Rutgers Professor David Greenberg has reviewed George Kennan’s diaries and discovered that Kennan had a lot of bigoted views, but that’s really not the most interesting aspect of the resulting article. What’s interesting is that the architect of our Cold War containment policy envisioned that containment policy in terms somewhat different than how it was carried out in practice. So, for two examples, he sided with Britain, France and Israel during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and he opposed LBJ’s intervention in Vietnam, which he called “a sort of petulant escapism, [that] will, I fear, lead to no good results.”

That he despised communism will surprise no one, but that he had such disdain for the American public and democracy is a revelation. I can’t say precisely why it matters what Kennan thought privately, mainly because he can’t be held responsible for how his containment prescriptions were carried out. Many of our missteps were seen as missteps by Kennan at the time, while some of the mistakes we avoided he was an advocate for, so his record is complex and hard to assess.

He was an absolute hawk on Korea, for example, which makes understanding his opposition to the war in Vietnam harder to interpret. Did he change his mind between those two conflicts or did he see them as completely different in kind?

His views on women, gays, blacks, and Jews, as well as his low opinion of Italians, Africans, Georgians, etc., will not enhance his reputation, but the real measure of Kennan will always be bound up with how we conducted the Cold War. His record there is distinct from the nation’s record, but no less mixed.

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