#Reviewing "American Diplomacy"

American Diplomacy: Sixtieth-Anniversary Expanded Edition. George F. Kennan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

"The great man, with his free force direct out of God‘s own hand, is the lightning … In all epochs of the world‘s history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch; [The] History of the World, I said already, was the Biography of Great Men."[1]


Thomas Carlyle wrote the words above in 1840, staking out a claim as the strongest voice in one camp of the so-called Great Man Theory of history. If any one man can be said to have made the Cold War and the history of the twentieth century—recognizing that structures and institutions hold much or perhaps even most sway in the making of history—that man may be George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan  |  Wikimedia Commons

George F. Kennan | Wikimedia Commons

An American diplomat who entered the U.S. foreign service in 1926, Kennan was deeply educated in the thought, language, and culture of Russia. It was from a diplomatic post in Moscow that in 1946 Kennan wrote the so-called "Long Telegram" and in 1947 a seminal Foreign Affairs article titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In these, he enunciated a policy of containment that would form the nominal intellectual foundation of the Truman Doctrine and U.S. policy throughout the Cold War. He would leave the State Department in 1950, though, lamenting the turn taken by the U.S. government in militarizing and modifying his views in support of national strategy.

It was during the early period of his self-imposed exile—though calling his sojourn with the Institute for Advanced Study an exile may be a bit extreme—that Kennan was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Chicago. These six lectures covered the history of American diplomatic efforts from the Spanish-American War through the Open Door Policy with China and relations with the Orient more generally, the First and Second World Wars, and into the modern world (of 1951). Together with “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and a 1951 Foreign Affairs article titled “America and the Russian Future,” these would become the first edition of American Diplomacy, a seminal text on the subject and on political realism more generally. Then, in 1984, Kennan gave two further lectures reflecting on his original work and drawing new lessons from the history of the Cold War to that point. These three elements, comprise the current edition of American Diplomacy. Here we have a work that has remained required reading in the circles of diplomacy and international relations for over sixty years as of this writing, a status achieved by few works.

Why read American Diplomacy?

We can read this landmark work for any number of reasons. For example, it looks critically at the history of American foreign policy from 1900 through 1950, a period of profound change in the international system in general and the United States in particular. And if it is possible to learn from the mistakes of the past, we could do worse than reflecting on the observations and lessons of such a period from the perspective of an expert practitioner. Or if you are a student of international relations theory, you might read Kennan for his detailed (if perhaps arguable) examination of the clash between classical realism and liberalism, with the politics of power and balance on the one hand and the politics of morality and legality on the other.

Or perhaps a student of geopolitics could read American Diplomacy for an articulation of the importance played by geography in the U.S. position vis-à-vis Europe and the U.S. alliance imperatives in both World Wars. One might also ponder the paradoxical rise of the Soviet Union, a rise enabled by an initial effort to preserve the balance of power in Europe that in execution destroyed it. And one might also apply these to a contemporary understanding of power in the Pacific rim, if one were so inclined.

Even more than these laudable uses for Kennan’s work, however, is the analytical example it provides. Kennan thought carefully, deeply, and completely about the questions involved, performing net assessment before that term was rendered chic by Andrew Marshall. A critical element of this analysis is a clear-eyed understanding of ourselves, our adversary, what we want, and the limits of power. Consider, for example, his ruminations on the American mindset in this last regard:

"Some Americans are already reverting, merely in contemplation of a possible war, to the American bad habit of assuming that there is something final and positive about a military decision—that it is the ending of something, rather than the beginning."[2]

And an understanding of the limits of power sets us on a path toward humility. This humility shapes the ends we seek—in Kennan’s case in terms of Russia, but also more universally—and our understanding of

“…how to conduct ourselves in order to facilitate, rather than to impede, the coming into being of what we want. The word ‘facilitate’ is used advisedly; for we are dealing with a foreign country, and our role can be at best a marginal one, supplementary to a far more important role which others must play.”[3]

Kennan, a central figure in American diplomacy for so many years is offering lessons no less universal than those of Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz could hardly have said it better. This thinking led Kennan to conclude, for example, that looking for an end in which the Soviet Union was transformed into a capitalistic, liberal-democratic society with institutions closely resembling the United states own was a fool’s errand. 


This review began with a reference to the Great Man Theory of history and an observation that George Kennan might reasonably be acclaimed such a man. But the theory has another side, one of history dictated by structure and the macroscopic, in which, as Marx would have it,

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; [they simply] performed the task of their time.”[4]

Kennan understood well the tension between Marx and Carlyle. It is within this tension that he thrived as an analyst and a diplomat. And just as it was for Kennan, this is a tension critical to the role of strategists, diplomats, and the purveyors of national security policy at every level and in every milieu. In American Diplomacy, Kennan offers a thoughtful and powerful primer on navigating this conflict, a primer we should all read more than once. If more had read and pondered this work, one wonders if recent history would show fewer fool's errands.

Eric M. Murphy is a mathematician, operations research analyst, and strategist for the United States Air Force. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Robert Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/0/9/1091/1091.txt, accessed 12 Dec 2015.

[2] George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, 135-136.

[3] Ibid., 137.

[4] Karl Marx, "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 595.