George Kennan, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War Reconsidered
From our Archives: 100 for 100. Historical Retrospectives Symposium
May 13, 2009
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: This is the second of these, I can say without blushing, wonderful series of symposia we are having with John Lukacs. Many of you were here last time for the Churchill session, which went swimmingly, I heard from many of you afterwards. I think it is an experiment that is working, and therefore I hope, with the help of some outside funding that I will try to get over the summer, that this experiment will become more of a permanent fixture at the Carnegie Council, these historical retrospectives, as we properly call them.
I am delighted, of course, to have Professor Lukacs again with us to talk to us today about "Kennan, Russia, and the Cold War."
Though, obviously, I know there are a number of you who will want to ask him some questions that go beyond the chronological limits of the Cold War period, Kennan's earlier career, and the last part of his life, and that's just fine, I will try, at least in the beginning of our discussion, to keep the questions and the discussion focused on this still very controversial period in his life, because to this day there are a lot of questions and a lot of misunderstandings about what Mr. Kennan said, when, and what did he really mean, and did he change his mind later, and so on and so forth, which is part of the fun.
I'm also delighted to have my excellent friend, Michael Mandelbaum, again up from Washington, to help run the show pretty much the way we did last time. He and I will take turns in the very beginning asking some questions, just to get the ball rolling. Indeed, I am going to ask Michael to begin the questions after Professor Lukacs' little lecture to us.
A couple of other things, especially for those who were not here last time.
We have the luxury of time. This arrangement allows not only for us to listen to a prepared little lecture from Professor Lukacs, but then to be able to really have a conversation. I will act as traffic cop. But, unlike other similar situations in other places that shall remain nameless again, you can ask a question, and then, if you want to follow up with a second question, we can let you do that. I think that makes for a much more productive conversation.
You should know, if you don't know already, that if you are really interested in the subject, Professor Lukacs wrote an absolutely magnificent little book two years ago that is easily available, published by Yale University Press—I think it is now even in paperback—George Kennan: A Study in Character. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I have additional good news, which is that Professor Lukacs discovered or remembered, or both, some months ago that he had this treasure trove of letters hiding away in his study at home. When I say "treasure trove" I mean exactly that. He has in his possession 400 letters, 200 from him to Kennan and 200 from Kennan to him, spanning more than 50 years of their life and of their friendship, beginning in 1952.
I'm happy to say that, with the help of our mutual friend, Bill Finan, who was a long-time editor of Current History and is nowadays a senior editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, these letters, edited and annotated by Professor Lukacs, will be published sometime early next year by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that this is happening, because I cannot think of another situation like this, with so many letters exchanged by two people who became very, very close friends in the process, who continued this kind of lengthy correspondence over a period of 50 years, and that so many have survived. So that is an additional bonus to all of us who care both about George Kennan and about John Lukacs.
I will stop now and ask Professor Lukacs to move over to the podium and do the formal part of his presentation, and then we will do what we did last time, we will have a conversation with Professor Lukacs on "George Kennan, The Soviet Union, and the Cold War."
JOHN LUKACS: Ladies and gentlemen, before I begin my discourse, which I hope will be not too lengthy and not too boring, I must say, having heard what Nick just said, that I am very grateful to Nick, not only for his invitation to address you, but Nick has been instrumental in bringing me together with Bill Finan to have this correspondence published, of which I am only half of an author. The number of letters that George Kennan wrote me and the number of letters I wrote him, the file is complete, and it is almost the same number. We will publish about half of them, which seem to be more interesting. Well, this is not what I have to talk about, but I really had to express publicly my gratitude to Nick.
Now, I see that some of you have been here, have honored me coming again, and you heard my talk about Churchill about six weeks ago. I must, very briefly in the very beginning, say something about Churchill that relates to Kennan, but at the very end I will also say something about a strange coincidence about the two of them. Churchill and Kennan were two very different men. They were very different in temperament. They could not have been more different. Kennan was a very abstemious man, both in food and drink. But that was only one difference between them.
They had never met, even though there was a short period where Kennan had a very important position in London during the War. But they had never met.
Here are two different men, different temperaments. Actually, they were different generations. You see, Kennan was exactly 30 years younger than Churchill and he survived Churchill exactly by 40 years. So there was a time lag here between the two.
But there are some similarities. Just look at their public record. Just think of Churchill, who had 55 years of public life. Of those 55 years, the vast majority of years were failures. I mean Churchill had one failure after the other in his public career until 1939-1940, and even after 1945 it could not be said that he was very successful. When we look at him, we look at the magnitude of his achievement, it was concentrated on five years, or maybe six years, 1939-1945, six years of a very long life and six years of a 55-year-old public career.
There is a similarity here with George Kennan, because George Kennan is famous or well-known for three years of his career, three years of his life that spanned 101 years. This is when he was what I call "first officer on the bridge of the American ship of state," 1946-1949. The vast majority of studies written about him deal with this period.
Isn't it interesting you see that, five years out of Churchill's career, three years out of George Kennan's career?
But here the similarity ends. Here the similarity ends, because of what Kennan himself did not expect is that after 1950 comes a long and rich period of his life devoted to writing, all kinds of writing, all kinds of published writing, that practically did not exist before 1946 or 1947, and speaking. So when he bitterly was practically elbowed out of the Foreign Service by John Foster Dulles, he did not know that in a way the richest period of his life was just beginning. So here you see the similarities end.
But in one important, rather significant, coincidence there is still something that involves Churchill and Kennan very closely, without knowing each other, and to this I will come at the very end of my talk.
Now, in any event, there are such apparent contradictions in their lives. Those of you who have honored me by coming to two of my lectures heard me talking about Churchill. I only spoke about Churchill's relationship, his attitudes, and decisions and views about Russia in eight different chapters of his life, from 1915 to 1955. I tried to point out that there the seeming contradictions are only seeming apparent because there is a great deal of consistency of his views of Russia, whether czarist, whether communist, whether Stalin, and so forth.
You see it is because of these apparent discrepancies that he has been so often criticized, that here was a man who was so bitterly opposed to Chamberlain's and other people's appeasement of Germany and Hitler, from 1941 to 1945 was a so-called appeaser of Stalin. This is apparent, and seemingly so.
What I try to point out, what I try to emphasize, is that these contradictions, these inconsistencies, are only apparent because underneath them there are consistent Churchillian principles of how to deal with Russia, very much including communist Russia.
And now forget about Churchill. But I have to mention this, because there is a similarity here with George Kennan. Here is the seeming contradiction that many people, even scholars, have emphasized or did not know what to do with. Here is the George Kennan who is an early Cold Warrior, an architect of the Cold War, and so forth, and then, after 1950, he becomes a critic of the Cold War. He becomes a critic of the Cold War.
A lot of people, or rather a number of people, have pointed out these inconsistencies. This is what I am going to deal with, again to point out that yes, there is a duality in every human being, but the duality is not necessarily chronological. It doesn't mean that this was one chapter of a person's life that contradicts and is inconsistent with the other chapter. In this respect, I will try to point out that he, who seemed to have been an architect of the Cold War, then after 1950 is a spokesman of seeking some reasonable agreement with Russia, notwithstanding by whom Russia is governed, and my purpose is to point out this underlying, sometimes I hope even evident, consistency of his views.
Let me now set this out, the apparent contradictions. Here is George Kennan in the 1930s. As you know, he passed the Foreign Service examination and entered the Foreign Service as early as 1926-1927, mostly serving in Germany. This is a very important thing also to know about Kennan, that his knowledge and interest in Germany was, at least in quantity and quality, almost equal to his knowledge and interest in Russia.
But he was a very wide reader, deeply interested in literature. Some of you might know he was only 24 years old when he purchased the entire collected edition of Chekhov, and he was thinking of writing a biography of Chekhov, a temptation that accompanied him almost through his life.
But you see, too, if you look at the Kennan of the 1930s, if anything, these categories don't fit. But these are intellectual shorthand categories. He was, as opposed to many people, perhaps less in the State Department than in the American establishment, an isolationist rather than an interventionist.
He very early, as you know, was appointed to be the First Secretary of the first American Embassy in the Soviet Union 1933-1934. Very critical of Communism, very critical of Russia, very critical of appeasing Russia, eventually quite critical of Franklin Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt's inclinations and his foreign policy. This, even though his reputation was considerable in the Foreign Service at that time.
It is almost by accident that he was sent back to Russia again. You see, let me just tell you, in 1937 he almost resigned from the Foreign Service for many reasons, but the main reason was Roosevelt's appointment of Joseph Davies as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, which Kennan regarded as a disaster. He was influenced. But he then stepped back and did not resign from the Foreign Service. What else would he do?
