The Lasting Legacy of George F. Kennan
John Lewis Gaddis, author of George F. Kennan: An American Life, discusses the diplomatic and personal legacy of George F. Kennan, former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.
This meeting is part of a series hosted with the National History Center featuring prominent historians who will examine the events and times that shaped foreign policy as we know it today.
RICHARD HAASS: Why don't we get started? We are uncharacteristically but intentionally a few minutes late. One of the very few principles we hold to dearly here is, we try to start and end things on time, but tonight, because of the presence of the president in the city of New York, we figured it might take a few of you a few more minutes more than usual to get here, and we didn't want you to miss even a moment of it.
JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: (Chuckles.)
HAASS: Welcome, one and all, to the Council on Foreign Relations. For those of you who are unfamiliar with us, we are an independent nonpartisan membership organization. We're also a think tank, and we're also a publisher, which is relevant to the subject of tonight. And we're dedicated to increasing people's understanding of the world and the foreign policy choices facing this country.
One of the projects we started about five years ago was a collaboration with the National History Center on a series of history -- meetings that was designed to draw the links between history and foreign policy. And in part this was informed by two of my former colleagues, two of the people I've learned from most in my life, Dick Neustadt and Ernie May. And Dick and Ernie, who were colleagues of mine at Harvard, did a book called "Thinking in Time," about the uses of history for decision-making. And when I got here, we thought that we would basically borrow from it.
And we are hard -- we would be hard-pressed to do better than either with the individual on my left, John Gaddis, or with -- or the subject, George Kennan. It is -- it's the ultimate twofer.
So what I thought I would do is spend a few minutes talking with Professor Gaddis, who is the author of many books, including this one, "George Kennan: An American Life" -- and we'll talk to him about that for a few minutes -- is also, I think, the person who's done more for the chronicling and understanding and, if you will, the deconstruction of the Cold War, containment more broadly, than any other historian and has really done us all a tremendous service.
He's also done a great service in the academy by his teaching of literally, what, probably two generations of students now.
GADDIS: I hate to think of it at this point. (Chuckles.)
HAASS: But that's about right, though.
GADDIS: Maybe. Mmm hmm.
HAASS: Yeah. I mean, literally. And there's no program that's done it better than Yale. And John has been at the center of that enterprise. And really it is, not just figuratively, but it literally is the model for the teaching of that sort of national security education on many other campuses around the country, what he and Paul Kennedy and others have done. So we're thrilled to have him back.
Let me also, before I turn to John -- where -- Roger Louis, sitting here up in the front row, who -- Roger directs the National History Center, and he was instrumental in getting this series off the ground.
Given the subject of tonight, I also want to single out and welcome Christopher Kennan. Where's Mr. Kennan sitting? Right here. It's great to have such a personal connection with such an extraordinary individual, particularly for those of us who many decades later ran the policy planning staff. And so for those of you who are looking for ammunition that America is in decline, let me suggest, there you have it. (Laughter.)
OK. So I want to talk about the themes of the book and about Mr. Kennan's life. The -- let's start -- it was also central to the life of this institution.
HAASS: Whenever we come up with the short list of ways in which the Council on Foreign Relations and foreign affairs has made a difference, we obviously go back to 1947 and the famous article -- the "X" article in Foreign Affairs, which was roughly a year after the "Long Telegram," plus or minus.
GADDIS: Year and a half, yup. Mmm hmm.
HAASS: When I -- preparing for this, I actually went back and looked at both. There's a difference.
GADDIS: Oh, yeah. Mmm hmm.
HAASS: There's a difference. And why don't you say something about the difference over that year, year and a half, and why, in some ways, the article in Foreign Affairs -- would you -- you used the word "edgier." And you -- I won't throw the adjectives at you, but they are more -- (inaudible) -- but there is a difference between the two. What does that tell us?
GADDIS: Well, I think a long telegram itself, violating all the rules on the length of telegrams, was a pretty edgy thing to do at the time, and it certainly was done with the intention of being edgy, because what Kennan was trying to do was to get people's attention. And breaking the rules on the length of telegrams was a pretty good way to do it at that time.
HAASS: Never worked for me, but I don't --
GADDIS: Well, yeah. (Laughter.)
But they are different documents, Richard, you're right, because the "Long Telegram" really is an analysis of Soviet policy. This is why the Soviets are so difficult to deal with in the post-war period and will be for the foreseeable future, because this is the article -- or this is the dispatch that makes the argument that the Stalin system required a hostile outside world as a way of legitimizing its own brutality on the inside. So they could never be friends; that was the -- we could never be friends with them. That was the point of the "Long Telegram."
The "X" article, a year and a half later, is something else. This is the beginning of thinking about what the American response should be to this situation. George would have been the first to say it was not a well-thought-out, careful examination of this; it simply was -- it grew out of a council presentation here in January of 1947. It was rather casually thrown together at the behest of Hamilton Fish Armstrong. It was designated X because of George's position on the policy planning staff. He was supposed to be anonymous. And it's noteworthy for the literary citations in it. It quotes Edward Gibbon on the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." It quotes Thomas Mann. And that's what blew George's cover right there -- (laughter) -- because the word went around Washington: Only George Kennan would quote Edward Gibbon and Thomas Mann. So --
HAASS: That's why we've avoided any signs of erudition ever since, not to -- not to run that risk. (Laughter.)
