George Kennan’s second and concluding volume of memoirs tells such an unrelieved story of failure as a State Department adviser and ambassador that it is just as well that he has no more “public” life as a diplomat to describe. There is surely no other American Foreign Service officer of our time, no regular State Department man, whose ambition to influence our policy has been so intense and so well-publicized—and who at the same time blames himself so severely for the “personal” lapses which he thinks have often been responsible for his failure to redirect the government. At the same time it is impossible to think of any other American so well informed on Russia, so expert and loving on the Russian language, so authoritative on the continuity of Russian political habits, whose deep-seated ambition is so little to be a scholar alone in his study.
Kennan has, of course, written excellent diplomatic history. Ever since 1950, when he first retired to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study, he has been of necessity, faute de mieux, a research scholar, except for his two well-known “failures” as ambassador to Russia in the last months of Truman’s administration and as Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia. But a life devoted to scholarship has never been Kennan’s idea of reality; he has everything it takes to make a scholar except the ability to enjoy being alone and (in the eyes of the world) unimportant. To judge by the indifferently polite and remote notes about academia in this book, reliving the Russian past will never satisfy this extraordinarily charged, ambitious, Olympian yet always self-lacerating man.
Kennan entered the Foreign Service at twenty-one. Though he first left it in 1950, at forty-six, he was constantly being called back as a consultant, and he was understandably sent by Truman and Acheson to Moscow. Yet both his horror of Russia in Stalin’s last years and his opposition to Acheson’s high-handed militarism are typical, like so much else in Kennan’s career, of a tendency to stand out from the usual rut of diplomatic life (though this has been his life), a tendency to assert essential new positions for his country without being able to pursue them and/or to persuade those who had the power to change policy.
George Kennan is indeed like no one else in the contemporary American picture. The conflict of his essentially institutional style with his easily despairing, even “religious” temperament is reflected in the paradox of his distinction as a historian, which gives him less joy than his powerful but disregarded memoranda to State. And it is reflected in his austere, shrewd, realistic, yet modestly tactical thinking, first on the “containment” of Russia, then against the all-out cold-war policy. For though Kennan was a hundred times right in trying to persuade Washington that the Soviet ambition was not a military invasion of Western Europe, his own total despair of both the Soviet system and of postwar American society made his positions seem abstract, rigid,…
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