Then, however, he had important assignments in Berlin and then in London and in Lisbon. In 1944 a man who was a very close friend of his, because they served early in the Foreign Service together, even though their temperaments and their backgrounds were different, Charles Bohlen—Charles Bohlen talked to Averell Harriman. Averell Harriman was chosen by Roosevelt—it was a good appointment, unlike his appointments of others, likes Davies or Kennedy—to to be Ambassador to Russia. Charles Bohlen told Harriman to take Kennan with him.
Kennan was of two minds about this. After they had a three-person dinner—Harriman, Bohlen, and Kennan—Bohlen and Kennan had a long walk together. Kennan said, "I really should not take this position because I am not in agreement with the president's foreign policy and I will not be necessarily in agreement with the new ambassador." Bohlen convinced him to take up the appointment and convinced him, rightly, that as time goes on his influence on Harriman is bound to increase.
Now, this was Kennan's second of his third appointments in Russia, 1944 to 1946. The rest of this much of you know. Kennan was very critical of American illusions and American disinterest in the long-term relationship with Russia and the United States and the West.
Of course, you know, life is full of unpredictable things. Gradually, we can see that even in 1945 his influence on Harriman began to increase.
And then came the famous "Long Telegram" most of you know about. Again, life is full of unintended consequences. He never thought this was very important. He actually was down with the flu. The Treasury Department, which at that time was the most, I would say, left-inclined department of the United States government, sent a stupid query to Moscow as late as February 1946 or January 1946: "What are the Russians all about?" Kennan, supine in bed but never supine in his mind, sent this "Long Telegram." As you know, the "Long Telegram" was a turning point in American-Russian relations, but, more important, a turning point of his life.
Now, he never thought that the "Long Telegram" was that important. I have to quote something he wrote, which is very typical of him, way after the "Long Telegram." I only have one or two quotes by him. He said:
"Six months earlier this message [the "Long Telegram"] would probably have been received in the State Department with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later it would probably have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced. This was true despite the fact that the realities which it described were ones that had existed substantially unchanged for about a decade and would continue to exist for more than a half-decade after. All this only goes to show that, more important than the observable nature of external reality, when it comes to the determination of Washington's view of the world, it is the subjective state of readiness on the part of Washington's view of the world, it is the subjective state of readiness on the part of Washington officialdom, to recognize this or that feature."
This is very typical of Kennan.
I will quote one more in my discourse, the aphorism that Charles James Fox said about Edmund Burke more than 200 years ago, which applies to George Kennan. He said: "Burke is a wise man, but he is wise too soon."
Well, this is what he wrote, the timing, and the rest you know. It was not so much the president, but Secretary Forrestal, who immediately recognized the tenor and the meaning of the "Long Telegram," and now Kennan's career took an enormous jump forward. He came to Washington. He had to talk to the top officials of the Army. He then became head of the Policy Planning Staff. He became the closest advisor of General Marshall. This is 1946-47.
Then he wrote this article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," the so-called "X Article," the so-called "containment article," which in a way up to today is associated with his fame. He never cared very much about it, but that's not the point.
Definitely, you see by 1947 the government, the administration, the State Department, even the managers of public opinion in this country, came around to change their views of the Soviet Union and of communism.
Of course, again, the great character of George Kennan was such that he could have easily launched himself on a public career with probably endless possibilities. But of course, he did not do so, but he became a spokesman of containment, of resistance, of delimitation, of Soviet ambitions, whatever they were. This is what he is best known for even today.
Now, you see, I am a great admirer of George Kennan, as you know. What you see at that time, there are certain things in his career, 1947 and 1948, that are questionable in retrospect, including to admirers of his such as I am.
For example, it was George Kennan—I'm going to come back to this a little later—because of his emphasis on the importance of the state in a democracy, was instrumental in pushing and establishing the Central Intelligence Agency. You see, until 1947-1948 there were different American intelligence agencies in the Armed Forces. There was a Defense Intelligence Agency. The Navy had its own intelligence agency. So did others. I mean this is a global conflict, a global problem, or rather a problem involving most of the world. There really ought to be a central intelligence agency.
Much later in his career he said to me and to others: "That was the greatest mistake I ever made in my life, because you know what the Central Intelligence Agency has devolved or evolved into."
But there were other things too. In 1947-1948 Stalin's paranoia, rather than ambition, was such that beyond his subjugation of Eastern Europe, he tried here and there to establish or to support communist and other subversive activities in western and southern Europe beyond the Iron Curtain.
Kennan at that time was instrumental, perhaps even unduly instrumental, to suggest that this ought to be answered reciprocally. He was not against, in 1947-1948, sending some secret agents into Eastern Europe itself, and also to bring important German experts on Russia, no matter what their political background, into the United States.
There is one interesting little episode here. I wanted to ask him—you see, I am going off the subject, but maybe this might interest you, because this involves not so much Kennan but seeing how far American political figures have gone in 1948 to seek every possible ally against Soviet Russia.
I found out about this in 2001, 2002, 2003. I never asked Kennan, in spite of our friendship, whether he knew that, because by that time he was really ill and I did not want to bother him. I don't know whether he knew about this, and I don't know whether any one person among you knows. We are not certain about this, but almost certain.
Allen Dulles brought the head of the Gestapo secretly to the United States in 1948. You understand the head of the Gestapo was not Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was the head of the German security agency of which the Gestapo was only one branch. The head of the Gestapo was a man by the name of Heinrich Müller, who fled to Switzerland in 1945, met Allen Dulles. In all probability, Allen Dulles brought him to the United States, and it is even possible that he died here. This is interesting. But I find it at least possible that Kennan went so far as to even know about that.
But this is perhaps the extreme extent of the portrait, or the partial picture, of Kennan as the Cold Warrior.
And then, in 1948 and 1950, there comes, or there seems to come, a change. The change is evidence—I am speaking now not of his private correspondence but of his public appearances.
The first notion of this change is in the first book that he wrote, as early as 1950, which is still an excellent book, called American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, which was the result of six lectures he gave at the University of Chicago in 1950. Reading this, this is not the book of a Cold Warrior. This is a book that warns against extreme applications of a moralistic ideology, extreme extensions of the illusion of American power over the world in different phases of American history from 1900-1950.
There is still much to sum up. Now comes what so many people say is "the second Kennan," "the different Kennan." I am going to just sum this up very briefly. I must also leave something out which does not exactly fit within the province of this part of the discourse, Kennan the historian, which is another very, very interesting, very important part not only of his abilities, but of his view of human nature and the world.
We know that beginning about 1951 Kennan stands up and speaks on different occasions—this goes on until 2003—against the ideology of the Cold War, against the ideology of anti-communism, Kennan criticizing anti-communism, which he saw was a woeful substitute, a cheap substitute, for American patriotism.
Perhaps one of the finest hours of his life was a speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame in May 1953, of which I asked Nick to mimeograph the text, which I reconstituted from Notre Dame in 1953 with the help of Professor [inaudible] and Miss Campbell [phonetic]. I want all of you to read it, because this is one of the greatest and finest American public speeches in 200 years.
So by 1953 he is against anti-communism as a kind of a substitute religion.
He is against the division of Europe, of which the most pertinent examples were his 1957 lectures on the BBC. They had very serious positive repercussions all over Europe, including Germany. At that time he was out of the Foreign Service. Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department were so much worried about this that, undercover, they arranged conferences by leading intellectuals in England and Europe to contradict Kennan.
Let me give you just one example of this. I did not plan to include this, but sometimes anecdotes are telling. Or rather, this is an episode, not an anecdote. I found the fourth of his Reith Lectures about the division of Europe so good and so telling, and even so promising for my native country, Hungary, and Eastern Europe, that I translated it into Hungarian and sent to a Hungarian émigré newspaper in Munich: "Print this." They refused to print it. He said, "Kennan is too pro-Communist." You see, such is the stupidity of many people who ought to know better.
But anyhow, he was against division of Europe.
He was very much against—although he was not involved in politics, except once, in 1954, something that he almost obscured in his memoirs. He was so disturbed about the course of the American ship of state that he was thinking of appearing as a democratic candidate in Congress in eastern Pennsylvania. He did not do that.
But he was extremely worried about, for example, Section 9 of the Republican Party platform in 1956, which very few people read—who reads party platforms? And in 1956 the re-nomination of Eisenhower was a given thing. In this the Republican Party asks for "the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world."
This is the party that some stupid liberals—in 1956 they were called isolationists—"establish American naval and air bases all around the world." This was the party that pushed through in 1959 the so-called "Captive Nations" resolutions. They listed as captive nations such people as Chechnyans, Khazars, Uyghurs, and Tatars within the Soviet Union itself, whose liberation should be an American desideratum.
