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A New Look At The Man Behind U.S. Cold War Policy

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 7, 2011

For much of the Cold War, George F. Kennan was America’s best-known diplomat and a leading Soviet scholar. His reputation was based in large part on the 1947 essay he wrote on containment, the Cold War policy that said the U.S. should neither forcefully confront nor meekly appease the Soviets.

Rather, the U.S. should seek to contain Soviet expansion, power and influence in the belief that the communist system would eventually collapse on its own. The U.S. largely adhered to Kennan’s road map until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian of the Cold War, had access to Kennan’s diaries, even a dream diary, though he agreed not to publish his work while Kennan was alive. Kennan, who died in 2005, lived to be 101.

By the time Gaddis’ book, George F. Kennan: An American Life, came out last month, Kennan, a man who for so many years needed no introduction, had become someone unfamiliar to a generation of Americans. NPR’s Robert Siegel talked with Gaddis on All Things Considered.

Interview Highlights:

On George F. Kennan and his big idea:

“Well, if you had to single out one individual who probably did more than anyone else in coming up with the big idea of how the second half of the 20th century could be less dangerous than the first half was, I think Kennan would be right up there at the top of the list.

“Within the context of the end of World War II, when we went through this abrupt transition of the Soviet Union having been our glorious ally, and then suddenly emerging as an unexpected adversary, many people did see only two choices. One was World War III, and the other was appeasement of the kind that had indeed led to World War II. So what Kennan showed was the middle path between those two extremes.”

On Kennan’s criticism of American democracy and culture:

“A major theme in George’s life … was his extreme distrust of democracy. It’s paradoxical, because history will regard him, I think, as one of the greatest defenders of democracy for the containment strategy. But George himself was extremely impatient with democracy because he saw it as interfering with the kind of precise thought that would be necessary to conduct an intelligent foreign policy.

“I think it’s fair to say that George Kennan holds some kind of record for despair. He was never comfortable with what he was doing, particularly if it involved his own country and his own culture. But I think what he tried to do was to hold America to impossibly high standards.”

On why the book wasn’t published until after Kennan’s death:

“We both felt strongly that the only way that you can write a good biography is to write it with the guarantee that the subject of the biography will not read it. George was a good enough historian that I did not have to persuade him of that. The only thing that surprised us both when we made this deal in 1978 was that we thought it would be coming out at some point shortly in the next decade or so. And it never occurred to either of us that he would live for 30 more years. And of course, George being George, regarded his longevity as a grave personal failing. So I would repeatedly, in the last 20 years or so, get phone calls in which he would apologize profusely for living and thereby delaying the biography.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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