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The Cracked Vessel

George Kennan: diplomat, misanthrope, diarist.

By From the April 2014 issue

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Edited by Frank Costigliola
(Norton, 768 pages, $39.95)

The career of George F. Kennan (1904-2005), the diplomatist whose name is chiefly associated with the Cold War, peaked when Kennan was in his early forties. On February 22, 1946, working at the time as a foreign service officer at the State Department, he wrote a “long telegram” of 5,540 words explaining the motive force behind the behavior of the Soviet Union and how best to deal with it. The gist of the telegram was that the Soviet Union, pressed by economic failure and hemmed in by Marxist-Leninist ideology, needed and found a perfect enemy in the United States, and therefore was uninterested in diplomatic negotiation or compromise. This being so, the best way for the United States to deal with the Soviet Union was to build up the still free countries of Western Europe and do all it could to contain Soviet expansionism. This policy became known as “containment,” and its immediate result was the massive aid program to post-war western Europe known as the Marshall Plan, in whose organization Kennan had a major hand. 

In a 1947 article signed “X” in Foreign Affairs titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan expanded upon and consolidated these views, declaring that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Despite the anonymity under which the article was published, it became known that George Kennan was its author, and this lent added luster to his reputation. He would soon be made head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Committee, and in 1952, he was appointed the United States ambassador to Moscow by Harry Truman. Puffing on power and fame, George Kennan was riding high. 

Kennan’s best days were under Harry Truman, who respected his advice, if he didn’t always follow it. His worst days were under John Foster Dulles, who as secretary of state during the Eisenhower presidency was dismayed at Kennan’s recommendation that the United States accept Soviet domination of eastern Europe, instead of attempting to roll it back. Dulles failed to appoint Kennan to a serious post and left him dangling without work for months. In 1953, after twenty-seven years in the foreign service, Kennan retired from government and moved to Princeton, where he was given a place at the Institute for Advanced Study. Apart from his brief stint as Ambassador to Yugoslavia (1961-63), he remained at Princeton for the remainder of his long life, writing and lecturing but chiefly seeking influence for his views on foreign policy. 

Influence was the name of George Kennan’s desire. After the Truman years, he never regained it. Once out of the foreign service, he had nearly fifty years to complain about the loss. The foreign policy for which he sought influence was, with qualifications, essentially isolationist. For Kennan foreign policy was never a moral but always a practical matter. Apart from honoring treaties and alliances, foreign policy, he held, ought to be “guided strictly by consideration of national interest.” Our entanglements in other nations, in this reading, ought to be limited only to “those aspects of [their] official behavior which touched our interests—maintaining, in other words, a relationship with [them] of mutual respect and courtesy—but distant.” Government generally, he wrote in Around the Cragged Hill, A Personal and Political Philosophy, “is simply not the channel through which men’s noblest impulses are to be realized. Its task, on the contrary, is largely to see that its ignoble ones are kept under restraint and not permitted to go too far.”

As for the United States, Kennan believed it had no business following an aggressive foreign policy. As a foreign service officer stationed in Moscow and later as an ambassador there, he had a close view of the brutalities of the Soviet regime. But the eradication of human rights in one country were not, he believed, the business of any other country. Whole continents and vast territories—Latin America, Africa, most of the Middle East—seemed to him not yet arrived at a state of civilization such as admitted of complex diplomatic negotiation. Foreign aid, most likely to be wasted and never really appreciated by its recipients, was little more than a foolish error of false generosity on the part of the donor nation, for which read the naively virtuous United States. Proper distance, mutual respect, non-interference, above all the avoidance of war—these were the pillars on which Kennan thought foreign policy ought to stand. 

The Kennan Diaries is a generous selection from the 8,000 pages of diaries that George Kennan kept, with inconstant regularity, from the age of eleven. Edited by Frank Costigliola, a historian at the University of Connecticut, with helpful footnotes and a minimum of scholarly barbed wire placed between the reader and the text, the book affords a more intimate view of George Kennan than any biography is likely to provide. The emphasis in the diary’s entries, naturally enough, is on international relations, but the reigning principle behind Costigliola’s selections has been to favor Kennan’s “most vivid prose while including representative examples of his various experiences, moods, concerns, and ideas.” Professor Costigliola admires George Kennan for his political consistency, his unflagging energy and endurance, and his literary skill. But he doesn’t allow his admiration to prevent his including diary material that, in an age of political correctness, might disqualify him in the eyes of the great virtucrats of our day, or subject him to two-penny psychoanalysis. 

