The Kennan Diaries, George Kennan.

Edited by Frank Costigliola W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

The wisdom of George F. Kennan — and he truly was a wise man, a term that has been debauched by overuse in Washington DC, applied to almost any senior official who manages to make it to octogenarian status — was never fully accepted by his countrymen. To be sure, Kennan was treated as a man of profound discernment, eminence, and erudition, but perhaps he was right to feel that the acceptance remained somewhat lacking. Kennan’s long service abroad during the 1920s and 1930s — he was a foreign service official in Riga, where he learned Russian, in Moscow, and in Berlin — had steeped him in the European culture he quickly came to cherish and prompted him to mourn what had gone to smash during World War I. 

But his sensitivity to the way other countries thought and felt and behaved did not always endear him to his superiors. Put bluntly, in America he wasn’t always seen as fully reliable. Dean Acheson, who served as secretary of state to Harry Truman and appointed Kennan head of the Policy Planning Staff, admired Kennan’s intellect but mistrusted his political and strategic judgments. Kennan, he felt, had too much of the Quaker in him and was too emotional. His successor, John Foster Dulles, who had huffed and puffed about rolling back communism, terminated Kennan’s employment at his beloved State Department, a rebuff that Kennan felt keenly. Thereafter, Kennan never really occupied centre stage in the Washington political drama, but served as a commentator and sage from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, where he made his new home. His rival Paul Nitze helped make strategy in NSC-68, setting the Cold War on a bellicose footing that Kennan never felt comfortable about. 

Kennan, who had devised the containment doctrine in both the 1946 Long Telegram and the 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs, felt that his warnings about Stalin’s sinister intentions had been converted into a global conflict that he never desired or thought necessary. As Kennan saw it, the safe course was simply to recognise the danger and contain it. The cold warriors, by contrast, sought a militarised America, with the Soviet Union merely serving as the first target. If this approach to international relations — and the intellectual disputations it engendered — sounds familiar, it should. Today, the neoconservatives in Washington who, much to Kennan’s distress, helped engineer the war in Iraq, argue that it is not enough to contain Iran, but, rather, a fresh war toppling the mullahs in Tehran is necessary. To what extent should America intervene abroad? Does it provoke more mischief than it solves? Has it decayed into an empire, or, is it, at a minimum, acting imperially? 

These are the sorts of questions that Kennan pondered for most of his life. 

Now, in The Kennan Diaries, edited by Frank Costigliola, it is possible to gain a further glimpse into Kennan’s agonised meditations about America and its conduct of foreign affairs. The diaries range across the decades, from childhood to his final months in 2004. Almost up to the very end, Kennan retained his acute judgments. The diaries confirm his melancholy temperament, coupled with profound insights into culture and history. A man of the nineteenth century, Kennan winced at the barbarity and vulgarity of modern life. He was a Henry Adams thrust into the hurly-burly of America at the zenith of its influence and power, both of which he respected and dreaded. 

What emerges so vividly from Kennan’s memoirs is how often he got it right. In brooding about the impending Iraq war in 2001, he observed that Bush was leading America into “multiple, unnecessary, and grave dangers…” He added, “I can only be inwardly prepared for what is coming, and mumble helplessly, as did the discarded and dying Bismarck, ‘Wehe meinen Enkeln.’ (God help my grandchildren.)” Kennan never succumbed to the delusion that America could remake the world overnight. Quite the contrary. He had a deep sense of foreboding about the employment of American military might abroad. 

Some of Kennan’s more rebarbative comments are apt to make even the most sympathetic reader recoil. Kennan hearkened back to earlier times in more ways than one. His views were often quite retrograde. He saw America as having drifted woefully off course into decadence and idleness. It needed an aristocracy of spirit to restore it to its true greatness. In many ways, he loathed America. Writing in 1955 he wallowed in cultural despair: 

“It is my country that has left me, the country I thought and knew and understood. As for the rest, I could leave it without a pang: the endless streams of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshield, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, the hot dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick houses…”

And so on. 

