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:

Victim for over sixty years to ignorance, indifference, domestic politics, and envy in many quarters, what was once supposed to be a well-selected, well-educated, well-trained, well-disciplined, and devoted corps of career civil servants, men and women, schooled to the service of the nation in a particular field and all held to the same competitive standards in selection and promotion, the Foreign Service has been steadily kicked around by official Washington until what remains of it today, to be sure, is a considerable band of faithful individuals, serving with intelligence and devotion at foreign posts not because of the way the government has treated them but in spite of it…. The American diplomatic missions abroad…are now packed with outsiders, the children of other and more influential departments of government, to a point where the members of the Foreign Service find themselves, like once the unhappy wife and son of Homer’s Ulysses, barely tolerated guests in their own home…. This, I suppose, is all that could be expected of a government that knows and cares as little as does our own about the traditional institutions of diplomacy and the needs they imply.

But Mr. Kennan also strikes some new notes. He is troubled and uncertain about the idea of human rights as a foreign policy objective. For a sanctimonious United States to present itself as the moral judge of other nations, licensed to meddle in their peculiar problems, grates on his sensibilities as a historian and violates his theory of the proper conduct of foreign relations. And yet, and yet: he cannot deny the worthiness of the cause and concedes that the results have been “in a number of respects beneficial…. This would suggest that in certain circumstances there may be greater value in these human rights demands than I have been inclined to attribute to them.” In the new age, “internal problems of sovereign states are now becoming in increasing measure international ones as well,” a situation that calls for “new modalities and institutions for international collaboration.”

Mr. Kennan thus finds new merit in the United Nations and in multilateral diplomacy—an argument that derives particular force from his earlier doubts. In 1945 he had even hoped that President Roosevelt would give up on the entire idea of the UN, and in later years his condemnation of “the legalistic-moralistic approach to international relations”5 led him to skepticism about international institutions and to reliance on unilateral American action. Now the UN appears to him “the only symbol of the community of fate that links all the branches of the human family. It would be an immense loss—a loss to civilization generally—were that ideal to be neglected or abandoned.”

The UN, moreover, is a necessary adjunct to a restrained American role. The end of the cold war has increased the salience of the UN in dealing with world problems. “This will not mean divesting ourselves of all responsibility for the treatment of the problems in question; it will mean only that our efforts, instead of being unilateral, will be exercised through the UN, in multilateral bodies.”

Not the self-trumpeting leader in great moral causes but the modest, willing worker together with others in the vineyard of international collaboration: that is the image of itself that America should wish to project to others, but primarily to itself, as the twenty-first century, so replete with uncertainties and dangers, begins to impose itself upon us.

Another departure in Mr. Kennan’s reflections on world affairs is the disappearance of Congress as a leading villain in the formation of foreign policy. In the past, he has had good reason for detesting the legislative branch. Recalling the assaults of Joe McCarthy on the Foreign Service and his own experience as Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia in trying to stop Congress from canceling Yugoslavia’s most-favored-nation status, he could not in other days conceal his scorn for the low levels of enlightenment, knowledge, and moral courage he found in the legislative branch. But this theme is muted in Around the Cragged Hill—no doubt because in recent years the presidency has been the source of vainglory in foreign affairs and Congress has often been the only check on executives who claim to be saving the world.

In the second part of the book Mr. Kennan turns his attention to the condition of American society. Here too he takes up themes he has expressed before. He finds a nation grievously wounded by modern tendencies—by unbridled technology, by unbridled free enterprise, by the cults of consumerism and growth, by the proliferation of cities, by the spread of bureaucracy, by the overfondness of bigness, by the overdoing of egalitarianism. He looks about and sees

environmental deterioration; the decline of educational standards; crime; drug abuse; in general, the dreadful conditions in the urban ghettos; the national budget deficit;…attitudes of hopelessness, skepticism, cynicism, and bewilderment, particularly among the youth—that have led many observers to characterize this society (and, I think, not unjustly) as a “sick” one.

