The Ghosts of Kennan

Lessons From the Start of a Cold War. By Fredrik Logevall

January/February 2023

We all read him, those of us who did graduate work in U.S. diplomatic history in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For although there were other important figures in modern U.S. foreign relations, only one was George Kennan, the “father of containment,” who later became an astute critic of U.S. policy as well as a prize-winning historian. We dissected Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946, his “X” article in these pages from the following year, and his lengthy and unvarnished report on Latin America from March 1950. We devoured his slim but influential 1951 book, American Diplomacy, based on lectures he gave at the University of Chicago; his memoirs, which appeared in two installments in 1967 and 1972 and the first of which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and any other publication he wrote that we could get our hands on. (I figured there was no skipping Russia Leaves the War, from 1956, as it won not only the same awards garnered by the first volume of his memoirs but also the George Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.) And we dove into the quartet of important studies of Kennan then coming out in rapid succession by our seniors in the guild—by David Mayers, Walter Hixson, Anders Stephanson, and Wilson Miscamble.

Even then, some of us wondered whether Kennan was quite as important to U.S. policy during the early Cold War as numerous analysts made him out to be. Perhaps, we thought, he should be considered an architect of American strategy, not the architect. Perhaps the most that could be said was that he gave a name—containment—and a certain conceptual focus to a foreign policy approach that was already emerging, if not indeed in place. Even at the Potsdam Conference in mid-1945, after all, well before either the Long Telegram or the “X” article, U.S. diplomats understood that Joseph Stalin and his lieutenants were intent on dominating those areas of Eastern and Central Europe that the Red Army had seized. Little could be done to thwart these designs, officials determined, but they vowed to resist any effort by Kremlin leaders to move farther west. Likewise, the Soviets would not be permitted to interfere in Japan or be allowed to take control of Iran or Turkey. This was containment in all but name. By early 1946, when Kennan penned the Long Telegram from the embassy in Moscow, the wartime Grand Alliance was but a fading memory; by then, anti-Soviet sentiment was a stock feature of internal U.S. policy deliberations.

Still, the 1946 telegram and the 1947 article were remarkable pieces of analytical writing that explained much about how U.S. officials saw the postwar world and their country’s place in it. That Kennan soon began to distance himself from containment, and to claim that he had been grievously misunderstood, that the policy in action was turning out to be more bellicose than he had envisioned or wanted, only added to the intrigue. Was he more hawkish regarding Moscow in this early period than he later claimed? Or had he merely been uncharacteristically loose in his phrasing in these writings, implying a hawkishness he did not feel? The available evidence suggested the former, but one held off final judgment, pending the full opening of Kennan’s personal papers and especially his gargantuan diaries, which spanned 88 years and ran to more than 8,000 pages.

These materials were indeed rich, as the world learned with the publication of John Lewis Gaddis’s authorized biography, three decades in the making, which appeared to wide acclaim in 2011 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Gaddis had full access to the papers and made extensive and incisive use of them. Then, in 2014, came the publication of The Kennan Diaries, a 768-page compendium of entries ably selected and annotated by the historian Frank Costigliola. Scholars had long known about Kennan’s prickly, complex personality and his tendency toward curmudgeonly brooding, but the diaries laid bare these qualities. What emerged was a man of formidable intellectual gifts, sensitive and proud, expressive and emotional, ill at ease in the modern world, prone to self-pity, disdainful of what he saw as America’s moral decadence and rampant materialism, and given to derogatory claims about women, immigrants, and foreigners. 

Yet in one key respect, Kennan’s diaries proved unrevealing. Like many people, Kennan journaled less when he was busy, and there is virtually nothing of consequence from 1946 or 1947, when he wrote the two documents on which his influence rested and when he began to reconsider fundamental assumptions about the nature of the Soviet challenge and the preferred American response. For the entirety of 1947, arguably the pivotal year of both the early Cold War and Kennan’s career, there is but a single entry: a one-page rhyme. Any serious assessment of Kennan’s historical importance—How deeply did he shape U.S. policy at the dawn of the superpower struggle? When and why did he sour on containment as practiced? Is it proper to speak of “two Kennans” with respect to the Cold War?—must center on this period of the late 1940s. 

Now Costigliola has come out with a full-scale biography of the man, from his birth into a prosperous middle-class family in Milwaukee, in 1904, to his death in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2005. (What a century to live through!) It is an absorbing, skillfully wrought, at times frustrating book, more than half of which is focused on the diplomat’s youth and early career. Costigliola’s unmatched familiarity with the diaries is on full display, and although he does not shy away from quoting from some of their more unsavory parts, his overall assessment is sympathetic, especially vis-à-vis the “second” Kennan, the one who decried the militarization of containment and pushed for U.S.-Soviet negotiations. Kennan, he writes, was a “largely unsung hero” for his diligent efforts to ease the Cold War.

