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After the Second World War, America and its allies needed a new plan to deal with the Soviet Union. They saw two choices ahead – another world war or appeasement. A third option came from an obscure U.S. diplomat named George Kennan. His strategy to confine Russian expansion would define America’s relationship with the Soviet Union for nearly half a century. But Kennan would come to regret the policy that made him the most influential diplomat of the Cold War. It led to conflicts in Korea and Vietnam and even to U.S. entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legacy of America’s Cold War containment strategy.
- Susan Glasser editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy.
- Todd Purdum national editor, "Vanity Fair"
- John Lewis Gaddis Professor of History, Yale University and author of "George F. Kennan: An American Life"
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Diane's husband is recovering from surgery. She hopes to be back early next week. George Kennan, the diplomat behind America's policy of nuclear containment, has been called the most influential diplomat of the Cold War, but he eventually came to regret his role and fear the strategy led not only to war in Korea and Vietnam, but also to U.S. entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio to discuss what Kennan saw as the imperfect implementation of his plan and how it shapes U.S. policy today: Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair, who has an article in the current issue, a lengthy article on the life and work of George Kennan, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University, whose new book is "George F. Kennan: An American Life," and of course, Susan Glasser, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, but also former correspondent for The Washington Post. So welcome to you all. We appreciate your being here this morning.
PROF. JOHN LEWIS GADDISThank you.
ROBERTS1-800-433-8850 is our number. Drshow@wamu.org, our email address. John Gaddis, who was George Kennan? And give us a brief overview of how he came to the theory of containment.
GADDISWell, I think if you had to pick one person, Steve, one American who might have the best -- with whom, or for whom, you could make a best argument that this person was critical in making sure that the second half of the 20th century was better than the first half of the 20th century, I think it would be George Kennan because he really laid out the strategy that charted the middle path between the extremes of having a third world war, which a lot of people were worried about in 1945, '46, on the one hand, and appeasing the Soviet Union, which of course, is the course that had been charted toward Nazi Germany that had led to the Second World War.
GADDISSo that third way, which was containment, I think, in many ways was the critical idea of the Cold War, and it was George Kennan who came up with it.
ROBERTSAnd, Susan, what did this mean practically? I mean, there were American troops in Germany. There were missiles pointed at Russia, but it was more than that.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERWell, that's right. I mean, it was a series of political maneuvers as well as a militarized one, and both of the other guests today have written very eloquently on the subject of whether Kennan was comfortable with the militarization of his containment document -- doctrine. But, you know, it meant that the United States around the world would seek to confront the expansion of Soviet power in the effort to what he saw as the inevitable decline that would come from within the Soviet system, which he was very prescient about, of course.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERAnd, ultimately, that is, in many ways, what brought down the Soviet Union.
ROBERTSAnd so it wasn't just the military containment of the Soviet, homeland of NATO and the missiles. But, say, the Cuban missile crisis would have been very much a part of the containment policy in that -- from that point of view?
GLASSERWell, I mean -- right. And there are those who would argue that containment, as it was ultimately applied by the United States, led to disasters, conflicts, such as Vietnam, for example, in the effort to play a global game of chess, if you will, with the Soviet Union and that we, by interpreting what was going on around the world in the context of that broader conflict with the Soviets, you know, were withdrawn into conflicts and situations that we might otherwise have avoided engaging in.
ROBERTSAnd, Todd, you spent a lot of time researching the papers of George Kennan in your long article in Vanity Fair. And one of the interesting dimensions of this is how Kennan came from an intellectual point of view to posit the idea that the Soviet Union will ultimately crumble from within. And among other sources, he went to Russian literature.
MR. TODD PURDUMWell, yes. And, Steve, I should haste to say it's intimidating to be here with Prof. Gaddis today. It's humbling because he spent infinitely more time with the Kennan papers than I ever imagined. But I think one of the things that Kennan did feel we badly misunderstood about the Soviet Union was we didn't understand enough about the Russian character and the Russian antecedence of Soviet policy, Russian xenophobia, Russian territoriality.
MR. TODD PURDUMAnd, indeed, he was a great lover of 19th century Russian literature in particular. He himself was an occasional poet. He loved playing the guitar. I don't know if he played the balalaika. Did he play the balalaika, Professor?
GADDISYes, he did sometimes.
PURDUMBut in any case...
ROBERTSOf course, a Russian stringed instrument.
PURDUMAnd, of course, what's interesting about containment is, yes, it was, you know, the Korean War and Vietnam. It was also the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan, and, in some ways, I suppose you could argue the Peace Corps was part of containment.
ROBERTSAnd aid to countries like Greece and Turkey.
PURDUMExactly. So it was a -- at its best and its most successful, it was a kind of multifaceted projection of American values and American moral might around the world. It didn't always work out as we know, but...
ROBERTSBut isn't it fair to say, John Gaddis, that containment basically worked?
