Kennan, Character and Country

Kennan, Character and Country

Mini Teaser: John Lukacs offers an intimate portrait of one of America's great strategists in George Kennan.

by Author(s): Sean R. Singer

In Search of Contemporaries

"[A]cross the Baltic from the safe battlements of Stockholm, Russia looked more portentous than from the Kremlin. The image was that of a retreating ice-cap-a wall of archaic glacier, as fixed, as ancient, as eternal, as the wall of archaic ice that blocked the ocean a few hundred miles to the northward, and more likely to advance."[4]

This passage, with its fluid prose and prescience, could easily have come from Kennan, but it did not. Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents and an accomplished man of letters, penned them in 1904, the year of Kennan's birth.

A significant obstacle Kennan biographers face is putting Kennan in context because of his remoteness from his contemporaries. As Lukacs observes, a man of his character would have been more at home in a previous era, and so to illuminate some of his defining characteristics, a comparison with another American admittedly out of place among his own generation is helpful. Although Adams symbolized the New England-bred American aristocracy Kennan neither could nor wanted to join, he is a valuable foil.

Kennan, much like Adams, coupled self-doubt and criticism with "self-esteem-or, rather, a rueful but strong assertion of his own mind", Lukacs writes. Adams' self-doubt, manifested in incessant educational growth, combined with strong convictions to inspire critiques of the powerful men of his day, such as Theodore Roosevelt. Kennan was much the same; an aloof, impassioned and confident policy advocate, yet also possessing a "superb modesty", self-critical of his professional performance and sensitive about his failures. Both men questioned democracy's empowerment of the masses. Kennan sympathized with authoritarians, such as Mussolini and Salazar, and at one point began work on a book arguing against universal suffrage. Adams, in an 1894 letter, wrote: "The Working-man is so brilliant a political failure. . . . We are under a sort of terror before them."

To escape Washington, Kennan frequented his farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he indulged in simple pleasures. The Yankee higher-ups at the State Department encountered unpretentious accommodations at the Kennan farm and may not have enjoyed assisting him in the garden and house, which Kennan expected of them. This rural refuge, as opposed to the hustle and bustle of Washington, mirrors Adams' own juxtaposition of Boston with Quincy, the home of his presidential forbearers.

In The Education of Henry Adams, Quincy acts as a foil to cosmopolitan Boston, espousing "liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless light of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing, and breathed by boys knowing it."[5] Like Kennan in Pennsylvania, in Quincy, Adams found a gratifying landscape reminiscent of a simpler order, one Old Europe embodied.

Adams and Kennan's shared frustration with America's cultural decline fueled their affinity for Old Europe. In May 1953 Kennan spoke of this decline in an address at Notre Dame University (which Lukacs includes as an appendix), alluding to McCarthyism, he said:

The people in question seem to feel either that cultural values are not important at all or that America has reached the apex of cultural achievement and no longer needs in any serious way the stimulus of normal contact with other peoples in the field of arts and letters. They look with suspicion both on the sources of intellectual and artistic activity in this country and on impulses of this nature coming to us from abroad.

Adams also found meaning in America's European roots. Following his wife's suicide in 1885, his travels through northern France inspired Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. France's cathedrals embodied order and the unified spirituality of man lacking in America. "One looks back on it all as a picture; a symbol of unity; an assertion of God and Man in a bolder, stronger, closer union than ever was expressed by other art", he wrote.[6]

Europe's cultural roots in the humanities and spirituality contrasted the increasing urbanization and mechanization of American society, alarming both Kennan and Adams. When Adams returned to the United States at the turn of the century, he criticized New York City, expressing skepticism of technology as panacea for man's trials in modern, urban society.

Kennan was equally skeptical of technology and its impact on American society. In 1936 he returned to the Midwest, and again, "He felt sad and alone. What he saw (or at least what he thought he saw) was no longer a world of his", Lukacs writes. Technology was the catalyst for this great transformation and, in this instance, Kennan blamed the automobile, Lukacs reveals. This skepticism (even disdain) persisted throughout his life. For the landmark CNN documentary series on the Cold War in the 1990s, convincing Kennan to sit for a television interview was no easy task-he never owned a television and reviled the medium and its impact on American society.

Whether Kennan or Adams liked it or not, technology advanced, increasingly impacting American society throughout the twentieth century. Both turned to the past, and Kennan began an accomplished career as an historian, publishing groundbreaking studies of American-Soviet relations, American foreign policy and European politics in the decades approaching World War I. "The studying and writing of history is a relatively lonely occupation", he once said, shedding light on his attraction to the vocation.

Kennan and Country

Despite the gap separating Kennan from an increasingly tech-based society, Lukacs contests that Kennan (who had an illustrious career at Princeton)-through his histories, his lectures and his public stances (specifically his opposition to the Vietnam War)-was "the conscience of a nation." But can a man be such a conscience without the nation acknowledging it? Can Kennan be the conscience of a nation, of which he might not approve? If Kennan were such a conscience, this book would be less important. Even Lukacs hints that his claim is exaggerated in the book's final pages.

In these closing pages, where the author abandons any shred of objectivity, he writes, "Save for these last sentences this is not the memoir of a friend but the work of a historian." But the whole work is clearly that of a friend, and it would be unfulfilling without a friend's insight. There is no shame in that, though Lukacs goes too far in his concluding sentence, comparing Kennan to Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps, through the diligence of historians like Lukacs, Kennan may yet achieve his rightful place in the pantheon of American statesmen, but Mount Rushmore will not be undergoing renovations anytime soon.

In American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, Kennan wrote: "I would like to say a word about the concept of the six lectures. The concept stems from no abstract interest in history for history's sake. It stems from a preoccupation with the problems of foreign policy we have before us today." George Kennan is not history for history's sake. It is a study of character that portrays a man whose own contribution to history inspires vigorous contemplation of "the problems of foreign policy before us today." It will serve as an excellent primer for the more detailed and objective biographies bound to follow it.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.

[1] George F. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), pp. 184-185.

[2] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, Revised and Expanded ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 50.

[3] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1969), pp. 151.

[4] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, First Mariner Books ed. (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918), pp. 411.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, First Mariner Books ed. (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1918), pp. 8.

[6] Henry Adams, Mont-Saint-MichelandChartres, 17th ed. (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1904), pp. 45.

Essay Types: Book Review