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 …