GADDISI think it's definitely fair to say that containment basically worked because the big idea was that the Soviet Union carried within itself debilitating internal contradictions, which, if given time, would bring the regime down or force the Russians themselves to choose to change the regime. And that's the George Kennan vision from the late 1940s, which actually comes to pass in the 1980s.
GADDISThere was a lot that happened in between, as both Todd and Susan have said, and much of it greatly upset George Kennan. But when you come around to the final outcome, it's very close to what the original intention was, it seems to me.
ROBERTSBut as you write in your book, George Kennan himself had trouble accepting in some ways the success of his own idea. We're used to the very reverse of diplomats...
ROBERTS...taking more credit perhaps than they deserve for their accomplishments, and it was stunning that this man actually (word?) from taking credit.
GADDISHe did. And I think George holds the record for writing the most unusual memoir of the modern age, which came out in the late '60s, in the early '70s, in which he underestimates his own influence. Most authors of memoirs are like Dean Acheson. You know, he titled his memoir, "Present at the Creation."
ROBERTSYeah, exactly, present at the creation, you know?
ROBERTSBut it's -- but also, as you -- part of what was reflected in George Kennan's regret and pessimism, Susan, was the cost. And if you -- if the benefit side includes an ultimate vindication of the idea, let's talk about some of the costs along the way to American treasure, to American reputation and, as Todd has written, to basic priorities in America.
GLASSERRight. I mean, you know, his piece in Vanity Fair, which I highly recommend, you know, is really an extended look at the extreme militarization of American foreign policy, and as well as our life at home, especially in the last decade since 9/11. You know, there's not a day goes by that, you know, as editor of a magazine about foreign policy, I don't get, you know, one or two or multiple submissions with an author proposing a new containment on this or that.
GLASSERIt's probably one of the most used and abused analogies when it comes to American writing about the world. And again, I think it's an example of, you know, both the success but also, probably from Kennan's point of view, of the monster in a way that was created there, so many uses to which this analogy can be put.
ROBERTSWell, let me ask you, Todd, to elaborate on the point you made in Vanity Fair. You have a long passage in which you say that there's a longstanding, in some ways even permanent, or at least quasi-permanent -- we don't know -- impact on American priorities, including our spending priorities, which we're seeing right now in the fight over the defense budget. Talk about that.
PURDUMWell, one of the blessing and curses -- I think he came to see this kind of a curse of George Kennan's life -- was that it was such a long life. So he was born in 1904. Teddy Roosevelt was the president. He lived long enough to see the complete creation of an American imperium around the world, which changed the character of the country radically. When he was a student at Princeton in the 1920s, the United States was a very sleepy little country despite having participated in World War I. But you remember, of course, the mantra of the day was return to normalcy.
PURDUMAnd, really, all through the Depression, there was turmoil at home and so forth, but, really, it was World War II that forced the re-engagement of the United States with the world. And he was in the center of that in every way, including being interned for a while as a result of being in Germany. But I think he came to see the vast bureaucracy, the vast expenditure of resources on military, as he saw them sometimes, adventures, ill-advised adventures, really warped the priorities of the country that he had known.
PURDUMAnd it must be said that he spent, what, Professor, almost 25 years of the crucial years of his life not living in the United States.
GADDISMm hmm. Yes, mm hmm.
PURDUMAnd I think he came back essentially to find himself shocked at the country he found and particularly shocked at the hot swings of public opinion. And he had -- it must be said he had no high regard for the media, especially broadcast media.
ROBERTSBut I must say there was one phrase in your article, Todd, that I did a double take on, where you say that part of what accelerated or reinforced this trend toward militarism was the amorphous bogeyman of terrorism. Now, was 9/11 really an amorphous bogeyman? And wasn't this a much more tangible threat that required military reactions than you put in your article?
PURDUMOh, I think it's very fair to say that 9/11 was, indeed, a quite concrete threat, as you obviously know. I think it's more that the way the threat was described, by people like Vice President Cheney and others in the Bush administration, as being a shadowy, amorphous threat, not like a traditional battlefield enemy. They warned us over and over again...
ROBERTSBut they might have described it that way, but it was a very real threat.
PURDUMIt was a very real threat, but I think what's inherent in their description of the conflict is that it is, by definition in their view, a never-ending conflict. It's a conflict that won't end with a surrender on the Battleship Missouri. It won't end with a Versailles Treaty. It won't end with some Concordat that creates a new normal. It will just keep going and keep shifting shapes from Southeast Asia to Pakistan, to wherever you want to say. And I don't mean for one minute to diminish the reality of the threat by calling it amorphous only to say that you can't -- it's not state actors.
PURDUMIt's not people wearing uniforms. It's much more complicated.
ROBERTSHow did Kennan, John Gaddis, view 9/11 (unintelligible) of his life?