Intriguingly, as Costigliola shows but could have developed more fully, these efforts were already underway in the late 1940s, while the superpower conflict was still in its infancy. This transformation in Kennan’s thinking is especially resonant today, in an era that many analysts are calling the early stages of yet another cold war, with U.S.-Russian relations in a deep freeze and China playing the role of an assertive Soviet Union. If the analogy is correct, then it bears asking: How did Kennan’s thinking change? And does his evolution hold lessons for his successors as they forge policy for a new era of conflict?


Kennan’s love of Russia came early, and partly because of family ties: his grandfather’s cousin, also named George Kennan, was an explorer who achieved considerable fame in the late nineteenth century for his writings on tsarist Russia and for casting light on the harsh penal system in Siberia. Soon after graduating from Princeton, in 1925, the younger Kennan joined the Foreign Service and developed an interest in the country; in time, it became much more. Costigliola writes, “Kennan’s love for Russia, his quest for some mystical connection—impulses that stemmed in part from the hurt and loneliness in his psyche going back to the loss of his mother—had enormous consequences for policy.” That is a pregnant sentence indeed, with claims that would seem hard to verify, but there can be no doubt that Kennan’s passion for pre-revolutionary Russia and its culture was real and abiding, staying with him to the end of his days.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, as an ambitious young State Department officer, Kennan toggled between Germany, Estonia, and Latvia, working hard to develop facility in the Russian language and serving from 1931 to 1933 at the Soviet listening post in Riga. There followed an intense, exhilarating, draining period in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, under the mercurial ambassador William Bullitt. Costigliola finds the middle of the decade to be a formative period for Kennan—he devotes an entire 48-page chapter to “The ‘Madness of ’34,’” and another of equal length to the years 1935–37, writing, in effect, a small book within a book and adding much to our understanding of Kennan’s worldview—as the diplomat worked to the point of exhaustion to establish himself as the premier Soviet expert in the Foreign Service.

Kennan treasured Russians as a warm and generous people but looked askance at Marxist-Leninist ideology, speculating even then that Russian communism was headed toward ultimate disintegration, on account of its disregard for individual expression, spirituality, and human diversity. About Western capitalism he had scarcely better things to say: it was characterized by systemic overproduction, crass materialism, and destructive individualism. He disliked and distrusted the “rough and tumble” of his own country’s democracy and longed for rule by an “intelligent, determined ruling minority.”

During World War II, Kennan served first as the chief administrative officer of the Berlin embassy and then, after a brief assignment in Washington in 1942, as second-in-command at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Lisbon. The top U.S. representative at the post, Bert Fish, seldom set foot in the building, which left Kennan to negotiate base rights in the Azores with Portugal’s premier, António de Oliveira Salazar, whose dictatorial but anti-Nazi rule Kennan admired. He grew disenchanted, by contrast, with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime diplomacy. He opposed the president’s demand that Germany and Japan unconditionally surrender, as it foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated settlement. And after returning to the Moscow embassy in mid-1944, he faulted as naive Roosevelt’s belief that the United States could secure long-term cooperation with Stalin. Both then and later, Costigliola maintains, Kennan failed to detect Roosevelt’s underlying realism and shrewd grasp of power politics, as he continually mistook the president’s public statements for his private views. He missed the degree to which, despite their differences, he and Roosevelt “agreed on the fundamental issue of working out with the Soviets separate spheres of influence in Europe.”

About the subsequent Cold War, Costigliola is unequivocal: it need not have happened and, having broken out, need not have lasted nearly as long as it did. This argument is less novel than the book implies, but the author is certainly correct that “the story of Kennan’s life demands that we rethink the Cold War as an era of possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy, not the inevitable series of confrontations and crises we came to see.”

All the more puzzling, then, that Costigliola gives scant attention to the sharp downturn in U.S.-Soviet relations that began in the fall of 1945, as the two powers clashed over plans for Europe and the Middle East. He notes in passing that Kennan was “unaware how rapidly U.S. opinion and policy were souring on Russia” in this period, but he does little to contextualize this important point. The schism over the Soviet occupation of Iran goes unmentioned, and readers learn nothing of Washington’s decision in early 1946 to abandon atomic cooperation with Moscow. And if indeed Kennan was incognizant of how swiftly American views and policy were changing as the year turned, how is this ignorance to be explained?


