Kennan Kvetches, by Andrew J. Bacevich

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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.

More often than not, the marvels of Western civilization impressed Kennan less than did its deficiencies. Writing in 1937, he described man as “a skin-disease of the earth.” The passage of time reinforced this view. Technology, principally represented by automobiles, which he loathed, and by nuclear weapons, which he came to fear, served only to make matters worse. “Modern urban-industrial man,” he reflected some forty years later,

is given to the raping of anything and everything natural on which he can fasten his talons. He rapes the sea; he rapes the soil. . . . He rapes the atmosphere. He rapes the future of his own civilization . . . [H]e goes on destroying his own environment like a vast horde of locusts.

When Kennan turned his gaze to his country, his views were equally bleak and unsparing. As a young man fresh out of Princeton he characterized Americanism as a “disease” and likened it explicitly to Bolshevism. American society as a whole was cheap, vulgar, and materialistic. Middle age found him railing against “the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, [and] the hot dog stands” that embodied the “trancelike, unreal” American way of life. As an old man, he denounced “the shameless pornography, the pathological preoccupation with sex and violence, [and] the weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble, and promising way of life” that “in significant degree” had made America a “sick society.” But when it came to eliciting paroxysms of indignation, nothing topped California. “I find myself really wishing,” he wrote en route from San Francisco to Monterey in 1966, “that some catastrophe might occur that would depopulate this region & permit it to heal its scars & return to its natural state.” In his dotage, he wrote of America, “I am in utter despair about this country.” He “long[ed] for the day of the catastrophe” that would allow the “atrocities of man’s handiwork to decay into the ruins they deserve to become.”

In the 1950s, Kennan contemplated the possibility of simply fleeing, “even to the Soviet Union” — any alternative seemed preferable to allowing his children to “grow up in this cradle of luxury that corrupted and demoralized them before they even reached maturity.” Cold War expectations that the United States could deflect the forces of darkness while leading the free world toward some promised land were, to Kennan, the height of absurdity.

I read this book while visiting Fort Lauderdale, a place peculiarly suited to Kennan’s denunciations of chrome and asphalt, overcrowding and overdevelopment. To contemplate the strip malls lining traffic-clogged U.S. 1, the high-rises crowding the beach, and the fleets of gaudy megayachts cluttering the Intercoastal Waterway is to entertain Kennanesque views. Is this what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they staked their claim to “certain unalienable Rights”? You don’t have to be a believer or a cultural conservative — Kennan was both — to endorse his view that there’s something fundamentally amiss with American-style freedom as actually exercised.

But when it comes to proposing remedies for the ills of modernity, the Kennan of the diaries comes across not as a thoughtful conservative but as a slightly unhinged reactionary. To reduce overpopulation, he insisted in 1984, “Men having spawned more than 2 children will be compulsively sterilized.” (With Annelise, Kennan had spawned four.) To purge the culture of corrupting influences, he wanted television to “be sacrificed,” with broadcasts limited to “perhaps one or two public channels operating only in the evening hours.” (Watching tennis was a favorite Kennan diversion, so presumably one of those channels would be reserved for suitably high-toned sporting events.) Intent on reducing oil consumption and slowing the pace of life, he proposed that air travel be “throttled down & eventually restricted to hardship & urgent cases.” (Of course, Kennan was constantly jetting around the world for reasons unlikely to satisfy either criterion.)

Even when it comes to statecraft, the arena in which Kennan’s reputation as a sage ultimately rests, the diary does as much to diminish as to enhance his standing. Basic policy, Kennan believed, should “be created and pursued only by specialists and professionals” — members of the guild to which he belonged. He lamented the American practice of “placing foreign affairs in the hands of amateurs.” And no fan of the demos, he. The masses, he wrote in 1932 as a young member of the Foreign Service, “should be properly clothed and fed and sheltered, but not crowned with a moral halo, and above all not allowed to have anything to do with government.” He never budged from that dim assessment.

Yet the analyses and prescriptions offered by Kennan as the ur-professional are mixed at best. Sometimes, pros commit errors of judgment that would make even amateurs blush. Were Joseph Stalin’s lieutenants quietly easing him out of power immediately after World War II? Kennan, relying apparently on gut instinct, thought so. In a diary entry dated November 26, 1945, he described himself as “one of the few foreigners in Moscow, if not the only one, who feels that it is questionable whether Stalin is still the dictator that people think he is.”