GADDISKennan writes at the -- it's at the end of his life, and he really never writes anything on 9/11. He did view with great concern the Bush administration's run up to war in Iraq in 2003. His last interview and last article dealt with that. But, I think, to come back to Todd's point, I mean, it's interesting that Kennan, in 1946, '47, would have portrayed the Soviet threat and the international communist threat as a vague, sinister, shadowy, amorphous threat.
GADDISThat is not going to be resolved by any kind of a treaty any time soon.
ROBERTSThat's John Gaddis. His new book is a biography of George Kennan. We'll be back with your calls and your comments. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And our subject this hour is the life and legacy of George F. Kennan. He's the subject of a new, massive biography by John Lewis Gaddis, the Yale historian, called "George F. Kennan: An American Life." Also with me, Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair, who's written his own long article in the current issue about Kennan and his life, and Susan Glasser, former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and now, editor of Foreign Policy.
ROBERTSProf. Gaddis, you were saying that you were the authorized biography of George Kennan, and you agreed that he would -- you would publish this volume after his death. No one knew he would live 101 years.
GADDISWe made the deal, Steve, when he was 78 years old. And so we thought it would be safe enough to assume that the book would come out at some point in the next 10 years or so. But, in fact, it has come out 30 years after that point. He died at the age of 101 in 2005. And so, for the last 20 years or so of this project, I was constantly getting phone calls and messages from George Kennan, apologizing for not dying, and therefore, delaying the biography. And he was dead serious about this. He regarded it as a really grave personal failing, his own extreme longevity, as he put it.
ROBERTSWell, the other thing in reading between the lines of the book, it seemed he also fell into what can only be described as a depression, that he was so dark and gloomy about the world that just echoed with a sense of -- that was beyond simply reading the morning newspapers and feeling grumpy. Is that fair?
GADDISThat is fair. And I think much of this traces back to the loss of his mother when he was only two months old. He himself mentioned this frequently to me. It was never depression to the point of paralyzing him. It did sometimes -- certainly demoralized him, even hospitalized him. But it never really wrecked his life. And I think the great diary that he kept, which is one of the great American diaries of the 20th century, really is what served as his therapist.
GADDISAnd so if you read the diary, it's filled with gloom and doom and depression. He didn't come across that way in person all the time. He was a -- he could be quite a cheerful person, a delightful person to be with. But anyone who reads the diary really would see depression on every page, it seems to me.
ROBERTSNow, Susan, you mentioned earlier that it's an idea that resonates in -- throughout our intellectual life, the word containment. The concept is one people use and abuse and misuse. But as I listen to you talking and read all of the materials, one of the things that struck me that, perhaps, what happened here was a confusion between the Soviet Union and communism, that they weren't the same thing.
ROBERTSAnd the containment was originally an idea to contain the Soviet Union and its expansionism, but it got extended to containing the idea of communism in a place like Vietnam, which had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. Is that a fair observation?
GLASSERWell, I think it's a really interesting one. I mean, reading Prof. Gaddis' book and thinking about Kennan writing, one thing is that, I think, a resurrection is in order of him as an incredible historian and observer of the Soviet Union and of Russia in his own right and that, you know, it really was a set of observations. His famous article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," is very much grounded not only in Russian literature, but in Russian history.
GLASSERAnd in his very close observations of the society, reading the kind of detailed reporting that he did in his brief stints that he was able to have an embassy in Moscow. And, you know, I think it's as much of -- as anything an argument for ground truth married with smart, historical observation, which, again, makes it most relevant in trying. This was America's leading Sovietologist. In many ways, he helped create the field of Sovietology within the State Department. And I think that is important in viewing him going forward and the relevance, or lack thereof, of his theories.
ROBERTSTodd, what are some of the ways in which you think his theory was misused and misunderstood and misapplied in other places?
PURDUMWell, in his own contemporary experience, he was basically -- he left government service. And the hawks of that era -- whether you want to say they were Paul Nitze or Dean Acheson or others in the Democratic Party who took a more muscular view of things -- believed that the way to do this was to, as President Kennedy came to say, pay any price, bear any burden, go to every shift. He'd talked about countering Soviet influence at shifting points around the globe. And these people took that to mean with, you know, guns.
PURDUMAnd I think that was probably the biggest regret that he had, and he'd no sooner...
ROBERTSBut it also wasn't just Soviet expansionism.
ROBERTSI mean, if you look at Vietnam, was that a case of containment of Soviet territorial ambitions? Cuba, you could say yes. That was clearly a case of counteracting Soviet influence. Many places in Africa were Soviet-influenced, but Vietnam...
PURDUMNo. Vietnam could be seen as meddling in an indigenous ancient civil war in which there was a, you know, national aberration.
ROBERTSBut the people -- the McGeorge Bundys and Paul Nitzes, did they misunderstand Kennan?
PURDUMI think probably they misunderstood Kennan, and they also misunderstood the circumstances on the ground. And one of the things that's remarkable about Kennan, when you read his analyses is, as Susan just said, how rooted they are in deep scholarship. And in some ways, he was a fantastic sociologist. His commentary about Russian life and the Russian national character really could come from a scholar in a completely different discipline. And it's so full of granular observation about human nature and the way people do things from the way they, you know...
