George F. Kennan: An American Life

Nov 22, 2011

George Kennan was one of the great men of the 20th century, says John Lewis Gaddis. And he was great in multiple dimensions: as the grand strategist of the Cold War; as a historian; and as author of one of the greatest of American diaries.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

It is with immense pleasure that we welcome John Lewis Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University, to our Public Affairs Program. I anticipate that the discussion this morning will be exceptional, as it isn't often that two major Cold War forces seamlessly come together, as in this case, to chronicle one of the most important periods in American history.

With the publication of a long-awaited biography of George F. Kennan: An American Life, John Lewis Gaddis, an eminent scholar of the Cold War, has documented and brought to life one of the most influential public servants and foreign policy thinkers of the 20th century. In so doing, he has provided us with a legacy to history.

When historians discuss post-World War II American policy, there is one person that instantly comes to mind. That individual is George F. Kennan, the architect of the strategy of containment.

With the publication of the "Long Telegram," composed in February 1946, and the X article, "Sources of Soviet Conduct," which was published in Foreign Affairs a year-and-a-half later, George F. Kennan gave us the blueprint that would define U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for the next four decades.

These two achievements alone would qualify him as one of the most important American diplomats of the Cold War era.

Still, as Professor Gaddis so elegantly illustrates, he was so much more. George Kennan was a prize-winning historian and architect of the Marshall Plan and one of the most outspoken critics of American diplomacy, politics, and culture during the last half of the 20th century.

Almost 30 years ago, Mr. Kennan, at the age of 78, entrusted Professor Gaddis to become his official biographer. At the time, Professor Gaddis was well on his way to earning a widely acclaimed reputation as the Cold War historian. Since that time, with the publication of several award-winning books, his influence has only grown, both as a scholar of the Cold War and as a caring and inspiring professor.

Mr. Kennan granted Professor Gaddis frequent interviews and complete access to his voluminous diaries and other personal papers, while also giving him freedom to write what he thought without any restrictions. It has been said that so frank and detailed were the materials and conversations that both Professor Gaddis and Mr. Kennan agreed that the book would not be published until after Mr. Kennan's death. But Mr. Kennan did not die until age 103; therefore, the delay.


JOANNE MYERS: Oh, 101, okay.

The result is a biography that is replete with new information, that reveals the vast influence and rich inner landscape of a life that both mirrored and shaped the century it spanned. As all the reviews have indicated, there is little doubt that this scholarly publication will stand as a landmark work of history.

When launching his career many years ago, Professor Gaddis was quoted as saying that a book should have fresh sources, should be on something significant, and should have the potential to become something that people might still find useful ten or 15 years into the future. As a major contribution to Kennan's legacy and the history of American foreign policy, I believe that George F. Kennan: An American Life is all this and more.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to one of Yale's most beloved and distinguished professors, our speaker today, John Lewis Gaddis.

Thank you so much for coming.


JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: That's an interesting quote, that last quote. That was made so long ago that I don't even remember it.

Thanks so much to all of you for coming. Thanks particularly, sitting over there in the corner, to Grace Kennan Warnecke for coming, George's eldest daughter, who is here with us. Grace, it's a privilege to have you here with us today.

This biography, as was said, was a long time in the works, and an extraordinary act of faith on the part of George Kennan, because I was virtually an unknown historian at the time that we made this deal in 1978. I had published Strategies of Containment, which he had read a draft of, but that was the extent—I think I had met him three times at the time that we made this deal. Yet he entrusted me, as was said, with his diaries, with his correspondence, with access to his family, to his contemporaries—anything I wanted to see.

George only read one line of what turned out to be an 800-page book. That one line was part of the keynote address that I gave at Princeton on the occasion of the 100th birthday of George Kennan. George was not able to come to the Princeton birthday party, but I went up to see him in his bedroom at the house on Hodge Road that morning. He asked me what I was going to say. I summarized this for him.

Very tentatively, he said, "Do you suppose I could see a copy?"

I said, "Of course, George. I will send you a copy."

But he said, "Don't do it if you think it's going to compromise the integrity of the biography."

That was George Kennan. He was determined that I would have total independence, total freedom. So it was all the more extraordinary for that.

There are so many subjects of biography who seek to control or seek to sometimes dominate or even seek to intimidate the biographer. The results are never good when this happens. George understood, and certainly this was my sense, too. For this to work, for it to be lasting, for it to be significant, for it to be definitive, I really would have to have that freedom. This he generously granted me.

George once said of his own historical writing that the act of writing history is a lonely enterprise. Shortly after his first great books on the Bolshevik Revolution came out, he did a talk on the writing of history in which he said that it's very much a one-way enterprise.

