Political Minutes: Gaddis on Kennan

History buffs, political junkies, and professors alike turned out February 23 at Columbia/Barnard Hillel to hear Cold War historian, professor, and renowned author John Lewis Gaddis discuss his latest book, George F. Kennan: An American Life. It was in the 1980s when Gaddis, relying on instinct, first approached Kennan about writing an authorized biography. Though initially cool to the idea, Kennan came around, and for the following three decades the two men developed a close bond. During this time, Kennan confided in Gaddis that he was an unhappy, lonely individual and in fact viewed himself as a failure. And having both agreed that the biography would appear posthumously, Kennan repeatedly apologized to Gaddis for his long life, viewing it as yet another one of his failures. In 2005, George Kennan died at the age of 101. One of the foremost authorities on the Cold War and a professor at Yale, Gaddis opened by asking Columbia professor Anders Stephanson to characterize Kennan as either a “hedgehog” or a “fox” based on philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Hedgehogs, according to Berlin, are those with a specialization and a purpose in life, while foxes jump around lacking purpose. Stephanson opined that Kennan was a fox, and Gaddis agreed to disagree.

“I am not persuaded that the division of the metaphorical universe into hedgehogs and  foxes is any more useful than Machiavelli's older division of lions and foxes; in fact, probably less so,” Stephanson later clarified. “Kennan is in any case neither a hedgehog nor a fox. He combines, to be sure, a series of ‘constants’ in his way of being towards the world but one of them is his absolute refusal of universals, meaning that he always insisted on particularity, the specific over the general, the concrete over the abstract. This did not make him a metaphorical fox any more than it made him a metaphorical hedgehog."

Gaddis’s reasons for labeling the late diplomat a hedgehog are multifaceted. Kennan concluded as early as the 1920s that the deeply embedded Russian national character, a combination of orthodoxy and nationalism and one rooted in the land, would repel Bolshevik efforts to impose scientific ideology in order to remake Russian character. He opposed the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, which would create a power vacuum that could be filled by the Soviets. He was horrified by the realization that the development of the H-bomb meant the next war would lack politics and be one of total destruction. He had elitist views, despite having grown up in the Midwest, and believed all politics, including democracy, are corrupt and thus too disruptive of purpose—in order words, too foxy. Finally, Kennan believed there existed two Gods: one who set everything in motion and another who was caring and sympathetic, yet weak and powerless (as embedded in Christ as well as parents and teachers).

Kennan was “very good at becoming a hedgehog,” Gaddis added, as he did throughout his career. Initially trained in multiple languages, he chose to pursue Russian due to his family association—his father had explored Siberia for Russian tsars in the 19th century. “He operated successfully as a reporter and rose rapidly within the Foreign Service,” Gaddis said of Kennan’s early career. Kennan then developed a foxlike enterprise, adapting to work with Avril Harriman in Moscow from 1942-46. He was incredibly astute and warned his superiors early on that the Soviets would not be peacetime allies. To his frustration, these warnings were merely sent to file.

Gaddis added that Kennan’s break came when, in a final request, he was asked to dictate Stalin’s political position. Violating all rules, Kennan wrote a 5200-word telegram which soon became the key to understanding the postwar period. He did this again in 1957, writing anonymously regarding American behavior toward the Soviet Union and signing with a simple “X.” According to Gaddis, what in fact led insiders to suspect that Kennan was behind this widely read article was the quoting of Edward Gibbon. In the article, Kennan advanced the central idea of containment, suggesting there was a third way to deal with the Soviets that involved neither war nor appeasement. As if envisioning Gorbachev decades before his time, Kennan advised waiting for the contradictions within the Soviet system to manifest themselves, at which point the Soviet people would see firsthand its failures.

Kennan’s subsequent appointment as Ambassador to the Soviet Union was one of the hot topics that Gaddis touched upon. In the centuries-long history of US-Russian relations, Kennan was the only ambassador to be declared persona non grata. Having only been in Moscow a handful of months, Kennan was asked by a German reporter what living in the Soviet Union was like. He replied that it was like being a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Despite this, Kennan would once again fall into favor with Soviet officials as he began criticizing US foreign policy. By the 1980s, Kennan was not only regarded as a great American patriot but also a friend to the Soviet Union. During his first visit to the US, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev approached Kennan at an embassy gala to acknowledge this friendship.

According to Gaddis, Kennan’s legacy has continued after his death. Current staff members of the policy planning committee, he said, feel like “shrubs under the towering tree of George Kennan.” In addition to Kennan, Gaddis was asked his opinion on modern-day foxes and hedgehogs. The “quintessential hedgehog,” he replied, is former President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, he believed to be a fox.

The event was the brainchild of Columbia Political Union general manager Emily Tamkin, a self-professed Slavophile who first read about the book in the Sunday Book Review section of the Times. After reading the book, she worked with her colleagues on the board as well as other student organizations to invite Gaddis. “I was impressed by the book and knew from the moment I read Dr. Kissinger’s review that Columbia students would greatly benefit from hearing what Professor Gaddis had to say. And based on the discussion at the event, I believe they did,” Tamkin said.

In the review published in the New York Times, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote, “We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, thoughtful, human, self-centered, contradictory, inspirational — a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis’s moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary.”