ROBERTSIt is a commentary, isn't it, John Gaddis, on the virtues of old-fashioned diplomacy, where you put someone on the ground, you train them in the language and in the culture, and you're not depending on Twitter or Facebook to transmit their observations?
GADDISWell, I think, Steve, it's also a commentary on the virtue of old-fashioned books because Kennan certainly saw that the Soviet Union would not be able to control other communist states. And he says this as early as 1947, '48. He anticipates the sign of a Soviet split. He anticipates the fragmentation of the international communist monolith. Where did he get this idea? It's from Edward Gibbon on the "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
ROBERTSInteresting. Of course, one of the -- there are several contemporary problems facing America where, as you say, Susan, you get these submissions all the time, and invoking the concept of Kennan. Of course, probably the most prominent is China. But there are also significant differences among other things, as I think that you've written, John Gaddis. We have enormous trade with China today, enormous intellectual exchanges, over 100,000 Chinese students studying in America today, which is very different from our relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
ROBERTSBut, still, are there analogies? And are people applying analogies down the block in the State Department today?
GLASSERYou know, I do think this is an analogy run rampant. And I printed out, before we came, actually, an article that we ourselves ran a year ago in the magazine, which was making the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union, in which Karim Sadjadpour, who's a very smart and astute analyst of Iran, basically went back to his famous article and sort of crossed out the word Russia and the word Soviet Union and wrote in the word Iran or the Islamic Republic.
GLASSERAnd, you know, I -- like any analogies, right, there are points of comparison, and there are points where it's going to fall down absolutely. And, you know, to me, actually, that's one of the lessons of Kennan to come back to, the difference between history and analogy actually as being an important one. I would say that, you know, when it comes to conversation about international affairs and what we should do in the world, we tend to be drowning in analogies that aren't necessarily all that helpful.
GLASSERFor example, this is the year of the Arab Spring. Is it most like 1989, which is, you know, the great analogy people have, or what about 1979? Is it like --you know, I've heard every analogy, including...
GLASSERWhat about 1688? That's my favorite one, the Glorious Revolution. So, you know, I think we can play the analogy game. I would say that the Munich analogy is probably the most common one that I see as an editor coming my way. Almost everything can be seen in light of horrendous appeasement or, you know, bowing down to various threats, and then containment being the other most common one.
ROBERTSAnd pick up on this question, Todd, since you have thought a lot about Kennan, about the misuse of Kennan. Now, is that being applied to China today? Susan mentions Iran. What about China? 'Cause this is really the successor to the Soviet Union. I mean, perhaps, if George Kennan were writing today, he'd be talking about China, not about the Soviet Union or -- which doesn't exist, of course.
PURDUMWell, I have to say I just think he was probably very wary of the incautious application of broad, brush stroke ideas to fit changing circumstances. And what would be really fascinating to hear is if Kennan's dear colleague, John Paton Davies, the great China hand who was purged from the State Department in the McCarthy era because he correctly predicted the Chinese victory, I'd love to know what a person like that, who was Kennan's almost exact contemporary, born in the same year, might have to say about our current, you know, problems and opportunities with China.
PURDUMBut certainly, as you pointed out, there's nothing to compare -- I mean, I guess Iran is the closest in terms of being a pariah every time you drive down Massachusetts Avenue and see that shuttered embassy that's been closed. But the -- it's hard to summon the memory of how...
ROBERTSAlthough Michele Bachmann still thinks we have an embassy in Iran.
PURDUM...but of how isolated we were from Soviet Russia, especially in the -- you know, in the 1930s and, again, in the 1950s.
ROBERTSYou know, my grandfather -- all my grandparents were from West Russia. So many Americans trace their roots to that part of the world. My family name is Rogovski, (sp?) not Robert. And my grandfather had a sister in Moscow that he was out of touch with for 50 years.
GADDISMm hmm. Yes.
ROBERTSAnd I've always thought of that as one small indication of this enormous isolation. That was a function of so many factors, including distance and communications and travel and the Iron Curtain, but nothing like our relations with China today.
GLASSERI mean, the conditions that -- you know, that Kennan operated in, in the embassy in Moscow when they were there, were, you know, just extraordinary and inconceivable, actually, as we're following a big story in Russia this week...
GADDISSure. Mm hmm.
GLASSER...in the Russian elections, and we get live tweets and, you know, accounts of, you know, what's happening minute by minute and blow by blow. You know, Kennan brought his family there. You know, he attended the show trials and the purges, you know, that were sort of rocking the Soviet Union in the late 1930s and saw firsthand some of this, but he was one of the only Americans who did that.
PURDUMBut one of the precious commodities he had -- Prof. Gaddis has actually referred to this in his reading of Gibbon -- he had time.
