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The Radical

Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy

by George F. Kennan
Norton, 272 pp., $22.95

George Kennan is an odd case in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The republic these days has little to offer in the form of sages—persons of wisdom and experience to whom the young may look for counsel and guidance. A diplomat who began his professional career two thirds of a century ago, a historian whose work has won the respect of fellow scholars (and a couple of Pulitzer prizes), an admired analyst of current affairs and sought-after witness before congressional committees, Mr. Kennan is a man to whom the informed public at least listens, even if it often does not heed him. As his new book shows, he writes in his eighty-eighth year as trenchantly and elegantly as ever. Though Mr. Kennan has felt himself to be, like other prophets, not without honor save in his own country, he is indisputably an American sage.

The collapse of communism and the end of the cold war have come as the most recent certification of his sagacity. Forty-six years ago, his celebrated “X” essay advocated the containment of the Soviet Union in order to “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”1 As recently as 1989, a historian of the revisionist school rather patronizingly dismissed the containment policy:

Kennan’s faith in liberation, or a dramatic “mellowing” that included Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, were [sic] the products of wishful, rather than realistic, thinking…. It is difficult to imagine any American approach that could have achieved his aims of liberation, or a Soviet capitulation, but Kennan blamed American society rather than accepting any responsibility for the misperceptions that governed U.S. policy.2

Once again, the cold war revisionists got it wrong. The “gradual mellowing of Soviet power” under Gorbachev was of course followed by “break-up,” and history has surely vindicated Mr. Kennan’s half-century-old remedy for the cold war.

What of the accusation that Mr. Kennan “blamed American society”? In fact he concluded his “X” essay by describing the cold war as “a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” Instead of complaining about the Kremlin’s challenge to American society, the “thoughtful observer,” he wrote,

will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

Did the West win the cold war because the American people pulled themselves together and accepted those weighty responsibilities to which history summoned them? In part, Around the Cragged Hill is Mr. Kennan’s fairly disconsolate comment on this question. More directly his new book is a response to scholars who, he notes, have labored to extract from his writings “something resembling a coherent personal and political philosophy” and have come away “frustrated, or at least bewildered.”

Sentence by sentence, Mr. Kennan writes with admirable lucidity. The problem arises when people try to formulate a Kennan system. In his perceptive book Contending with Kennan, Barton Gellman cites one critic (unnamed) who compared the job of isolating Kennan’s premises to archaeology. The sage’s views

must be inferred and collected as fragments scattered in layers through his writing over time. The collector of these fragments will want to fit them together, like the paleontologist’s museum display…. At the end of the exercise, worst of all, you may find you are left with a few extra pieces, which seem to fit nowhere.3

I was moved,” Mr. Kennan admits, by such complaints, and he ascribes the frustration of the commentators to his own incorrigible preference for the concrete over the abstract and for life over theory. Given his incapacity for systematization, the best he can do to satisfy his critics, he thinks, is to turn his eyes

to a number of things that interest me as an individual. If the reflections this arouses lack any apparent universal applicability…this is because the writer sees little unity in the phenomena observed. But this does not preclude the possibility that there will become apparent to the attentive reader a unity the author himself has been unable to discover.

Around the Cragged Hill does, I believe, possess an underlying unity, even though the reader may be left with a few extra pieces that seem to fit nowhere. What unifies the book is a certain old-American sensibility, defined by a commitment to lofty national ideals, contempt for betrayers of those ideals, a sturdy capacity for indignation, an instinct for elegance in prose and in life; above all, by the conviction that true patriotism lies in holding the republic up to its own best standards.

This is the quality one recalls in old-fashioned Anglo-Americans like William James, Henry Adams, John Dewey, Edmund Wilson, Charles A. Beard, and in non-Anglo-Americans like Carl Schurz, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Lippmann, Richard Hofstadter. These men made their vigorous mistakes and often disagreed volubly among themselves. But they shared a moral and aesthetic temper that doesn’t seem to be much around these days when bien-pensants in the universities repudiate the idea of a distinctive American identity.

Mr. Kennan almost cherishes his sense of estrangement, but he is less estranged from the ideal of America than from modern culture, which, he feels, has done in the ideal. His concern finds appropriate expression in what Perry Miller long ago identified as America’s earliest literary genre—the jeremiad, the lamentation over the ways of fallen humanity. A traditionalist yearning for older days, he rues the present.

Of Scotch and English stock, reared in an austere Presbyterian atmosphere, he approaches his subjects with the neo-Calvinist diagnosis of “man, the cracked vessel” and of the tragic character of the human predicament. He sees history in Burkean terms as an organic process, not amenable to mechanical contrivance and ideological reform. Messianic and utopian fantasies only prove the human capacity for self-delusion. His view of life is not without irony, but it is basically somber. The paradox, and the charm, of Around the Cragged Hill lie in the way that traditionalist premises lead in the context of our own day to radical conclusions.

