Reviews — From the April 2014 issue

Kennan Kvetches

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Discussed in this essay:

The Kennan Diaries, by George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola. W. W. Norton. 688 pages. $39.95.

Pity the man’s poor wife. To peruse this generous selection from a diary totaling, according to the volume’s editor, some “twenty thousand pages of elegant, insightful prose” is to come away with a heightened appreciation for Annelise Sørensen Kennan. To share a breakfast table, much less a life, with George Kennan must have been a trial.

We know from John Gaddis’s biography of Kennan, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, that his penchant for philandering tested Annelise’s patience. Judging from this account, spanning almost nine decades — the first entry is by an eleven-year-old, the last by a near-centenarian — a wandering eye may have ranked as least among Kennan’s personal shortcomings. The widely regarded diplomat turned scholar was a bigoted crank given to feeling sorry for himself.

George F. Kennan arriving in West Berlin, 1952 © akg-images

George F. Kennan arriving in West Berlin, 1952 © akg-images

The George Kennan cherished in public memory is a figure representing a rare combination of prescience and sagacity. As a Foreign Service officer, he alerted the American people to the threat posed by Soviet expansionism after World War II. Yet he also stood foursquare against the excesses to which the ensuing anticommunist crusade gave rise, opposing the militarization of U.S. policy, speaking out against the folly of Vietnam, and warning of the risk of nuclear holocaust.

As edited by Frank Costigliola, a noted diplomatic historian who teaches at the University of Connecticut, The Kennan Diaries do contain stray bits of sagacity. There are also occasionally elegant passages recalling Kennan’s trenchant and melancholic Memoirs, the best of his many books. But the overall tone of this new collection is one of bellyaching. Kennan pissed and moaned incessantly and at length. Although the list of complaints raising his ire is long, heading that list was an abiding resentment at being (by his own estimation) insufficiently appreciated.

Kennan, of course, was the recipient of a warehouse full of honors, but he yearned for more than prizes and honorary degrees. Sure, his books sold well. All the top journals opened their pages to his opinions. Invitations to testify or lecture or occupy some cushy sinecure arrived by the bushel. What Kennan sought above all, however, was power, along with the deference and respect commanded by those exercising it.

According to one of his colleagues, Kennan possessed “a strong messianic streak.” In a modern world hell-bent on destroying itself, he fancied himself assigned the role of savior. Apart from an exhilarating but fleeting moment in the immediate wake of World War II, however, when he played a central part in formulating the Cold War strategy of “containment,” real power eluded Kennan. As ostensibly the wisest and certainly the most durable of the postwar Wise Men, he enjoyed respect without wielding much in the way of immediate influence, leaving him in the twilight of his long life to mourn that in his self-designated role as prophet he had failed. “It was for this that I was born,” he insisted in 1982, at age seventy-seven. Yet he found himself “standing as a witness at the final, apocalyptic self-destruction of this marvelous Western civilization.” His resulting sense of deprivation was all but unendurable.

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is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

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