ROBERTSI was about to say you are describing...
PURDUMHe had time on both travel and long trips or railroad trips through, you know, the nine time zones of the Soviet Union to reflect and to read and to analyze, and...
ROBERTSAnd was he also totally fluent in Russian?
GADDISOh, yes, absolutely.
ROBERTSBoth in terms of literature, but also in terms of ability to talk to individual people?
GADDISCertainly. Yes. Mm hmm.
ROBERTSIn the -- as you read and talk to him -- we talked about the literary influences, but were there other vignettes, other moments that you could help us understand how George Kennan came to have his rich insights into...
GADDISI think there are many, Steve. He had the temperament and the perceptions of an artist, I think, not a social scientist, for sure. So history was very important to him. Literature was very important to him, as both you and Todd have suggested. But he was also a wonderful writer and took great care in writing, and it shows how...
ROBERTSRather orotund and baroque in his style, but still brilliant, yeah.
GADDISIt is, but if you read even his correspondence with, say, some lowly undergraduate who might write him, you know, he would take just as much care in responding in that letter as he would if he were writing to Dean Acheson or someone like that. He was a poet. Many people don't understand that he was a poet. It was mostly for fun. Sometimes it was serious. But someone who can write poetry, you know, is inherently someone skilled at writing and at the use of words.
GADDISAnd it seems to me, the fact that he could be a poet, that he could be a writer, but also a great, grand strategic thinker, I think, in some way all of these things are connected. I'd like to think they are.
ROBERTSConnected, sure. Oh. I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One of our listeners writes in, Todd and Gaddis, and asks you to talk about -- Nick from Winchester, Va., asks, "Could you discuss Charles Bolen, Chip Bolen," who was a contemporary of Kennan's and who also fit exactly the same model you're talking about, the old-fashioned diplomat?
GADDISYes. One of the things that I would not want to see if, in fact, there is a kind of resurrection of George Kennan's reputation, I would not want to see Chip Bolen's reputation eclipsed because Chip Bolen was the contemporary of George Kennan, was the alter ego, in many ways, of George Kennan. They went into the Foreign Service at exactly the same time. They were both trained as Soviet experts.
GADDISAnd they were great friends, but also great debaters with one another. I don't want to say antagonists because this was a fruitful debate that continued between these two men throughout their lives. But the differences that Bolen did not leave behind: diaries and great letters and all of that. So, in a way, it's a sad injustice to Bolen that we do not have the material for a biography of Bolen that we have of Kennan. And that's a tragedy because Bolen was immensely important and, in fact, much more successful in operating within the government than George Kennan was.
ROBERTSYou know, you described, or Todd describes in going through the -- these boxes of seeing all of the different letterheads and all of the different writing styles of this voluminous correspondent, all written in hand on this stationery. And as a historian, you must look at this and say, we're never going to have this again.
PURDUMI mean, the list of people with whom he exchanged letters -- some of them many, many dozens of letters over time -- is really a who's who of the 20th century. Just go down the list in the Finding Aid, which is actually online at the Princeton library. It's worth looking at. It's everybody from the dancer Jacques d'Amboise to David Rockefeller to undergraduates to potential donors to his institute. It goes on and on.
PURDUMAnd in the earlier diaries in particular, they're often doodles, which amount to really rather good sketches of statuary and architectural elements. And, really, he was a polymath's polymath.
ROBERTSAnd when you teach history students today, John Gaddis, at Yale, what do you tell them? I mean, where are they going to find this kind of material of today's diplomats that -- how are they going to research Hillary Clinton's role as secretary of state without these diaries?
GADDISIt's going to be a real problem because, as has been said, nobody really has the time to keep diaries to do this kind of reading anymore. So what we tell them is that they have to do that at Yale. That's why they're at Yale. Do it now as an undergrad because you'll never have a chance to do it again. So invest in that intellectual capital as an undergrad and then draw on it in your subsequent career.
ROBERTSBut what about the sources? I mean, what about the sources? They might have the intellectual capital, but you say Chip Bolen didn't leave diaries. Well, who has left diaries today?
ROBERTSWho has left anything like the record you found in those boxes?
PURDUMWell, as we remember from the Clinton era on -- White House aides were explicitly told not to keep diaries because diaries can be subpoenaed, and subpoenas can lead to problems. And so I think we'll never have anything like the record that, say, Frances Perkins, FDR's Labor secretary, created of real-time observations of her president. We'll probably never have any correspondence like that between Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins. I guess we'll have to find the email records somehow someday.
GADDISYeah. But, Steve, you never know who's going to leave behind a diary, so...
ROBERTSSomewhere in a drawer.
GADDISThe Ronald Reagan diary for the White House years, the number of pages is actually longer than that of George Kennan for the same number of years. That's amazing, not as profound, but the fact that he...
ROBERTSAnd George Bush the elder wrote voluminous letters.
GADDISYes, of course, so I...
