- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The news of George Kennan’s death at 101 had an antique feel to it, as if his obituary were describing a Metternich or Talleyrand. Why, it has been almost 40 years since Kennan published his “Memoirs.”

George F. Kennan not only shaped the history of the Cold War but also lived long enough to write that history. His signal contribution was his long telegram to Washington in 1946 as the second-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, which he expanded the following year into an article for the July 1947 issue of “Foreign Affairs,” journal of the Council on Foreign Relations.

George Kennan would sign that influential article X — because as a Foreign Service officer he couldn’t reveal his identity. Its formal title was “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and it would sum up the theme of American policy toward the Soviet Union over the next half-century in a single word: containment.

In his prescient essay, this already seasoned diplomat prescribed a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies,” and prophesied that the Soviet Union could be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”

But when the Truman administration actually geared up to provide that counterforce, first in Greece and Turkey in 1947, George Kennan protested that no, no, that wasn’t what he had meant at all. He had meant political, economic and moral force — just about every kind of force but military. He was particularly disturbed at how President Truman depicted the Cold War as some kind of fateful clash between two ways of life, communism and democracy, tyranny and freedom.

A well-trained, well-traveled and well-educated diplomat, Ambassador Kennan thought of the coming struggle as more of a traditional clash between great powers and their competing interests rather than a worldwide ideological confrontation. Such a confrontation could be avoided, he hoped, if matters were left to professionals like himself.

No one could have been more surprised, or appalled, at how the policy he had suggested was carried out than George Kennan himself. It seems Harry Truman had taken Mr. X at his word, and, as was Mr. Truman’s way, he didn’t make fine distinctions between applying force of one kind and another. When the subtle diplomat realized how seriously his idea of containment was being taken, he could scarcely contain himself.

George Kennan’s first reaction to what came to be known as The Truman Doctrine was to lobby against it, fearing the Russians might even declare war in response. It seems his advice had not only been misunderstood but was misapplied. And in what must have been the most galling turn of all, it worked. Containment, the forceful kind, succeeded. George Kennan had advised better than he knew.

From Harry Truman’s support of Greece and Turkey to Ronald Reagan deploying nuclear missiles in Europe, containment was enforced, the arms race pursued and the ideological contrast between communism and freedom emphasized.

Despite all his forebodings, which after a time became outright opposition to some of the main U.S. foreign policy trends, the world did not end. Instead, the Soviet Union did. What a long, strange journey was that of George Kennan:

• He might have been wrong time and again when it came to waging the Cold War, but his central vision of how to win it proved right.

• He was adept at learning the intricacies of other societies, yet grew increasingly estranged from his own. His sympathy and understanding for the Russian people, and appreciation of Russian literature and history was beautiful and moving. But his growing condescension and repugnance for his own, fast-changing society couldn’t be disguised. In short, he was both an adept diplomat and the perfect snob.

With his usual eloquence, Kennan once described how the professional diplomat ceases understanding his own country almost in proportion to his coming to understand another. He himself proved the most poignant example of that process.

Even as he proposed the strategy that would preserve American values, he lost touch with those values. The more he learned abroad, the more of a stranger he became at home.

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet Union collapsed soon after, the grand architect of American strategy in the Cold War seemed at a loss, discombobulated by the victory he had inspired.

Like Henry Adams, who a century before found himself a stranger in his own time, George Kennan was an elitist who took refuge in the aesthetic. I think of him as a J. William Fulbright who could write. His 101 years were filled with paradoxes and ironies. Given his literary sensibility, he doubtless appreciated every one of them. And if he erred, as he did, surely a fine writer can be forgiven much.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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