He said the historical characters you are writing about are like figures in a wax museum. They are there, you can see them, they are very vivid in their appearance, you can even ask them questions, but they are not going to respond to what you say, and they could not care less about you. You may care about them, but they could not care less about you. It's a lonely enterprise, he said.

I can tell you that the writing of this biography was far from a lonely enterprise. That was partly thanks to George's own generosity and to the generosity of his family and friends, who certainly made themselves available to me, all the way through, but particularly in the early stages of the project.

One of the things that I did was, obviously, to go around and interview the oldest people first for this project, almost all of whom at this point are now dead. But I have them on tape and was able to ask them questions.

I had the privilege of being able to ask George questions all the way through this project. I would come across a document or a diary entry and could call him up or go to see him and say, "What did you mean by this?" or "What did you have in mind when you did that?" or so on. Very often he could tell me with great precision.

So I had that commentary, his own commentary on himself, rolling along as I was going through the documents. This was an extraordinary privilege, for sure.

The process took long enough that George began to feel guilty about the delay. For years, I got letters from him apologizing for survival. My wife Toni and I would go to see George and Annelise at Hodge Road. George would send Annelise and Toni out into the back garden to look at the roses and he would take me into the living room and say mournfully, "It can't be much longer now."

My students were taking bets on who would go first.

George regarded this as a personal failing on his part, that it took so long for the biography to come out. But for me, it was, once again, a great opportunity to have the time to think about this, not to have to rush with it. That's a privilege for a biographer as well—not to have to operate under an urgent deadline, but to let this book come out as what it certainly is, a seasoned product.

If you think about it, I was Kennan's Boswell longer than Boswell was Johnson's Boswell. The relationship was not the same. James Boswell followed Samuel Johnson around constantly. There are many images of Dr. Johnson with James Boswell, and Boswell has his little notepad, following him around and writing down the great man's comments.

George's and my relationship was not that way. I would see him about once a year. I actually at one point turned down a position at Princeton because I was worried about being too close to him. I think he appreciated the distance. I know he appreciated the distance, because one day, when he was quite elderly and I was saying goodbye to him from a visit, he said, "You know, it's actually very nice that you're not always around and underfoot."

I think that is an important characteristic for a biographer. There should be a certain distance in this.

The other issue which has come up and is already coming up in the reviews—one other way in which writing a biography is not a lonely enterprise—is that people will tell you how you should have done it better. They are too late, because these are the reviews. Nonetheless, they tell you.

One of the other issues that certainly has come up is the question of the treatment of George Kennan. Many people have been and will be surprised by the critical tone of the biography. It is critical in many places. It's complimentary in many places, but it's by no means hagiographic.

Indeed, one of the first things I said to George was that I didn't think this would be any good if it was hagiographic. He firmly agreed with me on that. That was always our working principle.

But many people will be surprised by the candor, maybe even shocked by the contents of the biography, what came from the correspondence, and what particularly came from the extraordinary diaries. Frank Costigliola, who is going to be the editor of the diaries, has done a review in The New York Review of Books that will be out next week.

Frank has calculated that there are something like 20,000 pages of diaries. These are mostly handwritten. They actually got fuller as George got older. So the ones for his 80s and 90s—still written in a very firm, clear hand—are extraordinary.

They are extraordinary particularly for their intimacy. They are extraordinary for what they reveal of his own inner contradictions. I think he did this chiefly as a form of therapy. I think that the diary for George Kennan, like for many other people who keep diaries, is really a way of coming to grips with yourself.

It's cheaper than hiring a therapist. It's a good way to do this. George used the diary in this way for years and years. And the diary entries have to be discounted in that way, because many of them are outpourings of sentiments that really were not characteristic of him when you saw him in person. It's a very intimate diary in that sense.

But there was something else here, too. People who use diaries as therapy generally might not want to find the diaries used in their biography. It's amazing how often people burn diaries. This George Kennan did not do.

There was an extraordinary moment when George was 98, and Toni and I went to see him in Princeton. We were just sitting there with George and Annelise, and George pulled out a file drawer which contained about 16 loose-leaf binders, big black binders.

He said, "These are the diaries for the last 30 years. These are the diaries that have not been put on deposit in the Princeton library." It was a stack like that. They were the originals, the only copies. He said, "They go with you."

By that what he meant was, "Load them up in your car and drive them back to New Haven," which I did, extraordinarily carefully. I drove very slowly and carefully on that occasion.

On top of the stack was a little black book. He said, "I guess you wouldn't be interested in this."

I said, "What is it?"

He said, "Oh, it's just the diary of dreams for the last 60 years."

Annelise said, "Take that, too."

There was something very important here. This record of intimacy, this record of inner contradiction, this record of inner turmoil, as it certainly is, could have been lost very easily. It could have been destroyed. He chose not to do that.