ROBERTSBut it's almost the end of an era, though.
GADDISYeah. We could be surprised. Who knows?
GLASSERAnd can I put a plug in here, too, for, you know, both the great success of Prof. Gaddis and his colleagues are having, you know, employing a number of those recent Yale graduates? I have to say, you know, they are better educated. You know, they're more sophisticated. They have a sense and a grounding and an engagement with the world that just wasn't, you know, possible for previous generations, and also...
GADDISSo glad to hear that.
GLASSERNo. I really...
ROBERTSThat's going to have to be -- we're going to have to pause at that thought. Susan Glasser from Foreign Policy magazine, Todd Purdum from Vanity Fair, John Lewis Gaddis, professor of history at Yale and author of "George F. Kennan: An American Life." We'll be back with your questions for these esteemed scholars in just a minute.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane, and our subject this hour, the life and legacy of one of America's greatest diplomats of the 20th century, George F. Kennan. John Lewis Gaddis, professor at Yale has written him a huge and - biography 30 years in the making. It's called "George F. Kennan: An American Life." Also with me, Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair magazine and Susan Glasses, editor of Foreign Policy.
ROBERTSHere's an -- before I get to emails and calls, Prof. Gaddis, we were talking about China. And there were -- not only are some American policymakers making an analogy of the containment. The Chinese themselves, you mentioned off the air, are reading Kennan themselves.
GADDISThat's what's so interesting. It's that there are many more Chinese who are talking about strategy of containment these days than there are Americans. And what the Chinese are talking about is what they perceive to be an American conspiracy to contain them. And so, quite literally, they're going back and reading the text of George Kennan from the late 1940s because they believe this is the secret blueprint for American foreign policy. They greatly exaggerate, of course, the competency and the consistency of American foreign policy, but they are doing this. And it's really quite amazing.
ROBERTSBut, Susan Glasser, when an American president just in recent weeks goes to Australia and announces that there are going to be American troops rotating through a base there and the Chinese look at that and -- are there echoes of that old strategy?
GLASSERWell, absolutely. Not only did President Obama announce that he was going to station Marines in Australia, but -- if you look at the policy we've been pursuing in the South China Sea and our relationships, and radical improvement in our relationship, with Vietnam, for example, and many of the other states that border China on the South China Sea, was heavily disputed in terms of who has the rights there. And what the Chinese see is a form of encirclement.
GLASSERIf you look at the increased improvement over the last several years in our relationship with India, is another good example, where they see us making moves on a chessboard that are about China as much as they are about India itself, and -- so I think there's plenty of evidence, if you're looking for it to find it, that the Chinese are looking at this.
ROBERTSAnd, Todd, one other recent news development that perhaps echoes through the ages of the containment policy is this fight over the defense budget right now and the possibility of cuts coming as a result of the failure of the super committee to come up with a deficit reduction deal. A year from now if this -- if, big if -- the law stays the same, there would be massive cuts in the defense budget.
ROBERTSAnd Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who once was much more of a deficit hawk, is now taking the view that this would be devastating. And that fits with your thesis that there is an -- now a permanent inherent interest economic political military to support a massive defense budget.
PURDUMIt really is a box outside which nobody seems willing to go or to think these days. And even if the worst cuts in this sequester -- as it's called, that would take effect because the super committee didn't act -- occurred, it's my understanding the defense budget would revert to approximately 2007 levels, which is not exactly saying that's a radical rethinking of priorities. As a percentage of GDP and as, I believe, as a percentage of all government spending, the defense budget is actually smaller now than it was at the height of the Cold War.
PURDUMBut it still looms in Congress as a disproportionately large sort of sacred cow. Nobody's really willing to be arguing those (unintelligible) defense cuts.
ROBERTSLet me read this email -- we have some side to it, in Cincinnati. "Some of the least talked about casualties of containment were the assassinations by the CIA of promising young African leader such as Patrice Lumumba just when leadership was crucial for the many African countries at the dawn of their independence from Europe." Susan, talk about this dimension. There was also the assassination of an Iranian leader, Mosaddegh, and toppling of other governments that were seen to be favorable to the Soviet Union. Talk about -- our listeners.
GLASSERWell, sure. And in Latin American as well, you can certainly look for that. You know, I think this is a good example of what must have made Kennan infuriated in later life. You know, I imagine that he's sitting, you know, in a sort of post-World War II room, writing his famous article, did not envision himself as the architect of a global campaign of hit men and assassinations. And so, you know, what's done in one's name versus, you know, what the actual policy was, it -- going back, actually to our conversation earlier, right, did Kennan -- did they misunderstand Kennan's theory?
GLASSEROr did they just disagree with him about how to apply it? I think that's an important question that I would have as we look at his legacy. But that being said, you know, America's record in the Cold War, you know, is -- really has many blemishes of the sort that the reader astutely points out.