GADDIS: The point of the article, which did in large measure come from these classical sources -- from Gibbon, from Mann and from George's own extensive acquaintance with 19th century Russian culture by way of literature -- the point was there was a third way, not war, not appeasement but simply patience -- hold the line, be patient. The Soviet system contains within itself contradictions that will eventually bring it down. But it will bring itself down peacefully -- this is what the article suggested.
Someday, the article suggested, there will be a Soviet leader who will say, we can't go on living this way. And of course, Gorbachev was 13 years old when this article came out. So it's pretty uncanny.
HAASS: In between the two -- in between the "Long Telegram" and the foreign affairs article was the articulation of the Truman doctrine. And I would have thought that Mr. Kennan would have been pretty uncomfortable with the Truman doctrine.
GADDIS: He was, absolutely.
HAASS: Because it was the universality of it and --
GADDIS: The Truman doctrine, of course, is famous for the undertaking to come to the assistance of people who are suffering oppression throughout the world. It's an extraordinary thing to promise in March of 1947, when the United States had nothing like the capability to do this. And most historians say that this was hyperbole -- indeed, it was Achesonian hyperbole, because the idea was Acheson's -- to exaggerate the danger in order to get a specific bill through the Congress, aid to Greece and Turkey.
Kennan was sympathetic to that, but he hated the universal justification for it, and said so at the time. And actually, just a few days after the Truman doctrine speech was made, Kennan -- still teaching at the National War College at that point -- does a lecture at the War College in which he deconstructs Truman's doctrine in front of all of the students. So it was really quite extraordinary, his candor, his courage, his dissent from administration policy.
But the great irony of the "X" article is that it was carelessly worded. It did seem to reinforce the Truman doctrine -- or at least it did so in the mind of Walter Lippmann, one of its -- obviously, its most distinguished reader. And Lippmann then comes out with a book called "The Cold War," which is about 10 times the length of the "X" article, in which he berates Kennan for having been one of the instigators of the Truman doctrine. And so you can understand why George was unhappy at that time and remained so for the rest of his life.
HAASS: So you actually -- do you think then it really was a question of somewhat unintentional loose drafting and misinterpretation rather than any intellectual evolution in his thinking?
GADDIS: I think it was, in this case, simply careless drafting. And I try to trace in the book just how that happened. Kennan gave an off-the-record talk here. Ham Armstrong said, do you have that in writing somewhere? Kennan said, no I don't but I have something else that's like it. So he sends that to Armstrong. The -- Armstrong takes a month or so to think about it and read it and say, well, we'd like to publish this, et cetera, you know.
It's all very casual, it's all very loose. And Kennan is paying no attention to correlating the contents of the article with what is actually happening, like the Truman doctrine, like the decision to create the Marshall Plan, et cetera. The article is really simply a kind of reiteration of the points that he had made in the past. And the wording was careless enough that you could see how Lippmann might have come to this conclusion. So this was excruciatingly painful for Kennan, not just the fact that his cover was blown, but the fact that his own article seemed and in fact did really contradict the more thoughtful things that he was doing in his national (work out of selectors ?) at that time.
HAASS: How did Kennan survive politically as long as he did, given his criticism of the Truman doctrine, given his opposition to German rearmament, given his opposition to Azerbaijan -- and later on, you know, to a lot of things, but by then he was out of government -- but how did he survive as long as he did inside government?
GADDIS: Well, he doesn't survive for very long, Richard, if you think about it. The tenure at the top in government is pretty brief, it's three years as policy planning staff director, it's five months as ambassador to the Soviet Union before he gets kicked out, it's two years in Belgrade under Kennedy, and that's it. So it's not a very long career at the top. He was, of course, a career foreign service officer, so he rose through those ranks.
But one of the questions that I wrestled with was just this: How, as policy planning staff director, as someone who by 1948 is vigorously dissenting with the direction of American foreign policy -- how does he last, even as policy planing staff director, through the end of 1949? And the answer is Acheson, who becomes secretary of state in January of 1949. And while Acheson could in many ways get exasperated with George, because they were very, very different people, nonetheless Acheson respected him, Acheson was fond of him.
And Acheson, more than most people realize, actually had an open mind when he came in as secretary of state. So he was not wedded to the idea of dividing Germany. He was open to that idea. He certainly listened to Kennan and to John Paton Davies on China: We have no business defending the Chinese nationalists; there will be a split, a Sino-Soviet split in due course. So there are several issues in which Acheson listened carefully to Kennan.
But the difference between Acheson and Kennan was that when Acheson saw that a course of policy was politically impractical, either for domestic political reasons or because the allies would never buy it, Acheson was capable of turning on a dime. He would just flip overnight. And then he would claim never to have thought the previous thought -- (laughter) -- and do it with perfect credibility.
This drove Kennan up the wall. You can imagine. So that's the difference between them. Acheson was -- knew how to operate within the government. He had this great sense of practicality. He was not one for lost causes. George was just the opposite, I think.
HAASS: Let's talk about his relationship with two or three other extraordinary Americans in that moment, because there was a moment of extraordinary Americans. Another, George Marshall, who, when Mr. Kennan took over the policy planing staff, gave him an -- two words of guidance.
