An American Family: The Kennans
The First Three Generations
Most people know George Kennan as a diplomat, perhaps the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century. During the twenty-five years that he spent in the Foreign Service he was always at the center of things. In the early 1930s he helped to set up the first US embassy in the Soviet Union. He was in Prague during the Munich crisis in 1938 and in Berlin during the first two and a half years of World War II. As the State Department’s first chief of the Policy Planning Staff in 1947 he was instrumental in setting up the Marshall Plan. At the same time in the famous “long telegram” and the “X” article in Foreign Affairs he warned of the dangers of trusting the Soviet Union, and set forth the idea of “containment” as the basis for American policy toward its former ally in World War II. Few American diplomats have had that kind of career or influence on foreign policy.
But despite all these diplomatic accomplishments, Kennan has actually devoted most of his adult life to scholarship. Except for brief spells as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the 1960s, he has spent the past half-century at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, mainly writing his memoirs and a number of distinguished and elegant works of history.
It is as a historian that Kennan feels most at ease, and it is for his histor-ical work that he most wants to be remembered. Of course, as he once said, what “prominent people…see as their greatest contributions to the life of their times is not always what posterity sees in that way.” He knows that over the past four or five decades his contributions to the public discussion of nuclear weapons, Soviet–American relations, and other contemporary issues have received the most public attention. But he regards all these public disagreements with his government about foreign policy as part-time diversions, exciting and interesting no doubt, but not to be compared to his long-term professional dedication to history-writing.
Although Kennan has never written any lengthy treatise on writing history, he has written a number of short but perceptive essays that self-consciously deal with the nature of the craft. In 1986 he gave an address to the American Academy of Arts and Letters that describes as nicely as anyone has in fewer than three thousand words exactly what history-writing is about. Many people, he says, think of the historian as the sixteenth-century English poet Sir Philip Sidney did, as a man “laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself for the most part on other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay, better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age…curious for antiquities,…inquisitive of novelties, a wonder to young folks, and a tyrant in table-talk.” Perhaps, Kennan admits, some historians are like that, but that is not the character of most historians. They are not mere purveyors…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.