A new biography examines a flawed but brilliant public servant who helped define the Cold War and the Marshall Plan.
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Heavyweights have lined up to read and judge the book and the man, sometimes harshly, sometimes kindly, sometimes with ambivalence. Henry Kissinger, Louis Menand, Frank Costigliola, and David C. Engerman have all had their say.
Kissinger called Kennan “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” He was “endlessly introspective and ultimately remote,” Kissinger wrote in the New York Times.
A curious thread in these thoughtful Kennan commentaries is the question of his haughty attitude toward the American common man. In American Diplomacy, the first of his 20 books, he went so far as to question the usefulness of American democracy. He saw democracy as a “monster the size of this room with a brain the size of a pin.”
His candid comments in his diaries leave no doubt about his antipathy for the average citizen. In a long diary entry, he wrote: “I should never be able to hide my intellectual despair, above all — my despair with U.S. society.”
He added that he could leave the United States “without a pang, the endless stream of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshields, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, the hot dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick boxes, the country-clubs, the bars-and-grills.… All of this I could see recede behind the smoke of the Jersey flats without turning a hair.”
Menand, a former Princeton professor and close observer of Kennan’s career, believes Kennan had “little love for, or even curiosity about, the country whose fortunes he devoted his life to safeguarding.” Kennan judged his compatriots as “shallow, materialistic and self-centered,” Menand observed.
Of course he had and still has a lot of company in these attitudes, including this reviewer. Any returning expatriate suffers similar shockwaves.
Some of the most vivid passages in the book deal with the paranoid treatment of foreigners in Moscow during his ambassadorship (1951-1952). These descriptions ring true with me, having endured another period of Soviet paranoia as a correspondent there during the Vietnam War. Contact with locals was strictly constrained and access to the political class was non-existent, very much as it was in the early 1950s.
Kennan became so fed up being followed around and isolated from ordinary Russians that he casually observed in public that Stalin’s Moscow reminded him of his internment under the Nazis in the early days of World War II. That remark, in the context of Russia still trying to recover from the horrors of the Nazi invasion, was a step too far. It led to his expulsion, the only such case, Gaddis points out, in 240 years of U.S.-Russia relations. Worse, the incident cost him much of his credibility among the more buttoned-down diplomats of the Foreign Service.
Later in life, Kennan seemed to shrug it off. “I couldn’t be the sort of smooth, self-contained type of Foreign Service officer who advanced because he’d made no waves. It’s a wonder to me that I got along as well as I did.”
Gaddis gives us a warts-and-all authorized portrait of Kennan based on many long conversations with Kennan and his aging colleagues, and a study of Kennan’s voluminous writings. These source materials included 20,000 pages of diaries and more than 300 boxes of writings held by Princeton University. The diaries and letters show a new Kennan — by turns brutally honest, clever, lyrical and yet silent on some key issues. He even insisted that Gaddis study a separate diary in which he recorded his dreams. He obviously wanted to leave a substantial legacy for scholars to pore over.
Gaddis has produced a seamless narrative of Kennan the quixotic intellectual interwoven with the momentous events of war, aggression, Cold War, nuclear weapons, and U.S. foreign military interventions that featured in his life.
Small wonder, then, that the man who emerges is articulate, frustrated, contradictory, sometimes morose, and yet deeply concerned about the unstable era in which he lived. Frank Costigliola, professor at the University of Connecticut, is at work on a 700-page selection of diary entries due out in 2014.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?