The Kennan Diaries reveal the inner struggles of the man who fought for his ideas on foreign policy without success and the dark views that came in the wake of his failure. Theycorrect the view of George Kennan as the ultimate State Department insider. Neither there nor anywhere else was Kennan ever among the inner circle of the select and the privileged. He refers to himself as a WASP, but, in the strict sense of the term, he wasn’t. Scottish and English in his lineage, from a family that first arrived in America in the eighteenth century, he grew up not on the eastern seaboard but in Milwaukee. His family had none of the standard WASP connections, social or financial. He did not attend prep schools but public schools until, at thirteen, he was sent off to military school in Delafield, Wisconsin. His father was a tax attorney, upstanding and well-regarded but, owing to ineptitude in business, not wealthy; his mother died, of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, when George was two months old. The Kennans were not among the socially elite, not even in blue-collar Milwaukee. 

Kennan went to Princeton but his admission there was far from assured. His biographer John Lewis Gaddis reports that he was “the last student admitted,” and no one else from his military school found acceptance in an eastern college. At Princeton he was neither a dazzling student nor entirely at ease socially. Aboard ship on his first trip to Europe he speaks of cutting fellow passengers who try to communicate with him with “true Princeton snobbery,” which suggests that he knew what it was like to have this snobbery turned on him. His diaryrecords his planning an essay on “Princeton and Democracy,” which is to be both a defense against the charge of endemic snobbery at Princeton and an attack on those “who make social prestige during undergraduate years the sole aim in life.” Money was a problem for him at Princeton. He did clerical work at his eating club, the undistinguished Key and Seal, to help reduce his bills there. 

After deciding not to go to law school, Kennan ended up in the foreign service. Despite his successes, even here he was something of an outsider. “Like a character out of Dostoyevsky,” Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas write in The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, “Kennan enjoyed the alienation that came from being a detached observer.” As a young foreign service officer, he was earnest but awkward; among colleagues at the State Department he was often the odd man out. As early as twenty-eight, he wrote in his diary that he was “condemned to a rare intellectual isolation…my mental processes will never be understood by anyone else.” He was never part of the Georgetown set of Joseph Alsop, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and Dean Acheson. At a State Department outing, he played baseball in a three-piece suit. 

Kennan’s talents suited him for foreign service. He acquired foreign languages fairly easily, and was said to have spoken a pure and aristocratic Russian. His scholarly instincts drove him to read up a subject with thoroughness and in depth. He was an effective lecturer. So brilliant a prose writer was he that many of his colleagues in the State Department did not always take his reports quite seriously. Eugene Rostow, according to Isaacson and Thomas, put Kennan down as “an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling.”

The Kennan Diaries are sometimes used to set out ideas, sometimes to record historical events or meetings, often to fight his depression. He claimed his diary was useful to him in sorting out his confusions and aiding him in gaining perspective on his defeats: “If this writing will help me to gather and order my spiritual forces again (and writing sometimes does) it will be worth the time,” he notes. “He kept the diary as a way of keeping himself together,” Frank Costigliola notes. 

When under the lash of depression Kennan wrote copiously in his diary, and what depressed him above all was the want of influence of his ideas on those in power. Others reasons for his depression are what he refers to as his “weaknesses”: his garrulity, his philandering impulses, his unsteady temperament. Anger works its way into the diary at what he takes to be steady decline of America’s manners and mores, the nation’s heedless technological advance, its coarse politics, and a great deal else. 

The only people for whom Kennan expresses affection are the Russians, not the Soviet leaders but the people forced to live under their systematically brutal regime. “I sometimes feel that I would rather be sent to Siberia among them (which is certainly what would happen to me if I were a Soviet citizen) than to live on Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk,” he wrote. He remarks on his mystical link with St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, that “I know that in this city, where I have never lived, there has nevertheless, by some strange quirk of fate—a previous life, perhaps?—been deposited a portion of my own capacity to feel and to love, a portion, in other words of my own life; and that this is something which no American will ever understand and no Russian ever believe.” Alone again, as the song has it, naturally. 

“I suppose I am a literary person myself, slightly manqué,” Kennan noted in his diary. At one point he planned to write a biography of Chekhov. With the exception of Dostoyevsky—“there is not one reasonably normal, decent soul among all his characters”—he was enamored of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a key book for him. Difficult to think of anyone other than Kennan in the State Department or in government generally who could have read and appreciated Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James. More than once in his diaries he expresses the wish to write fiction. His prose, always fluent and confidently cadenced, is notable for succinct formulation. 

