Books and Arts; 文艺；
Book Review; 书评；
History of diplomacy; 外交往事；
Dealing with the enemy;应敌之策；
George Kennan invented the American post-war policy of “containment“ of the Soviet Union. His biography, 30 years in the making, fills in the detail；
George F. Kennan: An American Life. By John Lewis Gaddis.
Three decades ago George Kennan— former American ambassador to Moscow, multilingual diplomat and conceptualiser of “containment“, the heart of his country's foreign policy towards the Soviet Union—agreed to allow an American cold-war historian, John Lewis Gaddis, to serve as his biographer. Kennan had decamped from public service to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton more than 20 years earlier and was already 78 years old. When he began giving Mr. Gaddis interviews and stacks of personal papers in 1981, their understanding was that the biography would appear in the presumably not-too-distant future after the elder man's passing.
Decades of interviews later, Mr. Gaddis, who is now 70, had become accustomed to his students “speculating somberly about which of us might go first“. Even Kennan felt sorry for “poor John“; in 2003 he lamented the “serious burden“ of his own “unnatural longevity“. It was only in 2005, when death finally claimed Kennan at the age of 101, that Mr. Gaddis could begin thinking about publishing this long-awaited biography.
The extraordinary length of the book's gestation meant that much changed between conception and publication. Had it appeared in the mid-1980s, the context would have been cold-war stalemate; in the early 1990s, celebration; a decade ago in 2001, concern about terrorism. Because “George F. Kennan: An American Life“ finally arrives in the uneasy year of 2011, its context is economic misery and questions about the future of American dominance in international affairs.
Mr. Gaddis is unequivocal on this topic. He told the New York Times in 2004 that “American imperial power…has been a remarkable force for good, for democracy, for prosperity.“ He has also expressed his admiration for the former presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush junior, and their versions of “grand strategy“, a topic he now teaches at Yale University. All of these developments have naturally given rise to much speculation. Could Mr. Gaddis, who admits that he speaks no foreign languages, get on top of the mountain of material and do credit to such an international polymath? Would his own views emerge along with Kennan's? The 784-page answer to both these questions is yes.
Mr. Gaddis has mastered the sources that came his way over the decades. The resulting biography is engaging and lucid. The first half of the book almost has the sweep of a novel. Readers join Kennan in Germany as the Nazis rise; in Norway in 1931 as the awkward young man meets the parents of his fiancée, to whom he would remain married for 73 years; in the Soviet Union in 1933 as he establishes the first American embassy; in Czechoslovakia as Adolf Hitler arrives and the world descends into another war; and back in Moscow again in 1945 when he receives skin-crawling personal compliments from Joseph Stalin on his Russian language skills. The chapter detailing Kennan's breakthrough—achieved by redesigning American foreign policy at a stroke, via his 5,000-word “Long Telegram“ from Moscow to Washington, DC, in 1946—is particularly gripping. As he himself put it: “My reputation was made. My voice now carried.“
Before this, Kennan was a promising young officer in the American foreign service; after it, he joined the top ranks of American strategists. His arguments convinced the Truman administration that efforts to continue wartime co-operation with Russia were fruitless. America should recognize the Soviet Union as a new kind of enemy, one seeking to destroy “our traditional way of life“. Rather than fighting a conventional war, America would need to contain Soviet hostility firmly and consistently over the long term. As America resisted Moscow more and more, Kennan felt it was crucial that his country maintain the “health and vigour of our own society“ and not become a garrison state.
After the “Long Telegram“, Kennan returned to Washington and founded the State Department's influential Policy Planning Staff. But, according to Mr. Gaddis, his prestige had peaked by 1948. After that, Kennan became increasingly sidelined for opposing what he judged to be excessive militarization of his containment strategy. Yet he continued to condemn overly militarized policies for the rest of his life.
Kennan took particular offence at the attitude of the Reagan administration, which he viewed as “simply childish, inexcusably childish, unworthy of people charged with the responsibility for conducting the affairs of a great power in an endangered world.“ Nor did the end of the cold war change his mind. In 1992 Kennan made a point of stating that “nobody ‘won' the cold war“. It had been a long, costly tragedy, “fuelled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side.“
Mr. Gaddis disagrees. He closes his study by condemning Kennan for having “blinded“ himself to the fact that, in Mr. Gaddis's opinion, Reagan brought Kennan's “strategy to its successful conclusion“. If Kennan were alive, he would probably still disagree, and not without reason. If the elder man's concern for the costs of bellicose foreign policy, rather than the younger man's enthusiasm for imperial exercise of American power, had dominated the last decade, it would have made for a sounder grand strategy. In ways that this biography seems not entirely to appreciate, Kennan's far-sighted opposition to American over-militarization makes his personal career history less gripping than his legacy.