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Inside the Mind of George F. Kennan

February 25, 2014 Topics: SecurityDefenseGrand StrategySocietyHistory Regions: United States

Inside the Mind of George F. Kennan

Mini Teaser: The wisest of the wise men.

by Author(s): Christian Caryl

George F. Kennan, ed. Frank Costigliola, The Kennan Diaries (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014), 768 pp., $39.95.

A FRIEND RECENTLY described me in an email as “irascible.” She meant it in an offhanded, affectionate sort of way—but I have to admit that her choice of adjective gave me a chill. Could it be that, unnoticed to myself, I had slipped into the ranks of the most tiresome group of people in the United States? I refer, of course, to the Grumpy Old White Guys. You know the type. They’re the ones who corner you at a party to complain about the use of Spanish in official announcements on the bus, or cut you off in the supermarket parking lot to compensate for early retirement-induced rage. Their public mascot is John McCain, that walking tantrum-in-waiting—but that doesn’t mean that all of them are conservative. To the contrary: you can also find plenty of crabby old liberals out there, griping about the collapse of manufacturing or the hopeless egotism of today’s materialist youth. (I’m actually pretty sure that cantankerous boomers represent a core demographic for Rolling Stone andthe New Yorker.) It’s gotten to the point where I automatically steer a wide berth around any portly, bearded over-sixty wearing glasses on a lanyard.

I’ve tended to think of this as a strictly contemporary phenomenon, along with Duck Dynasty, retiree Pilates and websites for Christian singles. How wrong I was. It turns out that the Grumpy Old White Guys actually have a venerable and quite august pedigree—and among them was one of the most influential American foreign-policy thinkers of the twentieth century. I speak of George F. Kennan (1904–2005), the man who provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Cold War concept of containment, who served as the first head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and who made vital contributions to the Marshall Plan as well as the design of overall U.S. strategy toward Europe and the Far East in the wake of World War II. He met with everyone from Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. George H. W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His friend Charles Bohlen, who served as ambassador to Moscow, wrote a fine memoir called Witness to History. But Kennan was truly it.

Few American public-policy intellectuals have been comparably lionized during their lifetimes. But Kennan deserved it. There weren’t many in Washington who could compete with his remarkable breadth of learning and experience, which included flawless knowledge of multiple languages, a deep immersion in the life of Central and Eastern Europe, and a silky and ironic prose style, modeled partly on Edward Gibbon, that reflected his intense, private engagement with the great Russian writers. He was a rara avis in Washington, a deeply cultured man who had an intuitive understanding of the European civilization that disappeared in August 1914. He never ceased mourning its disappearance, dedicating his last books to analyzing the diplomatic machinations of Germany, France and Russia preceding the plunge into the abyss.

UPON HIS graduation from Princeton University in 1925, where he never quite fit in, Kennan entered the State Department, where he was posted to Riga, Latvia. There he learned Russian and absorbed anti-Communist precepts. He never had any illusions about the thugs that surrounded Stalin, and he served as an aide to the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union, William Bullitt, who entered his post sympathetic to Soviet aspirations only to become a virulent anti-Communist after witnessing the depredations of Stalinism. Kennan went on to serve in posts in Berlin and Prague, where he saw the Nazi dictatorship firsthand. It would be difficult to think of anyone who had a clearer understanding of totalitarianism in the past century. Kennan may have been somewhat maladroit as a diplomat—he was banished from the Soviet Union as ambassador after World War II for making the true but impolitic observation that the Soviet Union’s methods reminded him of those of the Nazis—but he was a remarkably clear-eyed observer. Indeed, it was his deftness as a writer that helped to magnify the impact of both his “Long Telegram” of February 1946, which warned about malign Soviet intentions and arrived like a thunderbolt in official Washington, and his July 1947 Foreign Affairs article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which, appearing under the pseudonym of Mr. X, posited 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.” It neatly summarized the future of Cold War strategy, setting up a lifelong, agonized confrontation between Kennan himself and the policy that he had helped to birth. A national-security state, which engorged itself on massive budgets and perpetual enemies, had emerged, and Kennan viewed it as wholly inimical to true American republican traditions, a trend that was confirmed once neoconservative triumphalism about the end of the Cold War morphed into a global crusade to crush America’s real and imagined foes.

