Ideas Man

The Legacy of George F. Kennan

The first book to complicate the reputation of George Kennan came out in 1967. It was 600 pages long, and the cover would show a forlorn young man staring right at you. The tale was of an awkward boy from the Midwest who never quite fits in. He gains knowledge in the Foreign Service and becomes the United States' wisest Soviet analyst. Then, for a brief -- but crucial -- moment, he serves as the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under President Harry Truman, helping remake the world after World War II. Along the way, he writes the "Long Telegram" and the "X" article, which laid out a strategy forever known as containment, and he plays a central role in designing the Marshall Plan. He writes beautiful memos that anticipate the dangers of keeping Germany divided and starting an arms race. But soon he grows irritated with Washington, and Washington grows irritated with him. He becomes as bitter as he is brilliant, as frustrated as he is farsighted. The story ends with him out of power, despairing for the republic. The book hints that its subject might be anti-Semitic, depressed, and professionally inept.

The author of that book, Memoirs 1925-1950, was Kennan himself, as self-critical and personally reflective an autobiographer as his century had seen. More books followed (including one by the author of this review), peeling back the onion further and further. Each new round of discovered documents and diaries has reinforced what was known before. And now there is John Lewis Gaddis' magisterial, authorized account, George F. Kennan: An American Life. It is based on intimate interviews with Kennan and access to all of his diaries, including the one in which he jotted down his dreams.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis