Gaddis on Kennan: Insight into a Key Figure of the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th Century was terrible, including two world wars. The second half was much better. “Who developed the ideas that made the second half of the 20th century better that the first half?” Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis asked in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday.

“I don’t mean to say that George Kennan did all of that,” Gaddis said, answering the question. “But if I were to pick one central idea that was key to making the second half of the 20th century more peaceful than the first half, I think it was the idea of containment, I think it was the idea that you could deal with the Soviet Union without having a new world war with them on the one hand and without appeasing them on the other hand. And that really was George Kennan’s idea. So I would say if we back off and look at big ideas and big consequences, this man is extraordinarily influential.”

Kennan, a Milwaukee native, was the subject of Gaddis’ biography, “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April. Gaddis came to Milwaukee at the invitation of the Law School. He spoke with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, before an audience of about 200.

Gaddis painted a picture of Kennan as a brilliant, but complex person who had great, almost prophetic insights into global issues, but who was almost never happy with himself or how things were going in the world. He was “one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century,” Gaddis said (Kennan won two Pulitzer prizes for memoirs he wrote) but “he was one of those people who was incapable of self-congratulation.”


Shaped in part by the death of his mother when he was two months old, Kennan’s life was one in which he used the diaries he kept for many decades as a form of therapy for the dissatisfactions he felt. “He was always lonely wherever he was,” Gaddis said.

Gaddis first met Kennan in the early 1980s when Gaddis was an instructor at Ohio University and wrote a book on the American post-World War II approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. He sent chapters to Kennan, who reacted positively. That led to Kennan to offer Gaddis broad access to himself, his voluminous papers, and his associates so that Gaddis could write a biography. The agreement was that Kennan would not read the book and it would not appear until after Kennan’s death. Kennan lived to 101, dying in 2005.

Kennan grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a lawyer, and went to what is now St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield. From there, he went to Princeton and developed a strong interest in diplomacy and Russia. He joined the American foreign service and became fluent in Russian.

Kennan rose through the diplomatic ranks and became deputy head of the US mission in Moscow in the aftermath of World War II. Frustrated with American attempts to cooperate with the Soviet Union and feeling his voice wasn’t being heard in the State Department, Kennan sent a 5,500 word telegram to his superiors in February 1946, outlining what he thought American strategy should be. “The Long telegram” became one of the most influential and famous documents in American diplomatic history. Gaddis said the telegram was dictated in a rage. “He broke all the rules,” but what he said in the telegram “became the central idea of the grand strategy of the United States in the Cold War era.”

Gousha asked Gaddis if Kennan was comfortable being known as the author of containment. “Oh, God, no,” Gaddis said. In the 1990s, Kennan said containment was a terrible idea and he was sorry he thought of it. Kennan felt the idea had been managed wrong, and he disowned some of the ways it was applied, including how it shaped the nuclear arms race.

But Kennan was proud of his role in creation of the Marshall Plan, the American plan to assist western European countries get back on their feet in the aftermath of World War II. Gaddis said the Marshall Plan was important not only for the tangible help it provided but for the impact it had on the psychology of both western and eastern Europe in that era, an impact that helped stem the spread of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

Kennan was not always right and some of the things he did, such as ambassadorships to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, were not successful, Gaddis said. He said Kennan was someone whose spontaneous actions sometimes had huge impact and whose planned actions sometimes fell flat.

An audience member asked what Kennan would think of the state of the world if he were around today. “You would not hear anything that would be reassuring from him,” Gaddis said.

The conversation was taped for later rebroadcast on Milwaukee Public Television. A video also can be viewed by clicking here.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Margie DeWind

    Thanks for writing about this. I’m reading the biography now. It’s fascinating (and very long!).

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