Sketches From A Life
George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy
Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy
In the first volume of his Memoirs, published more than twenty years ago, George Kennan speaks of the “discomfort” he feels in the twentieth century, yet concludes that in playing the role of observer “it helps…to be the guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.” In the present volume of his diaries, compiled over a sixty-year period, he returns to that theme. The Western world, he muses in 1959, is composed of many people like himself “who have outlived their own intellectual and emotional environment” and have become
guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls—in a way a part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it.
The quality of being in but not fully of the world around him, of seeing and feeling things intensely, sometimes too intensely, it seems, for a man whose professional life obliged him to make practical decisions, lies very close to the center of George Kennan’s complex character. He has been in many ways an anomaly in American life, as his personal, often elegiac, diary “sketches” reveal—a traditionalist and communitarian in an aggressively modern, atomized society, an eighteenth-century romantic speaking in the idiom of contemporary Realpolitik, an authoritarian and elitist representing a nation dedicated to egalitarianism, a stylist of fine sensibility trapped in an environment of slogans and electronic serial images.
No one’s name has been associated more closely with the diplomacy of the cold war than Kennan’s. He laid down the lines of the containment doctrine that for the past forty years has guided—albeit in forms he later found exaggerated—American policy toward the Soviet Union. From his early career as a diplomat he has also been a policy maker, a critic, a historian, and the nearest thing we have in this country to a public philosopher. Today he stands in a position of respect, even of veneration, that transcends the borders of politics, just as his own writings—as these elegant “sketches” testify—go beyond criticism into literature and at times to eloquent poetic images. He is a master of language, an impassioned voice of wisdom of foreign affairs, our luminous emissary to the world.
And yet there is something marginal about this most honored but nonetheless deeply alienated product of American society. Ever since he officially left the diplomatic corps in 1953 after a brief and disastrous assignment as ambassador to Russia, he has been an observer and critic rather than a practitioner of power. But even during the quarter-century of his government career he worked mostly on the fringes, emerging from obscurity only in 1946 when his appeals for vigilance against Moscow caught the attention of Washington policy makers aquiver to new dangers and opportunities for action. Three years later he resigned from the policy-planning staff of the State Department, after having helped work out the Marshall Plan, and protested the militarization of containment. By that time he had already lost favor with his superiors and had acquired a reputation for being insufficiently alarmed by the Soviet threat and the spread of international communism into various third world backwaters.
His reluctance to engage in cynical manipulation or the kind of reductionism exemplified by Dean Acheson, who once boasted that he loosened the purse strings of Congress by describing some imminent Red peril or another in words rather “clearer than truth,” limited Kennan’s effectiveness as a governmental official. So did his hypersensitivity to criticism, his ineptitude at bureaucratic gamesmanship, his lack of administrative skills, his over-dramatization of issues, and his tendency toward emotionalism. But these very qualities served him superbly as a critic, and they transformed a failed diplomat into a historian and political commentator of deep insight and influence. “It is this very marginality,” the young historian Anders Stephanson demonstrates in his provocative study of Kennan’s political style, “that has allowed him to see things outside the common purview and to argue, rightly or wrongly, what no one in a ‘responsible’ political position could.”
Over the years Kennan was opposed to a considerable number of “responsible” positions: the development of the H-bomb, the dispatch of American troops across the 38th parallel during the Korean War, the partition and rearmament of Germany, the Vietnam War, the retreat from détente during much of the Carter and Reagan administrations, and the reliance on nuclear weapons as a method of “defense.” His campaign against instruments of mass destruction has made him a hero of the antinuclear movement. His eloquent plea for the abolition of such weapons is perhaps his most famous peroration. “For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness,” he exhorted the great powers in 1980.
You have a duty not just to the generation of the present—you have a duty to civilization’s past, which you threaten to render meaningless, and to its future, which you threaten to render nonexistent.
Increasingly, in response to his deep emotional feeling for nature, he has reached beyond politics, the demands of “national security,” and the posturing of statesmen and of nations, to appeal for the protection of the environment against its human predators.
The Kennan revealed in Sketches From a Life will not be surprising to those who have read his previous works carefully. The introspection, the asceticism, the sense of order and propriety, the tightly controlled emotions straining for release, the sharp insight, the unerring sense of the significant detail—all of these mark the style of a rich and subtle sensibility. So suggestive is this style, so seductive, that it envelops and even imprisons the reader in the author’s moral field. One may be exasperated by Kennan, but never unmoved. These sketches, together with the earlier two-volume Memoirs, stand alongside Henry Adams’s Education as American classics of style, intelligence, and democratic disillusion.