And don't think that the Republicans were the only ones who did such immensely damaging and stupid things. The so-called Jackson-Vanik resolution, making American-Russian relations dependent on how the Russians handled emigration, in 1975 was passed by a Democratic Congress.
And so was the thing that upset him terribly. He wrote one op-ed piece in The New York Times, at a time when op-ed pieces were still readable, which they are not now, about the extension of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was not the doing of a Republican but of a Democratic administration.
And of course, you see, against the potential use of atomic weapons, against massive retaliation, he wrote books about this or put articles together under the title The Nuclear Delusion, which very few people took seriously.
Another thing of which you can see traces in his now-diminishing number of public speeches and articles in the 1980s, but of which I have proof in our correspondence, is George Kennan foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union as early as 1983. His sources of information were perhaps The New York Times.
Actually, in one event he sees the breakup of the Soviet Union and its retreat from Eastern Europe in a letter to me as early as 1980. Please keep in mind that the present Secretary of Defense, Mr. Gates, who was the head of the CIA in 1988, in 1988 publicly stated that "the Berlin Wall is not going to come down in our lifetime." It came down eight months later.
Again, I must only cite Fox on Burke: "Burke is a wise man, but he is wise too soon."
Now, my point is—and I am coming to the second and smaller part of my discourse—to try to suggest that there is a consistency in Kennan's views of Russia and the world. And so we cannot, we should not, speak of two separate Kennans, two separate chapters of his life, the Kennan before 1950 and the Kennan after 1950. I have a few quotes here, very short quotes, that should illustrate this consistency.
He has practically no publications until about 1947, articles and so forth, but there are some records of a few speeches he made, a speech as early as 1938 to the Foreign Service School when he was in a period of sick leave in Washington.
Now, just listen to this. He says in 1938: "We will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far communism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed communism." This is a very profound observation, which almost no one made in the world as early as 1938.
Now, here is another one, which is important, another illustration, the only two quotes I have here. I don't want to bore you with long quotations. This is 1946, when his star is rising as the principal architect of the Cold War. He was brought back to Washington in March, and before the Policy Planning Staff, before becoming in a way the chief aide and advisor of General Marshall, he was sent around the country to give speeches about the present danger, about the Soviet Union and so forth. He made a whole series of such speeches in different parts of the country, beginning in April 1946 and going through most of that year.
Now, this is 1946, you must note. This is before the Cold War begins. This is before the Marshall Plan. This is before the Truman Doctrine. He—and some of this was mentioned in his memoirs—was upset when he saw the great stupidity of leftist liberal illusions about the Soviet Union. He went out to Berkeley and Stanford and UCLA, and he was abashed by the illusion that eminent scientists, Nobel Prize winners, and so forth, still had about the United Nations, human rights, world government, and how the Soviet Union is unduly maligned and pushed by certain people in Washington.
But at the same time, just listen to this quote. He gave some lectures to prominent businessmen and one to the University of Virginia within that same round of speeches in 1946. Let me quote him: "I deplore the hysterical sort of anti-communism which it seems to me is gaining currency in our country." End of quote. Summer 1946, five years before Senator Joe McCarthy appears on the scene.
You see here his impatience with illusions and false ideologies both on the left and right. Not that he was a moderate. He was not in the middle between these two camps. He stood above them.
You see even the "X Article," which he often deplored himself—if you read the "X Article" itself, I think his later explanation makes some sense, because the "X Article" did not call for the militarization of the world, for the United States seeking military allies more than necessary. The "X Article" emphasized that the containment of the Soviet Union, the stopping of the Soviet Union, if they have any kind of further ambitions and aggressions, will itself weaken the Soviet system, which in essence is a system that seems very strong but essentially is much weaker than people think.
You see, his view was that the main problem of the Cold War and of the world after the Second World War was not communism, but the Russian presence in the middle of Europe. Very early—he was still within the Foreign Service—he saw that the Russians will not be able to digest all of Eastern Europe. Tito, the Yugoslav break with Stalin—or rather Stalin's break with the Yugoslavs—began in 1948. By 1952, Stalin offered a demilitarization of Germany, a possible removal of both Russian and American forces from Germany. This was never listened to very carefully, and probably it was not seriously quite meant by Stalin, but he wanted to cause trouble.
But then, after Stalin's death in 1955, the Russians removed themselves from Austria, they removed themselves from their bases in Finland, they make up with Yugoslavia, they remove themselves even from positions in the Far East, which at that time is willfully not only neglected but ignored by the entire American political establishment.
I repeat to you, he [Kennan] saw Russia as a state with different governments throughout its history, some more regrettable than others, but the essence of the Cold War was not communist ideology, but the Russian presence in the middle of Europe and Eastern Europe. In this he was very consistent. This in a way, in a very short and brief way, is what I wanted to point out in my discourse.
But there is another thing. Just as perhaps five or ten minutes ago I said that everybody has some weaknesses, and I pointed out how in 1948 Kennan was instrumental in supporting an American central intelligence apparatus, in one way this great, truly conservative thinker had perhaps one slight shortcoming in his view of the world, which was really mostly due to his formation, to his career in the Foreign Service.
He put an extreme emphasis on the importance of states, on the relationships of states, which already in his life had begun to change. You see, he would agree with what I'm telling now, what happened in the 19th and the 20th century mostly in Europe, this is happening now in the Middle East and elsewhere: the states, the traditional states, the framework of the states, are filled up by nations.
Now, this is why perhaps the only book which perhaps deserves some more or less serious criticism—and which, incidentally, I on one occasion advised him not to write—was his book Around the Cragged Hill, where he found, as everybody has, this weakness toward the end of his life to sum up his entire political philosophy. The book was published in 1992.
You can see that with the many, many wise aphorisms, wise statements and paragraphs within, the wisest of course referring to the sinful nature of man, the view of human nature which is very profoundly conservative and so forth, perhaps the excessive importance of states.
For example, in Around the Cragged Hill he proposes that perhaps in the United States there should be, either through constitutional amendment or otherwise, presidents should appoint a council of state, which would take perhaps the wisest and most experienced men, who would form a seven- or eight-man council of states, who would be pretty much lifetime appointees and who would not control, but govern and oversee, the foreign policy of this great republic. Just think, ladies and gentlemen, whom George W. Bush would have appointed to such a council of state.
But anyhow, the essence of Kennan is he was a lonely and courageous and noble thinker. The George Kennan after 1950 perhaps was more important than the George Kennan in his public life 1946-1949. This, of course, is another difference between him and Winston Churchill.
I might say that perhaps for future generations what Kennan has written about America, his concerns with America, are perhaps as important, if not more important, than his ideas and writings and concerns about Russia.
Here is the last interesting, largely unknown coincidence. I began with some comparison between Kennan and Churchill. This is a coincidence. I must say that I have a weakness for coincidences. As Chesterton said, "Coincidences are spiritual puns."
But this great speech that Kennan gave at the University of Notre Dame on the 13th of May 1953, almost unknown today, although I printed it as an appendix to my study of Kennan's character, was preceded by two days by Churchill's last great speech in the House of Commons, on the 11th of May 1953. It was a very profound speech after Stalin's death about the division of Europe and how this may be somehow attempted to be changed or mitigated, at least gradually, by some contact and conversation with the new rulers of Soviet Russia.
You know, here are two people who were very different through their lives, had very different careers, and what a coincidence: Churchill's speech in the House of Commons on 11th May 1953, rejected by Eisenhower and Dulles as the musings of a senile person, and Kennan's speech at the University of Notre Dame two days later. I am absolutely sure that Kennan did not know, did not read, Churchill's speech at all.
I will conclude my discourse with one sentence that Kennan wrote in a letter when he was in Berlin in 1940 as the First Secretary of the American Embassy. He realized better than others how strong and mighty, and perhaps for a time unbeatable, Hitler's Third Reich was. But he wrote in a letter, a letter that should be as important, should be taught in every American classroom, just as John Quincy Adams' famous 1821 speech, which Kennan very often quoted—he quoted this passage from John Quincy Adams' speech five or six times through his career—when John Quincy Adams said: "We are friends of liberty all over the world, but we don't go abroad in search for monsters to destroy." This is what John Quincy Adams said in May 1821.
What George Kennan wrote, alone and lonely (his family were not with him) in 1940 in Berlin: "No people is great enough to establish world hegemony." As true of Germany in 1940 as it has been of the United States during his and our lifetime.
Questions and Answers
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Let me suggest a few thoughts about how we can proceed most constructively before I turn to Michael and let him shoot the first few questions, and then we will look and see who from the audience wants to continue the conversation.