Costigliola is surely correct to note Kennan’s transformation from a position of opposing negotiations with the Kremlin in 1946 to one of advocating them in 1948. But one wants to know more about this metamorphosis. Costigliola is authoritative (if, especially compared to Gaddis, terse) on the Long Telegram and the “X” article, but one wishes for more context—even in a biography—especially concerning 1947, when the latter piece appeared. There is no discussion, or even mention, of the crises in Greece and Turkey that raged during that year; of President Harry Truman’s speech to a joint session of Congress, in which he asked for $400 million in aid for the two countries and articulated what became known as the Truman Doctrine, by which the United States pledged to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”; or of the 1947 National Security Act, which was closely tied to the perceived Soviet threat and which gave the president vastly enhanced power over foreign affairs.

Kennan, as other sources reveal, objected to the expansive nature of Truman’s speech and what it implied for policy. But he chose not to alter the “X” article—then still in production—by emphasizing his desire for a limited form of containment. Appearing in these pages in July under the pseudonym “X” and the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the essay was widely seen as a systematic articulation of the administration’s latest thinking about relations with Moscow, as its author laid out policy of “firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” For the foreseeable future, Kennan seemed to be saying, diplomacy was a waste of time. Stalin’s hostility to the West was irrational, unjustified by any U.S. actions, and thus the Kremlin could not be reasoned with; negotiations could not be expected to ease or eliminate the hostility and end the U.S.-Soviet clash. The Soviet Union, he wrote, was “committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional ways of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

The assertion likely raised few eyebrows among Foreign Affairs readers that tense summer of 1947. But not everyone in the establishment was convinced. The influential columnist Walter Lippmann railed against Kennan’s essay in a stunning series of 14 articles in The New York Herald Tribune in September and October that were parsed in government offices around the world. The columns were then grouped in a slim book whose title, The Cold War, gave a name to the superpower competition. Lippmann did not dispute Kennan’s contention that the Soviet Union would expand its reach unless confronted by American power. But to his mind, the threat was primarily political, not military.

Moreover, Lippmann insisted that officials in Moscow had genuine security fears and were motivated mostly by a defensive determination to forestall the resurgence of German power. Hence their determination to seize control of Eastern Europe. It distressed Lippmann that Kennan, as well as the Truman White House, seemed blind to this reality and to the possibility of negotiating with the Kremlin over issues of mutual concern. As he wrote,

The history of diplomacy is the history of relations among rival powers, which did not enjoy political intimacy and did not respond to appeals to common purposes. Nevertheless, there have been settlements. Some of them did not last very long. Some of them did. For a diplomat to think that rival and unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is all about. There would be little for diplomats to do if the world consisted of partners, enjoying political intimacy, and responding to common appeals.

Containment as outlined by Kennan, Lippmann added, risked drawing Washington into defending any number of distant and nonvital parts of the world. Military commitments in such peripheral areas might bankrupt the Treasury and would in any event do little to enhance U.S. security. American society would become militarized to fight a “Cold War.”

His influence waning, Kennan left the government in 1950.

Kennan was stung by this multipronged, multiweek takedown, which Costigliola oddly does not discuss. The diplomat admired Lippmann’s stature as perhaps the most formidable foreign policy analyst in Washington, and he felt flattered that the great man would devote so much space to something he had written. More than that, he found himself agreeing with much of Lipp­mann’s interpretation, including with respect to Moscow’s defensive orientation and the need for U.S. strategists to distinguish between core and peripheral areas. “The Soviets don’t want to invade anyone,” he wrote in an unsent letter to Lippmann in April 1948, adding that his intention in the “X” article had been to make his compatriots aware that they faced a long period of complex diplomacy when political skills would dominate. Once Western Europe had been shored up, he assured Lippmann, negotiations under qualitatively new conditions could follow. 

In the months thereafter, Kennan, now director of the newly formed Policy Planning Staff in the State Department, began to decry the militarization of containment and the apparent abandonment of diplomacy in Truman’s Soviet policy. He pushed for negotiations with the Kremlin, just as Lippmann had earlier. His influence waning, Kennan left the government in 1950, returning for a brief stint as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 and later, under President John F. Kennedy, a longer spell as ambassador to Yugoslavia.