He devotes a chapter to “The Addictions,” by which he means the national infatuations with the automobile, with television, with advertising, all of which he has denounced before but which move him now to new heights of biting eloquence. The automobile is marked by its extreme unsociability and its extreme wastefulness; it deprives people of healthy exercise and pollutes the environment; it is a boon to crime and an invitation to juvenile delinquency; it has disintegrated the city and is “the enemy of community.” No doubt the automobile has a certain place in modern life, but “there is no reason why that vehicle should be allowed to retain the virtually total monopoly of transportation that it has now generally achieved.” Like the automobile, television “disguises its domination under a promise of liberation.” In fact, it involves and enforces passivity, exerts a “peculiarly druglike, almost narcotic, soporific power” over the old and corrupts the young.

His nostalgia is for a past in which people lived in the countryside, walked in forests, read books, traveled on railroads, employed domestic servants, inhabited separate cultural and ethnic communities (“I see no intrinsic virtue in the melting pot”), and preserved the privacy, dignity, and autonomy of their lives. Of course Mr. Kennan knows that the past had its own forms of injustice, exploitation, and misery and that the automobile and television are here to stay. Nonetheless, he has a point in using past values, sadly limited in application but still real enough in people’s minds, as a measure of our present condition.

The government’s failure to cope with the host of social, educational, financial, technological, cultural, and spiritual problems leads him to conclude that the nation’s affairs are “seriously out of control.” What, as Lenin used to ask, is to be done? Kennan observes that the troubles have one feature in common: “They are all long-term problems rather than short-term ones.” Modern democracy, he further observes, is ill-equipped to deal with long-term problems because voters demand short-term benefits. Reflecting on the containment policy as the cold war was winding down, Kennan concluded, “The first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves.”6

He has ideas for carrying out his self-containment policy, but I think we are entitled to take them as provocations to further thought rather than as fully considered solutions. As he once told an interviewer, “Please understand that for purposes of argument I am given to overstating a case,” citing a remark as “one of those overstatements which I must ask you not to take too literally.”7 And, as he writes in Around the Cragged Hill, “It would be silly and presumptuous to suppose that any one person, working in isolation and not in interaction with others, could just toss off the design…and expect it to be accepted in its entirety as a serious and finished proposal.”

Some of his thoughts address the question of bigness. The United States, he feels, is a “monster country,” like China, India, the recent Soviet Union, Brazil, too large for its own good, too large for wise and comprehensible governance. Would it not be better to break up the nation into a dozen constituent republics? On the other hand, Mr. Kennan also deplores the national readiness to leave social, cultural, and educational changes and such matters as energy, transportation, and technological innovation “exclusively to the workings of the free-enterprise system” and calls for a strengthening of public authority to regain control over the nation’s affairs.

Nothing can be achieved, he sensibly says, without leadership prepared and equipped to attack long-term problems; and here Mr. Kennan is quite rightly an unrepentant elitist. “If we are to have hope of emerging successfully from the great social bewilderments of this age,” he writes, “weight must be laid predominantly upon the spiritual, moral, and intellectual shaping of the individual with a view to the development of his qualities for leadership, rather than on the prospects for unaided self-improvement on the part of leaderless masses. If humanity is to have a hopeful future, there is no escape from the preeminent involvement and responsibility of the single human soul, in all its loneliness and frailty.”

More nonsense has been uttered in this country over the perils of elitism than on almost any other subject. All government known to history has been government by minorities, and it is in the interests of everyone, most especially the poor and powerless, to have the governing minority composed of able, intelligent, responsive, and decent persons with a large view of the general welfare. There is a vast difference between an elite of conscience and an elite of privilege—the difference that Thomas Jefferson drew between the “natural aristocracy” founded on “virtue and talents” and the “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth,” adding that the natural aristocracy is “the most precious gift of nature” for the government of society.8 In a democracy elites of privilege can always be voted out of office.