At least to begin with, we should attempt to solve the Kennan riddle, if that's what it is, chronologically. I think we should go back and talk about the mid-to-late-1940s because, even if John Lukacs has succeeded in convincing you that there is total consistency in Kennan's views of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War—I, by the way, remain a skeptic, though still a friend of John Lukacs'—I think there is good reason to want to revisit that most contentious question which, after all, resulted, among other things—
As some of you may remember, in 1947, the early summer, the "X Article" comes out; then, two months later, Walter Lippmann writes a series of extraordinary columns in the now-defunct Herald Tribune, which then were put together in a little book, in which he really attacks Kennan and Kennan's views of containment and Kennan's seeming early support of the Truman Doctrine.
In fact, Kennan, as we know, is very, very hurt by Lippmann's attacks. Part of the Lippmann attack is that he accuses Kennan of espousing a containment doctrine that essentially involves the militarization of American foreign policy, which for the rest of his life Kennan will deny—he never meant that, he meant something else, and so on and so forth. All very interesting and all very important, because some of the very same issues are being debated today.
So I would like to entertain questions and comments about this situation that we have with George Kennan. What did he really mean when he first propounded the containment doctrine in the "Long Telegram," in the "X Article," and in his replies to Lippmann; and then his explanations and emendations and footnotes to all of that for the rest of his life? Was he in fact misunderstood and misrepresented by his critics? Was he as clear as he thought he was when he wrote these things, or maybe not; and, therefore, the misunderstanding is due to a misreading rather than to a misrepresentation?
I don't want us to spend the whole evening talking about this very famous old debate, but it is an important one. I think in pursuing that tack for at least a bit in the beginning you will also be able to ask Professor Lukacs to enlighten you in whatever views and opinions, understandings or misunderstandings, you have about this very important moment in American foreign policy, because whatever Kennan meant or did not mean in the summer of 1947, there is no question in my mind—I don't think there's any question in most people's minds—that American foreign policy takes a turn, adopts a new approach to international relations, around 1947.
And then we can move forward chronologically if you wish, topically if you prefer. But in order to save time and make the conversation more constructive, as we did last time, what I hope to do is to ask two or three people to ask questions or make comments on a particular set of topics so that Professor Lukacs can then come and answer those two or three people together, instead of having a boring kind of ping-pong game of one question, one answer.
I will do my best to keep some order in this possibly chaotic situation, but I will not stop anybody from asking any questions that they want to, so long as we begin at least by trying to resolve this continuing debate and confusion about exactly what did Kennan mean by containment, how large a part would military efforts have in such a containment of the Soviet Union; what did he mean later by emphasizing the political aspects of containment, including political warfare?
If we do that properly, I think we may have a better time of understanding what Professor Lukacs spent the better part of his lecture today explaining, this seeming drastic change of Kennan the Cold warrior to Kennan the anti-anti-communist. I think that's the best way to describe the dichotomy.
But I think we will also have enough time to talk about other things, not just foreign policy, because, as Professor Lukacs knows and as I know most of you are aware, there were people who at the end of Kennan's life thought that he had maybe lost it a little bit. Suggesting this business about the special crown council that's going to run the country and giving the vote to only 200,000 people because the rest of us are too stupid to know how to vote, and so on and so forth, is bothersome, and you wonder how we get such things from a man as brilliant as Kennan, even though we know perfectly well that from the beginning of his life he was rather dubious about the efficacy of parliamentary democracies and, in his own funny way, he was not only a conservative, but I would say one could almost describe him at times as verging on an authoritarian path.
So we have a lot we can talk about. But I will do what I said I would to begin with. I'll ask Michael to get us going, without telling him what to do. He can do anything he wants to, to get the discussion going. But I hope that even he will take us back to 1946-1947 before moving forward to the more recent stuff.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Thank you.
Thank you again, John, for a wonderful presentation.
Nick, I have four questions. Two of them are about Kennan's stances on policy and two of them are actually about his history writing. One of the policy questions is precisely about the early vs. the later Kennan, and the other is about the 1950s and the Reith Lectures. So maybe I should ask those two questions and then reserve. I have a couple of questions about his career as an historian, and really his choice of subjects, but perhaps I should reserve that for later.
So, John, let me ask you two questions about policy and about his positions. In my view, in my historical understanding, there really were two containments: the first containment between 1947-1950, of which Kennan was one of the authors and of which he approved, which was, after all, chiefly political and economic, and was centered on Western Europe. I don't think, with all respect, Nick, that Kennan cared much about Greece, but he certainly cared about Germany, France, and I guess Italy, although my recollection is that he once said that if it had been up to him he would not have included Italy in NATO.
And then, the turning point in my view—and this, if one accepts this, makes sense of Kennan's view, makes him consistent—the turning point was 1950 and the outbreak of the Korean War, and then you get a very different kind of containment, one that is militarized and one that is spread to Asia. Now, that is the containment with which the United States proceeded, certainly through Vietnam, and in some ways through the end of the Cold War. That, one could argue, was not what Kennan had in mind. So you could justify his change of position by saying that the policy changed, and in ways that he would not have approved of.
And yet—and this is my question—if one accepts that characterization—and you may not—my recollection is that he did support the Korean War. He did not raise any objection, even though he didn't have much interest in Asia and you could never imagine Kennan believing that the United States should fight to defend the southern half of Korea. So how does one explain this seeming contradiction between his consistent view of containment and his support for the Korean War? That will be one question.
The second question goes to the mid-to-late-1950s and his famous, or infamous, Reith Lectures that you cited, where he is dubious about the division of Europe and the division of Germany and suggests that they can be overcome, and is told—at least this is my recollection of the history—"George, you don't understand. The division of Germany is the best thing that has ever happened to us. This is the basis for stability. We've solved the German problem. Nobody wants to undo this, including the Germans. Don't make trouble."
Well, as we know, the division of Europe did end and, despite the fears of the bien-pensents or actually the people in power at the end of the 1950s, Europe is at peace, it didn't revive the German problem. But that, of course, took place three-plus decades later.
But my question is a question really about the Cold War and about your views, John, as well as Kennan's. Cold War revisionism vintage 1970s—that is, it was all our fault and Stalin was simply a patriot—that nobody pays any attention to anymore. Insofar as there is Cold War revisionism, and insofar as the partial opening of the Soviet archives has given rise to any revisionism, it really does have to do with the 1950s, with the death of Stalin—we talked about this a little bit last time—about the Beria initiative and the Austrian State Treaty, the view that perhaps the division of Europe could have been, if not overcome, dramatically modified in the 1950s, and it was the Eisenhower Administration that turned away from this opportunity. So I'd like to ask you, John, whether you agree that there was a real missed opportunity there.
So those are my two questions: the Korean War and the missed opportunity dramatically to modify the division of Europe in the 1950s.
JOHN LUKACS: Let me just answer the second question first.
Yes, I believe there was a missed opportunity. So did Kennan—and incidentally, so did Churchill, as I said earlier.
Now, the only thing is that a missed opportunity in history and life does not have any clear alternatives. What really Kennan says in the 1950s is: "This is worth trying. It might not succeed, but this is worth trying, especially given the situation of the Soviet Union at that time."
The Korean War I know a little more about. By 1950, Kennan was no longer in a policymaking position. Yes, he supported the Korean War. But all through the Korean War, both in the beginning when it looked catastrophic and it seemed that the few American troops are going to be driven into the Sea of Japan, he says, "Yes, but don't get close to the Russian border." There is no evidence to him that the Russians are actively supporting the North Koreans. He felt very strongly about that.
Now, you are absolutely right in one thing, which probably was a shortcoming but is very true. His interests are Europe. His interests are Western Europe. His interests are not the Far East. He doesn't see that the Far East, except perhaps Japan at that time, are that essential for the national interest and the security of the United States.
All through his life he thinks—and I'm inclined to say even today—that he is right, that our relationship with Russia is more important than our relationship with China. That goes through, just like a red thread, his entire career.
Now, you are right about 1947-1948. Yes, as I told you, he himself, both privately and publicly, regretted the containment article and tried to explain some of it away. I think that is all true.
But there is one important thing that Nick said a moment ago. I don't whether you know that as early as February-March 1947 he is in favor of the Truman guarantee given to Greece but not necessarily to Turkey.