Nor was Kennan restrained, at least in his private writings, about lamenting the fading away of Anglo-Saxon civilisation. As late as 1978, he mused about the fact that he was traveling to Los Angeles, where the “majority of births are to people of Latin origin, and where people of British origin, from whose forefathers the constitutional structure and political ideals of the early America once emerged, are not only a dwindling but a disintegrating minority.” He feared “one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness. Exceptions may be only the Jews and Chinese, who tend to avoid intermarriage, and, for a time, the Negroes as well.” 

How seriously should one take these lucubrations about the state of humanity? No doubt they reflected longstanding beliefs on Kennan’s part. He was a fairly gelid character who appeared to react with impassivity to the plight of the Jews during World War II, particularly when he was serving in the Czechoslovakian embassy during the Nazi takeover in 1938. And he had drawn up a proposal in the 1930s for segregating Jews and blacks from service in the American government. But whether these views filtered into his treatment of individuals is another matter. 

Nevertheless, Kennan was overly sympathetic to the apartheid regime in South Africa as well as a number of other unsavoury dictatorships. There was a distinctly authoritarian streak in him. In 1984, for example, he sketched out his idea of a utopian society in which “men having spawned more than 2 children will be compulsively sterilized” — an edict that Kennan, who fathered three, presumably did not himself follow. He also wanted to “re-primitivize and localize the economic process … Automobiles, except for the most essential purposes, will be in every way discouraged.” 

The most perspicuous parts of the diaries excerpted here often come in Kennan’s assessments of his great contemporaries. Kennan, for example, was fiercely attacked by the journalist Walter Lippmann for making extravagant claims in his “X” article. Lippmann suggested that Kennan was offering too sweeping a role for America — exactly the charge that Kennan would come to level at the cold warriors. The charge stung. But in his diaries Kennan also offers a personal reason for why Lippmann might have targeted him for criticism: “Lippmann greatly resented me for my arrogance in writing the X-article, and, above all, writing it for Foreign Affairs, a journal for the contributing to which he had disqualified himself for personal reasons.” (Lippmann had stolen the wife of the journal’s editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong from him, a true establishment scandal.) Kennan added, “He felt challenged and provoked by the fact that an unknown pipsqueak such as myself should have written, on a subject of which he saw himself as the dean of commentators, an article that became the object of such massive public attention. I never lost my respect for him.” 

For all Kennan’s own manifest insecurities — and they are on full and sometimes uncomfortable display in these diary excerpts, which also offer a testament to his exacting standards and refusal to exempt himself from self-scrutiny — he did prove quite prophetic about the course of the Soviet Union. Kennan’s point all along was that the Soviet Union was being hollowed out from within, that Stalinism had created a society in which ideological obedience was indispensable and once the nimbus of success began to fade, the system itself would collapse, almost as if it had never existed in the first place. Kennan viewed the arms race as emblematic of what he saw as the “flat and inflexible thinking of the Pentagon, in which the false mathematics of relative effectiveness in the weapons of mass destruction was given a sort of an absolute value and all other possible factors dismissed from the equation as of no demonstrable importance.” What Kennan was saying was that culture and history also mattered. It wasn’t possible to reduce the cold war to a mano-a-mano contest in which one side accumulated more weaponry than the other and that this would in itself ensure victory. In the event, the Cold War ended peacefully, an incredible accomplishment that has not been fully understood or comprehended. 

Instead, the neoconservatives in Washington, to Kennan’s dismay, interpreted the end of the Cold War as a referendum on military might and set about finding the next enemy to annihilate. Kennan’s sagacity, however, may be enjoying a revival as the kind of realism that he exemplified appears to be making a modest comeback. Both the Obama administration and a smattering of Republican legislators appear to be reconsidering America’s expansive commitments abroad and to be arguing for more selective engagement. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation a year ago, Senator Rand Paul — a likely Republican presidential candidate — explicitly invoked Kennan as a model. As America seeks a new role abroad, Kennan’s counsel and example is more vital than ever.