GADDIS: Avoid trivia. I was lecturing at the policy planning staff the other day. And they have little medallions that they pass out to guests. You've seen these, Richard. They say, at the bottom, avoid trivia.
HAASS: (Inaudible) -- their relationship, but more broadly, if Mr. Kennan were speaking about his time at the policy planning staff, everything I've read sort of suggested tremendous frustration.
GADDIS: Well, yes, after a point; I would say a period of great exhilaration and excitement at first. I would say the first nine months or so, which is roughly spring '47 through March of '48 or so. And that's a period when the policy planning staff really is running American foreign policy. This has never come back, as far as I know.
HAASS: As far as I know either, yeah. (Laughter.)
GADDIS: And Kennan famously had the door that opened into Marshall's office. And because the national security establishment, even the National Security Act, really had not yet been passed at the time the planning staff was formed, the CIA has really not been organized at that point, by default the policy planning staff really was the think tank for the government, and so there's an extraordinary window of influence that lasted about nine months.
And then George goes off to fix occupation policy in Japan. This is MacArthur. And that takes him out of the country for four weeks, and then he gets sick as a result and he's out for another two weeks. In that six-week period in the spring of -- late winter of 1948, this is when NATO is organized. This is when the critical decision is made to divide Germany. This is when policy runs away from Kennan. And he never caught up. He never was able to get back in the position of being in control of it.
It tells you something about George Kennan that while he was -- many people don't know this, or don't realize it -- he was the architect of covert operations for the CIA, he is the one who made that recommendation that the agency should have that capability -- but he also insisted, having done that, that every covert operation be cleared through the policy planning staff. The policy planning staff at that point had either, you know, depending on when you look at it, five to seven members in it. And that was a very good example, I think, of the bureaucratic impracticality of kind of the idea that he could keep track of all the different threads of foreign policy at the same time. He just was not able to delegate, and I think that's another weakness of him within government.
HAASS: One other relation with -- was his deputy, with Paul Nitze -- and one of the principal, if not the principal author, of NSC-68.
GADDIS: That's correct. Mmm hmm.
HAASS: I mean, a book has come out about it.
GADDIS: Nick Thompson's book.
HAASS: Nick's book, yeah. But in your sense, to what extent was that creative tension or not?
GADDIS: Well, it was curious because they were personal friends throughout their lives. And so really quite late in Nitze's life, I interviewed him, and I asked about his relationship with Kennan. And he said, George and I have never differed on anything, except substance. (Laughter.) And that was about right. (Chuckles.) They differed on everything, but they had this ability still to be civil with each other and to go to each other's birthday parties and family events and all of that. Nick makes the very good point in his book that it -- each believed that the recommendations of the other, if put into effect, would destroy the republic, but nonetheless, they remained good friends. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Let's talk about two of his intellectual legacies. The first is obviously containment. To what extent do you think that it is a legacy that transcends the immediacy of the U.S.-Soviet competition? Was it, if you will, time and situationally bound? Or do you actually think that that is an enduring intellectual legacy?
GADDIS: The answer is a good historian's answer: yes and no.
Yes in the sense that if you look at some of the underlying premises of the underlying premises of the strategy of containment, they were that the Soviet Union was suffering from severe internal contradictions, which would in time weaken it and ultimately cause it to collapse. And it seems to me that's a very astute question to ask of any adversary out there in the world today: What are the internal contradictions that they are operating under. And if I look at the other great powers that are out there, we -- some people consider to be our adversaries today and look at the internal contradictions that they have, I certainly would not trade places with them. I think they all have pretty severe internal contradictions. So I think the analysis of internal contradictions, the awareness of them and the incorporation of them into American strategy is a Kennan idea that still is very much relevant.
But no, in the sense that the international system is totally different from what it was back then. Kennan came to prominence in this extraordinary period when the world was divided between two great powers. And as Acheson himself said, it was something not seen since the days of Athens and Sparta and Rome and Carthage. And of course, that -- what that meant was that it was really an artificial situation; we have come back to the default, which is multipolarity of some sort. And so the containment of an adversary, in that sense, is less clear. It is not quite clear exactly which adversary we would seek to contain. What's more characteristic of a multipolar system, as you know, would be balancing antagonisms; it would be the Bismarck-Kissinger approach.
And I think ultimately, this is what Kennan himself was most comfortable with. One of the things that struck me in doing the book is how uneasy he was with the bipolar situation, particularly once nuclear weapons came on the scene; the possibility for these weapons actually being used was there.
HAASS: What about the thinking of the prerequisites, less structural and more about the qualities or characteristics of the country in question? I mean, the word "containment" now -- you hear it most in the context of either China or Iran.
HAASS: And the issue is what was it about -- that containment could work vis-a-vis the Soviet Union -- what do we think is replicable, if that's the word, with either Iran or China, or not? Is that a -- is that a useful intellectual --
GADDIS: Well, I mean, the critical thing is asking the question, how much time do you have for patience? And that's tough to answer. That's the big question right now with Iran, it seems to me. It's a question that Kennan asked, because he was careful to say containment would not have worked with Hitler because Hitler had a timetable; Stalin did not. So he made that distinction. And it seems to me that same question is relevant with Iran. Don't ask me what the answer to that question is, but nonetheless, you know -- with China, it seems to me the possibilities of patience are much greater in that regard.
