Generation 'X'

by Wilson D. Miscamble

Commentary: George F. Kennan’s 100th birthday this week has prompted a round of effusive praise for the contributions of the man who has been dubbed “the architect,” “the great theorist” and “the founding father” of containment — the vaunted Cold War method by which the Soviet threat to the West was not so much confronted as “contained.” Discussing Mr. Kennan’s famous “X” article, published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, led no less an authority than Henry Kissinger to suggest that Mr. Kennan “came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”p. These assessments are quite excessive and lead to a misunderstanding of the actual development of containment. It truly would be a tribute to Mr. Kennan — himself a careful historian — if commentators took the trouble to understand his real contribution to, and place in, American foreign-policy formulation instead of resorting to simplistic labels. This in turn might help deepen their appreciation for the complexity and even the “messiness” of contemporary policy-making.p. A recent suggestion that Mr. Kennan is “America’s most famous diplomat” reflects the exaggeration that makes it difficult to assess his career with any accuracy. The assertion is, frankly, hyperbole run riot. Mr. Kennan held minor diplomatic posts until the final years of World War II. He exercised a consequential influence on policy formation only from 1946 to 1950, after which his diplomatic record includes a failed ambassadorship to Moscow in 1952 and a brief, largely unproductive, stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia during the Kennedy administration. His record as a diplomat hardly puts him in the same category as John Quincy Adams, Dean Acheson, or even Henry Kissinger.p. It is not as a diplomat but as a policy maker from which Mr. Kennan’s significance is derived. But in this domain his record is quite mixed. Any temptation to characterize Mr. Kennan as the delineator of the West’s policy of containing the Soviet Union should be firmly resisted. Mr. Kennan’s authorship of the “Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1947 introduced the broader public to the word and concept of “containment,” but it must be clearly understood that he never obtained some equivalent of copyright over the “doctrine” of containment. He offered no detailed prescription for policy in the “X” article and did not outline at any length what the U.S. should do. Any characterization of him as a Moses-type figure descending to give the law of containment over to a disoriented group of American policy-makers should be rejected. Others played crucial roles in defining and enfleshing containment.p. Indeed, the containment doctrine gained form and meaning from the policies that emerged, rather than dictating the nature of those policies. Mr. Kennan contributed significantly to some of these important policy initiatives — especially the Marshall Plan — but he lost out on many others. In fact, he dissented from some of the major policies (e.g. NATO and the incorporation of West Germany into the Western alliance) that gave containment meaning in practice. Mr. Kennan argued for a more political-economic, and a less military, version of containment: but ultimately Messrs. Truman and Acheson refused his counsel. Mr. “X,” as it turned out, shared neither Acheson’s firm conviction that America’s security was linked integrally to Europe, nor his tough-minded recognition that strength — including military strength — guaranteed peace.p. From the 1950s, and throughout the Cold War, Mr. Kennan maintained his dissent from the main lines of American foreign policy. He continually promoted American military disengagement from Europe and proved a passionate critic of the Reagan administration’s renewed containment strategy, as well as its corollary of a major conventional and nuclear arms build-up. In retrospect, and ironically, he opposed the very containment strategies that brought the U.S. eventual victory in the Cold War.p. Any accurate assessment of Mr. Kennan must refrain from casting him in the role of a dominant architect whose planning provided instructions for building the basic structures of foreign policy for a generation after World War II. Rather, he served as one of a number of remarkable on-site builders — such as George Marshall, Acheson, John Hickerson and Paul Nitze — who contributed in important ways to the eventual structure that emerged in these crucial postwar years. The builders operated without a fixed and agreed upon architecture. They debated hard and then determined the nature and shape of the structure as they went along. There was an ad hoc quality to much of their work. This is well to remember in these days where there seems an endless appetite for elaborate concepts and elegant doctrines.p. Mr. Kennan gave of his best in this policy-making process and proved himself an able and courageous public servant. From 1950 onwards he largely adopted a different role, that of a sage trying to influence elite and, occasionally, public opinion so as to exert indirect influence on policy. His public prominence remained high as a stream of books and articles flowed from his eloquent pen. Unquestionably, he made an important contribution to the public intellectual life of the nation. Throughout, he proved himself a man of principle and of estimable character. His long career is truly notable and rightly to be celebrated. That will best be done by recording accurately what he did do — and what he did not.p. Rev. Miscamble, associate professor of history at Notre Dame, is the author of “George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950” (Princeton, 1992).

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