Despite his obvious intellectual integrity, Kennan retired from the State Department at the age of forty-nine—if “retired” is really the right word to use. (He was actually frog-marched to the exit by the baleful John Foster Dulles after Kennan dared, in one of his public talks, to repudiate the idea of the rollback of Communism in Eastern Europe as “replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness.”) The author of containment soon ended up at the Institute for Advanced Study at his alma mater of Princeton. There, he cemented his reputation by churning out a string of histories, memoirs and analyses that brought him two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes (as well as an Einstein Peace Prize, in recognition for his passionate opposition to the Vietnam War and the nuclear-age balance of terror). It quickly became clear that Kennan was the supreme realist, almost always skeptical of America’s intentions and ability to effect beneficent change abroad. In 1957, when he delivered the Reith Lectures at Oxford, he caused an international stir by advocating that the West work toward a neutral and unified Germany. He wanted cooperation, not confrontation, with Moscow. He was denounced by Dean Acheson as espousing delusional pacifist views. But Kennan was the wisest of the wise men, a profound thinker who had a tragic sense of history, particularly in the atomic age, that his coevals lacked. He despised the assumption, still embarrassingly common among American politicians, that all you need to get a foreign leader to come around to Washington’s position is a bit of personal quality time (just think of Clinton’s sauna sessions with Boris Yeltsin or George W. Bush’s notorious soul gazing with Vladimir Putin). Kennan believed that foreign policy should be based on a sober assessment of national interest, not on the caprices of personality or temporary political advantage. At a moment when much of the foreign-policy establishment was championing war with Iraq in 2002, Kennan, at the age of ninety-eight, vigorously decried the notion that it would end in anything but disaster. “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin,” he said. “You never know where you are going to end.” He was right. All his life he liked to quote Gibbon’s passage in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire about the “unnatural task of holding in submission distant peoples.” Not until 2005, when he died at the age of 101, was his perspicuous voice stilled.

THAT WAS THE public Kennan. But it turns out that there’s a lot more to the story. The man who reveals himself in The Kennan Diaries is a compulsive grouser, relentlessly downbeat about his personal prospects as well as those of his country, tormented by his nagging attraction to women not his wife, plagued by intense loneliness, bedeviled by a sense of his own inadequacy and grimly obsessed with the extent of his clout. He was an unapologetic reactionary. It was his neighbor J. Richardson Dilworth who put his finger on Kennan’s personality: “George is ultra-conservative. He’s almost a monarchist.” Kennan was the ultimate realist about the country that he alternately loved and loathed. Like Henry Adams, with whom he had much in common, he never fully trusted it. He viewed democracy itself with profound misgivings, contemptuous of gusts of public opinion, embodied in the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism, that could buffet foreign affairs and prevent elites from calmly steering the ship of state. Like Acheson, he viewed apartheid South Africa with indulgence and the lower orders with mistrust.

To be sure, we’ve caught glimpses of this Kennan over the years—like this brief bit of 1952 self-analysis in the second volume of his memoirs, where he berates himself for his abortive stint as ambassador to the USSR:

I was probably too highly strung emotionally, too imaginative, too sensitive, and too impressed with the importance of my own opinions, to sit quietly on that particular seat. For this, one needed a certain phlegm, a certain contentment with the trivia of diplomatic life, a readiness to go along uncomplainingly with the conventional thinking of Washington, and a willingness to refrain from asking unnecessary questions—none of which I possessed in adequate degree.