So began George Kennan’s second career, as a historian and public intellectual, from a perch at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. It would last half a century. Costigliola is consistently fascinating here, even if he is less interested in Kennan’s writings and policy analysis than in his deep and deepening alienation from modern society and his strenuous efforts to curate his legacy. Readers get almost nothing on American Diplomacy, Kennan’s important, realist critique of what he called the “legalistic-moralistic” approach to U.S. foreign policy, or on the two volumes of memoirs, the first of which must be considered a modern classic. Costigliola says little about Kennan’s analysis of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam (he was less dovish in 1965–66 than Costigliola implies) but a great deal about his loathing of the student protesters—with their “defiant rags and hairdos,” in Kennan’s words—against the war. As elsewhere in A Life Between Worlds, more would have been better. Readers deserve more, for example, on what the diplomat-historian made of the crises over Berlin and Cuba under Kennedy in the early 1960s or on how he interpreted the severe worsening of superpower tensions under Jimmy Carter in 1979–80.

More and more as the years passed, Kennan felt underappreciated. Never mind the literary prizes and other accolades, never mind the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to him by President George H. W. Bush in 1989. On more days than not, he was a Cassandra, despairing at the state of the world and his place in it, worried about how he would be remembered. Thrilled to secure in Gaddis a brilliant young historian as his biographer, he grew apprehensive, especially as it became clear that Gaddis did not share his low opinion of U.S. Cold War policy in general and nuclear strategy under President Ronald Reagan in particular. (Another worry: that Gaddis would be too distracted by other commitments to complete the work in a timely fashion, thus allowing supposedly less able biographers—“inadequate pens,” Kennan called them—to come to the fore.)

Even the Soviet Union’s collapse, in 1991, brought Kennan little cheer. For half a century, he had predicted that this day would come, but one finds scant evidence of public or private gloating, only frustration that the Cold War had lasted so long and concern that Washington risked inciting Russian nationalism and militarism with its support for NATO expansion into former Soviet domains. The result, he feared, could be another cold war. In the fall of 2002, at the age of 98, he railed against what he saw as the George W. Bush administration’s heedless rush into war in Iraq. The history of U.S. foreign relations, he told the press, showed that although “you might start a war with certain things on your mind . . . in the end you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.” It dismayed him that the administration seemed to have no plan for Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and he doubted the evidence about the country’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. For that matter, he argued, if it turned out Saddam in fact had the weapons or would soon acquire them, the problem was in essence a regional one, not America’s concern.

All the while, Kennan condemned what he saw as the abuses of industrialization and urbanization and called for a restoration of “the proper relationship between Man and Nature.” In the process, Costigliola convincingly argues, he became an early and prescient advocate of environmental protection. And all the while, his antimodernism showed a retrograde side, as he looked askance at feminism, gay rights, and his country’s increasing ethnic and racial diversity. Maybe only the Jews, Chinese, and “Negroes” would keep their ethnic distinctiveness, he suggested at one point, and thus use their strength to “subjugate and dominate” the rest of the nation. Costigliola comments acidly: “Kennan was aware enough to confine such racist drivel to his diary and the dinner table, where his adult children squirmed.”

Kennan was not always consistent; he got some things wrong.

Kennan’s long-held skepticism about democracy, meanwhile, showed no signs of abating. “‘The people’ haven’t the faintest idea what’s good for them,” he groused in 1984. Left to themselves, “they would (and will) simply stampede into a final, utterly disastrous, and totally unnecessary nuclear war.” Even if they somehow managed to avoid that outcome, they would complete their wrecking of the environment, “as they are now enthusiastically doing.” In his 1993 book, Around the Cragged Hill, a melancholy rumination on all that plagued modern American life, Kennan called for the creation of a nine-member “Council of State,” an unelected body to be chosen by the president and charged with advising him on pressing medium- and long-term policy issues, with no interference by the hoi polloi. The idea was half-baked at best. That American democracy was in its essence a messy, fractious, pluralistic enterprise, with hard bargaining based on mutual concessions and with noisy interest groups jockeying for influence, he never fully grasped.

What he did understand was diplomacy and statecraft. Here, his body of writing, published as well as unpublished, historical as well as contemporaneous, stands out for its cogency, intricacy, and fluency. He was not always consistent; he got some things wrong. But as a critic of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, in the Cold War and beyond, Kennan had few if any peers. For he grasped realities that have lost none of their potency in the almost two decades since his death—about the limits of power, about the certainty of unintended consequences in war-making, about the prime importance of using good-faith diplomacy with adversaries to advance U.S. strategic interests. Understanding the growth and projection of American power over the past century and its proper use in this one, it may truly be said, means understanding this “life between worlds.”