The book’s title comes from Donne’s Satyre III—the image of Truth standing on a huge hill, cragged and steep, about and about which he who would reach Truth must go.4 In patient response to the demands for his basic philosophy, Mr. Kennan circles around a variety of topics that interest him. He begins by explaining his rejection of the perfectibility of man. Human nature is rather the arena of an unending struggle

between the primitive nature of [man’s] innate impulses and the more refined demands of civilized life, contradictions that destroy the unity and integrity of his undertakings, confuse his efforts, place limits on his possibilities for achievement, and often cause one part of his personality to be the enemy of another. Whipped around, freqently knocked off balance, by these conflicting pressures, he staggers through life as best he can, sometimes reaching extraordinary heights of individual achievement but never fully able to overcome, individually or collectively, the fissures between his own physical and spiritual natures.

The “true glory” of life is to be discovered “in the inherent worthiness of the struggle rather than in the visible prospects for success.”

In Mr. Kennan’s case (though not in all) such thoughts rest on a religious basis, and, without insisting on an elaborate theology, he sets forth in poignant terms his personal understanding and use of Christianity. As for organized religion, he declines to idealize the “great ecclesiastical establishments…. I can see in all of them at one time or another manifestations of bigotry, intolerance, narrowness, sometimes even cruelty…. But I also see them as leading institutions of Western civilization.” The qualities he seeks to live by—“in the outward sense…such things as generosity, kindness, courtesy, understanding, patience, and certain kinds of loyalty. In the inward sense…modesty, self-control, self-discipline, sensitivity to the dictates of conscience, awareness of one’s own imperfections and the effort to struggle against them, humbleness in the face of one’s failures”—he ascribes to the cultural-religious climate in which he was reared.

He then turns to the nature of government—an institution he regards as morally neutral, less effective as a means of realizing man’s noble impulses than of restraining ignoble ones. The tasks of government, he feels, are uninspiring and unpleasant. Power is poison; decisions are morally ambiguous; domestic politics subverts the national interest; yet the dirty job has to be done. When he was a young man growing up in the interwar period of disillusion with democracy, Mr. Kennan harbored a certain preference for benevolent authoritarianism, but he later came to doubt that unchecked authority would remain benevolent and to recognize the considerable advantages of polities based on the balancing of power. Yet he finds “no reason to suppose that ‘democracy’ along West European or American lines is necessarily, or even probably, the ultimate fate of all humanity.” Nor, unless nondemocratic systems threaten our vital interests, should such systems in other countries worry us. “We are not their keepers. We never will be.”

The nation-state, Mr. Kennan goes on to point out, is a relatively modern contrivance, and he scorns the assumption that it is the permanent form in which the world will hereafter be cast. The theoretical equality of all nations, by which China and St. Lucia each have the same vote in the UN General Assembly, is an illusion. In mass society nationalism, “the greatest emotional-political force of the age,” easily turns into a horror. He loathes

the flag-waving, the sententious oratory, the endless reminders of the country’s greatness, the pious incantations of the oath of allegiance, and the hushed, pseudo-religious atmosphere of national ceremony. Hence the self-righteous intolerance toward those who decline to share in these various ritualistic enactments.

This is hardly the prevailing view of contemporary American conservatism.

Nor, Kennan writes, have Americans been exempt from the contagion of hypernationalism and the attendant illusion that our superior virtue has conferred on the United States the mission to redeem the sinful world. Here Mr. Kennan mostly recapitulates familiar wisdom, calling, as he has called before, for a “less ambitious and more self-effacing” foreign policy, one that will abstain from interference in the internal affairs of other nations, recognize our “first duty to the national interest” but never forget that

the greatest service this country could render to the rest of the world would be to put its own house in order and to make of American civilization an example of decency, humanity, and societal success from which others could derive whatever they might find useful to their own purposes.

The time has passed, he writes, for the stationing of American forces in Europe; he would cut back on aid to the third world; and, almost more emphatically than before, he calls for the rescue of the career foreign service from the invasion of its functions by other departments of government:

  1. 1

    X,”The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

  2. 2

    W.L. Hixson, George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast (Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 44, 303.

  3. 3

    Barton Gellman, Contending with Kennan: Toward a Philosophy of American Power (Praeger, 1984), pp. xiv-xv.

  4. 4

    Taking note of current sensitivities, Mr. Kennan explains in a footnote that he uses the word “man” as a synonym for “mankind,” and “the pronoun will accordingly take the masculine form. I see in this usage no occasion for apology.” One would agree in general, but did no editor suggest that the more felicitous object for the synonym would have been “humankind”?

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