July 15, 2010
The Heart of a Realist
By MARK ATWOOD LAWRENCE
THROUGH THE HISTORY OF THE COLD WAR
The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs, New York Times
Edited by John Lukacs
276 pp. University of Pennsylvania Press. $39.95
When the former diplomat and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer George F. Kennan died in 2005, obituary writers were quick to proclaim him one of the most influential Americans of his age. By conceiving the “containment” strategy that guided United States foreign policy throughout the cold war, Kennan not only stamped his ideas on an entire era of the nation’s history but also, eulogists suggested, pointed the way to the ultimate American victory over Soviet Communism.
The curious thing about such praise is that Kennan himself vigorously disagreed. During his lifetime, he complained bitterly that the nation’s leaders had misunderstood his ideas and initiated a far more militaristic and dangerous confrontation with the Soviet Union than he ever intended. But Kennan’s unease with his place in American history ran deeper. Far from viewing himself as an epoch-defining figure, he spent much of his life feeling out of sync with both his country and his times.
This powerful sense of estrangement from mainstream America pervades “Through the History of the Cold War,” a gloomy but fascinating volume containing more than 200 letters exchanged by Kennan and John Lukacs over half a century. The correspondence began in 1952, when Lukacs, a Hungarian émigré who later became a prolific historian of modern Europe, wrote Kennan to commend his view that the United States needed to resist Soviet expansion through political and economic, rather than military, means. To Lukacs’s surprise, Kennan wrote back.
As their literary careers grew over the following decades, their letters ranged far beyond foreign affairs to history, philosophy and theology, giving their correspondence a weightier, more abstract tone as time passed. Lukacs’s admiration for Kennan led him to publish an elegiac biography of his friend in 2007 and then to set about editing their letters for a separate book. His goal with this collection, Lukacs explains in his introduction, was partly to pay tribute to Kennan and partly to lay out the idiosyncratic opinions that they shared.
The collection conveys their enormous erudition and (especially on Kennan’s side) stylistic brilliance. More than anything, though, the book poses anew, in an admirably lean and accessible way, a question that has long swirled around Kennan: What were the intellectual underpinnings of his insistence on a restrained, “realist” foreign policy that shunned bold efforts to remake the world in the American image?
One answer is surely Kennan’s inordinately pessimistic assessment of human capabilities to effect change on a grand scale. If the world managed to escape catastrophic war, he wrote in one characteristically dark letter in 1953, “it will not be because of ourselves but despite of ourselves: by virtue, that is, of the fact that we have so little, rather than so much, control over the course of events.” Mere randomness was, for Kennan, a better bet for a happy outcome than the conscious efforts of well-intentioned people. Even they, after all, were constrained by “man’s fallen state.”
But Kennan’s ideas about the United States’ role in the world also sprang from his particular disdain for American democracy. An unashamed elitist ill at ease with his own modest upbringing in Milwaukee, he viewed Americans as dangerously susceptible to the pedestrian tastes of the majority, unmoored as they were from the aristocratic sensibilities that Kennan considered the best hope for resisting mindless enthusiasms. If he doubted Americans’ abilities to act sensibly on the global stage during the early cold war, he grew even more skeptical in an era of mass communications and mounting immigration. The United States was, he wrote in 1984, “a politically unsuccessful and tragic country” that lay “always vulnerable to abuse and harassment at the hands of the dominant forces of the moment.”
Mark Atwood Lawrence teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is “The Vietnam War: A Concise International History.”