That's an indication to me of the kind of book that he wanted this to be. He wanted it to be a book that reflected these internal contradictions, because he felt that this was, in many ways, the key to the external man. He felt that the only way that he really could be understood was for people to understand both his inner and outer life.

I cannot imagine most of the great cold warriors keeping a diary like this, with such a keen, wrenching, acute sense of self-examination. Can you imagine Dean Acheson keeping a diary like George Kennan's diary? I can't even conceive of it.

So what we have here is something that goes well beyond George's record as a diplomat or as an historian. What we have here, I believe, is one of the great American diaries of the 20th century, one of the great American diaries in American history.

In its candor, in what it reveals, in its extraordinary sensitivity, in its extraordinary rigor in what it imposes on himself, I would put it in the category of John Quincy Adams's diaries, which John Quincy Adams kept all his life, constantly reproaching himself for whatever was happening. I would put it in the category of The Education of Henry Adams—that same sense of examining the self with extreme rigor.

To find this in someone who is also arguably the great grand strategist of the Cold War—or maybe one of the two great grand strategists of the Cold War, because after the book review in The New York Times, I do have to put Henry Kissinger in that category, I think, as well.

To find this also in one of the great historians of the 20th century, which George was; to find this also in one of the greatest public intellectuals of our generation, which George was—on so many issues that went beyond diplomacy and strategy—to find all of this in someone who was all of these other things; is truly extraordinary. He was certainly one of the great men of the 20th century, but he was a great man in multiple dimensions.

This is what I hope the biography, critical though it is, will convey to you when you read it. I hope that you will understand the spirit in which it is written. I hope that he would appreciate the spirit in which it is written.

He would in some respects, I'm sure, but there are other places where I'm sure he would sit me down and say, "I'm not sure you've got that right," or "Maybe you ought to rethink what you've said here."

I'm equally sure that he would leave it, in the end, to me to make the final decision as to what would wind up in the book. That was George Kennan. That was the man I had the privilege of knowing. That was the man whose life I have had the privilege of writing.

Thanks for your attention. I'd be happy to take any questions that you might have.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: George Paik.

First of all, thank you for this work and thank you for your talk.

I reread the Mr. X article. It was in a 1987 issue of Foreign Affairs, which also had George Kennan's commentary at the time. It led to a question. You read Mr. X, then you read his commentary where he says, "Gee, there are all these other issues that are so important"—all of which seem still to be with us, by the way—and yet so many people have tried to build a strategy around one or another of those themes and failed.

You wonder if it would be possible for there to be a George Kennan today, and even if he would be. Yet I went back to the last paragraph of Mr. X, where he said something to the effect that we should be grateful maybe that this challenge just asks us to stand up to our own—

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: "Grateful to Providence."

QUESTIONER: "Grateful to Providence," yes. As a strategist and also as George Kennan's biographer, could there be another George Kennan today with the same effect? Is it possible? Could he do it?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: We at Yale have been teaching a course in grand strategy for the last ten years or so. We have turned out about 200 alumni from that course. So far no George Kennan has emerged from that crop. But it's a little early.

Certainly one of the things that we try to do—my colleagues, Paul Kennedy, Charlie Hill, and I—is to train grand strategists. We are not so foolish as to think that we can produce or would even know how to produce someone of the quality of George Kennan.

But we do think training in grand strategy, thinking about this discipline as the interdisciplinary ecological view of the whole that grand strategy should be, is extraordinarily important. We have tried to learn from George's experience in what we teach.

Just one element of the X article that I think is very revealing about Kennan. This is something many people don't know, which is his use of the great classics and of great literature in sparking his thoughts about grand strategy.

If you read the X article, you will find that there are references in it, quotes from Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and most interestingly, from Thomas Mann and his great novel Buddenbrooks. Kennan made the analogy to the Soviet Union as being "like the Buddenbrooks family—a formidable façade, but crumbling from within."

It was quite extraordinary, when George gave his first public lecture at the university. It happened to be at Yale in October of 1946. I dug out the transcript of that lecture. This was about nine months before the X article. It was after the Long Telegram. George spent the last half of his lecture at Yale talking about Chekhov.

Why Chekhov? I wondered about that. I wondered about it all the way through the time that I was writing this biography, and I continued to wonder about it after I had sent the biography in to Penguin.

Just this summer, my wife and I had the privilege of being on a Black Sea trip. We went to Yalta. We went to Chekhov's last home in Yalta. We saw the photographs of the garden Chekhov planted in 1902, 1903, 1904. Chekhov died in 1904, four months after George Kennan was born. Chekhov planted a wonderful garden, which he knew he would not live to see flourish. It would be a 100-year project.

