George Kennan, who recently celebrated his hundredth birthday, has been best known as the author of the containment doctrine—an ill-defined formula he proposed as a government official early in the cold war for confronting the Soviet Union with a vigorous American “counterforce.” This is a great pity, for it is among the least of his accomplishments, and the one that most distorts the subtlety of his mind and the acuteness of his sensibility. Indeed it is one that he himself later denounced as being excessively focused on military rather than political containment.
Scarcely had the doctrine been enshrined as official American policy than Kennan, returned from the embassy in Moscow in 1946 to a high position in the State Department, became a critic of the policies he had seemingly helped launch. He opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb, the decision to send American troops above the 38th parallel into North Korea, and the rearmament of Germany. He had gone “off-message,” and by 1953 was pushed out of the government by Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. It was the end of his decades as an American diplomat.
But it was the beginning of a brilliant career as a historian, essayist, critic, and moralist. His years as a diplomat were only a prologue to the honored place he has carved for himself over the past half-century as our national interpreter, our conscience, and our censorious judge. In some ways he is our Gibbon—the historian he most admires—the chronicler of our imperial republic. Even more is he our Henry Adams, the despairing witness of our democratic self-gratification. Perhaps Kennan’s greatest distinction, and his greatest contribution, is as a ruefully jaundiced interpreter of the meaning of the American experience, and our dramatic, sometimes tragic, confrontation with ourselves.
If Kennan had, like so many other retired diplomats, simply disappeared into the woodwork after leaving the diplomatic service, he would be merely a footnote—remembered rather like James Monroe, for his doctrine and little else. Instead he embarked on a new career, becoming a research professor of history at Princeton, and beginning an extraordinarily productive writing life. During these years, starting with American Diplomacy 1900–1950 and continuing with his masterly Memoirs 1925–1950 and Memoirs 1950–1963, and concluding with the essays in Around the Cragged Hill in 1993, he has written fourteen books. Some of these works—particularly the ruminations and diary excerpts in Sketches from a Life (1989)—are of remarkable frankness and heavy with a mournful, elegiac pessimism.
Kennan is a survivor not only of another time but another place. The world into which he was born and lived the first decades of his life has largely ceased to exist. It was an America swept into the First World War in a spasm of crusading idealism, then wracked by economic depression and withdrawn into sullen isolation. For most Americans all that is the stuff of history books. But it is the world that formed …
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