The long-threatened publication of George Kennan’s diaries won’t do much for restoring the career diplomat’s standing in the history of American foreign policy. Outside the Beltway he’s known as a Trivial Pursuit question: the author of the containment, by which, the story goes (and goes, and goes) the Soviet Union surrendered thanks to the beautiful, tough feet of Ronald Reagan. Students of international relations or political science might know him as the author of 1946′s Long Telegram, attempting to explain in sharp, jargon-free prose the Russian mind for the benefit of Harry Truman’s State Department; and a further elaboration of those views in the X article written for Foreign Affairs. To the end (Kennan died a year after he turned a hundred) he insisted the American foreign policy apparatus misunderstood him; he never meant to argue for a global strategy of fighting Soviet communism; as an analyst, respected for his knowledge, writing, and acquaintance with the highest echelons of Soviet power, he had done as required (no one requested the Long Telegram, the receipt of which sent a seismic shock in Washington). As for the Long Telegram, yes, he was right:
Success of Soviet system, as form of internal power, is not yet finally proven. It has yet to be demonstrated that it can survive supreme test of successive transfer of power from one individual or group to another. Lenin’s death was first such transfer, and its effects wracked Soviet state for 15 years. After Stalin’s death or retirement will be second. But even this will not be final test. Soviet internal system will now be subjected, by virtue of recent territorial expansions, to series of additional strains which once proved severe tax on Tsardom. We here are convinced that never since termination of civil war have mass of Russian people been emotionally farther removed from doctrines of Communist Party than they are today. In Russia, party has now become a great and–for the moment–highly successful apparatus of dictatorial administration, but it has ceased to be a source of emotional inspiration. Thus, internal soundness and permanence of movement need not yet be regarded as assured.
Events proved the first two sentences wrong. Still!
Reading John Lewis Gaddis’ formidable 2011 biography a couple years ago, I was struck by Kennan’s affinities with Henry Adams: close enough to the warmth of power to understand the cold of isolation; respected by everyone for sapience and truth-telling just enough so that he could play Cassandra for the rest of his life. In the diary entries I’ve read he whined a lot about not getting return phone calls from Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles (who ended his State Department career in 1953 because Kennan wasn’t sufficiently anti-Communist) while at the same time deploring the excision of his fine gradations for the sake of political expediency (Kennan does not hide his contempt for direct democracy). John Lukacs, garrulously, noted Kennan’s impatience over the “sometimes fatal, American inclination to ignore or to dismiss or to slur one rises and problems for the sake of leaving public opinion or popular sentiment undisturbed.” Self-pity distinguished without disfiguring him, though. Out of government he wrote histories and lectures and memoirs, twice winning the Pulitzer Prize. He took to journal writing, and as one of Charles Francis Adams’ children said about their father, he took to it bad. He lived long enough to hate hippies and pornography, to proselytize on behalf of the national security state he helped create but whose existence inspired fresh lamentations. He contemplated a biography of Chekhov.
Lukacs’ slender 2007 biography George Kennan: A Study in Character does not attempt to deal with the whole George Kennan; indeed, Lukacs’s croakings of despair over his book’s inability to adequately quote this journal entry or that lecture on Bismarck cover every other page like spittle. Legal restrictions – arggh! Possibly Lukacs, a fine writer himself, doesn’t want his subject to overawe him. “I have made addiction to defy the temptation to cite Kennan’s own diaries and writings (for reasons that I soon shall attempt at least to suggest),” he confesses, and, yes, suggest he does. So the reader settles for assurances. Kennan was the “best and finest American writer about Europe at the time,” Lukacs asserts. “Better than Hemingway.” He takes Kennan at his word about the tawdry ends to which Washington subjected the Long Telegram, accepts his caviling. “There was too much in it about communism, rather than about age-old Russia, about ideology, rather than about history and geography.” * But a mind as perspicacious as Kennan’s understood the first order of business for a writer: know your audience. If he regretted how his analyses served the interest of a White House and State Department bent on, to quote Senator Arthur Vandenberg, scaring the hell out of the American public about Soviet communism, what price, fame? Through the skein of his thickening melancholy the bits of the diaries extant before the new collection impressed me. Its travelogues are variable though. They reminded me of Gore Vidal’s remark about Edmund Wilson’s penchant for colorful detritus in his own notebooks: “I cannot think where the terrible habit began.” Hemingway’s writing about Europe is sometimes oppressive reading too.
Go to the library. Its Kennan books haven’t been checked out in years. Seek Russia and the West: Under Lenin and Stalin, a brief and pungent accompaniment to Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume Trotsky biography. He represented a tradition that has since died: the diplomat who thought and wrote, who influenced the course of history and lived long enough to see his ideas proven and their subtleties effaced. As pundits and the public grapple with the image of an armed, shirtless Vladimir Putin threatening to invade the Ukraine on horseback, a throwaway remark in a Kennan book looks as prescient as he would have liked: “That curious law which so often makes Americans, inveterately conservative at home, the partisans of radical change everywhere else.”