George Kennan is a rare example of a diplomat who changed history through the power of his ideas and the clarity of his writing. In February 1946, Kennan, the number two at the US embassy in Moscow, sent a “long telegram” to his superiors in Washington DC. At a time when many Americans still regarded the Soviet Union as an ally, Kennan explained, in limpid prose, why there could never be a normal peacetime relationship with the USSR.

With the US government groping for an explanation of Stalin’s apparently baffling actions, the impact of the long telegram was enormous. But Kennan did much more than simply strip the Truman administration of its remaining illusions about the USSR. As John Lewis Gaddis, his biographer, puts it, Kennan “opened up a way out: a path between the appeasement that had failed to prevent World War II and the alternative of a third world war”. That path was a policy that Kennan later called “containment” – patiently blocking Soviet expansionism, in the expectation that the internal weaknesses of the USSR would eventually lead to the regime’s defeat. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, more than 40 years after Kennan first laid out the strategy for the cold war, served as a retrospective vindication of his ideas and prophetic powers.

I was lucky enough to meet both Kennan and his biographer in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin wall. Gaddis, who was teaching a graduate seminar on cold war history at Princeton University, persuaded Kennan – by then, a living legend – to spend a couple of hours with some awestruck students. Afterwards, Gaddis explained that he was writing Kennan’s biography, but that the two men had a tacit agreement that the book would not appear until after Kennan’s death. It was a long wait. The great man died in 2005, at the age of 101. Two years before his death, Kennan had said apologetically: “Poor John Gaddis has seen his undertaking being put off for years while he waits for me to make way for it.”

Gaddis’s “undertaking” is, however, well worth the wait. George F Kennan: An American Life works brilliantly as a piece of intellectual history, and as a biography of a fascinating and complex man. Fortunately, both Gaddis and Kennan write beautifully. Long quotations from Kennan’s work light up the book. This is his description of meeting Stalin in 1945: “In manner – with us, at least – he was simple, quiet, unassuming. There was no striving for effect. His words were few. They generally sounded reasonable and sensible; indeed they often were. An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious façade.”

One potential problem for a biographer is that by the mid-1950s, Kennan’s period at the centre of power had come to an end. He left the State Department after clashing with John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, whom Kennan regarded as reckless. Gaddis probably devotes slightly too much space to Kennan’s wilderness years. Thankfully, however, Kennan was an interesting enough thinker – and a peculiar enough man – to more than maintain the reader’s interest.

After his retirement from active diplomacy, Kennan spent much of the rest of his life as a bitter critic of US foreign policy and of American culture in general. Although some regard him as the first cold warrior, Kennan himself became an opponent of the Vietnam war and a passionate advocate of nuclear disarmament. Later, after the end of the cold war, Kennan fiercely criticised the policy of enlarging Nato to take in the countries that had once belonged to the Warsaw Pact, arguing that this was needlessly provocative towards Russia.

Gaddis, who is the foremost American historian of the cold war, has the intellectual confidence to disagree with his hero’s judgments. He argues that, in the closing years of the cold war, Ronald Reagan was brilliantly and successfully faithful to the containment strategy that Kennan had once devised. But Kennan himself did not see it that way. He was a fierce critic of the Reagan administration, which he regarded as “ignorant, unintelligent, complacent and arrogant”.

Gaddis clearly has much more sympathy with Reagan’s policy than with Kennan’s critique. Indeed it is one of the strengths of his book that while the author is a huge admirer of Kennan, he does not attempt to disguise or excuse his failings. Kennan was a reserved and scholarly man who found himself increasingly disgusted with what he saw as the decadence of modern America – and the west in general. At times he even seemed to despair of democracy itself. In 1976, he predicted gloomily: “I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.” Part of him seemed to believe that modern America deserved to fail. In the same interview, he remarked: “I can see very little merit in organising ourselves to defend from the Russians the porno shops in central Washington.” Gaddis comments tartly: “This and much else in the interview was self-indulgent nonsense.”

Kennan’s weaknesses were, however, the flip-side of his strengths. He maintained an upright morality and unfeigned belief in public service that did not chime particularly well with the Washington of Nixon or Clinton. He was also deeply versed in European literature – with his writing unselfconsciously scattered with quotations from Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Donne, Gibbon and many more.

Alongside the rants about pornography and the moral frailties of the west, Kennan continued to be capable of brilliant insights long after he had retired from the practice of diplomacy. Testifying before the Senate about his opposition to the Vietnam war, he skewered one of the more persistent and pernicious ideas in US foreign policy – the notion that American “credibility” depends on pursuing any conflict, however mistaken, until victory has been achieved. As Kennan put it, with his customary elegance: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the modern makers of foreign policy were able to think and write as clearly as that?

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief international affairs commentator

George F.Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis, Penguin Press, RRP£30, 800 pages

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