George Kennan visited that garden at least on one occasion, and maybe two, the first time in 1937. The plants would have grown up to maybe about this level. When Toni and I were there, the plants were way up like this. It's just wonderful. Maybe some of you have been to Chekhov's garden.

But that sense of horticulture, that sense of gardening, that sense, as Grace will know very well, that was transferred over to the farm in Pennsylvania, was something that was extraordinarily important to George.

This is how he thought about strategy and diplomacy. You plant seeds. You nurture them. You adjust them. You push them a little bit in a certain direction, but you don't try to give them firm instructions. You try to harness their energies. Above all, you allow time; you cultivate patience.

That is what the X article really was talking about. It said, if we are patient, the Soviet Union will evolve.

The Chekhov story that he told at Yale a few months before writing the X article was of a landowner who had tried to reform the peasants on an estate in Russia and had gotten nowhere. The head peasant follows her off into the distance.

She is crushed and disappointed, and the head peasant says, "Don't be sad, mistress. Give them a couple of years. If you want to build that school on the hill, you can't do it all at once. You first have to clear the stones. You first have to level the ground. You first have to persuade the people that are going to build it that they want to head it. But if you're patient, if you give it time, they will come along."

I'm convinced that that was the key to his idea of containment, as articulated in the X article. I think it's wonderful that literature contributed so much to strategy in this case. This is certainly something we try to teach at Yale.

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Here you had George Kennan, unarguably one of the great, great men in American foreign policy, and yet he never ticked the boxes you would expect such a person to tick. He was never secretary of state; he was never national security adviser. I think the highest position he held was director of policy planning in the State Department

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: And ambassador twice.

QUESTIONER: I was going to say, and he had two ambassadorships, both of them pretty short, one of them, of course, abbreviated by being asked to leave the country.

My question is, did he not seek out validation of that kind for who he was, or was the establishment of that period resistant to having somebody as independent-minded as he joining them?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I think the answer is, some of both.

George very quickly demonstrated his own independence from conventional wisdom even while on the policy planning staff. He spent two-thirds of the time that he ran the Policy Planning Staff at odds with American foreign policy, which is kind of strange for the director of the policy planning staff.

He opposed the formation of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. He opposed the creation of an independent West German state. He opposed the decision to build the H-bomb. These were all critical decisions made while he was on the Policy Planning Staff.

So he is a dissenter even within the establishment. Of course, that limited the extent to which anyone was going to ask him to move to a higher position within the State Department—certainly Acheson.

It's also the case that, as a matter of temperament—George would have been the first to say to you that he did not have the temperament to occupy a very high office, that he was too brittle, that he was too emotional.

That is the key to what he would regard as the failure of both of his ambassadorships, the Moscow ambassadorship in 1952, when he was actually declared persona non grata for a statement he should not have made about living conditions in Moscow, but also the more successful but still not totally successful ambassadorship in Belgrade under the Kennedy Administration.

George himself recorded on many occasions his own assessment that he simply did not have the temperament, the resilience, the ability to bounce back from defeats that one must have if one is to survive in government. He would say, "I have the temperament of an artist." He certainly did not have the temperament of a Kissinger or a Paul Nitze, someone who could simply bounce back from these defeats and just keep going.

It comes back to George as an artist, which in many ways he was. That's how I hope he will be increasingly remembered. By that I mean particularly in his writing, but also in his temperament, in his sensibilities, which make him a great character to study and to learn from and to appreciate.

It didn't always make him a great diplomat. He quickly rose to the level at which he could be effective, which I think was the first year on policy planning, where he was hugely effective. But beyond that, it was much more difficult for him.

Part of George's problem was that he saw so far into the future that he could not deal very well with the present. If you can see 40 years ahead into the future, that's extraordinary. And he did this. I think many of the insights that he drew from Russian culture and from Russian literature helped him do this.

But this doesn't tell you what to do tomorrow. And, of course, that's what Dean Acheson always wanted to know: What do we do tomorrow? George would always project what 40 years was going to be like. He would project it back on to tomorrow.

This did not fly very well with Acheson or Nitze or others.

I think that was basically the problem. His vision was extraordinarily long-term, but this can create definite liabilities in dealing with the short term and the intermediate term. That, I think, is the answer to that question.

QUESTION: John, apropos of what you just said, one definition Voltaire always gave of being wrong is being right too soon. That certainly was the case with him and others.

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: George said something very much like that, yes.

QUESTIONER: I asked you at breakfast, and I'll ask you for the group, about his extraordinary competition with Paul Nitze, which was the subject of a book by Nitze's grandson two years ago that many of you may have read here—


QUESTIONER: How did that gear him? Was it a ferocious competition? Was it a mild one? What was his life like with Nitze?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: It was by no means ferocious. They could be ferocious in what they would say about each other. There's one point in which Nitze reads George's interview in Encounter magazine in 1976. Nitze scribbles on his own copy, "He's on the other side. He's for the Russians."