You know that Dean Acheson—they were friends, but they had many, many, many differences in life. His first difference with Dean Acheson is when Dean Acheson, who in 1946 was more and more, by and large, an advocate of what we might call a liberal, eco-modernist view of the Soviet Union, at the time of the Truman Doctrine—he was not Secretary of State yet—he goes to Congress and paints the possibility of all Europe going communist if we don't do something else. This is the first difference between them. An interesting article could be written about his relationship with Acheson. That was not without considerable differences, though the two of them esteemed each other.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Okay. I think it would make sense to see if there are other people in the audience who would like to follow up maybe on what Michael started asking before we move our train of thought on these two early periods of the Cold War, the 1940s and the enunciation of the containment doctrine, however much Kennan may have tried later to modify it, and then the early Asian phase in the 1950s, partly as a result of the Korean War, and see if we can tease out some more pearls of wisdom from our guest speaker.
QUESTION: I am curious about the containment notion immediately postwar, because America had no military power to speak of outside of the nuclear deterrent, which was fairly small still at that point. Did Kennan believe that, strictly diplomatically and economically, containment was feasible? Can you detail what his notion of how this could go about was?
JOHN LUKACS: I think your question is a very basic and good one. I don't think that we can see Kennan as anything like a pacifist in the 1940s and so forth. Kennan believed that certain application of American military/naval power is unavoidable and important. I think this is true as early as 1945-1946.
What you say is a really essential point that touches upon this. You said—and this I might disagree with—that the United States, except for the nuclear element, was militarily weak and so forth. That was not so. In 1945 the American Navy has more ships than all other navies of the world put together. And you see Kennan proceeds from the assumption, which is a right assumption, that Russia is not yet strong, that it is not because of the almost 100 Russian divisions still stationed in Eastern Europe that Russia is militarily potentially, or even actually, more powerful than the United States.
Again, this is constant within him. He warns us not only against attributing everything to communism, but to attributing extreme military strength and power to the Soviet Union.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: John, take it one step further and tell us what you think he really thought in 1947 when he speaks the famous line that is always quoted from the "X-Article": "the patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russia's expansive tendencies." Later he said different things at different times about what he thought he meant by those lines. What do you think he really meant in 1947?
JOHN LUKACS: Well, I would go so far as to say that—I don't want to talk about myself—my correspondence with Kennan begins in 1952 because of the containment thing, because I have asked Kennan—this is the first exchange of letters; you see, I just had fled Eastern Europe, I fled Hungary—why did you say nothing about Eastern Europe? I must say—you see, Kennan was a very honest writer—I must say whatever explanation he gave later, the containment article was just about exactly what he meant at that time. He may have wanted to modify its meaning, to emphasize some phrases at the expense of others. But if he did this unduly, he explained things away.
I think the containment article is pretty much what he thought. It was published in July of 1947, but he actually wrote it in May. It was pretty much what he thought at that time.
QUESTION: Thank you, Professor Lukacs, for a wonderful address.
I want to ask you to reflect on Kennan not as the author of containment, but Kennan as a balance-of-power thinker. So much of our discussion of Kennan focuses on containment and what we think of containment, but Kennan spent a lot of time in 1947 and 1948 thinking of these five industrial power centers—the United States, the USSR, Britain, the Ruhr Valley, and Japan—and thought that if four of them were kept out of Soviet control that would be a good situation. So much of what we think of containment—NATO, division of Germany, and so on—Kennan was opposed to from 1948 onwards.
So it goes slightly against Michael's thing that there are two containments. Kennan is already in dissent against part of that initial containment by 1948, when he comes back from that trip to Japan. Although Kennan didn't know a lot about Asia, I think he was actually quite influential in influencing American policy on Asia for this reason: he convinced Marshall that getting deeply involved in China was a mistake and that the emphasis should be put on the American relationship with Japan, and to a great extent that's what worked.
So I ask you to reflect on Kennan not so much as the architect of containment as we've come to understand it, but Kennan as a balance-of-power thinker who wanted a united Germany precisely because he thought that would be one element, and if you could persuade the Soviet Union to back out of Eastern Germany it would have some sort of integrity, and the United States' role was not to get so deeply involved in Western Europe.
But in analyzing that, how feasible was it? I mean it was the West Europeans who were trying to draw the United States in. It's Bevin and Robert Schuman and so on who were trying to draw the United States in. He had a vision, but was it really applicable?
JOHN LUKACS: I think you are exactly right in what you say. Speaking of Kennan thinking and proposing things in terms of a balance of power perhaps corresponds with what I said to his very old-fashioned emphasis on the importance of states. I think this is exactly so. I agree with everything that you say.
For example, there are all kinds of interesting things in his career that he later criticized himself. In 1949, when he was really out of an important job, the Secretary of State sends him on a trip to Central and South America. When he comes back he has some absolutely wonderful descriptions. He says, "Central or South America doesn't matter." Except he did once say that there are parts of the Americas that are of vital national interest to the United States, but in the world balance of power, in the entire ideological struggle of the world, they don't matter.
Later, 30 years later, there is a letter of his where he said, "I was wrong about this." But it is true, he thought constantly in terms of a balance of power. We could sort of apply this to one element of his historianship, of writing about the Franco-Russian alliance. The Franco-Russian alliance he thinks endangered the balance of power and led to the First World War.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: But, before we lose this very good question, you said you agreed with the tenor of his question and argument. So he's in favor of some kind of new balance of power in Europe. But it makes a great deal of difference whether that new balance of power is going to be based on a unified Germany, demilitarized or otherwise, or a continuation of a divided Germany. So which is it that he is thinking about?
VOICE: Is it feasible?
JOHN LUKACS: Well, whether it's feasible or not I do not know. You see, as in our individual lives, history is full of unintended consequences. In a way, the division of Germany worked in the long run. But he consistently was critical, thinking of the division of Germany as a permanent element of American and Western foreign policy.
I can give you one example of this. That doesn't mean that he was willing to appease the Russians. A very interesting thing: in 1947 he alone forced on the State Department that the least semi-independent state in Eastern Europe is going to be fully communized, and this was Czechoslovakia. He said, "We might as well write off Czechoslovakia." But at the same time he thought the Berlin airlift is a good thing and it will work.
QUESTION: I have a very specific question that I hope will open a more general answer. It was generated by something that Michael Mandelbaum asked you about the Korean War.
It seems to me that one of the things that has always puzzled me about Kennan's writings is there is almost an imperviousness in them to what the Soviet Union actually does, that Russia is just sort of out there, and sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad. But even in this whole conversation, the Soviet Union kind of just drops out of the narrative. You said there was a turning point in 1947. I would say there sure was, the Soviets enunciated a "two camps" doctrine. There were other things going on in the world.
So when you were asked about the Korean War—I'm very curious about this—you said Kennan said we shouldn't approach the Russian border because there is no evidence of Russian involvement. He supported the war, but he said there was no evidence of Russian involvement. Did he have a public or private reaction when it became clear abundantly that the Korean War was in fact a Soviet creation, that in fact there was more than Russian involvement, that this couldn't have happened without Stalin's support and the active participation of Soviet troops?
JOHN LUKACS: You mean about Korea?
QUESTIONER: Yes. That's part of a larger general question about—
JOHN LUKACS: I can answer this. This is very important. You see, he was practically retired from the Foreign Service, not yet cashiered, retired from the Service. He was back on his farm. When the darkest days of the Korean War came, the Chinese entered the war, as you know, and began to push the Americans back and so forth, and there was almost a sense of panic in the government, in the State Department.
Again, his friend Bohlen was American Ambassador to Paris. He telephoned from Paris to Kennan's farm in East Berlin [Pennsylvania]. He said, "You ought to go to Washington and tell them, because these people now think that China is militarily involved and Russia is not involved. The president himself, Truman, said that Russia does not want to get involved in the Korean War. You tell them what to do or what not to do with the Russians."
So on a cold December Sunday afternoon, Kennan drove to the State Department in Washington. Acheson was there. They were discussing how to approach Russia. Kennan knows how to deal with the Russians. Acheson said: "George, come back to my house. Let's talk about this. Let's spend the night together." Kennan telephoned his wife that he won't return.
So he went to Acheson's house. Mrs. Acheson wasn't there. For once Kennan and Acheson drank a fair amount together. This was on the 4th of December 1950.
And then, in the morning Kennan got up early and wrote a letter to Acheson, which is again one of his finest hours. He says: "Don't go to the Russians ever when you are weak. That's the worst thing to do with the Russians." There is a wonderful two sentences in this letter which again show his wisdom of human nature. He says: "The most important thing in a man's life is not what happens to him, but how he bears it. If we don't go into hysteria, if we bear this problem with dignity and so forth, that's all we can do."
Acheson was so impressed with his letter that he [Kennan] wrote longhand and put on Acheson's table in the morning that he took it to the State Department and told the policy planning staff people to read it. Acheson was so impressed with this in the long run that Acheson quotes this in his memoirs. This is a very important thing. It's something that occurred to me.