As early as the 1950s, Kennan had disconcerted officials in Washington by publicly calling for negotiations to pull all NATO and Soviet forces out of Germany. Mutual withdrawal would allow that divided country to reunite, thereby removing the primary cause of Cold War rivalry. American officials denounced the scheme as both reckless and implausible. Not without reason, Kennan believed that the offhand rejection of his proposal had less to do with its viability than with a desire, tacitly shared by Washington and Moscow, to prolong the status quo. A divided Germany suited both sides just fine, he suspected.

But when the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, offered up peaceful reunification on a platter, Kennan had a sudden change of heart. A big, powerful Germany was sure to have a destabilizing effect, he now contended. Although Kennan dashed off an op-ed in favor of perpetuating the division he had so forcefully argued against, German reunification proceeded anyway. Thin-skinned as usual, he took the setback personally. On a matter of high policy, authorities in Washington had once again ignored his views. “Very well,” Kennan pouted. “Agreed. They win; I lose. I am defeated.” In fact, to a considerable extent, subsequent developments vindicated the argument he had made decades earlier: German unification has made a European war less likely.

Then there is Kennan the Chicken Little of nuclear armageddon. Did his 1951 prediction that war with the Soviets would “break out within two years” hold any water? No more than did his insistence the following year that war had become “inevitable, or very nearly so.” More such pronouncements followed. Close to despair in 1988, Kennan confessed to having “no hope that a nuclear disaster can be avoided.” Within months, the Cold War ended.

On all matters related to race and ethnicity, Kennan harbored views that could charitably be described as unseemly if not morally obtuse. He considered apartheid unobjectionable in theory if a tad harsh in practice, advocating a gentler approach that would allow each side to preserve “the integrity of its own social life . . . rather than being subjected to a process of forced homogenization.”

And for all the abuse he heaped on Western civilization, Kennan held the non-West in even lower regard. If nothing good could come of modern civilization, he wrote in 1932, the “situation is essentially a biological one. No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young.” Visits to virtually every part of the world had persuaded him that the unfit — by which he meant “the Mediterraneans, the Moslems, the Latinos, the various non-WASPS of the 3rd and not-quite-3rd worlds” — were “destroying civilization with their proliferation.” As for immigrants entering the United States, he adamantly opposed “the reckless importation into our society . . . of masses of people of wholly different cultural habits, traditions, and outlooks, incompatible with our own.” Assimilating such groups would dilute the pedigreed Northern European stock that had formed the basis of a bygone America worthy of respect — the America of the nineteenth century, a time of “meaning, thought, beauty” — which was now lost forever.

Whether Kennan’s off-the-wall inclinations aided or undermined his performance in office is difficult to say. Kennan was to statecraft what James Dean was to acting or Sylvia Plath was to poetry. Once “discovered,” he burned brightly, but burned out quickly. Kennan had gained access to the inner circle of political power in February 1946, when his “long telegram,” written from Moscow, sounded the alarm about an emerging Soviet threat and took Washington by storm. Summoned home, he became a key adviser to Secretary of State George C. Marshall, helping to frame early Cold War strategy. He also won wide acclaim as the mysterious “Mr. X,” author of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the most famous article ever to appear in the journal Foreign Affairs.

But by January 1949 Kennan’s star was already in decline. Dean Acheson, who had replaced Marshall, found Kennan’s attitude toward power “rather mystical” and therefore less than helpful. After an interval when he had seemingly called the tune, Kennan suddenly found himself out of step.

During this interlude, The Kennan Diaries are all but silent. In 1946, Costigliola tells us, Kennan kept no diary. The following year there was a single entry — a poem. (It urged the seeker after Fortune who “Has heard the rustling of the Time-God’s raiment / And has contrived to touch the gleaming hem” to rest content, expecting no more — advice that Kennan himself declined to follow.) Only in 1949, with Kennan now increasingly marginalized, did the regularly scheduled rumination resume. So when Kennan mattered most as a historical figure, his diaries have the least to offer. It’s as if Samuel Pepys had skipped over the Great Plague or Henry Adams had omitted from his Education any mention of his visit to the Paris Exposition of 1900.