And of course, the interesting thing with China is that if anything, the Chinese are more fascinated by the idea of containment even than we are because they are convinced, absolutely convinced that we are out to contain them. And so they are great students of George Kennan and the strategy of containment because they believe this will be the key to future American policy with regard to China. So it's very strange how interested they are in this.
HAASS: I just have two other questions; then I want to open it up.
GADDIS: Mmm hmm -- (affirmative) -- sure.
HAASS: Penultimate -- to what extent, rather than containment being the real intellectual centerpiece of his legacy, should it be realism, that Kennan more than anyone else is the counter to the Wilsonian and all of its modern-day variants, that that's really in some ways closer to the fault line about not how we go about our policy, but what we should be doing --
GADDIS: Sure, right.
HAASS: -- to the world? So that's really his more basic intellectual legacy.
GADDIS: Well, two objections to that, Richard. One is that there were other realists on the scene at that point. So there was Morgenthau, there was Lippmann, there was Niebuhr; Kennan was not in a distinctive position at that point. His little book, "American Diplomacy," is famous as a statement of realism, but realism would have been there even without Kennan, it seems to me.
Secondly, I don't think it fits Kennan. I think Kennan is too complex to be described as a realist. I was constantly struck, in writing the book, by how, first of all, impractical he could often be about working within the governments for the reasons that I've mentioned. So that doesn't sound like a realist. But I was also struck by his extraordinary idealism, and this is a quality often not associated with Kennan until you begin looking at something that we haven't talked about yet which is his critique of American culture.
And that's a huge theme in the last half of his life, his career as a public intellectual, as someone who many people believe hated this country. I don't think so. I think he loved this country, but I think he held this country to impossibly high standards. And in that sense, that is almost the ultimate idealism, if you think about it.
HAASS: That -- (inaudible) -- my last question --
HAASS: -- which is the -- I -- this is a remarkable book. And if you haven't read it, you really -- it's not beach reading, but it's better than that. (Laughter.) It is -- it's a great way to spend some chunk of your summer.
GADDIS: Actually a couple of my students have taken it to the beach, and they've dropped it in the water, and it's come back -- (laughter) -- with sand and everything. They've shown me.
HAASS: Excuse me. Unless you're a student at Yale, this is not a -- (laughter) -- for the rest of us, this is not a -- but the only, only thing that I question in the book because it's --
GADDIS: Mmm hmm -- (affirmative) -- sure.
HAASS: -- I learned a lot, I enjoyed it tremendously -- was the subtitle. If there was one thing I would have said about George Kennan, it was not "an American life." There was something about him who -- that was, to me, a European life, an old world life, that he seems slightly miscast, a misfit, an anachronism. You called it idealism, but it seemed to me he was pining, in some ways, almost for an ancient time of certain -- a code of behavior of people, of countries and the rest that seemed to me strangely un-American.
GADDIS: Well, I know many people have looked at the subtitle and have wondered about it, and there were a couple of reviewers who even wrote in their reviews that it must have been an accident. (Laughter.) I deeply resent this. I mean -- (laughter) -- this is a book -- this is a book that took 30 years to write. You don't have an accidental subtitle -- (laughter continues) -- under those conditions.
HAASS: No -- not sloppy drafting here.
GADDIS: Right, no, so -- no, I would still defend it, and I would say that he was looking for a lost world. But the lost world was really America. The lost world was the America of his youth. It's Milwaukee, it's Wisconsin, it's what those places were like when he was a kid growing up there. And part of his problem is that he would go off for long periods of time abroad, and then he would come back, and he would find changes. And the changes would seem to be much more dramatic for him because it was almost like a succession of snapshots, not an evolutionary process.
So he comes back in the 1930s, and there are automobiles, and there is advertising and whatnot. Well, then he comes back later, and there is television and so on. And it all is taking the country further and further away from this really elegiac and, I think in many ways, sanitized memory that he had growing up in Milwaukee. So I think that's what he wanted to come back to; I think that was ultimately the vision that was in his mind.
And yes, of course, there were a lot of comparisons to the Europeans and so on. Yes, he was very knowledgeable about that. But fundamentally he is deeply patriotically, I think, a mid-Western American with all of the romanticism, lack of realism that could be implied in that -- in that vision, it seems to me.
HAASS: Let's open it up.
HAASS: People -- if they would wait for a microphone, raise their hand, identify themselves, keep your questions relatively brief. Only professors are allowed to speak at length.
Cheryl (sp) -- Miss -- Karl (sp).
QUESTIONER: A fellow Wisconsinian who was present, Professor Gaddis, at the 100th birthday for George Kennan at Princeton.
GADDIS: I remember it well.
QUESTIONER: I was struck by the fact that -- as Mark Twain said, history rhymes if it doesn't repeat itself -- that we now find ourselves in a very chaotic period, but we have the illusion that -- before World War I, which Kennan said was the single greatest catastrophe of the modern era, it was not a period of peace. It -- the British were fighting in South Africa. They had a mutiny in Ireland. That's -- a man named Boutros Ghali was assassinated by an Egyptian nationalist -- that everywhere you looked, whether it was Mexico, with the first nationalist uprising; China, another nationalist uprising; or if you looked to the president of the United States, who was a unilateralist, who sent the Great White Fleet around the world and who also built the Panama Canal and said: While Congress debated, I built the canal.