GLASSERAnd I think, you know, flash forward again to today, and if you look at our legacy in the Middle East, I think you see a similar coming to terms, you know, with the region where, in the name of the Cold War, by the way, you know, remember that the Middle East was an active area of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. And that was one of many justifications for our relationships with, you know, the region's authoritarian strongmen which is now something that's coming around...
ROBERTSStarting with Egypt and...
GADDISBut I think it's important to point out that George Kennan really is the original architect of cover operations within the United States government. This was his idea in 1947 and 1948.
ROBERTSThat was very much part of containment in history.
GADDISIt very much was. And the only problem was his approach to it was lightly impractical because he instructed that all covert operations would be cleared through the policy planning staff which meant him. Of course, that did not work out too well.
ROBERTSLet me turn to some of our callers. Jeff in Wheeling, W. Va., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Jeff.
JEFFHello. My question is, if Kennan were alive today, wouldn't he say that, in fact, America and Russia have both lost the Cold War, that you got bailouts and subsidies, you got the -- gap between rich and poor, not just in -- also in Europe, and that despite the reduction of thousands of nuclear weapons, as Bruce Blair and others have noted, that today, we're still very much at risk of a large-scale or even smaller regional nuclear wars?
ROBERTSThank you, Jeff. Anybody got a reaction to that? Todd, you think -- what do you say?
PURDUMI think he was clearly very concerned toward the end of his life about how much was not in order in our own house here at home and how we could not grapple with our budget deficits. He was also really quite virulently, and somewhat surprisingly, I found, very concerned about immigration and very concerned that the country was becoming something that it had not been and that -- and he was worried about the creeping sort of two-culture, bilingual culture that was prevalent in so much of Hispanic America.
PURDUMAnd, in some ways, it's at times one of the less attractive aspects of his analysis is that he was...
ROBERTSLess attractive and less perceptive.
PURDUMYeah. I mean, he was -- in that case, I think he really was a creature of his age and his time.
ROBERTSLet's turn to Richard in Haverhill, Mass. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
RICHARDYes. Thanks Steve. The panel basically said a lot of what I'm going to say. But I think one of the biggest mistakes during the Cold War was thinking the Soviet Union was monolithic, that it would -- other than in Eastern Europe, that was true, but it's just -- especially in Central and Latin America all during the Cold War. Every time there there's a thought of revolution, we were so afraid that there was going to be communism, and we supported all these right-wing military dictatorships
RICHARDAnd so many people have lost their lives. I know in Guatemala, in 1954, we overthrew a newly elected government that was socialistic but not communistic. And I think 2- to 300,000 Guatemalans have been killed since. Nicaragua, we intervened just -- even during the Reagan administration in Honduras. So my point is is that the tragedy was that those words, thoughts on communism, really got us in a lot of trouble, Steve.
ROBERTSOK, Richard. Thank you very much. That goes to our earlier discussion, John Gaddis, about the confusion of Russian expansionism and communism. It wasn't always the same thing.
GADDISWell, I think it does, and it was not always the same thing. And George Kennan certainly was one of the first people to say that very clearly. I think that we have to be careful in looking at Kennan's attitude toward the third world because he certainly did support right wing or authoritarian leaders in much of the third world, even in places like Portugal. One of his great heroes was Salazar. And part of the reason for that is Kennan is a profoundly conservative person.
GADDISHe really did believe that you have to have order and stability before you can have justice, before you can have reform. And so his sympathy for what we would today consider to be authoritarian leaders in much of the third world, this would even apply to Southern Africa in the apartheid regime, was based on his assumption that before you can move toward a just society, you have to have a stable society.
GADDISYou have to have an infrastructure that's functioning and so on. So it's very important not to jump to the conclusion that Kennan would have an -- would have seen this as a perversion of his containment strategy.
ROBERTSInteresting. Let's turn to Pete in Tampa, Fla. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Pete.
PETEYeah. Hi. Thank you. I'll certainly be buying this book because I grew up in Germany in the '50s and '60s as a military dependent. You know, the Soviet Bloc was hundreds of miles away from me, not thousands. And I believe there was a strategic advantage to having troops in Western Europe, but there was also a psychological advantage in creating, basically, small American communities throughout Western Europe.
PETEYou know, we were on the front lines just like our fathers were. And I don't know if that's ever been addressed in the book you are talking about, the "Berlin Airlift," in the larger things, but the smaller thing is that we brought America to Europe in the '50s and '60s. And I believe that was a contributing factor to the end of the Soviet Union and the part of the Cold War. Great show. I'll listen off the air. Thank you.
ROBERTSThanks. Susan, that -- a very interesting perspectives that he offers there.
GLASSERWell, it's interesting. You think about the crisis of Europe that is happening right now and the financial crisis, and, arguably, right, this is a function of this enormous success of the American engagement with Western Europe and Eastern Europe of the post-World War II and also the post-Cold War era, right, that, you know, this was the American project after World War II. It was to rebuild Europe.