Rarely has such an exquisitely controlled prose been put in the service of political feeling and prescription. Rarely, too, in American letters, is the intensely personal fused with wider political concerns. Kennan’s sketches abound with feeling that flows across intellectual boundaries and an intense Iyricism that can infuse the most mundane event. But almost invariably there is the wider evocation. Take, for example, Kennan’s 1968 entry in which his teen-age son and some friends prepare for a sailing trip:
They looked, against this pitiless, barren background, like something out of a surrealist painting; and I was suddenly seized with a great pang of love and concern for these young creatures: so helpless, so vulnerable, so endangered despite all their changed voices, their incipient whiskers, and their great protective show of callous amusement over life—vulnerable and endangered not so much by the sea to which I was now entrusting them in my little boat, and not so much by the built-in tragic nature of the individual human predicament which men had always had to face, but rather by the enormity of what the human community was now doing to itself, with its overpopulation, its precipitate urbanization, its feverish hyperintensity of communication, its destruction of the natural environment, and its cultivation of weapons too terrible for the wisdom and strength of any that might command their custody and use.
To go from the particular to the general, from the stab of emotion to the impassioned or resigned exortation—that capacity is what takes these sketches beyond verbal brilliance, and puts Kennan’s art in the service of an intense personal vision.
There is in these pieces, some a few paragraphs long, others of several pages, a stripping away of dissimulation, even in the rather self-conscious entries written when he was very young. Kennan demands that his reactions be felt as well as heard, and what one observes in so many of them, and particularly as they build in power and urgency as the years pass, is the event eating into his consciousness and forming, like acid biting into the copper plate of an engraving, images one could not have foreseen. Writing in 1960 of wandering among the ruins in the once imperial center of Berlin on a twilight evening, he becomes aware of “a stillness, a beauty, a sense of infinite, elegiac sadness and timelessness such as I have never experienced,…the measureless tragedy of the Second World War—the millions of dead, the endless seas of bereavement and sorrow.”
Then, at the top of a flight of enormous steps leading to the remains of the cathedral, he sees
half-hidden in the shadows three adolescent boys—motionless, themselves like statues, themselves silent, endlessly alone and abandoned; and their lost, defiant figures burned themselves into my vision to the point where I see them still today—elbows on the knees, chins resting on the palms of hands—the embodiment of man’s lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand.
So in Kennan we find a lyric poet, a moralist with a tragic vision of life and an ineradicable sense of the futility of most human endeavors, though one who never succumbs to a nihilistic pessimism. Yet how are we to relate this explorer of the human condition to the other Kennan: the detached analyst of national interest, the dispassionate diplomatic historian, the cold war policy maker, the antinuclear activist? This is the task of interpreters, and both David Mayers and Anders Stephanson, in very different ways, help to illuminate what Kennan has done and what he believes.
Mayers’s book is the more straight-forward, and also the more conventional, of the two, a political and intellectual biography that carries on and expands Barton Gellman’s excellent study of a few years ago, Contending with Kennan (Praeger, 1984). A conscientious and scrupulously fair scholar, Mayers examines Kennan’s works and career with a thoroughness never before attempted. He cites liberally from published and unpublished sources, puts events into perspective, assesses the dominant motifs of Kennan’s character, explains why these made him a more effective diagnostician of American problems than practitioner of its diplomacy, and places him firmly in the conservative intellectual tradition.
While generally admiring of his subject, Mayers takes him to task for a “conservative utopianism” marked by an “incurably romantic attachment to the past,” for “racial and ethnic stereotyping,” and for an “anti-democratic” approach to politics. Kennan the conservative, with his sympathy for the system of apartheid and authoritarianism, and his contemptuous dismissal of the third world as too neurotic, violent, and corrupt to bother about jars tender liberal sensibilities. But Mayers does not let his annoyance with Kennan’s temperament interfere with a rigorous and objective assessment. His is a serious work that provides the best detailed account we have of Kennan as diplomat, analyst, and critic.
Kennan seems to be an inexhaustible subject—not only because he played both sides during the cold war, first as architect, then as critic, but also because of the very prejudices and sensibilities that so powerfully shape his Sketches. One of the many virtues of Stephanson’s idiosyncratic analysis of Kennan as a policy maker and thinker is the way this nimble scholar leaps across conventional intellectual boundaries. While writing what is essentially diplomatic history, he draws heavily on theories of ethics, aesthetics, and ideology. Such lines of inquiry are not normally pursued, if indeed they are even recognized, by social scientists. But they are ideally suited to the scrutiny of a man whose own thinking defies easy categorization.