So you had all of these familiar themes.
QUESTIONER: What is your speculation of what George Kennan would say, let's say, about the situation in Syria today?
GADDIS: Well, I'm going to dodge that one, Karl (sp), if it's all right with you -- (laughter) -- because, first of all, everybody asks that question. The topic will vary -- it'll be Syria one day, it'll be Iran at the next talk and so on -- but what it's really asking me to do is to channel the ghost of George Kennan. I don't think I should do that.
I think that respect for George Kennan, respect for his location within his own time is a very important thing for a biographer to have. I become very impatient with biographers who seek to remove their subjects from their own time and drag them into the present moment and then try to critique them according to present politically correct standards. I just don't like that approach to writing biography in the first place.
So even though I violated my own rule in a very general sense in response to Richard's question when I said that I thought one of the enduring legacies of containment is this idea of being sensitive to internal contradictions within other countries, that's a more generic comment, and I really have tried to steer clear of saying I know what George would have said about this or that. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't.
But one of the things I found in writing this book is that he was constantly surprising me. So I think that's just a signal to be careful and cautious in this regard. I hope that's OK. (Laughter.)
HAASS: It's cautious.
Paul, is that you or is that behind you? I can't see. Ah, behind you. I'm sorry.
QUESTIONER: Given his --
HAASS: You have to identify yourself.
QUESTIONER: Oh. George Lazarus, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Given his thoughts about America, and wishing that it were perhaps back in the 1920s or '30s, whatever, if he had been advising the Soviet Union or China or whatever other country, what would he have said about internal contradictions within the United States and perhaps they should use containment?
GADDIS: Well, he did say this, not to those countries, but certainly throughout his life he was very much aware of the internal contradictions within in own society. And after the United States really became one of the two great superpowers, and particularly after it began to build up its, in his view, excessive military strength, he often said that the job of Americans -- a more important job than containing the Soviet Union was containing ourselves, because it really is the case that for much of the last half of his life, he viewed the United States as as much of a danger to international peace as the Soviet Union. And the danger, of course, was the nuclear danger, this idea that somehow everything would blow up because we had piled up so many weapons and because they were under hair-trigger control and because of the alliance systems and all of that.
So for him it was very much like the pre-World War I international system -- the post-Bismarck but pre-World War I international system. And his last great historical project, the history of the Franco-Russian alliance -- of which he wrote two of the projected three volumes, I guess -- was really meant as a warning to Americans of this parallel.
The only problem with George as a historian was that he was so good a historian and he loved doing history so much, he had so much fun with it, that he got bogged down in detail and the message was obscured, as George relished telling the story in a very great, grand way. And that's why these books are still wonderful reads, even though he meant them to carry a message.
HAASS: Can you say something, by the way, about his relationship with Russia? Because we see he's associated with containment, which is, quote-unquote, "anti-Russian," yet he became probably one of the two or three foremost critics of NATO enlargement, because he thought it was needlessly, gratuitously anti-Russian.
HAASS: Could you say a little bit about how he -- that he was probably the shortest-lived U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.
GADDIS: That's right.
HAASS: Say something about that.
GADDIS: Well, I think in summary, he loved Russia and the Russian people and the Russian language and Russian literature, all of these things, deeply, deeply. He hated the Soviet regime. That's it in a nutshell. And it was his love for the country and the culture that actually gave him the confidence that the regime would not last, because, he said, any culture that is that old, that is that deeply rooted in the mentality of the people, that is that beautifully expressed in the great works of literature -- and here, particularly Chekhov was hugely important in his thinking. The first university lecture that he ever gave was at Yale in October of 1946, in between the "Long Telegram" and the "X" article, and he spent the last third of it talking about Chekhov, remarkably.
So this was very, very deep and it was a window into a great grand strategic insight, which was that this system was superficially imposed on Russia, it was not likely to last in that regard. And so I think that's one of the extraordinarily interesting things about Kennan, is the connection between the careful reading of literature and the construction of a grand strategy.
So I think this gets at what you're talking about here. And that love of Russia never left him. I think what was added to it was, after the United Stages began to arm itself and create its alliances and whatnot -- and George carried his fear of nuclear war over into a tendency in his later years to apologize for the Soviet regime, to say it's not as bad as its critics say. So he was actually rather hostile to Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov when they became active.
But much of that really was a sense that we cannot dare to rock the boat, we cannot dare to be provocative or take risks, because the danger to everything would be so great if we did. And so one has to think of the trade-offs here. And it's very easy for us now to say these fears of nuclear war were exaggerated on his part, but of course one other thing that we're finding as we look at the records of these nuclear crises, each one that we look at makes us realize that we came closer and closer to losing control. And we haven't even looked very carefully at this from the Russian -- from the Soviet side. So who is to say that he was wrong in warning about this.
QUESTIONER: Bill Luers.
QUESTIONER: John, I guess one of the subthemes -- another subtheme of the book is how extraordinarily confident, bold -- edgy, if you will -- and brilliant he was as a writer, who didn't fear to take positions that were strong, and he was confident, yet filled with self-doubt day in and day out.
