George Kennan and the Russian Soul: Issues from the Authorized Kennan Biography by John Lewis Gaddis

Doctorow, Gilbert

George Frost Kennan is probably best known as the author of the “containment policy” which served as the overarching principle informing U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, very much along the lines that Kennan had foreseen when launching his policy recommendations in 1946, one might assume that the master's life and thoughts would be of consequence today only to historians of the Cold War, like his authorized biographer John Gaddis.

However, a second abiding concern of Kennan throughout his career was to defend the principle of interest-based foreign policy, or Realpolitik, as opposed to the moralistic-legalistic approach to policy formulation which prevailed in the American foreign policy community of his day. Since that very same object of Kennan's scorn, Wilsonian idealism, has become even further entrenched in the Washington of our day, Kennan's life and thoughts are also directly relevant to current politics in America. Moreover, as I will set out in this essay, there are issues surrounding Kennan's career in government service that are instructive as regards today's practices of recruiting and promoting top level planners and implementers of foreign policy. For these reasons, it is very good that in his biography of Kennan which came out last year Gaddis does not let his own persona intrude —put simply, he does not get in the way. He has thereby facilitated a growing discussion about Kennan in the professional community.

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January 7, 2021