Memoirs 1925-1950 is the story of a sensitive, intelligent boy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who goes off to Europe, where he gains fame, if not fortune, in the service of his country, and after many trials and tribulations discovers that nobody ever understood him. It is a sad tale in which the author suffers mightily from snubs, rebuffs, frustrations, discomfort, and the boorishness of his fellow countrymen. Although he deserves a better fate than he meets, he keeps a stiff upper lip through his adversities, and eventually triumphs over defeat by finding a better life in the cloisters of Princeton, New Jersey.
For all its sadness, the story is an inspiring one that will move many readers to emotions of pity and indignation: pity for a man who was too wise to be listened to by his superiors; indignation at a system that did not provide him with even greater rewards and recognition than he received. It was George Kennan’s misfortune to live in a crass country and in a century where his finest qualities were not truly appreciated. In this lengthy reminiscence, gleaned from voluminous diary notes, unread documents, unpublished poems and travel impressions, thumbnail sketches of famous and obscure individuals, attempts at self-analysis, and accounts of crises and decisions in which the author was involved, the reader gains a new impression of a man who has become the nearest thing to a legend that this country’s diplomatic service has ever produced. These memoirs are expertly written, often fascinating, and in many ways depressing. In them this hero is transformed before our eyes into a very fallible mortal, and in some ways even into an anti-hero. What the author conceives as an eighteenth-century autobiography turns into a twentieth-century tale of alienation, very modern, very sad, and unintentional.
FOR ALL ITS LIMITATIONS, this is an important book, both as diplomatic history and as intellectual biography. These memoirs are more than a recollection of a distinguished, if disappointing, career in diplomacy. More than an explanation of how the embassy in Moscow is run, or what the author thought of Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, or how the Russians took over Eastern Europe. They are about a man as much as about a time: a man of intelligence and integrity whose effectiveness was hobbled by insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and a tendency toward selfpity. A man who counsels the virtues of being, like himself, “a guest of one’s time and not a member of its household”; who was “concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it”; who recognized “that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would”; who watched the Nazi rise to power, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the devastation of Rotterdam with analytical dispassion, but who was painfully wounded when snubbed at Princeton as an undergraduate, or when his superiors forgot to make a place for him on a special diplomat’s train from Rome to Berlin. Forever giving warnings that went unheeded and penning diplomatic dispatches that remained unread, Kennan shows himself in these memoirs as one who struggled to protect the interests of the United States in distant lands, yet who became increasingly estranged from his own compatriots. His book is an effort at self-analysis—a thinly-disguised confessional. What he reveals is not always flattering, but it offers a fascinating insight into a career which fell short of what it might have been, and suggests why this may have been the case.
Kennan is perhaps the most impressive figure ever to have emerged from the shadowy labyrinth of the American diplomatic establishment. His quarter-century in the Foreign Service was marked by loneliness and frustration, by dubious triumphs, and finally by the taste of ashes. These memoirs end with his departure from the Foreign Service, and with his frustration when he felt that he would never be able to translate his views into policy. By 1950 he decided that his usefulness was at an end, and, as he left the State Department to begin his second career as an historian at Princeton, he wondered, speaking of himself and his friend Chip Bohlen, “Whether the day had not passed when the government had use for the qualities of persons like ourselves—for the effort at cool and rational analysis in the unfirm substance of the imponderables.” Much of his dissatisfaction was due to the nature of the organization in which he spent so many years of his life. But equally responsible were some traits of Kennan’s own personality. He was used by the Foreign Service, and sometimes used badly. He became a gadfly intellectual whose views were accepted when others found them convenient, and rejected when they were troublesome or untimely. But he also used the State Department for his own purposes. It provided him with a forum that permitted him to influence policy—although not always in the way he would have preferred.