GLASSERIt was to have these outposts that your caller very eloquently describes growing up in Western Germany. Now we're having sort of a crisis of what next, right? Like Europe doesn't have any enemies that one can discern should they have a military. What should it be? Like, how much should they spend on it? What's the nature of their union after, apparently and hopefully we can all knock wood and say, overcoming their centuries-long history of violence? What would Kennan have to say about it? That's an interesting question that I couldn't possibly answer.
GADDISWell, it's very interesting, that question, because, actually, George Kennan profoundly distrusted the American presence in Western Europe in the sense of the bases that were created.
ROBERTSEven though that would appear to have been central to a containment strategy.
GADDISHis fear was that this would alienate the local populations, that we would come across as cultural imperialist. And he really worried about the PXs and all the special privileges that the American officers had in Germany. Most fascinating, many people had forgotten this, George Kennan actively opposed the formation of NATO. He was dead set against this because he said this would militarize the Cold War and this would freeze the Cold War.
GADDISIt should be enough to provide the West Europeans with economic assistance in the Marshall Plan, and that should be it. And the West Europeans come back and say, we don't feel secure with the Marshall Plan. We need something else. And the NATO actually comes from the West Europeans wanting more.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a caller who's -- who is correcting something, I think, I said, where she said that Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran, was not assassinated, that he was deposed by American forces, but then lived in Tehran for the rest of his life. We appreciate that very -- we appreciate that correction very much. Let's talk to Roy in Rochester, N.Y. Welcome, Roy.
ROYGood morning. Congratulations, Professor, on outliving your --the subject (unintelligible).
ROYI understand that, you know, it doesn't always happen. It's been some years since I read in any of this. But I grew up in Portland, Ore., where John Reid was a forgotten man in talking about viewing the Russian Revolution and periods. But my question was William Bullitt, another person from the last century, how did he and Kennan interact?
ROBERTSIt is William Bullitt, our caller says. Roy, thank you so much. And of course he was a -- if I'm not mistaken -- he was the ambassador when a young Kennan first went to Moscow.
GADDISWill Bullitt was the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union. He established diplomatic relations at the end of 1933. Bullitt is there from 1933 to '36. And it was Bullitt who, on the spot, over in, what was then the old State, War, Navy building, now the Executive Office Building, next to the White House, cornered the young George Kennan in a hallway and said, do you speak Russian? And Kennan said, yes, I do. And Bullitt said, you're coming with me to Moscow. And it was about three days notice, and off they went on a ship.
ROBERTSThat's a great story. We have time for one or two more callers. And Cynthia in Vernon, N.Y., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CYNTHIAHi, esteemed scholars. Since I asked my question -- I could ask five more but -- so some of them have been answered. So I would just like to tell you a suggestion as an old 82-year-old librarian about sources. We heard about -- Dec. 7, we heard the news on radio and all those records from radio and also TV, and there's lots and lots and lots of sources, plus a very important one, right, is to the oral history of people like my age and (word?) that age who really lived through that period. That's a great source.
CYNTHIAI know Duke University has something like that. So there's plenty of information in different forms now. And, of course, I love books because, well, I'm a librarian, but it's -- through the ages, it had different ways of -- I'm saying the obvious -- of finding the information.
CYNTHIAOh, and -- OK.
ROBERTSThank you so much. John Gaddis, is this something that you talk to your student about it? In the age of Twitter and -- that one of the things that has to happen is, people, make sure that you get these oral depositions and these oral histories in the absence of the kind of letters that Todd found in those dusty boxes at Princeton.
GADDISNow, this is really very valuable comment that was just pulled in because, for me, the first thing I did when I made my deal with George Kennan in 1981 was to drop everything and run around the country with a tape recorder, interviewing everybody I could possibly find: members of George's family, distinguished statesman who were still alive. And then the oldest first -- I actually made a table of who was the oldest, and I tried to get them first.
GADDISAnd I wound up with something like 50 or 60 interviews, which were immensely valuable for this book because the archives never do tell you everything. In fact, they tell you sometimes very little about personal relationships. And these kinds of oral histories are extremely valuable for that.
ROBERTSAnd they themselves become a throw for other historians who are working on other figures and other incidents.
GADDISAnd these have now been put on deposit with the Kennan papers at Princeton.
ROBERTSExcellent. Well, that's going to have to be the last word, but I'm very grateful to all of you for being with us this morning. John Lewis Gaddis, distinguished professor of history at Yale, authorized biography, 30 years in the writing, "George F. Kennan: An American Life." And we appreciate it very much that you're with us this morning, Prof. Gaddis.
ROBERTSEqually delighted to have Susan Glasser, former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and now the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, and Todd Purdum, former correspondent for The New York Times and now national editor of Vanity Fair, whose got an article on George Kennan in the current issue. Todd?
PURDUMYes. In the January issue.
ROBERTSExcellent. OK. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. She hopes to be back early next week. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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