Kennan by Frank Costigliola

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

To write a biography of any person is a major undertaking; to write a biography of such an important figure as George Kennan who led much of the thinking about the Cold War and played a major role in containing the influence of the Soviet Union and its allies after World War II seems an impossible task. Think of the immensity of the task. Kennan’s work is multivarious, covering Moscow-based diplomacy, the ‘Long Telegram’ of 1946, his X-article of 1947, his lengthy and unvarnished report on Latin America in 1950. Add to these Kennan’s prizewinning memoirs, his continuing input to American foreign policy, and the hosts of secondary studies that his policies spawned.

Yet Frank Costigliola has faced the challenge several times. His latest book is a handsome piece, a scholarly-looking book that any reader would be pleased to have on his shelves. It is a definitive biography of the U.S. diplomat and prize-winning historian, George Kennan, a statesman he describes as a man living a life between worlds. Costigliola is the author of The Kennan Diaries and Roosevelt’s Last Alliances. He has more than proved his worth as a commentator and critic (that he raises grass-fed beef cattle in Storrs, Connecticut is nice, but hardly relevant). Such a man is a serious observer of the world of George F. Kennan.

Credit for the policy of containment has been laid at Kennan’s door since the publication of the Long Telegram and the X article. I wonder if this was Kennan’s unaided work. Stalin’s motives regarding Japan or Iran were suspect as early as the Soviet expansion into Central and Eastern Europe i.e., at the time of the Potsdam Conference.

To add to the intrigue Kennan, having advocated containment policies, retreated from this position and began to argue that he had been misunderstood or misrepresented. His position worsened when Dulles sacked him in 1953. Despite what was said in official circles, there was no doubt that Kennan favoured containment while Dulles supported an opposing policy of rollback.

Costigliola adds an explanation that may have merit. Through his career, Kennan suffered from depression. When his mood lifted, he continued to face five dilemmas. He longed to return to power in government, he fretted over the time and energy needed to respond to lecture requests, he saw an estrangement from American society, he continued to suffer the agonies of lost intimacy but, “more poignant than his philandering…were his fantasies of breathing into life the nurturing parents he never had” (374), and finally, the painful physical ailments from which he suffered were unending. When Kennan was ill, everybody suffered:

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. (Koppes, Clayton R., Solving for X: Kennan, Containment and the Colour Line).

Costigliola argues in the present volume, the biography, that Kennan could no longer see himself living in the United States. This was 1935 -37. He saw himself idealizing Russia as a more plastic society in which creative young people…were, despite Stalinist repression, forging a better order” (151). These are the years when Stalinist purges were at their height. To prefer life under circumstances such as existed under Stalin over a life in a Depression-wasted USA is an inconceivable choice.

Costigliola makes much of Kennan’s adherence to the teachings of Sigmund Freud. His explanations of his behaviour stemming from his loss of his mother at a few months sounds much like an excuse, while a Freudian explanation for Kennan’s pathological philandering is too glib. Thinking that is directed inward may be an explanation for personality defects but has limits when applied to human behaviour.

Costigliola’s biography is a massive contribution to the puzzle that was George Kennan but it is not the complete answer. One feels that Costigliola has nothing more to say.



By Frank Costigliola

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-16540-0

$US39.95; 648 pp


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