The darkness in George Kennan, which grew and deepened with age, was there from the beginning. Kennan was a misanthrope. One of the chapters of Around Cragged Hill is titled “Man, the Cracked Vessel.” The cracks come from man’s impulses and urges, his vanity and egotism. Kennan saw these cracks in his countrymen as if through a microscope. Returning from a trip to Mount Vernon, he notes the “shapeless, droopy people,” and remarks that “it was never clearer that man is a skin-disease of the earth.” All technology was to him malevolent unless proven otherwise. He saw the world filled with “people drugged and debilitated by automobiles and advertisements and radios and moving pictures”; and in later life he allowed that he would trade in the American space program for a decent national telegraph system and efficient railway. Visiting southern California, he found there “that tendency of American life which it typifies…childhood without the promise of maturity.” In California generally he finds “an immanent sterility for which no cure is apparent.” Later he will note that “the white man” made a mistake settling the place. 

In 1942, writing in the third person, Kennan asked whether “the conviction that when in a depression he was nearer to reality, to a certain tragic and melancholy reality, than at other times. It was, in other words, not the depression which was abnormal, but the irrational hopefulness, which prevailed at other times.” In his case depression was lightly admixed with megalomania. He quotes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII on his own fall from power:  

I have touched the highest point of all my greatness;
And from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste not to my setting; I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.

He claims to have had “no real successes, and I dare not hope for any.” Later he adds: “I must regard my role in the public life of this country as played out. My future is purely private life.” Private life meant a life of scholarship, and he did turn out a few works of diplomatic history: The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875-1890 (1979) and The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War (1984). But it wasn’t enough for a man who had known the heightened glories of public success. “Life,” he writes in 1963, “consists principally of waiting to die.” Departing the planet at 101, George Kennan had a long time to await that event. 

Irony of ironies, the further out of power he was, the greater his popularity seemed to grow. He claimed to receive more than five hundred invitations to give lectures and talks every year, and he accepted a fair number of them. “My reputation follows me around like a shadow or like a mask I am obliged to wear.” When he came out against American participation in the Vietnam War, his popularity grew even greater. He campaigned for Eugene McCarthy against Lyndon Johnson. He was the go-to guy when the New York Review of Books need a strong piece against the errancy of American foreign policy. During the years of the Vietnam War he was a heroic figure for the American left. 

Yet no one more loathed hippie culture and war protesters than he. “They say we are both Americans,” he writes in his diary when encountering hippies abroad, “but you are stranger to me than the Hottentots. Benevolently, and with no reaction more negative than a slight shudder, I consign you to your various delights, thankful only that no one compels me to share them with you.” At one point he thinks perhaps of writing about domestic affairs, but finds himself unable to do so “when one of the greatest of the problems is the deterioration of life in the great cities and when one of the major components of the problem this presents is the Negro problem, which is taboo.” He detests the standard left-wing thinking that equates poverty with virtue, affluence with wickedness. He remarks on the tawdriness of the media and the deep humorlessness of the universities. He lambasts the entertainment industry and the dreadful use it “makes of its near monopoly, not merely the low intellectual level but the shameless pornography, the pathological preoccupation with sex and violence, the weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble, and promising way of life…” Were its author alive when The Kennan Diaries was published, the Political Correctness Police would soon enough have knocked on his door.

Instead the world rained prizes down upon him: Pulitzers, National Books Awards, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, the Reith and the Jefferson Lectures, honorary degrees, the Medal of Freedom, everything but the Nobel. He felt his fate was to be a prophet, but he was perhaps a prophet too much honored. As he wrote, he was “probably the most honored [person] outside the entertainment industry and the political establishment in this country. How could this have happened? And how to put it in its proper place?” Part of the reason, he believed, was that “there is not much competition.” Another part, surely, was that he was too careful a caretaker of his career to go public with his dark views on America and the world, confining them chiefly to his diary.

None of his prizes and awards brought him the least contentment. He never relinquished the hope for power and influence. “I have the curious experience,” he wrote, “of being probably the most extensively honored private person in the country and, at the same time, the person least heeded when he speaks.” 

Nor did he ever to have any doubt about the correctness of his views on foreign policy. He is confident that the views expressed in Around the Cragged Hill “have been major contributions to the development of political philosophy in our age, and to have this go wholly unrecognized is a bitter disappointment.” At the age of eighty-seven he asks: “Is there not a grotesque anomaly between the esteem bestowed on the person and the scant regard for his views?” When in 1989 Soviet Communism crumbles, owing chiefly to a policy of heating up the arms race in direct opposition to his own views, his diary is silent, expressing little pleasure in the eradication of the most humanly wasteful regime in the history of the world. 

In his chapter on government in Around the Cragged Hill, Kennan writes of the human thirst for authority and power, and of the distortions in character that attaining them can cause. He cites Henry Adams on this point: “The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends in killing the victim’s sympathies; a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes; one can scarcely use expressions too strong to describe the violence of egotism it stimulates.” Quoting Adams, poor George Kennan might have been describing himself. 

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is, with Frederic Raphael, the author of Distant Intimacy (Yale, 2013).