George was convinced that if Nitze's policies were put into effect, the world would be destroyed, and he said that on many occasions.

Nick has picked up on both of these. He said it was an extraordinary relationship, because they each believed that the recommendations of the other, if followed, would lead to complete disaster, and yet they remained cordial friends. This was unusual.

But it was also characteristic, I think, of the age. I think that age of gentlemen, of gentle people—to some extent, something has been lost. It certainly has in the world of academia, I can tell you. The ability to disagree with civility is quite an extraordinary thing.

I actually had a very interesting email exchange on the train coming down last night, with Frank Costigliola at the University of Connecticut, who is editing the diaries and is writing, as I said, this review, which will be a critical review, in The New York Review of Books. Frank and I see the Cold War in very different ways. We certainly would not have written the same book, but I think that's true of just about anybody.

A book is a very individual product. No two people would have written the same book. But what's great about this situation is that with my biography having come out, now there will be a publication of the diaries.

It's not yet clear whether this will be a one-volume publication or a multivolume publication. I think I rather hope that it will be one volume, because I think more people will read it, but that's going to require an extraordinary act of selection on Frank's part, if there are indeed 20,000 pages in the diary.

Frank will select very different things from what I have selected. He has already done some of this. You'll see it in his review. He was saying that he hoped that he and I could disagree with civility. Indeed, we have agreed to do that. We have always operated on this basis.

But it's funny how these things work, because he quotes in The New York Review of Books something that George said in his diary in about the year 2000 about me. George was really beginning to wonder if I really understood him, particularly his concern about nuclear war and so on. It was kind of depressing that after all these years, George thought I really didn't get it on nuclear war. The year 2000, this was.

But Frank had written an article about four years before, when he was a young, politically correct historian, called "Gender and Pathology in the Diplomacy of George F. Kennan" ["'Unceasing Pressure for Penetration': Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan's Formation of the Cold War"] This was all done in kind of trendy postmodernist—when George used the word "penetration," according to Frank Costigliola, he did not have the Red Army in mind. That was the drift of the article.

I sent this to George and I got back this wonderful comment: "At age 93, my own bipolar sexual proclivities and desire to rape and pillage across Europe have been documented, while the intentions of Professor Costigliola remain pristine and pure."

I quoted that in my book. Frank has quoted the other thing on me in his review. That's what I call disagreement with civility.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much for your presentation this morning and all your work.

I want to ask you to say something about what you think George Kennan's strategic vision means for the post-Cold War era. Are there some aspects—nuclear war or others—that you think are very particularly germane to the situation since 1991?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: A lot of people, obviously, ask that question. I have always tried to be very careful in answering. It's so easy to put words into the mouths of those who are no longer with us and not able to speak for themselves. I don't want to do that.

I think what I can say is that there are certain transferable principles that can be extracted from George Kennan's writings and teachings that can be applied across time. That's what we try to do at Yale.

We teach George Kennan, in just the same way that we teach Thucydides or Machiavelli or Clausewitz or Sun Tzu, looking for these transferable principles that are there. I think there are several that are very important.

One indeed is this sense that there is a third way, normally, between war, on the one hand, and total capitulation or appeasement of a dangerous adversary, on the other hand. The third way is to assess the internal contradictions that may exist within an adversary and to give those the time to develop. This is the Chekhov gardening metaphor. This is what his view of the Soviet Union was.

That was extraordinarily important. Nobody else was saying that in 1945-1946. Only George Kennan would have had the credibility and the eloquence to say it. Chip Bohlen understood it, but Chip Bohlen could not write. It's extraordinary to compare Chip Bohlen's writing with George Kennan's writing. You suddenly see why nobody was reading Bohlen, but everybody was reading Kennan.

So that's the second point. The ability to write is extraordinarily important as well.

I think a third principle that was always there in George was what I was calling earlier an ecological sense. By this I mean everything is related to everything else. You cannot talk about the need for containment without assessing what the means of containment are going to be, and in assessing those means, you have to also assess what their limitations may be, what their risks may be.

What quickly developed with George, certainly by 1949, was the fear that the means of containment had become more dangerous than what was being contained, the Soviet Union—the means of containment being nuclear weapons and the reliance on nuclear weapons. That really informed George's views through most of the Cold War. His alarm about nuclear weapons was greater than his alarm about the Soviet Union.

You can debate whether that was accurate or not. Who knows? I have taken the position that nuclear weapons had stabilizing effects, but I would be the first to admit that if anything had gone wrong, it would have been a total disaster. George, pessimist that he was, was always concerned with what might go wrong and was thinking about disaster during this period.