In 1953, Kennan retired from government service, embarking on a storied career as a scholar and public intellectual. A brief, ill-starred term in 1952 as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union had left him persona non grata in Moscow. Back in Washington, his standing was roughly comparable. John Foster Dulles, the hard-liner who was now secretary of state, shared Acheson’s aversion to mystical thinking and had no interest in providing meaningful employment to someone tainted by his association with the Democrats. Kennan concluded in retrospect that the years when he and the foreign-policy apparatus had “found ourselves momentarily on the same wave length” had been “accidental, fortuitous.”

Still, even though unceremoniously shown the door, Kennan never ceased hoping that he might one day be summoned back to Washington. From the 1950s through the 1980s, as presidents rotated in and out of the White House, he waited expectantly for the phone to ring, for Washington to call on him to save his unworthy countrymen and the teeming millions of wretches with whom Americans collaborated in besmirching the planet. Unless an abbreviated tour as John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia qualifies, the summons never came.

Instead, Kennan whiled away his time in leafy Princeton, New Jersey. There for several decades he occupied a comfortable position at the Institute for Advanced Study, surveying the past and commenting on the present. To stay in the limelight he wrote and lectured compulsively. “I fire my arrows into the air,” he commented with a hint of weariness.

Sometimes they strike nothing; sometimes they strike the wrong things; sometimes one or another of them strikes a bell and rings it, loud and clear. And then, if no other purpose is served, people are at least stimulated and helped to think.

The people Kennan wanted to stimulate, of course, were those who could get him back into the thick of things.

As he aged — he lived to be 101 — a return to active diplomatic service became ever less likely. At the same time, accolades piled up at an accelerating rate. By the 1980s, Kennan wagered that he had become “the most extensively honored private person in the country.” Yet as with many of those on whom the world showers recognition, what Kennan now symbolized had eclipsed who Kennan actually was. He himself recognized the problem. “I am being honored, in large part, not for what I really am but for what people think I am,” he wrote in 1990. “[L]ike an actor acting the part of someone other than himself, I must try to live up to the costume and to the part. My role is to sustain other people’s illusions.” Chief among these was the illusion, nurtured in elite political and academic circles, that effective and morally defensible statecraft remains possible. Kennan represented the lingering hope, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that policies formulated by wise men (and women) can tame or at least redirect historical currents.

That Kennan accomplished this after World War II is the central illusion propping up the Kennan myth. In fact, even Costigliola sees the illusion for what it is, writing in his introduction that the “emotionally charged, exaggerated depictions of the Soviet Union as an existential threat” that Kennan penned in 1946 and 1947 simply “spurred administration officials along the route they were already taking.”

Under Kennan’s watch, that route led directly to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the founding of NATO, policy initiatives that defined the parameters of the early Cold War. Yet in subsequent years it also led to the very nuclear-arms race Kennan later decried, to a rash of CIA-instigated coups and assassinations, and to a pattern of armed intervention that found U.S. troops fighting in places like Korea and Vietnam, not to mention, in our own day, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kennan’s successors appropriated concepts he had articulated and applied them in ways that went far beyond anything their author had imagined. Larger forces — personal ambition, collective paranoia, domestic politics, bureaucratic inertia, and corporate interests — combined, in different proportions at different times, to determine the actual character of U.S. policy. The memos and speeches of those ostensibly charged with “making” policy served largely as window dressing.

To explain actual outcomes, whether for good or ill, in terms of what some individual achieved or might have achieved if given the authority to act is clearly to misunderstand the workings of history. As an explanation for why the United States does what it does in the world, the original sin of American exceptionalism or the machinations of the national-security state offer a closer approximation to truth than do the scribblings of wise men, whether “architects” inside the policy apparatus or self-proclaimed prophets on the outside looking in.

The Kennan Diaries reveal in excruciating detail what made one such architect, or prophet, tick. But Kennan himself makes plain just how limited, flawed, and unwise he was. In that revelation may be found whatever redeeming value this book possesses.

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

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