QUESTIONER: And I don't think I've quite encountered a person with that mix of certitude yet insecurity in how he thought. I realize that's sort of what your book is about. Would you have something to say about that?
GADDIS: Actually, I wish you had told me that, Bill, while I was writing the book, because I think maybe that would have been a good sub-title. (Chuckles.) Uncertainty, self-doubt, self-confidence, something like that, because that's part of the paradox.
HAASS: For the paperback edition you can -- (laughter).
GADDIS: OK, the paperback edition, right. With credit to Bill.
It all goes back, I'm convinced -- and George told me this himself, one of the first things he told me, was that the loss of his mother when he was two months old was the defining experience really in his life, growing up without a mother. There was a stepmother, there was a succession of caretakers and whatnot, but he really felt that loss. And I think -- I know that for some years as a child, he believed that he had killed her, because he thought it was childbirth. And it was not; it was appendicitis. But that loss is there and it's there throughout his life.
So with that void in your life -- and I think everybody can understand how important this could be for anyone -- of course there's going to be self-doubt. Of course there is going to be a sense of not fitting in somehow, because you've lost the major thing that causes you to fit in in life, which is your mother in the first place. So there was always -- even though he was regarded as the archetypical member of the foreign policy establishment, he never felt that way. He never felt that he was part of any establishment, it seems to me, and always had the sense of loneliness. I think that's where the self-doubt comes from.
Quite extraordinarily, though, he never let this completely paralyze him. He had, sure, bouts of ill health, sure he bordered on depression often throughout his life, but he was still able to function. He was still able to write. He was still able to serve as a foreign service officer in those days.
And his angle of vision on orthodoxy, if -- "orthodoxy" meaning simply the way most people thought about things -- was always different. And maybe that was a kind of displacement as well from growing up without a mother, because everything looked different to him.
One other detail, which is fascinating: He was colorblind, and so things looked different.
And so when a party line would come or would develop within a particular embassy or within a government bureaucracy or something like that, George is always seeking to challenge it or to undermine it. And there are some extraordinary moments in World War II when, as still a very obscure foreign service officer, he salvages several desperate situations by just jumping over everybody and going straight to FDR -- an extraordinarily courageous thing to do for somebody in his position at that time.
So I think that's part of it. It really is, as you suggest, a fascinating combination of what would appear to be weakness but also, in its own way, became strength.
HAASS: What assumption that you had about Kennan or theory about him most changed in the course of writing this book?
GADDIS: Well, I had actually written, Richard, another book about Kennan, which was called "Strategies of Containment," a long time ago. But it was a very different kind of book. It really was a history of the idea of containment. It was kind of a political science-y book, trying to get at the underlying theories or assumptions behind very --
HAASS: Some of us assigned it to our students.
GADDIS: Yeah, yeah, I have heard that, yes.
HAASS: Yeah. Yeah.
GADDIS: I'm trying to get at the underlying assumptions behind the strategy of containment as practiced in each administration. And so my tendency at that point was to look for consistency and logic in Kennan's thinking, and I found it, by looking selectively and all of that.
Writing a biography is a totally different enterprise, because then you're fully focused on the individual; you're fully focused on chronology, the evolution of this to that and so on; how one thing led to another, et cetera.
Particularly valuable for me were the interviews that I was able to do. This was a project that began 30 years ago with the assumption that it would be a posthumous biography. But I had George's cooperation, and it's when I had the luxury of being able to interview an extraordinary range of people who knew him and worked with him. Probably, I guess, the only two significant ones that I was not able to interview were Chip Bohlen and Dean Acheson, who were dead by the time I started, but almost everybody was else I was able to talk to.
And so I got their view of him. And their view of him was, to put it in a nutshell, brilliant but exasperating. And then as I went through and worked it out for myself, I could see where the exasperation could come from. And so that was something I had totally missed in "Strategies of Containment" for sure.
So a lot of people have been surprised by the critical tone of the book. I think George would have expected me to be critical. He was himself a good historian. He understood the need for this. He understood without any argument whatever the need for my independence. And our deal was that he would never see a line of the book. As it turned out, he saw one sentence of the book, but the book is 700 pages. So --
HAASS: What was the sentence he saw?
GADDIS: Oh -- (chuckles) -- it was on the hundredth birthday, and I went to see George that morning in Princeton. And he asked if he could see a copy of what I was going to say. And I said sure, I would send it to him. But he said, don't do it if you think it would compromise the integrity of the biography. And then, as it happened, one sentence from that talk wound up in the book.
HAASS: Which was?
GADDIS: Oh, I've forgotten.
HAASS: Oh. (Laughter.)
(Laughs.) Led me down the garden path there.
John (sp). (Laughs.)
GADDIS: Sorry. (Chuckles.)
QUESTIONER: John (sp) -- (off mic) -- from Columbia. First of all, thank you very much. One of my recollections of Mr. Kennan's themes was that the United States should lead more by example, get its own house in order, rather than be activist in its foreign policy -- not so much on the arms side, but even about democracy promotion, economic advancement and so on. Do you -- first of all, do you think that's an accurate representation of his thinking? And secondly, how do you think that sort of relates to the role of the United States, let's say in the last 20 years or thereabouts?