The principle that I would take from this, again, is the principle of the sense of the entire playing field. Universities don't educate people these days with a sense of the entire playing field. Our disciplines are so compartmentalized, are so stovepiped—the historians don't talk to the political scientists, who don't talk to the literature people, and so on and so forth.

It's a scandal. That's part of what our course has tried to do, to bridge those disciplinary gaps. It doesn't make us popular at Yale, for sure, because we go against conventional wisdom in doing it.

But the very fact that George Kennan could draw the critical strategic insight underlying the strategy of containment from a Chekhov short story says something about the importance of this ecological vision, says something about the importance of maintaining the traditional concept of a liberal education as the basis for a grand strategy. We certainly buy that argument. Kennan is a hero to us for that reason.

So the answer is, yes, there are things that I think transfer to the post-Cold War world. But I think we have to think about them in general terms, as guiding principles, not in terms of what we should do about Iran tomorrow. That's what so many people ask me about and wish I could tell them the answer to. I'm not going to do it, because I don't know.

QUESTION: Good morning. I'm Richard Valcourt. I'm the editor of the International Journal of Intelligence.

I immensely enjoyed reading your splendid book. I think it's just a marvelous work.

I would like you to discuss one aspect of Kennan's career which most people don't really know about. You have written about it in the book slightly. That is his relationship with the Office of Policy Coordination in the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, George Kennan, quite simply, was the father of covert operations in the Central Intelligence Agency. This was his idea. No doubt somebody would have thought of it if he had not, but he was the first one to think of it seriously and to get it going.

It was part of the Marshall Plan. It was the dark side of the Marshall Plan. The sense was that, because the Soviets obviously had an elaborate intelligence and espionage operation going on in Europe and were trying to sabotage the Marshall Plan, the United States had to have some capability that would be comparable. General Marshall himself approved that principle, and it was given to Kennan to think about what that might be.

He came up with the idea in this context. But the way that he proposed to run it was totally impractical. George's idea was that the Policy Planning Staff would run everything. For a period of eight or nine months, it really did. The Policy Planning Staff ran the National Security Council and so on.

George's idea was that the OPC, the Office of Policy Coordination, under Frank Wisner, would be a subunit of the Policy Planning Staff and that no covert operation would be approved without it being taken to the Policy Planning Staff. The Policy Planning Staff at that point had, like, seven people on it, and covert operations were mushrooming all over the place.

This is one of the characteristics of George, that, in administrative terms, he was often very impractical. In personal terms, he really did have the sense that having achieved so much in the first year of the Policy Planning Staff, he could continue to run all aspects of American foreign policy.

It's very revealing that, as you read in the book, in March of 1948, he takes six weeks to go to Japan to revise our occupation policy under General MacArthur very effectively. But nobody is in charge in the Policy Planning Staff. George just had the sense that all other issues would stay static while he was off in Japan. It didn't happen. This is when NATO is created. This is the time of the Czech coup. This is the time of the war scare, March 1948.

So he did not have a good sense of delegating authority. As a result, he could not always control the things that he put into effect. OPC and covert operations were, of course, the prime example of this, which he almost instantly regretted having initiated.

But I think he was too hard on himself in this regard, because, as I say in the book, surely somebody else would have thought of this along the way.

QUESTION: Arlette Laurent.

Don't you think we are today the victims of an accelerated pace of events which precludes the possibility of people in power to have a strategic view?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Well, yes, we are the victim of an accelerated pace of events, but as a historian, I would have to look back and say that the pace of events has always been accelerating, sort of.

If you think about it, think about diplomacy as conducted by Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state, when it would take three months, four months for a single dispatch to make its way across the Atlantic, and maybe it would get lost along the way. Someone like John Quincy Adams stationed in Russia at the time of the Napoleonic invasion could go for months without getting any instructions at all from Washington.

The pace of communication accelerated vastly, and to an extent still underestimated by historians, with the invention of the telegraph, the Atlantic cable, the possibility to send messages. Think about the pace of events accelerating simply by the fact that all of a sudden, as a result of the steam revolution of the early 19th century, it became possible to travel ten times as fast across a landscape. Think about Grant being able to travel ten times faster than Napoleon because he could use trains or because you were no longer subject to the vagaries of the winds as you sailed.

So I don't quite buy the argument that the acceleration of life is something that is characteristic or distinctive to our time. I think we have always come to grips with this or have had to deal with it in one way or another.

I do think that diplomacy has—let me put it this way. It seems to me that what is different about our situation is that accountability is expected to be instant. Accountability is expected to proceed at the speed of light or perhaps even faster, like that neutrino that was discovered last month that supposedly goes faster than the speed of light.

