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Kennan: Giant of Diplomacy

PROBABLY no American diplomat has had a more profound impact on his nation's conduct of foreign policy than George F. Kennan. As Henry Kissinger wrote in ``White House Years'': ``George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.'' A study of Kennan's career is simultaneously a study of the history and development of United States foreign policy from the late 1920s to the present. Kennan's r'esum'e is formidable. A Foreign Service officer from 1927 to 1952, he was a founding member of the State Department's cadre of Sovietologists. He accompanied the first US ambassador to Moscow, William Bullitt, in 1933 and helped open the embassy there. He served in Prague and Berlin during Hitler's conquest of Czechoslovakia and the outbreak of US-German hostilities in 1941 (which resulted in his internment in Germany for six months).

From 1944 to '46 he served as Ambassador Averell Harriman's deputy in Moscow. First director of the State Department's new Policy Planning Staff under George Marshall, he became State Department counselor under Dean Acheson in 1959. He was for a short time in 1952 ambassador to the Soviet Union (the only US ambassador ever to be expelled from Moscow) and was later ambassador to Yugoslavia under John F. Kennedy.

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In the immediate postwar period, Kennan wrote several documents that became cornerstones of US policy toward the Soviet Union. His 1946 ``Long Telegram'' from Moscow landed like a bombshell in Washington, and helped stir the Truman administration into a more realistic approach to Stalin's machinations in Europe. His famous ``Mr. X'' article (``The Sources of Soviet Conduct''), which was published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 and first outlined the concept of ``containment,'' has been considered the keystone of US policy toward the Soviets ever since. During that same year, he was a key player in the development of the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe.

After his somewhat forced retirement from the State Department (where John Foster Dulles had little use for him), Kennan went to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., and began a second career as a historian. His series of analytical books and lectures include the provocative BBC Reith lectures in 1957, in which he called for the simultaneous withdrawal of US and Soviet forces from Central Europe. He went on to do work at Harvard and Oxford, and to found the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, D.C., in 1975. Kennan regained public attention in the early 1980s with his call for nuclear disarmament, a position he had actually held since the end of World War II, and which made him appear to be more liberal than was actually the case.

David Mayers examines this career in his riveting book, George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy. As a former Foreign Service officer and Soviet specialist, I found it hard to put this volume down.

Mayers traces Kennan's path from diplomat to cold-war critic to antinuclear rhetorician in clear, direct writing. He cogently weaves into the narrative other players in the issues Kennan dealt with: Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Acheson, Joseph McCarthy, John Foster Dulles, journalist Walter Lippmann, and others.

Both the foreign policy expert and the nonspecialist can learn much from this book.

Particularly helpful is Mayers's retrospective summary at the end of each chapter of how Kennan was wrong, and how he was (often prophetically) right. Mayers's comprehensive analysis of what Kennan was actually proposing with his containment policy, and how the concept was transformed, much against Kennan's wishes, into a ring of military alliances (including NATO) around the Soviet Union, is worth study itself.

I would make this book required reading in any university-level beginning international relations course.

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If Mayers is eminently readable, the novice will have great difficulty with Anders Stephanson's George Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy. This is one of those volumes so layered in intellectual jargon that even the most determined reader wonders if the author was truly interested in communicating ideas. In addition, Stephanson assumes a thorough knowledge of the subject on the part of the reader, which places the book beyond the comprehension of the nonspecialist.

Writing, as he describes it, ``from the viewpoint of a neutralist Swede of socialist conviction,'' Stephanson offers a vantage point on Kennan's career and US foreign policy that is very different from Mayers's. While thoughtprovoking, his analysis, in my view, suffers from some serious misunderstandings of US politics.

Stephanson makes a persuasive argument that the US blundered seriously in 1948 when, instead of negotiating with the Soviets over the future of Germany, the US went along with Britain and France to partition the conquered nation.

But his contention that US Sovietologists, Kennan included, did not understand Soviet ideology in the 1930s, and therefore attributed to the USSR expansionist ambitions that did not exist, is downright wrong. To argue that Stalin was not an expansionist - in the face of Stalin's seizure of territories from every single European country sharing a border with the USSR and the Soviet Union's absorption of the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) - is a bit much. Stephanson also treats Stalin as far too rational.

The two authors, Mayers and Stephanson, arrive at opposite conclusions regarding Kennan's analysis of the postwar Soviet state.

Mayers endorses Kennan's dismissal of Marxist-Leninist ideology as the motivating force in Soviet policy by 1946 in favor of Russian historical and geographical explanations. Stephanson, on the other hand, argues that Soviet ideology was indeed the motivator, and that Kennan's comparisons of Stalin to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great were ``not helpful.'' I side with Mayers.

In his most recent book, Sketches From a Life, Kennan himself speaks. Through these excerpts from diaries and letters spanning the whole of his career, Kennan gives us a very personal perspective on great events taking place around him.

The notes range from the philosophical to the touristic. Having lived in Moscow and Leningrad for three years, I found his observations of life in the Soviet Union over a 50-year stretch particularly poignant. The book left me hungry for more.

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