Though Kennan’s contempt for his peers comes through loud and clear, this is still relatively restrained. When it was a matter of public consumption he knew how to keep his demons in check. To be sure, it was widely understood around the Washington of Kennan’s day that he was—how shall we put it?—a bit of an eccentric. Yet he also managed to eke out a pretty spectacular career over two decades in the State Department, one of Washington’s most staid bureaucracies, and his subsequent triumphs in the academic stratosphere at Princeton suggest that he knew how to maintain his place in the establishment. Throughout his career his desperate urge to wield influence seems to have held him back from expressing his most outré views in public. The major exception, perhaps, was his 1993 book Around The Cragged Hill: A Personal And Political Philosophy, in which, among other things, he proposed dividing the United States into twelve more manageable minirepublics. But by then he was eighty-nine, and could afford to indulge his inner curmudgeon without much fear of the consequences.

Even so, these newly published diaries—actually a smoothly edited sliver of the twenty-two thousand pages he produced during eighty-eight years of writing—still come as something of a shock. Kennan wasn’t just a Grumpy Old White Guy avant la lettre; he was already deep into the role just a few years after graduating from college. Here he is at age twenty-four:

The Americanization of Europe, the flooding of the continent with the cultural as well as the economic goods of the New World: all this is something which Europe owes to its own imperfection. Americanism, like Bolshevism, is a disease which gains footing only in a weakened body. I have lost my sympathy for the Europeans who protest against the influx of American automobiles and American phonograph records. If the Old World has no longer sufficient vitality, economic and cultural, to oppose these new barbarian invasions, it will have to drown in the flood, as civilizations have drowned before it.

He was nothing if not consistent; his views changed little throughout the eighty-eight years that he devoted to his diaries. They are rife with ruminations about the horrors of unbridled democracy, vulgarian culture and deracination. In 1930, he wonders whether a fascist party could ever arise in the United States. Probably not, he concludes: “Somehow, I just can’t conjure up an image of the American who is prepared to put the public good before their personal lives, including love and society.” Or take this characteristic entry from 1977: “A lost people, we WASPs, living out our lives, like displaced people, in a cultural diaspora, unrelieved even by any consciousness of the existence, albeit far away, of a lost homeland.” A 1969 visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London prompts him to express his astonishment that

the obvious erosion of the genes, brought about over this past century by the effect of modern hygiene in keeping alive the weak, should be so central a fact of our time, and yet never talked about, as though contemporary Western humanity were afraid of insulting itself.

A 1978 trip to California inspires a soliloquy about how the intermingling of the state’s various regional groups inevitably leads to a “vast polyglot mass, . . . one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness. Exceptions may be only the Jews and the Chinese, who tend to avoid intermarriage, and, for a time, the Negroes as well.” This could mean, Kennan reflects, that these three groups would ultimately subjugate the rest of the populace to their will—“the Chinese by their combination of intelligence, ruthlessness, and ant-like industriousness; the Jews by their sheer determination to survive as a culture; the Negroes by their ineradicable bitterness and hatred of the whites.” It’s tempting to dismiss this sort of lazy bigotry as a product of Kennan’s times; such views were, after all, quite common among white Americans born in the early years of the century. (Kennan’s biographer, the admirable John Lewis Gaddis, makes just this plea for clemency in his book.) But the thought does not entirely console.

SOME OF HIS crankiest observations deal with the shortcomings of democracy. During his time as a government official Kennan had often witnessed how the principles of good policy were undermined by the short-term thinking of elected politicians, and he had concluded from the experience that democracies were inherently incapable of devising and pursuing rational strategy. On some deeper level, the whole notion of popular rule simply rankled. In a 1984 diary entry, he sketches out his ideal vision of the United States. Plank number one: a national military “directed strictly to the defense of our own soil,” including an army “based on universal national service along Swiss lines.” This is followed by a set of policies for population control: “Men having spawned more than 2 children will be compulsively sterilized. Planned parenthood and voluntary sterilization will be in every way encouraged.” His economic model is based on a comprehensive rejection of all forms of computerization and mechanization: “Everything possible will be done to re-primitivize and localize the economic process: encouragement of the handicrafts, restriction of elaborate processing, break-up of the national distribution chains, maximum development of local resources, & local distribution.” Public transportation is to be actively encouraged, the use of cars and airplanes restricted to cases of hardship or emergency. In agriculture he favors government support of the “small family farm” (aided by dramatic reductions in the use of artificial fertilizers as a means of restoring the soil). He then concludes:

Well, enough of this nonsense. The question at once arises: could any of this, even if desirable, be done other than by the most ferocious dictatorship? The answer is obviously: no. It could never be done by popular consent. The “people” haven’t the faintest idea what is good for them.