In other words, there is no time to assess the results of policy, because people are always demanding, what have you accomplished yesterday? This is the news cycle, this is the web, this is Twitter, all of this sort of thing.

That is something new, but I am not really convinced that the psychological consequences of this as they impact individuals are that much different from some of the other great accelerations in history that have taken place. I think we always have to put these things into perspective.

I'm not sure what I think about what George Kennan would have done with Twitter. I did have the privilege of being at a discussion with Henry Kissinger about two years ago on events in Iran, in which Henry was speculating to us, very knowledgeably, about Twitter.

I said, "Henry, where did you learn about Twitter?"

He said, "The kitchen staff is very knowledgeable."

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

When one thinks about the substance and tone of Kennan's writings, much of which you have alluded to here, one thinks of this grand literary style and this sense of pessimism and so on that you brought out rather well. In terms of one of the major themes, if not the major theme, in foreign policy debate today, what would Kennan have made of the American exceptionalism claim and debate?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: I think George never really believed in American exceptionalism. I think part of the key to understanding Kennan is that this country was going to be subject to the same pressures and influences and foibles and fallacies as all other great countries.

Very much part of his message—Joel [Rosenthal] has written about this himself in his book, the Kennans and the other great realists at the end of World War II [Righteous Realists]—was that the United States had to grow up and it had to learn to behave as other great powers on the world scene.

I think in that sense, the sense that we were somehow a more virtuous nation or somehow exempt from even the internal contradictions that might afflict other nations—George did not think that way. He thought that we were part of the world and we had to learn realistically to behave in that way.

At the same time, I did subtitle my book "An American Life." That has elicited a good deal of curiosity, notably from Menand in The New Yorker last week, whose first line is that the subtitle is very puzzling. I did have an argument with my publisher about this, actually—or one of my editors at Penguin about this. What is the appropriate subtitle?

I think it is. First of all, George was a great American patriot. With all of the criticism of America, you would not at first think so. But sometimes the people who are hardest on a country care most deeply about the country. Sometimes people who are hardest on themselves know themselves better. Both things are true of George Kennan.

His deep affection for American literature, which was there and had always been there since he was a young man, his extraordinary affection for his Pennsylvania neighbors in this curious little town, East Berlin, Pennsylvania—which was East Berlin before the other place was East Berlin, as Grace knows very well—and this sense of coming home that he felt when he could go out to those hills and fields and be around those people there. It was something like this at Princeton, in a very different sense, as well.

There is an extraordinary nostalgia that breaks out every now and then when he is abroad. Suddenly great waves of emotion come over him. He misses America.

Yes, it's true that 95 percent of what he says about America in the diaries is critical, intensely critical, sometimes excessively critical. I know he didn't understand American politics. He did not understand American democracy. He was often clueless with regard to how politics worked. That was one of his great problems in government.

But this did not mean that he lacked affection for this country. I think that is suggested, as was earlier mentioned, in that last line of the X article: "Providence has given us a special challenge."

So while he did not believe in American exceptionalism, in the sense of this being some kind of god-given country, he certainly did believe in what this country had to offer the world and in the standards to which this country should live up. To me, that's patriotism and that's love of country. That's why the subtitle is there.

I wish Louis Menand were here so that I could just explain this to him in person.

QUESTION: David Hunt.

Professor Gaddis, I want to ask you a little bit about some of the policy discussions that were going on at the time of the Korean War. I ask this because a couple of weekends ago I was reading Douglas MacArthur's book, Reminiscences. MacArthur obviously is a man with an enormous strategic vision and experience in the Far East.

When the North Koreans first came over the line, Truman acted decisively. Then, after MacArthur pushed them back above the 38th parallel, there seemed to be almost paralysis in Washington. They couldn't understand—really, trying to cope with the increased aggressiveness of the Soviet Union and the Chinese.

I'm just wondering, where did George Kennan fit in all of this, trying to cope with this very new and dangerous strategic situation?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: Korea posed great problems for Kennan, in one sense. Kennan's grand strategy, as laid out in 1947 and 1948, was one of really confining American action to the defense of military-industrial strong points. That meant Britain, Germany, Japan. It certainly did not include China. It did not include Korea.

That's why the defensive perimeter line was drawn by Dean Acheson in early 1950 actually excluding South Korea from the American defensive perimeter. We know that Acheson's speech was read in Moscow by Stalin and Mao, and we know that this really triggered the Korean War. It's an indication of the danger of drawing specific lines in strategy, because they tempt adversaries into exploiting opportunities.

Once the attack came, there was no doubt in George's mind that we had to resist, not because South Korea was itself strategically important, but because the psychological implications of letting such an egregious violation of international boundaries take place would undermine morale throughout the rest of the world. So in that sense, he believed in a domino theory, on that occasion.

