George F. Kennan: Who Put the 'Cold' in Cold War?

Historians in the News

... George Kennan was not a happy fellow. His mother died when he was an infant, and the stepmother who raised him was “nervous and cold.” His own disposition, from the outset, was solitary and melancholy. The great Protestant virtues — duty, discipline, self-denial — ran deep in him. And his penetrating and lucid intellect operated as a kind of acid bath for received wisdom. He saw Russia, his great subject, free from the dogmas of left and right. As early as 1938, he urged Americans to abandon “the hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed Bolshevism” — a question he would turn over and over for the next half century. Kennan yearned to have his wisdom accepted, but could not and would not fit his views to those of any party, or any large body of opinion. “He was not a progressive,” Lukacs writes; and his visionary pessimism ensured his solitude.

Lukacs artfully braids the life and the work in this consciously old-fashioned “study of character.” He is honest about Kennan’s defects of thought; and yet he seems unwilling fully to accept what they imply about the man’s nature. Kennan made no secret of his low regard for the wisdom of the common man, and thus for the practice of a so-called democratic, as opposed to a professional, foreign policy. But Lukacs also notes that in the late ’30s — as Hitler’s Germany rose to power — Kennan began writing a book proposing that America adopt a more authoritarian model of government in which both immigration and suffrage would be curtailed. Kennan could not bring himself to despise Germany before, during or after the war. He was, on the other hand, “enraged” by Washington’s clumsy attempt to acquire bases in the Azores. The predicament of ordinary people seems not to have moved him much. Lukacs quotes Kennan’s own memoirs to the effect that when the Wehrmacht marched into Prague, Kennan, then serving as a high-ranking diplomat, turned away the desperate Americans, “including a Jewish acquaintance,” who came to the American legation. Lukacs characterizes this nonchalance as “cold,” not “callous.” Is there a difference?...

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