GADDIS: Well, he came to believe that we should lead by example. But this was tending -- this view was tending to develop at a time when he was becoming disillusioned with the places, the points where we had taken the initiative. And of course, taking the initiative is not quite the same thing as leading by example. So we grandly and gloriously took the initiative with the Marshall Plan, which is very much a Kennan idea. There were other places as well where that happened.
So this leading by example is something that George discovers, and I know pretty clearly when it was. It's about 1949. It's when, as far as I can tell, George for the first time read John Quincy Adams' 4th of July, 1821 speech. And you may remember, Richard, he did a whole article for Foreign Affairs about that -- about that speech. And that was, we go -- in the speech, "We go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy," one of the most famous statements in American diplomatic history. And George quoted that at every opportunity. All you had to do was say "Quincy" to him -- (laughter) -- and this would -- he would quote the "monsters to destroy" thing.
So I think that leading by example thing was just a -- it was a function of his own doubt about where the initiatives of the United States were themselves going and of what he regarded as his strategy of containment, what it was becoming. And that's where he was developing great doubts even early on.
QUESTIONER: George Schwab, National Committee on American Foreign Policy.
MR. : Hi.
QUESTIONER: When Kennan was stationed in Riga and in Berlin, I remember reading that he had something to do with intelligence; he was intelligence. But exactly what, I don't know. I wonder if you could clear this up.
GADDIS: Well, it depends on what period you're talking about. When George --
QUESTIONER: In the '20s or --
GADDIS: Yeah, when George was stationed in Riga, which would have been the late '20s and the early '30s, the United States hardly had an intelligence capability in the way that we would use the term now. However, Riga was to the Soviet Union what Hong Kong later became to the People's Republic of China. We had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in that period. So Riga was the great listening post. So it was the center for analysis of intelligence coming out of the Soviet Union, but certainly not operations. We had no capability for anything like that in that -- in that period. And the same would have been true of Berlin in that -- in that period.
Now, later, when he is actually stationed in Berlin in 1940-'41, he is involved in covert contacts with the anti-Hitler resistance, with the German -- particularly the German aristocrats who were skeptical of Hitler. And there are some interesting stories that are connected with that aspect of his career. But again, it was chiefly listening; it was not in the category of action at that point. Again, we had -- we didn't have that capability.
HAASS: Could you say something about the art of biography-writing? And -- because this is --
GADDIS: I've only done one, so I don't know. (Laughter.)
HAASS: That -- you know, and you rushed it compared to Robert Caro. (Laughter.) But --
HAASS: But -- well, you know, but other than the risk of going too fast, what is it -- I mean, got a lot of aspiring biographers here. But this really is -- you know, it's a masterful work. You had to have -- if you were to write or talk about distilling the lessons of biography, some dos and don'ts, what are the takeaways?
GADDIS: Well, actually, Richard, I've been teaching a course at Yale for 15 years called The Art of Biography. (Laughter.) It's a -- it's a junior seminar. It's limited to 18 juniors. I started teaching it as soon as I got to Yale -- was somewhat surprised to see that nobody was teaching biography at that point. I knew I was doing the Kennan biography, and I knew that the best way to learn how to do things is to teach them, even before you know how to do them -- (laughter) -- because you pick up so much from your students. And I have picked up an enormous amount from these students, these extraordinary students that I have the privilege of teaching.
The way we do the course is simply to read a biography each week, but it does not necessarily have to -- have anything to do with the Cold War. It's just interesting biographies, good ones and bad ones, talk about what we like, talk about what we don't like, and then out of that, I think principles emerge. But I've tried to be very careful with the students not to tell them what I think the principles are. I want them to tell me. And of course each of them have different views on this, so this is really how my students have educated me in this regard, for sure.
HAASS: You're very elusive, Professor Gaddis. (Laughter.)
HAASS: The -- sure, George. David, I'm sorry. David Weinberg (sp).
QUESTIONER: What was Kennan's core relationship to the impact of public opinion on foreign policy? Was it impatience, contempt, misunderstanding? There was -- it was obviously fraught, but how would you describe it?
GADDIS: I would say all of the above. Kennan would have been the first himself to say that he was an elitist, but I don't think he meant that quite in the class-bound way that a lot of people would interpret that term. He is himself from the middle class. Many people don't realize that through -- all the way through the policy planning staff years, they hardly had any money. You know, it was not really until Oppenheimer took Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Studies that they are financially comfortable.
So he was not that kind of an elitist, but I think he was an elitist when it came to professions, to professionalism. And so the foreign service is a very distinct profession. He very much believed in the training of foreign service officers, took that professionalism very seriously, and then was intensely frustrated when, for example, there would be political appointees to an embassy, when Joe Davies arrived in Moscow in 1937, for example.
He would be immensely frustrated when it was necessary for the secretary of state to defer to long-winded senators, so he could not understand why Marshall would take Vandenberg seriously on this. He really deeply resented some of the irrationalities that would be imposed on foreign policy by domestic political pressure. So the whole business over captive nations resolutions in the 1950s and the 1960s, which was still going on when he was ambassador to Belgrade, just exasperated him completely.
