This summer, I decided to do a case study of the Cold War. First, I read every book I could get my hands on. Then I interviewed my relatives about their memories of the era. They recalled Cold War giants like Henry Kissinger, but when I inquired about George F. Kennan, author of the dominant strategy for opposing communism, they were at a loss. Even my grandparents, who experienced the entire Cold War, shrugged their shoulders.
It is unfortunate that we have forgotten George F. Kennan, because few political thinkers can rival his depth and breadth of experience. An American diplomat during the 1930s and 1940s, Kennan helped formulate the containment strategy. Historians know him as “Mr. X” and the author of the Long Telegram. He established himself as an expert on the Soviet Union, in part by reading Tolstoy and Chekhov to learn about the Russian character. His superiors respected Kennan and his diplomatic insights because he always sought to better understand the culture in which he served. He died in 2005 at 101 years old, after witnessing global conflicts ranging from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet Kennan largely faded into oblivion after his seminal writings on containment. After reading “What Henry Kissinger Can Teach Conservatives” from the Institute for Intercollegiate Studies, I decided it was time to revive Kennan’s memory. His years of experience taught him not only Soviet Union politics and Cold War tactics, but a key lesson for conservatives today: how to love America without idealizing it.
America is Only Human
First, Kennan emphasized America’s human origins and manmade institutions. All twelve of the post-World War II presidents have appealed to the idea of America as an exceptional nation, created as an example for the rest of the world. Kennan however did not consider America “a shining city upon a hill.” He insisted in a 1987 letter to historian John Lukacs that we should separate God’s plan for history from governmental policies:
If this sense of humility is there (which it seldom is), then participation in government is permissible. But what one may not do is to confuse the purposes and activities of the governmental power with the advancement of divine purpose. To attempt to associate these things is to misconstrue and abuse the real nature of government and to blaspheme that of God.
Conflating America with divine intervention, according to Kennan, threatens both government and God. We should instead recognize that our government suffers from human faults and weaknesses.
Politics in Divine Clothing
Since Kennan did not consider America God’s chosen nation, he rejected democracy spreading as the “higher purpose” of our government. He did not believe that America had a messianic mission to promote democracy throughout the world. In response to utopian views of America, he complained:
What I detest is moralistic posing and the attempt to clothe in the garments of virtue functions and undertakings that are very much a product of the ambitions and appetites and necessities of this world.
Kennan believed that the American government should not use moralistic rhetoric to justify actions motivated by political and economic gain. He opposed progressive rhetoric that portrayed America as the selfless mother of democracies, divinely ordained to bring liberty to the world.
Love is Humble; Love is Kind
Instead of messianic missions, Kennan promoted an attitude of humble patriotism. According to the same 1987 letter to Lukacs, Kennan wrote that he believed individuals had legitimate reasons to love their countries. He cautioned against transforming that affection into nationalism:
Real love of country, implying as it does the sense of a people’s tragedy as well as of its virtues and accomplishments, is one thing; romantic nationalism and illusions of superiority are another.
People should love their country without idealizing it or denigrating other countries. In this case, Kennan loved America as a model of self-government, but he questioned the necessity of an American hegemony. Some accused Kennan of being unpatriotic for opposing the Vietnam War, but it was in part because he admired America’s history of self-determination that Kennan advocated for each country to decide its own government.
Kennan teaches conservatives that we can be patriots while recognizing that America has a limited role in the world. While conservatives usually avoid utopianism, we often succumb to the exceptionalist view that overemphasizes the authority of American government. Kennan’s example encourages conservatives to remember that America has a man-made government with no messianic purpose. Rather, it is a republic with accomplishments that we can cherish and love, even as we keep in mind its faults.