Mr. Kennan has long been considering ways by which an elite of conscience could have an institutional role in national decisions. Nearly twenty years ago he suggested the establishment of a national pool of outstanding persons from which the Senate would be chosen;9 and a variation of this idea, appropriately developed, turns up as the culmination of the suggestions for reform in his new book. He now proposes a Council of State, an advisory body made up, like the Supreme Court, of nine persons, none to have present involvement in party politics, chosen by the president from a pool of a hundred, half nominated by fifty state committees, half by a distinguished national committee. The Council would be charged with addressing problems national in scope and of major long-term importance for the fortunes of the republic—“a wise, thoughtful, independent, and detached voice, minatory but constructive, not detracting from the establishment’s powers but loud enough to be heard above all the cacophony of political ambitions.”

Such a device has an obvious appeal. It sounds something like the Policy Planning Staff Mr. Kennan used to run for the Truman State Department writ large. Indeed the Constitutional Convention itself had considered the establishment of a Council of State. Benjamin Franklin thought it a good idea; “a Council would not only be a check on a bad President but a relief to a good one.” Gouverneur Morris, however, observed that the president, “by persuading his Council, to concur in his wrong measures, would acquire their protection for them,” and the convention rejected the proposal.10

The Founding Fathers were probably right. We cannot count on a council to be composed of such people as George Kennan. Even with the precautions Mr. Kennan recommends in the selection process, it is hard to see how any council could escape being an assembly of elders possessed by the conventional wisdom of an earlier generation and deferential to elected authority. Still the proposal usefully directs attention to the problem of equipping the presidency with some means of long-range planning by disinterested advisers—a problem perhaps more competently solved by less formal devices, like Jackson’s kitchen cabinet or FDR’s brain trust. Institutionalization, as Mr. Kennan has argued elsewhere, is likely to be the enemy of innovation.

Around the Cragged Hill shows how far George Kennan’s old-American conservatism diverges from what passes as conservatism in America today. In his rejection of uncontrolled free enterprise, his belief in public authority, his doubts about technology and growth, his love of nature, his apprehensions about demographic and ecological disaster, his disdain for “hurrah patriotism,” his emphasis on austerity and self-discipline, his summons to reform, he is in fact—and on faithful conservative principles—a radical.

Mr. Kennan has always seen himself as a man against his age—“I am, I suppose, an eighteenth-century person,” he told one interviewer;11 and he describes himself in his Memoirs as “a guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.”12 He also sees himself as a man detached from his own nation:

I would not be a part of my country, although what it had once been would remain part of me. I, not being a part of it, would nevertheless understand it. It, being still to some extent a part of me, would nevertheless not understand me. I would continue to pay it my loyalty…. But it would be a loyalty despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification.13

Balanced between his affection for the permanent principle of America and his alienation from the contemporary reality, portraying himself even today as slightly “dépaysé by the many years spent abroad, and colored by membership in a generation now close to total disappearance,” George Kennan remains a witness distinguished by honesty of thought, grace of expression, and a defiant moral nobility. The jeremiad he delivers is in the oldest American literary tradition. If the republic is ever to live up to its own best standards, it will not be because of the “conservatives” who have nearly wrecked the country in the last decade, the boosters and flag-wavers and oath-of-allegiance pledgers and hand-over-the-heart exhibitionists. It will be because such a person as George Kennan from time to time arises in our midst and reminds us what the United States of America is, or should be, all about.

  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”?

  5. 5

    George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy 1900–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 95.

  6. 6

    George F. Kennan, “Containment Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987.

  7. 7

    George Urban, “A Conversation with George F. Kennan,” Encounter, September 1976, pp. 36–37.

  8. 8

    Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Jefferson, Writings, edited by Merrill D. Peterson (Library of America, 1984), pp. 1305–1306.

  9. 9

    George Urban interview, p. 21.

  10. 10

    C.C. Tansill, editor, Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States (Government Printing Office, 1927), p. 687.

  11. 11

    George Urban interview, p. 12.

  12. 12

    George F Kennan, Memoirs 1925–1950 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1967), p. 8.

  13. 13

    Kennan, Memoirs p. 77.