At the same time, he firmly believed in the importance of political control of military operations. This is where his suspicion of MacArthur, which goes back to his experiences with MacArthur earlier with reference to the occupation of Japan, led him to sound all kinds of alarm bells about the free rein MacArthur was being given to proceed north of the 38th parallel.

It's not that George opposed crossing the parallel, because the parallel would have been a militarily indefensible line in the first place. He did oppose going all the way up to the Yalu. He was extremely worried about the danger of intervention.

The intervention he worried about, though, was Soviet intervention. He did not foresee Chinese intervention. To the extent that anyone foresaw that, it was his great friend John Paton Davies who foresaw that.

But once that happened, Kennan plays another extraordinary role. After the Chinese have intervened and when MacArthur's forces are in headlong retreat—it's a very critical moment—Kennan, at the advice of Chip Bohlen, comes to Washington—he was already in Princeton and just spends a few days in Washington—and writes an extraordinary letter to Dean Acheson, handwritten, saying that it's in these times of adversity that nations and people are tested. In this kind of situation, what really matters is not what you have to do, but how you bear yourself, the style with which you operate, being true to yourself, even if you are retreating to a more defensible position. But don't lose your own sense of bearing, of equipoise.

Acheson considered this so important that he published the full text of the letter in his memoir. George published a partial text of it in his memoir.

So it really can be argued with some credibility that at a very critical moment it was George who stabilized thinking in Washington. Acheson took this letter into the White House, read it to Truman, to Prime Minister Attlee, who had come over in a panic.

It was another one of these moments, like several in George's life, where almost inadvertently, almost accidentally, he was able to come in and say just the right thing at just the right time, and have an effect. It's like the Long Telegram in that regard, though not as widely known.

QUESTION: James Starkman, the class of '56 at Yale. I may have missed you then, but I'm so glad I haven't missed you now.

I'm going to ask you to sort of do something that you declined to do earlier in your talk. If one analyzes the Chinese culture, the Iranian culture, and radical Islamic culture, what are the principles that perhaps you or George Kennan might have projected onto those relationships going forward?

JOHN LEWIS GADDIS: First of all, you have to understand about George that he was in no way an expert—in fact, just the opposite—on those particular cultures. He had no interest, really, in China. He was profoundly suspicious of China.

Kissinger talks in his review about Kennan coming to warn Kissinger about the danger of opening to China in 1971, despite the fact that four, five, six years earlier, George had written an article saying that we should exploit the opportunity of China. He was contradictory on that point. He just didn't know much about China. He always relied on John Davies as his China specialist.

As far as Islamic culture or Iranian culture is concerned, he just brushed it off. There's a wonderful moment in 1944. He's flying to Moscow for his new appointment in the State Department. He has to fly through the Middle East because the war is on. He gets stuck in Baghdad for about three days. Loy Henderson is ambassador.

George writes in his diary, "What an awful place this is. It's too hot to go out in the daytime and it's too dangerous to go out at night. I just have no use for it whatever. But in the future no doubt some American will look around at Iraq and will say, 'We have to make it green. We have to make things grow here. We have to reform the people. We have to reform the culture. We have to promote democracy there, and so on.'

"And they will learn," he said—this was in 1944—"they will learn, like foolish children, that this cannot be done."

I would not want to hold out George Kennan as an expert on these cultures in any way. But I would hold out one principle, which is one of these generic transferable principles, which is very much the way George thought.

Any society carries within itself—this sounds Marxist, but it's actually Kennan—the seeds of its own destruction, or at least the seeds of its own debility in one form or another. It's very important to try to assess what those contradictions are. We need to be assessing our own contradictions—he would be the first to say that—but we also need to be assessing the contradictions that may exist within other societies.

Surely, anybody could tell you that within Iranian society, there are astonishing contradictions and fragilities. The Buddenbrooks metaphor would certainly work, I think, for the regime of the ayatollahs.

Within Chinese society there are perhaps longer-term but nonetheless very serious difficulties and contradictions. Maybe the Buddenbrooks analogy would work there as well. We can't rely on that. We have to be realistic about the dangers of surprise. We have to be realistic about military balances, economic balances in various parts of the world.

But the point is not to despair. If you go back again to Kennan's speech at Yale in 1946, that was the message: Don't despair. The choices are more and the choices are wider than war or appeasement. There is a range of choice. With patience and with careful study and with intelligence, these can be turned to one's own advantage, just in the way that Chekhov was training his plants in what direction to grow over a very long term.

That's, I think, what could be said about it.

JOANNE MYERS: You did say that Mr. Kennan was a visionary. I think by choosing you as his biographer, he had a grand strategy to make sure that he would live on forever. Thank you very much for being with us.

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