There can be little doubt that Kennan was quite sincere in these opinions. They’re simply too frequent, and too zealously expressed, to conclude otherwise. So is it time for us to topple him from the policy Olympus, to dismiss him as a simple lunatic? Do his ugliest or most bizarre beliefs invalidate his worth as a strategist and historian?

I think there are several reasons why the answer must be no. First, there’s the simple fact that these are diaries, not documents for public consumption. Frank Costigliola, who edited the present volume, notes that Kennan’s diary entries tended to thin out when he was in the most productive phases of his career, and especially at the end of the 1940s, when he was at the peak of his influence in Washington. Kennan sought recourse to diary writing above all when he was at his most depressed, Costigliola writes. These diaries are the exercise ground of Kennan’s id, the one realm where he could allow himself to vent, to meditate, to express his darkest fears—all of it with the greatest candor. Kennan did make some of the diaries available to trusted historians while he was still alive, of course, and I’m sure he expected them to be presented to the general public after his death—but he certainly didn’t intend for them to be treated like his memoirs. So even if the diaries can help us to illuminate the wellsprings of Kennan’s thinking, we still need to be careful to balance their content with the polished products of the man’s mind and to situate his ideas in the broader context of an impossibly complicated and eventful life. Indeed, there’s a distinctly unfinished quality to the diaries since they often glide over the most important moments in Kennan’s life and career while dwelling at great length over marginal events and momentary impressions—a pattern entirely in keeping with the notion of the journals as an intellectual sketchbook.

Yet illuminate the wellsprings they do—and Costigliola is quite right to see depression as one of the keys. The editor isn’t kidding when he suggests that Kennan kept his diary as a way of responding to onslaughts of melancholy. Pretty much anything can set the man off: a bad dream, sound films, a perceived slight, a passing glimpse of an attractive woman. Political events are a frequent trigger. Here’s Kennan in 1956 after Dwight D. Eisenhower announced his intention to seek a second term as president: “There can be, for me, only one refuge: learn, at long last, the art of silence, of the commonplace, of humor, anything but serious discussion.” Needless to say, Kennan followed this remark with another forty-nine years of speaking engagements, book writing and polemicizing. He frets when he isn’t working enough, and whines when he’s too busy. In 1968, he muses:

The extreme unhappiness with which I confront the prospect of returning home arises not just from the hopeless profusion of my obligations and involvements there, but also from awareness of my own personal failings & the lack of success I have had in overcoming them. My congenital immaturity of bearing and conduct, my garrulousness, the difficulty I find rejecting hard liquor when it is offered to me as a part of hospitality, the uncontrollable wandering eye—all these things are unworthy of the rest of me, & they limit what I could make out of myself and what I could contribute in these final years of active life.

Despising his own era, he wishes that he’d been born in a different century. He ponders the sad mystery of his mother, whom he never knew because she died shortly after his birth. He endures nervous breakdowns, ulcers and shingles. (The index of the book offers seven references to “Kennan, George Frost, intestinal problems of.”) Whenever Kennan was confronted with a serious problem, as Gaddis notes in his biography, he would suffer some sort of breakdown that would allow him to enter a hospital and be cosseted by sympathetic nurses who perhaps served as the surrogate mother he never met. (This isn’t just psychoanalytical license on Gaddis’s part—Kennan himself often considered the possibility that his longings for the opposite sex had a great deal to do with the big hole in his life where his mother should have been.) He struggles with financial straits and the myriad complications of a fantastically peripatetic life (despite his contempt for modern transportation, particularly the automobile). Flashes of titanic arrogance alternate with spurts of virulent self-loathing. As Kennan himself recognized in that remark about his lack of “phlegm,” his was not a personality entirely suited to the harsh give-and-take of high-level politics. Isaiah Berlin, the British philosopher who did a stint as a diplomat at his country’s Moscow embassy in the 1940s, once said of his friend Kennan: “He doesn’t bend. He breaks.”