A very important thing too, which is not very well known, although it is public knowledge, is that when the first de facto armistice happened in Korea, which is in May 1951, before the full armistice, Kennan was sent by Acheson to work this out with the Soviet delegate to the United Nations. He reaches an agreement with the Russians in May or April of 1951 that a stopping of hostilities around the then present line, which was approximately along the 38th Parallel, was possible.
Two years later, a year later, General Eisenhower announced that he was going to Korea to make the armistice. The de facto armistice came into being in May 1951 greatly due to Kennan and to his negotiations. I think the man's name was Sirotkin, who was the Russian delegate to the United Nations then.
QUESTIONER: But what was his reaction years later, when it became clear that the Soviet Union was instrumental in starting the Korean War? Did he reconsider? Did he have a reaction at all?
JOHN LUKACS: I don't think so. He recounts these things in his memoirs. The second volume of his memoirs is less interesting than the first. I don't think so.
You see, I am certainly no specialist about Far Eastern history. But it's not so certain that the Soviet Union was instrumental in starting the Korean War.
QUESTION: In the beginning of your presentation today you alluded to his attitude towards Roosevelt and you said he was very critical of Roosevelt, and you cited as an example Roosevelt's appointment of the ambassador to Russia.
JOHN LUKACS: Joseph Davies.
QUESTIONER: Were there other things that he was critical of? Did they have a relationship? What was their relationship? That's the first question.
JOHN LUKACS: It was not just Joseph Davies' appointment he was critical of. He saw Roosevelt's ideology, both before 1941 and then with the allies of the Soviet Union, and he was very critical of this privately. But he also was a loyal Foreign Service—
VOICE: Being gullible you mean?
JOHN LUKACS: Yes, being gullible by being illusion-ridden.
On the other hand, I remember one episode when he is called by Roosevelt. He was in Lisbon at that time, in 1943. Actually he had a dual purpose there. He was also involved in some American intelligence contacts with Eastern Europeans and then this problem of the United States demanding or requesting military bases in the Azores. Salazar and so forth was not willing to give this as is. There were all kinds of unnecessary memoranda flitting back between Washington and Lisbon.
To this I must add that Kennan, as so do I, had a very high estimate of Salazar, the then ruler of Portugal. Some problems in this contract were awesome. I don't think it was Hopkins, but somebody said, "You have to talk to the president about this." I think this was one of the second occasions where Kennan actually met Franklin Roosevelt and was invited. Franklin Roosevelt said, "I'm going to write a letter to Salazar and you take it with you." This all worked. Kennan was very impressed with that.
You had a second question.
QUESTIONER: Yes, I do. Thank you.
I'm hesitant to ask because it's really such a display of my ignorance of the history of the period, but I'm here to learn, so excuse my ignorance.
You spoke about in the early 1950s his criticism of the Republican platform. You spoke about the extension of NATO to Eastern Europe. I'm confused about that. Was did you mean by "extension"? Did you mean actual physical extension, or did you mean expansion as we have seen it in recent history, and was there a serious discussion at the time about extension of NATO into Eastern Europe? And was he in favor of it or opposed to it?
JOHN LUKACS: He obviously was opposed to it, as was I, a native Hungarian, and too probably alone among my countrymen, except for the extreme communists and extreme Nazis. So I am in that company. But that's irrelevant. I'm an American in this respect.
It must be said that the American people's reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union I think was most respectable and admirable. Unlike in other instances of American history, there was no public jubilation that we won the Cold War. There was no sense of public jubilation, rubbing our hands, saying, "We won the Cold War," except by some people.
And then comes somebody like President Clinton, who I think was in that respect as disastrous a president as George W. Bush, who was totally uninterested in foreign affairs, and then he picks this woman as his Secretary of State, and says, "Yes, we're going to extend NATO," which actually George Bush's father sort of suggested to Gorbachev that we would make if you don't really object to our—if you really remove Russia from Eastern Germany, it is not the intention of the United States to expand further.
This thought, this extension of NATO to Bulgaria, to Romania, and now Georgia, and so forth, Kennan thought that this was insane. But he was now 92 years old. His only public statement was an op-ed piece in The New York Times, which was totally ignored by all the government: "This is one of the rare times in American foreign policy where an extreme extension, an extreme attribution of American power, is not due to the pressure of public opinion but to a Washington bureaucracy."
QUESTION: First I want to comment on the expansion of NATO. It was also during the election campaign in which Senator Dole was in favor of it, and this was regarded as an election gimmick, particularly where there was an Eastern European vote, in Chicago and in Michigan.
Anyway, a two-part question. One is I'm fascinated by your correspondence with Kennan on one particular issue, the Hungarian uprising in 1956. What were his thoughts about the contention that the United States, wittingly or unwittingly, created false expectations of a U.S. intervention in favor of the Hungarian rebels? What did Kennan make of it, as what it suggested about Soviet intentions?
The second part—should I save it or go right ahead?
JOHN LUKACS: I can answer it very briefly. You see, our correspondence—I was a young man, an ambitious young man, a newcomer in this country. Our correspondence in the 1950s is much less frequent. Going through his letters recently, we actually did not exchange letters during or after the Hungarian revolution.
But he did say something, and I forget where I saw that. Not in one of his letters to me. He said something after the Hungarian revolution: "The Soviet Union won't"—a verb is in my mind, and this is not what he said, and I want to quote him verbatim—he said something to the extent of the Soviet Union won't survive this easily. He didn't say the word "survive." He had a better English word for this. "The Soviet Union won't escape this unscathed."
VOICE: That the Soviet Union will never recover.
JOHN LUKACS: That's exactly what he said. Thank you. He said, "This is something the Soviet Union will not easily recover from."
QUESTIONER: The second is on the Cuban missile crisis in the Kennedy Administration. Was Kennan involved as an advisor in any way with the Kennedy team? What were his thoughts on the nuclear crisis? Did he regard it as brinkmanship, or did he feel that it fulfilled his early expectation of a robust response to Soviet expansion?
JOHN LUKACS: I think I can answer this very simply. First of all, Kennan was still in Yugoslavia, coming back from Yugoslavia, as American Ambassador in 1961-1962.
The second thing is that I just remember from our conversations and so forth he didn't, as I didn't, believe for a single moment that the Soviet Union is going to risk a nuclear war because of Cuba.
QUESTION: I want to take a broader question. Both our speaker and you, Nick, have questioned a passage in Around the Cragged Hill, in which Kennan was supposedly getting old and monarchist and so forth.
I want to raise a little question in his favor. I think that in that passage—it's about the council of advisors and the great old wise men running foreign policy—he was simply taking foreign policy as a professional as seriously as economists take their field. I wonder why we all assume that he was a crazy doddering old elitist when we have a large portion of our economic policy determined in precisely as undemocratic a way, hived off from control, through the Federal Reserve. Why is there any difference between what Kennan was asking for for foreign policy and what we have granted to economists and the rich people who love them via the Federal Reserve?
JOHN LUKACS: First of all, you all must know my great affection for Kennan. I certainly don't think that in 1992 he was a crazy doddering old man. In a way, this was very typical Kennan.
But I think this suggestion reflects one of his weaknesses, thinking in terms of states, administrative government, and really being indifferent not only to public opinion and popular sentiment, but how popular sentiment and public opinion created the policy of almost every American administration.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: But the problem—and it's not just a suggestion of the council of foreign policy experts—but remember around the same time and in that book he also suggested a radical diminution of voting rights; I mean we're not going to have universal suffrage anymore, but a rather small group of well-educated people who are allowed to vote. If that isn't cranky, I don't know what is.
JOHN LUKACS: No, he wasn't saying in his proposal—and this is not the first time he wrote about this. He suggests that perhaps this is a desideratum. That's bad enough.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Yes. That and your love of Salazar. [Laughter]
QUESTION: Concerning Kennan's unhappiness with the implementation of containment, surely Kennan must have understood that ideas never translate perfectly into policy, that there are a host of other variables that actively shape ideas as they are actually implemented on the ground, but that the way containment was applied was a reasonable facsimile of the overall concept. And yes it was militarized, but arguably it was militarized in Europe because a degree of American military presence and so forth and security guarantees were essential to secure the political future of Europe, which as I understand it was the purpose of containment.
And so I'm still a bit puzzled as to why this guy made a career of criticizing the way the government in a succession of administrations implemented his ideas. My suspicion is that he's simply a born critic. He's happier being on the outside. As you say, the fullest part of his career, at least the period that he seemed to enjoy the most, was after he left government. Given his dismissive attitude, if I can use that word, towards the American period—I mean Sketches from a Life, his autobiography, was full of this sense of dismissiveness and condescension towards his own country, its political institutions as well as its public—that the kind of criticism that he issued continuously was kind of more or less to be expected given his personality.