He is hard on the State Department, and rightly so, for its inability to find a place for perceptive and grating individuals like himself is one of its gravest shortcomings. But in the 1920s the Foreign Service was an entirely appropriate place for the unformed but perceptive and intelligent George Kennan to make his hesitant entry into the world. He chose it, he confesses, because “I feared falling into some sort of occupational rut and I thought that I would be best protected in the Foreign Service from doing so.” The decision was a good one, as he himself admits, and if in the years that followed he berated his superiors for their unresponsiveness to his suggestions, he nonetheless cherished the bureaucracy for the protective coloration it offered. Kennan gave himself to the discipline of the Foreign Service, rose rapidly within its clogged hierarchy, gained more from it than he may yet recognize, and suffered from its virtually unavoidable limitations. The Foreign Service did more than make Kennan famous: it made him what he is. Without it he would no doubt have become a distinguished scholar. Perhaps a professor of history at Harvard or Chicago. But by training him in Russian and German, by taking him away from his parochial preoccupations and exposing him to an international setting, it transformed a self-doubting, neurotic boy from Wisconsin into a world statesman. In so doing, however, it alienated him even further from the country whose interests he sought to protect, but whose manners and whose qualities he came to look upon with a coldness bordering on contempt.
The opening chapter of the memoirs is certainly the most revealing, and in many ways the most interesting part of this book, for it offers a clue to Kennan’s puzzling character. Although telling us little about his family, he introduces us to the “grubby military school cadet” who lived “in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them.” It was a private world filled with monsters and demons, in which he imagined a perfectly ordinary brick building in Milwaukee to be “a house of horror—horror unnamed, unmentionable, not to be imaged.” This horror of the unknown remained with him throughout his life, coloring his perceptions and his diplomatic dispatches with a touch of paranoia. Retreating to his private world, he rejected the unpleasantness of the actual one as though it were an aberration that did not concern him personally. He yearned for the tidier world of the eighteenth century and freely confesses “the discomfort I experience in my own status as a contemporary of the twentieth.” He liked to think of himself as the child of a happier, more reflective, more aristocratic age, in which his secret qualities would be admired, and in which less worthy figures would tender the respect that was due.
SUFFERING TERRIBLY from feelings of social inadequacy, he unerringly chose to attend the college that would intensify these feelings to the utmost: Princeton. There, unsurprisingly, he found himself “always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few.” It brought out all his latent masochism and self-pity, filled him with admiration for those he considered to be his social superiors, and intensified his growing sense of isolation. He considered himself “an oddball on campus, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye.” Although invited to join an undergraduate club, he later resigned and became what he terms one of the “social rejects,” most of whom were scarred “by the realization that they had been held to judgment by their fellow students and found wanting.” It was a judgment that has haunted Kennan throughout his life, persuaded him to see himself as another Gatsby, infinitely worthy but never fully appreciated, forever on the fringes of the real elite, and although occasionally allowed to enter the mansion and converse with the swells, never to feel a part of it. “The portrayal,” he confesses,
in the hauntingly beautiful epilogue to The Great Gatsby of the Midwesterner’s reaction to the fashionable East held, to be sure, such familiarity for me that when I first read it, while still in college, I went away and wept unmanly tears.
Rather than curing him of his social insecurity, Princeton intensified it, leaving him with yearnings that could never be fulfilled and anxieties that could never be assuaged. It fed his sense of isolation and contributed to the feelings of martyrdom that color these memoirs. Nobody understood him, nobody wanted him, nobody appreciated him. He chose the Foreign Service because of its “protective paternalism,” and perhaps because it provided a certain social cachet, but he resented its slowness to appreciate his merits. It was, in a sense, Princeton all over again. Although he remained in the club for a quarter-century, he never really felt a part of it, nor was he fully accepted by those on top, whom he viewed with mixed resentment and admiration. Ignored for many years, his political-literary dispatches unread or unacted upon, he saw himself as a prophet forever doomed to murmur his warnings in the wilderness.
These feelings were intensified by his experience in Russia, where his personal sense of isolation combined with the real isolation that is the lot of foreign residents. To him the Soviet Union was a nightmare and he could never understand why his sentiments of horror and outrage toward it were not fully shared by his superiors in Washington. There were times when he thought it must be part of some conspiracy, and he periodically detected “the smell of Soviet influence, or strongly pro-Soviet influence, somewhere in the higher reaches of the government.” But more often it was simply due to the failure of others to understand him. “There will be no place,” he wrote in 1944 when Washington and Moscow were still allies in the struggle against Hitler, “for the American who is really willing to undertake this disturbing task” of understanding Russia. “The best he can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow, and where few will consent to believe that he has been.”