YET THESE character traits can’t be seen in isolation from the rest of the package. Kennan’s great virtue as an analyst was his ability to see things from the outside. No one was better at tracing out the logical implications of a particular policy in all their elaborate permutations (even if, in so doing, he often ended up overlooking the grubbier but no less important aspects of everyday politics). And this was not despite but because of his own proudly cultivated sense of alienation, his persistent suspicion that he’d been born into the wrong era, or that, above all, he was really a Russian at heart. In a famous interview with George Urban in Encounter, for example, Kennan praised the Soviet Union for its ability to control pornography and expatiated upon his horror at seeing a recent Danish youth festival that was “swarming with hippies—motorbikes, girlfriends, drugs, pornography, drunkenness, noise—it was all there. I looked at this mob and thought how one company of robust Russian infantry would drive it out of town.” (An early draft of this sentiment can be found here in the diaries.)

The notion of “depressive realism,” which argues that sadder people are often better at judging situations for what they really are, has become quite popular these days. (Just think of books like Nassir Ghaemi’s A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness and Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy.) But Kennan was already writing about it (referring to himself in the third person) in his diary in 1942, describing

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.

I think he’s on to something here (even if I’m a bit reluctant to fetishize the insight). For whatever reasons, Kennan certainly had a remarkable ability to step outside of himself and envision alternate realities. I was particularly moved by a moment in the diaries in 1949 when he contemplates the ruins of Hamburg, a city he had lived in before the war and which was obliterated by several days of Allied firebomb air raids. Kennan, who had a complete command of German, is anguished by the destruction of the noble Hanseatic city. He suddenly feels “an unshakeable conviction that no momentary military advantage . . . could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life and of material values, built up laboriously by human hands, over the course of centuries.” And then this:

And it suddenly appeared to me that in these ruins there was an unanswerable symbolism which we in the West could not afford to ignore. If the Western world was really going to make valid the pretense of a higher moral departure point—of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him, as expressed not only in himself, but in the things he has wrought and has cared about—then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength.

This critique of the military and moral rationale of the Allied bombing campaign during the war has, over the past decade or so, come into its own—not least, I’m sure, thanks to the comfortable historical distance that has opened up between us and those who actually planned and implemented the destruction. Yet one wonders how many U.S. government officials during the 1940s would have been able to behold the fruits of the policy with the sort of critical distance that Kennan demonstrates. His black, razor-sharp diagnosis of Stalinism—at a time when pro-Soviet wartime propaganda in the United States presented a diametrically opposed picture of the regime—is of a piece with this innate skepticism and independence of thought. He viewed the mendacious pro-Soviet ambassador to Moscow, Joseph Davies, who hailed the show trials and Stalin, with undisguised contempt and revulsion. As his diaries demonstrate, not everything that he concluded was fruitful or wise or perspicacious—and I have to confess that some of the things I learned about the man from this book did diminish his image in my eyes. But I would still insist that it was precisely Kennan’s ability to ask big questions, and his gift for transforming his insights into powerful prose, that made him so unique. Has today’s Washington become more or less inviting to talents of his stature? I’m not entirely sure, though the Kennan chair has yet to be filled and may well remain empty. What I do know is that we condemn him, and those like him, at our own risk. A dose of grumpiness in the right place can work wonders.

Christian Caryl is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and a contributing editor at The National Interest and Foreign Policy.

Pullquote: The man who reveals himself in The Kennan Diaries is a compulsive grouser, relentlessly downbeat about his personal prospects as well as those of his country.Image: Essay Types: Book Review