JOHN LUKACS: I listened to you very carefully. I would say—and I am now splitting hairs in a semantic argument—I think Kennan, like all true conservative persons, was a profoundly pessimistic person. But he was light years removed from being a cynic. Kennan was the best possible combination of an idealist and a realist. Kennan did not mind, but he did not particularly relish, being an outsider. I mean this is the way he was, this was the way things turned out. He was very far from being a cynic.
But he was an inveterate pessimist, and because of, as I told you, his excessive—he had a very wide mind, but a very constrictive view of the operations of a state. He believed that especially foreign affairs should be in the hands of the highest-grade competent bureaucracy.
He was very pleased, he said in one of his letters to me—I forget when it was—in the 1960s, when some American ambassador who had been very much restricted in operations and in budget in one of the Soviet satellites said, "This is the best embassy I ever ran because we only had eight people for the entire embassy." Kennan said, "That's right. That's the ideal embassy."
QUESTION: A somewhat related question. The Soviet Union falls. This was, as you say, more or less Kennan's expectation, that if you patiently and consistently contain this political system, that it would lose its legitimacy and that it would fold in on itself.
Did Kennan feel any sense of personal pride? Did he feel as if his ideas, as imperfectly as they were implemented, turned out to be fairly robust in the effects they had on the Soviet Union?
JOHN LUKACS: This is a question of character. As you know, I admired and loved the man. I don't think that Kennan was a man, any more than any of us, suffused with great personal pride. I think a thought comes to me from Tocqueville which I think Kennan would have completely agreed with. It is one of Tocqueville's greatest metaphors in his correspondence. Like Kennan, some of the best things are in Tocqueville's letters. He said that "The great sin of the aristocratic ages of history is pride. The great sin of the democratic ages is envy." I think Kennan would profoundly agree with that.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: One small anecdote. Some of you I'm sure were present, as I was, the December following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Council of Foreign Relations was having its Christmas party. Kennan is already booked as the guest speaker that year, long before. Perfect timing, right? So indeed, we have to move the whole business to Hunter Auditorium because there's not space enough at 68th and Park.
Kennan gives this speech, which I remember finding shocking. I don't know if any of you remember this. What he says in that speech essentially is—he's certainly not feeling triumphalist—that's what reminds me of the question—but he says again and again: Be careful not to encourage the other Eastern European countries to demand independence. Don't give any encouragement to the Baltics. He was absolutely scared that this wonderful event would go out of control.
JOHN LUKACS: Yes.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: I will never forget this. I was shocked. I said, "George, your containment thing has worked, and now you're telling us all—"
JOHN LUKACS: Yes. And what you are saying is something that shocked me in our correspondence at that time. I went to Hungary in 1989 and wrote him a long letter about what I saw. He says, "I completely agree with you. I mean it's wonderful what's happening there, but for God's sake don't encourage a multiparty system."
QUESTION: My recollection of his history about the origins of World War I is that it was absurd on the facts known at the time out of the German archives. So you are a historian, Professor Lukacs, as we all know, and a good one. I would love to hear your assessment of George Kennan as a historian.
JOHN LUKACS: That's a subject very close to me, very close to me. Let me sum it up as briefly as possible. I think there is a very great plus, but there is also a minus.
The great plus is that Kennan's literary knowledge—Kennan had both a broader and deeper view of describing, reconstituting history than most of our colleagues. He regarded in a way history as a supreme form of literature. This is already there in his books about Russia in 1917-1919, that he does not only deal with the relationships of governments. This contradicts this thing that he thought only of states. Of course, between 1917 and 1920, American relations with Russia existed at all kinds of different levels, some of them ridiculous, some of them important, and so on. He is very good about this.
First of all, he was a masterful writer of English. His descriptions of scenes, sometimes almost impressionistic, are profoundly important. And he does not just do this because he enjoys painting this on a palette. He thinks this is significant, this is important, even the shapes of Russian locomotives on the Finnish border.
This is, I think, the way history should be written, and this why his two volumes—you see, it is very interesting. He is a man who was very precise in everything. But three of the books he didn't finish. He wanted to continue the American intervention in Russia and Russian relations from 1919 to 1920, 1922. He didn't finish it.
He wanted to write, he thought of writing, a third volume on the Franco-Russian alliance from 1894 to 1897. He didn't finish this either.
But what he did is really—I mean simply his style, his composition, his drawing, is something that historians should learn from now. This is a great plus and an enduring plus.
The minus is that I think his view of the eventual effect and origins of the Franco-Russian alliance is exaggerated. It is exaggerated because—again it goes back to his old-fashioned views. He had an excessive admiration for Bismarck. I also have a great respect for Bismarck, but not an excessive admiration. It is true that probably had it not been for Bismarck this might not have happened and all that. He admires Bismarck. He admires even when Bismarck does some fairly tricky things in Bulgaria and so forth. Perhaps his respect for Bismarck is too great, too universal, too overall.
As a consequence of this, there is an underlying theme which here and there comes out, especially in the second volume, that the Franco-Russian alliance was a mistake and the Franco-Russian alliance itself led to the First World War. Yes, the Franco-Russian alliance may have contributed to the chain of events in July-August 1914, but this is an exaggerated view. The basis of this is Kennan's sentimental respect for Germany.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Ah, yes.
JOHN LUKACS: Do you agree with me?
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Yes.
And so what do you make of that? I mean we might as well discuss this, because this is part of the intellectual history of George Kennan. Again and again, people who like him, don't like him, respect him, don't respect him as a contemporary foreign policy analyst say that he carried this excess baggage all his life, that he had an inordinate love and respect for Germany, German culture, German history, and that therefore, without his necessarily knowing that was happening to him, he gave Germany the benefit of the doubt sometimes when he shouldn't have, and going back to the pre-1914 period he exaggerates the culpability of the Franco-Russian alliance instead of concentrating on Germany's culpability.
JOHN LUKACS: I would say perhaps not inordinate but pretty heavy. This was a piece of intellectual baggage, a notion that he carried through his life.
QUESTION: Kennan's perception of German power in 1938, was it the equivalent of Churchill's? Explain it a little bit.
JOHN LUKACS: That is a very, very interesting question. No. For example, it's very interesting to read—there's a little volume about this—not only his dispatches from Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1938-1939, but in some of the letters he wrote. You know, some of his best letters are written to one of his sisters, Jeanette. They are wonderful letters. He was posted to Prague. He arrived in Prague on the last French plane flying into Prague on the day of Munich. So he arrives in Prague on September 30, 1938, and stays there for another year and a half. From the beginning he says that "There is no way. Czechoslovakia will fall, will belong to the German sphere of interest. This may be regrettable, but we can't do anything about it."
QUESTION: A follow-on question. To what extent was he aware of the Putsch efforts in Germany?
JOHN LUKACS: No. But in one more respect Kennan was ahead of Churchill. In 1938 and 1939—and it is interesting that Churchill repeated this mistake in his postwar book, in the first volume of his war memoirs, published in 1948. Churchill thought, one of his arguments, very oracular and sometimes very profound, against Munich was that in Munich the Soviet Union would have fought on the side of France and Britain. Kennan said no. Kennan begins to see in 1936-1937 that the Soviet Union's alliance with France and Czechoslovakia don't matter.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: If we would, for a moment I want to bring into tension your two heroes, Kennan and Churchill, and I want you to maybe speculate for a moment: What would Churchill's critique of Kennan be as a theorist of how foreign policy is conducted in a modern democracy?
Arguably, Churchill was this aristocrat, with an aristocratic sensibility, who understood nonetheless the important popular element and ideological element in relations between states. This is a notable aspect of his statesmanship of course during World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. So what can you imagine Churchill thinking about Kennan's extreme rejection of any sort of ideological dimension in foreign policy and his disdain in the end of democratic procedures and democratic processes and popular sentiment as a tool of foreign policy?
JOHN LUKACS: I can answer it in three points.
I am sure—well, I'm almost certain—that Churchill never read Kennan. Churchill never read Kennan, no. I find it even possible that Kennan didn't read much of Churchill. But as I say, they never met.
The second thing is that Churchill also did not look at the world ideologically. Churchill saw Stalin as a new Russian peasant czar. Churchill makes a speech in the House of Commons in October of 1944, where he sort of indirectly praises Franco. He says, "In one country we support a dictator, in another country a communist. Franco is all right."
But one thing both had was a great respect of all Europe. For example, both Kennan and Churchill in writings about this wished that something like the Hapsburg Empire could be reconstituted at the end of the Second World War. There are elements in their propositions and writings about this at that time.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: My questions about Kennan as a historian really dovetail with what Nick was saying, and they really have to do with his choice of subjects and what he did not write about.
