An Expert Reappears as Ghost

George Kennan in the twenty-first century is best remembered, if at all, for “A Fateful Error,” the short essay he published on the op-ed page of The New York Times on February 1997. He argued that expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders would be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

A year later, with President Bill Clinton’s encouragement, the US Senate approved, by a vote of 80 to 19, NATO expansion to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, with an eye to another possible round of expansion. Kennan’s warning was disregarded or simply ignored in most quarters in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

The expansion program proceeded apace, through the Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, most recently with the U.S. Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership of November 10, 2021. Meanwhile, Kennan died in 2005. An authorized biography George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, appeared in 2011.  It was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize and seemed to pronounce a final opinion on Kennan’s life as a source of relevant opinion.

In the twentieth century, however, Kennan was remembered for the central role he played as a framer of US policy towards Russian expansion at the outset of the first cold war.  As a US State Department officer, he spent most of the 1930s and much of the 1940s in the Soviet Union. There he developed, in almost equal parts, affection for Russia itself, and high disdain for Josef Stalin, and his communist dictatorship.

First in a secret “long telegram” to his State Department superiors, then as the author of its summary in a Foreign Affairs article in 1947 that introduced to the foreign policy public public the catch-word “containment” and the reasoning behind it.  He subsequently became respected, even venerated, as among the senior architects of much successful post-war US foreign policy, including the Marshall Plan.

In 1955 Kennan retired to become a history professor at the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, served as President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia 1961-63, opposed the US war in Vietnam, and remained among the State Department’s closest students until not long before his death, at 101, when he vigorously protested the US invasion of Iraq.

Now Kennan has returned to life in a second full-scale biography.  Kennan: A Life between Worlds, by Frank Costigliola, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of history at the University of Connecticut, offers a parallax view of his the life of his Milwaukee-born subject.

And in an article that appeared last week on the Foreign, Affairs website, Costigliola (who earlier edited The Kennan Diaries [Norton, 2014)]), surfaced a previously undiscussed passage from a Kennan paper of 1948, in which the author set out clearly his grounds for pessimism about Ukraine independence. In “US Objectives with Respect to Russia,” Kennan wrote,

The economy of the Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with that of Russia as a whole. There has never been any economic separation since the territory was conquered from the nomadic Tatars and developed for purposes of a sedentary population.  To attempt to carve it out of the Russian economy and to set it up as something separate would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area from the economy of the United States.

He goes on to assert that “we cannot be indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves.” Because Russia would remain the “strongest national element” in the area, any viable “long-term U.S. policy must be based on their acceptance and their cooperation.” The Ukrainian territory was as much a part of their heritage as was the American Middle West, “and they are conscious of the fact.”  You can read here the relevant three-page excerpt from Kennan’s paper.

That was 75 years ago. The circumstances were clearly different in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  Kennan may have underestimate Ukrainians’ will to independence even then.  It has clearly increased explosively since the USSR disbanded itself.

But Russian government feelings have remained much the same as Kennan described them in 1948. That was much the way US Ambassador William Burns conveyed the Russian position to the Obama administration, in 2008, in a titled “Nyet Means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Enlargement Red Lines.”  The cable was originally made public by WikiLeaks but recently has been blocked on the Web.  And it is certainly the conviction that Vladimir Putin spelled out to the world, in the summer of 2021, in his 6,000-word article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

Kennan’s views on Ukraine independence are largely a newly-reported story, according to Costigliola. They do not appear in the index of Gaddis’s book, and Costigliola did not discuss the 1948 passage his own book, which was published in last month.

Whether its discovery makes any difference at all remains to be seen. But the appearance, a dozen years apart, of two deeply-informed biographies of the same man is surely grist for the historiographer’s mill.

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