan laid blame at the feet of U.S. policymakers for their “general ignorance of the historical processes of our age” and their failure to understand the “power realities” at war’s end. For too many Americans, including some of our leaders, peace was an abstraction based on “hopes and enthusiasms and dreams of world improvement.”

Kennan’s take on the Cold War

The book’s final two chapters consist of two of Kennan’s articles that originally appeared in Foreign Affairs about the Cold War, including “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In geopolitical terms, the Second World War resolved nothing. The defeat of Nazi Germany and the way the war ended resulted in yet another imbalance of power on the Eurasian continent. In 1947, as noted previously, Kennan proposed a policy of long term and firm and vigilant containment of Soviet expansionist tendencies. In 1951, Kennan was less confrontational; eschewing “counterforce” and suggesting that America’s most potent weapon in the Cold War would be “the influence of example.” 

Kennan served a short stint as U.S. Ambassador to Moscow at the end of the Truman administration, and briefly returned to government service as ambassador to Yugoslavia during the Kennedy administration. He wrote other important books on diplomatic history and Soviet foreign policy, but all of his later writings flowed naturally from the worldview he exhibited in American Diplomacy. It was a worldview based fundamentally on geopolitical realism. It is a worldview that remains a useful guide to the conduct of American foreign policy. 



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