Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan

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Frank Costigliola is a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut. His most recent publications include Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War (2012), The Kennan Diaries (2014), and “Freedom from Fear” in Jeffrey A. Engel (ed.), The Four Freedoms (2016).

Note: This is the first of a four-part round table on Frank Costigliola’s March 2016 JAH article “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan.” His article is openly available.

In writing so voluminously, self-reflectively, and allusively, George F. Kennan both invited and deflected scholarly investigation into his inner life. The 330 boxes of Kennan papers deposited at the Seeley G. Mudd library at Princeton University contain over eight thousand words of diary, tens of thousands of letters, hundreds of lectures, and the manuscripts of Kennan’s twenty books. The records of the Department of State at the National Archives hold thousands of pages of Kennan’s often surprisingly revealing diplomatic cables, reports, and memoranda. The many interviews done with Kennan and with his associates by authorized biographer John Lewis Gaddis, also at deposit in Princeton, constitute another treasure trove. Driving Kennan to write so much was a fierce faith in his prescience and perceptiveness. Despite bouts of self-doubt and self-criticism, he spent decade after decade writing and speaking in the fervent hope that his political views would be adopted by the American people and by their government, even if only after his death.

Kennan’s ideas, striking in their mix of wisdom and foolishness, were grounded in thinking that was at once profoundly emotional and impressively intellectual. Kennan’s son later reflected that his father had “a deep emotional life that was very regimented and repressed. There was a lot that he didn’t say.” Though there was indeed much that Kennan did not say or write directly, he expressed himself through verbiage and through behavior in so many venues, and overall so consistently, that scholars can explicate much about his “deep emotional life.”

Wanting to understand Kennan’s inner life particularly as it related to his lifelong and seemingly contradictory relationship with Russia was an intellectual challenge that drew me to write the article in the JAH. The article addresses several historiographical conversations. First, in terms of the scholarship on Kennan and foreign policy, I argue that an underlying consistency explains many of the apparent contradictions in his policy recommendations regarding Russia. We can better grasp that consistency once we consider Kennan as a whole person, as someone whose thinking, like that of all of us, was simultaneously emotional and rational. A driving ambition for influence prompted him at times to tailor his recommendations to suit hard-line Cold Warriors, especially in 1946-47. As early as 1948, however, Kennan’s passion for and even identification with Russians began seeping into his policy proposals. His multi-sourced knowledge of Russia fostered a holistic understanding of some of the dynamics of East-West tensions. That wisdom did not, however, correlate with lasting influence on U.S. policy, in part because of his pinched understanding of America.  Nonetheless, Kennan’s discernment of potential turning points in the Cold War contributes to the emerging historiography emphasizing the contingency of that conflict. 

Second, the article aims to demonstrate to historians of U.S. history the potential in using emotions as a category of historical analysis. What some scholars are calling the “emotional turn” has heretofore been most influential in European cultural and intellectual history. Investigating the emotional thinking inevitably entailed in the formulation of beliefs, motivations, and actions is especially important for historians of foreign/international relations. Foreign policy makers and the scholars who study them have long maintained, either explicitly in various iterations of “realist” theory or implicitly by assumption, that foreign relations were so crucial to the state that diplomacy was conducted almost wholly by rational actors motivated by objective conceptions of national interest. Yet even a cursory review of history underscores that the foreign/international relations of states, as well as the transnational relations of individuals and non-state actors, have often been high stakes, cross-cultural, nail-biting ventures that were indeed emotional. The importance of emotions in foreign/international policy should not be surprising since emotions focus our attention and are key to appraising choices and making decisions. Emotions certainly focused the attention and helped shape the decisions of Kennan.

A third goal of the article is to grapple with a contradiction inherent in the argument I just made in the previous paragraph. Although the rational actor model is inadequate because it ignores the often decisive role of emotional thinking in shaping judgments, focusing on emotions as if they were a separable aspect of thought does not fit how humans actually think and feel. An emerging consensus among neuro-scientists as well as the humanists and social scientists studying emotion holds that thought is integrated and holistic, not divided into discrete categories of emotion, reason, memory, belief, and so forth. Increasingly neuro-scientists also believe it simplistic to claim that the various regions of the brain each have a discrete role, whether it is processing fear, feeling love, or analyzing historical documents. Instead, myriad functional neural circuits crisscross the brain, thereby bringing nearly all the regions into play for most thinking and feeling. What this means for historians is that emotions are integral to all thinking. The brain-wide processing of thought and feeling also helps account for the importance of  cultural influences on emotions. Such learned behavior conditioned how historical actors catalogued, conceptualized, expressed, and repressed emotions – and how that thinking and behavior, and hence emotions, changed over time and across cultures. Hence the two-fold, unavoidably contradictory theoretical emphases in this article: First, I tried on a heuristic basis to identify the emotional elements in Kennan’s thinking and behavior, an aim in keeping with how Kennan and his contemporaries (and much of traditional Western thought) conceptualized rational and emotional thought as inherently separable and opposed.

A second part of this goal is to look for evidence of integrated thinking, by which I mean the blending of more emotional and more rational impulses to arrive at expressed beliefs, feelings, and actions. The concept of integrated thinking enables us to benefit from and then move beyond the emotional turn. By reading language and patterns of behavior closely, we can catch glimpses of how the ever shifting mix of more emotional and more rational impulses was expressed in the decisions, behaviors, and actions that we historians usually study. The trick is to take account of emotions without claiming to have separated out that which is inextricable in expressed thought and feeling.

Finally, in writing this article I was interested in revisiting my essay published in the Journal of American History in 1997, “‘Unceasing Pressure for Penetration’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War.” I wrote that article when only about ten percent of the presently available archival material on Kennan was open to researchers other than his authorized biographer. From remarks made in passing to me by colleagues whom I otherwise do not know, I gather that many have found the essay stimulating for classroom discussion, though not,  I hope, only because of the title. While I am no doubt biased, it seems that my arguments nearly two decades ago have stood the tests of time and the outpouring of documentation. The essay, which focused on a close textual reading of Kennan’s 1946 “long telegram,” discerned Kennan’s passion for Russia, his ambition to shepherd an historic cultural exchange with Russia, and his mixed feelings as a Cold Warrior. But my understanding of emotions and other aspects of thought was then rudimentary, and I did not perceive the context of his passion for Russia.

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