The person who, to me, most closely resembles Kennan in some important ways, although he is quite different in other important ways, is E.H. Carr. Carr had a literary sensibility. I think they were both [inaudible] at the same time. Of course, Carr in the 1930s was a [inaudible]. They had completely different political views. Kennan was a conservative and Carr was a radical and, I guess in some ways, a Marxist. Carr's books, however many volumes there were, are not read, and deservedly so. So it certainly goes to show you that a conservative temperament is better for the writing of history than a radical, or certainly an ideological one.
Nonetheless, what strikes me about that comparison is that while Carr may have been wasting his time getting all his documents from Moscow, but he wrote about the Soviet Union and internal Soviet affairs, and Kennan didn't. Kennan wrote about Soviet foreign policy. But even in the period when he was out of government, especially in the period when he was out of government, even his occasional pieces really had nothing to do with what we thought of as Kremlinology. And yet, in his early diplomatic career that must have been what he did. That surely was his subject.
So question number one is: Why didn't he write about the Soviet Union, about communism, about the stuff that must have been his professional concern, when he was posted to Moscow? And I have a follow-up.
JOHN LUKACS: Could I just answer this?
He could not have been more different from Carr, except Carr has only one book, a fairly good book, where he writes history well in the relation of states, and that is Europe 1919-1939. But in Carr's books about Russia he has chapters entitled "The New Soviet Man," you know. I quoted you what Kennan says about the new Soviet man. He says, "We will get nearer to the truth if we abandon for a time the hackneyed question of how far communism has changed Russia and turn our attention to the question of how far Russia has changed communism." They could not be more different. I'm not a great admirer of E.H. Carr. Carr's most famous book is entitled What is History?, which I with sadness and pleasure tore apart a lot more than once.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Why did Kennan have no interest in writing about internal Soviet affairs, when he must have known a lot about them at one time?
JOHN LUKACS: He did. He also understood something, and that's a great plus, and this reverberates in his Franco-Russian alliance books, that in Russia foreign policy and domestic policy can be more different than anywhere else. Just think of Alexander III, who was a martinet, who was one of the strictest Russian rulers, and yet his foreign policy and alliance with Republican France. Kennan saw this in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, that what the Russian Foreign Office does—even under Litvinov—is quite different from what happens within Russia itself.
Just think. We know about the horrible purges. The entire revolutionary change of the entire Soviet bureaucracy comes between 1934 and 1939, and then absolutely convinced Bolsheviks, who are suspected of not being quite reliable, are shot or garroted and so forth. That's when Soviet policy speaks of collective security, involvement in the Spanish Civil War, the Popular Front, and so forth.
I think—I read it in the papers—that this strange duality is even true of Russia today.
MICHAEL MANDELBAUM: Second question: One way of explaining his disinterest in internal Soviet affairs—and you know, time is limited, you can only write about so many things, and he was interested in other things—but I think one explanation is precisely the point you've made, that he didn't take ideology all that seriously, he saw continuity between the Bolsheviks and the czars, this was a backward European country that had adopted un-European or backward-European forms, and the big problem, as you say, was not how Russia was going to be ruled, because it never had been ruled particularly well by Western standards, and probably never would be, but its intrusion into the center of Europe.
And, as you have pointed out, Kennan was, at least temperamentally, a conservative, which meant that he had sympathy for the old regime—whether its elements could ever be revived is another question. He was a 19th century man.
For people of that temperament, the great break in history was of course 1914. Many Europeans and European historians understand that. It happened not for the United States, but for Europe and for the world it was 1914, and everything that went wrong in the 20th century stemmed from that. So it's not surprising that that was the focus of his scholarly concern.
However, as Nick points out, his interpretation of the origins of the First World War is, let us say, eccentric. Now, maybe if he had written a third volume he would have gotten around to what all other historians have written. Nonetheless, it really does look like an attempt to get Germany off the hook.
That leads me to my question. There is one other subject that as far as I know, but I could be wrong, he did not write about, and that was the Third Reich. He saw it up close and personal, he lived through that history, he saw it, and, after all, who was most responsible for letting the Russians into the middle of Europe? It was Hitler. He had nothing to say about it as far as I know. If that's true, why not?
JOHN LUKACS: Very difficult to say. His letters and dispatches from Berlin, beginning from July 1940 to practically his internment, show no sympathy with the Nazi regime. Even here and there he writes a letter to his wife—horror, when in September 1941 Goebbels pushed Hitler to order the Jews in Berlin to wear the yellow star. He is horrified by that. So that is not the question.
But you are right. Nobody can find any caveat about his reports and letters from Berlin in 1940-1941. But it's different from his attitude and policies about Russia. And of course, I would say, the only thing about Kennan, who was a pretty realistic person, which can be criticized—and I criticized it in the little book about our correspondence—there were six letters we exchanged in 1996 about [inaudible]—I criticize him when he is in Berlin and when Germany invades Russia, he writes a letter to Loy Henderson, who was his colleague in Washington, the State Department, and he says that: "Yes, we hope that the Russians fight well, but under no circumstances should the Soviet Union be regarded as anything like an ally of the United States," which was totally impractical. Give them military help but we will never regard them as an ally. I think that this was both very impractical and unreal at that time.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: John, we will now try again and not mince words. You know perfectly well that throughout his life Kennan was accused of being somewhat anti-Semitic, let's say. You yourself mentioned this in this wonderful book of yours. You also mention that in those years when he is serving in Europe just before the war and the beginning of the war there is a kind of bothersome apathy, callousness, cold-bloodedness in his reportage of what is going on, which is I think what Michael was talking about.
In a wonderful review of your book that I think you know, by Joe Joffe, a friend of a lot of people in this room, he wrote two years ago—
JOHN LUKACS: I don't think it was so wonderful.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Well, he was full of praise of you.
JOHN LUKACS: He doesn't understand Kennan. He praises me but he doesn't understand Kennan.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: He says: "Kennan was many things: a diplomat and historian, a brilliant writer, an independent intellect, and a gifted analyst of men and nations. But a warm bundle of human kindness he was not."
JOHN LUKACS: Not true.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Okay. So comment. This is your exam question.
JOHN LUKACS: Not true. You see, anti-Semitism is a very complicated subject. I would say that when here and there he is critical of Jews, and mostly in the 1930s of Jewish influences in the State Department, trying to give preferential treatment to Jews here and there, he was not untypical of a kind of mild social historical anti-Semitism that differed from fanatical and German Judeophobia, not in degree but in kind.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: Is he different from Loy Henderson?
JOHN LUKACS: I think so, yes. Everything in the world depends on the quality of it, not what it is but how it is. This is something that a computer cannot answer. The computer can answer "What?" The computer cannot really answer "Why?" But it surely cannot answer "How?" Everything depends how this person's like or dislike for Jews or blonds or Koreans or Zombies is. What I told you, does it make some sense? Everything depends on how I like this person or this dish or this painting or this music—how. Everything in this world is a matter of quality.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: It's a difficult subject. What you're saying is he represents a pictorial moment in history and people of his class who have a certain kind of inbuilt social anti-Semitism, or whatever. He said he does not discriminate against Jews, there's no instance of him writing or saying anything stupid or obnoxious. But there is this historical record that shows him in Europe in the late-1930s not showing the kind of anger and whatever we wish he had. You're saying it's actually perfectly understandable but not necessarily praiseworthy. Let's leave it at that.
QUESTION: On the deficiencies of George Kennan, an otherwise admirable character, as a diplomat. One, notoriously, was his statements to the press when he was the U.S. Ambassador in Russia, in which he broke all protocol by criticizing the regime that he was accredited to.
My wife and I got involved with talking with people who were in the Berlin Embassy during the period when George Kennan was an officer. She was writing a book about the German Resistance. One of our sources told us that the biggest gaffe pulled in that whole period was when George Kennan was canceling a multinational dinner party but he forgot to notify two important people. One was the chief and the other was the Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, who then showed up to an empty room. This became the gossip for many months in the Berlin Embassy. He was deficient in those qualities.
JOHN LUKACS: There is just one thing which is again in defense of Kennan. You see, during his Berlin days—and his Ambassador Kirk encouraged him—he was in contact with what later became the German Resistance. There was Helmuth von Moltke, who was one of the chief figures of the 1944 plot. You see, in Germany, in Berlin, unlike in Moscow, Kennan could get together with these people and talk to them pretty freely. His great sympathy was with these people who represented the noble and old-fashioned German resistance to Nazism.
NICHOLAS RIZOPOULOS: John, thank you a million for a wonderful evening.