And late in life he came up with an idea, which he wrote about in several different places, that really the solution we needed for the conduct of foreign policy and maybe even important domestic policy issues was to form a council of elders, a council of state, as he called it, and these would be wise men who would be appointed for life, who would be the ultimate arbiters. They would work like the Supreme Court. And before any foreign policy decision really finally was made, it would have to be run past these wise men.
And Christopher will remember the discussions about this, which were lengthy and frequent, at least in my experience, and he was passionate about this. And I finally said to him at one point, George, what you really want is to revive the policy planning staff, put it in charge of all of American foreign policy and put yourself in charge of the policy planning staff. And he kind of admitted, yes, that was sort of what he had in mind. (Laughter.)
So there was never the comfort with interference in domestic politics. He would never take that for granted and be able to roll with the punches in a way that some other great operators -- notably Jack Kennedy. Kennedy is very interesting in this regard because there were so many ways in which domestic politics frustrated Kennedy's foreign policy, and yet, as Kennan himself describes Kennedy, Kennedy's attitude was, isn't this curious or isn't this interesting, et cetera, but it was not, I'm going to resign. It was not, I'm going to storm off and leave the field and all that. So this was just always a point of great frustration for him.
HAASS: (Inaudible) -- more hands.
One question: Did Kennan ever leak?
GADDIS: What do you mean, to the press?
GADDIS: Not to my knowledge. I cannot think of an example in which he did this, but with the qualification, Richard, that in that period the membrane that was separating the policymakers from the journalists was permeable, much more so than it is now. So even if you think about an institution like Council on Foreign Relations, this would be a place where top policymakers would come in and talk to top journalists and there would be these exchanges back and forth.
So sometimes, yes, of course you would plant ideas here and there with somebody, and he did his share of this. He was very close to the Alsops, Joe Alsop, for example, and was very frustrated when Alsop would then take something that he had said and it would appear in the paper, and George would become very defensive for fear he might have been thought to have leaked over this.
But the fact is, it was just a very different press-policy relationship from what it is now. I think that has to be taken into account.
HAASS: Sir, in the back.
QUESTIONER: Bob Bestani, Stanford University. Kennan's memoirs, as I recall, is certainly one of my favorite books of all time. Having spent so much time with Kennan and all of his works and his life, how do you see his memoirs relative to the reality that -- as you saw it?
GADDIS: Well, I think the memoirs -- I think that's what got me interested. I know it's what got me interested in George Kennan is when those first -- that first volume of memoirs came out while I was still in graduate school. And I was seduced by it, and I was hooked by it. And so many other people have been as well.
But of course, one of the things you find as a biographer -- well, first of all, I would say part of what seemed daunting to me about this project: How do you take someone who has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir and write even a halfway decent biography of them when they've -- you've got two volumes of memoirs out there? And the answer was that was no problem whatever, because Kennan's career was so long and his papers are so voluminous and his diaries are so thorough and eloquent that his own memoirs just barely scratch the surface of what's available.
Then of course I did discover, as a biographer, that in various places, the memoirs are not accurate. He was not doing fact-checking. And one of the most famous examples of this -- the most famous example is the famous 8,000-word-long "Long Telegram." Well, where did that figure, 8,000, come from? It came from George's memoir, volume 1. And so everybody ever since talked about the 8,000-word-long telegram, including me, in about five different books that have been published at one time or another. And I really thought before doing the story on the "Long Telegram" this time, I actually should sit down and count. (Laughter.) And Nick Thompson had the same idea as well, and he counted. And we both came up, to our astonishment and horror -- (chuckles) -- all we could find was 5,200 words, not 8,000. Where the 8,000 came from, I have no idea.
But there are many examples like that in the memoir of specific details that are off. There'll be a year that's off here, or there'll be something -- an anecdote that's misplaced here or whatnot. At the same time, the memoirs, with great fidelity, reflect who George Kennan was, particularly volume 1. Volume 1, I think, is much better than volume 2. And so to get a sense of the character of Kennan, a sense that I hope was not changed really significantly in my biography, I think the memoirs, with their self-criticism, with their underestimation of his own accomplishments -- that's quite extraordinary for someone writing a memoir to underestimate his accomplishments, but that's what George does. There are whole areas, like anticipating as early as 1947 the Sino-Soviet split, which George didn't even write about, understanding that communism was not monolithic -- he just glided over those, partly, I think, because he wrote them hurriedly and partly because maybe some of that information still was classified at that -- at that time.
So they remain, in my view, an extraordinary set of memoirs. But I found plenty to say beyond that. And biographers after me are going to find plenty to say because even in my book, I'm only scratching the surface of this extraordinary collection that is now available, I believe, to anybody who wants to come and see it at Princeton, and particularly the extraordinary diary, which is one of the great American diaries ever and excerpts from which will indeed be published. In the next year or so, there's going to be a one-volume edition of the Kennan diaries, which, fortunately, I am not going to edit.
HAASS: I apologize. I know there are some other people who want to ask questions. But I need to get it done.
John, I just want to thank you again for having produced a succession of extraordinary books.
GADDIS: Thank you, Richard.
HAASS: And this last one really is -- I feel sorry for the future biographers. (Laughter.) They've got a very -- a very tough task and a very high bar indeed that's been set for them. And thank you for sharing this hour with us tonight, sir.
GADDIS: Thank you for having me. (Applause.)