George Kennan at 100

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 Kennan’s values. And the memory of a world that was—or perhaps never was, but nonetheless feeds, in its idealized imagining, his estrangement from the society that America is.

Kennan is a self-declared alien in his own land and in the world around him. Even forty years ago he described himself as not a full member of this society, or even of the twentieth century, but as an observer. In playing this part, he wrote, half mournfully, half proudly, “it helps…to be the guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.” Yet for all his protestations of detachment he is a curious kind of observer, and his lamentations for an idealized world that was (at least in his own romanticized imaginings) are solidly in the vocabulary of conservative romanticism.

Certainly not a conservative in the way the term is today used in American politics, Kennan is a classic, organic conservative, the intellectual companion of such other historical romanticists as Ortega y Gasset and Spengler. What he deplores is the messiness and leveling of mass democracy, where the median is often the lowest common denominator. What he admires is order, tradition, and an aristocracy of taste and values. Naturally communism is even more abhorrent to him than mass democracy or untrammeled capitalism, for it compounds the sin of leveling by stifling expression.

Yet if Kennan is a scathing, if mournful, critic of the society in which he lives—and from which he declares himself to be a spiritual exile—he has never intellectually detached himself from it. His very emotional distance from much of American life, rather than being a handicap, has helped him to see it whole, from a certain remove, and to bring to it not only his intellect but his passionate engagement. He could long ago have fled to one of the places he views through a veil of nostalgia: an Italian hilltop or a Norwegian fjord, or to a cabin in the Russian woods. As he wrote in his published diaries after a visit to the cabin where Tolstoy wrote:

In just such a simple room, without electricity and heated only by wood stoves, is the way I would have liked to live. Compared to that, the present age, with all its noise, its overpopulation, and its mad wastage of energy, strikes me as a nightmare.

But of course he did not retreat. However alienated he may sometimes feel from the society around him, however despairing he may at times be of American politics, he has never over the past half-century since he left the State Department detached himself from it physically or intellectually. He has chosen to live in America, not in some time-warp Russian or European village, and to write impassioned essays and editorials about our engagement with the world. He has scolded us to thought and to action, and has not sought refuge in withdrawal. This is evident in his political commentary, and particularly in two quotations from articles published in these pages. Both have obvious implications for Americans of the policies our government is pursuing today. The first, about the war in Vietnam, was written in February 1968, when Eugene McCarthy was challenging Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination:

It is now several years that our country has been heavily involved in the war in Vietnam. During most of this time, it has been inescapably evident that the entire venture was in several ways grievously unsound. It was unsound in the first place because it was devoid of a plausible, coherent, and realistic object. The regime in South Vietnam has been throughout too weak, too timid, too selfish, too uninspiring, to form a suitable or promising object of our support. And even if this regime had been a most vigorous and effective one, we would still be faced with the fact that the methods to which we have found ourselves driven, in the effort to crush by purely military means an elusive and disguised adversary, have been so destructive of civilian life, even in South Vietnam itself, that no conceivable political outcome could justify the attendant suffering and destruction.

And that’s not the only way this effort has been unsound. It has also been unsound in its relation to our own world responsibilities and to our responsibilities here at home. It has represented a grievous disbalance of our world policy. It has riveted an undue amount of our attention and resources to a single secondary theater of world events. It has left us poorly prepared, if not helpless, to meet other crises that might occur simultaneously elsewhere in the world. And finally, it has proceeded at the cost of the successful development of our life here in this country. It has distracted us and hampered us in our effort to come to grips with domestic problems of such gravity as to cry out, as we all know, for the concentrated, first-priority attention of both our government and our public.

These are indeed grievous drawbacks to any sort of military effort. They were all clearly visible a long time ago. It did not take the agony and the grievous human losses of these past two to three years to make them evident to anyone who wanted to see.

The second quotation comes from a wide-ranging interview in the August 12, 1999, issue of The New York Review:

Richard Ullman: The United States is these days the world’s only superpower. How long will this last?

George Kennan: If you measure it only by military statistics alone, it could last, I suppose, for a long time. We have by the tail, after all, in the form of our Pentagon, a vast bureaucratic monster that we don’t know even how to cut down, not to mention to bring fully under control. But purely military power, even in its greatest dimensions of superiority, can produce only short-term successes. Serving in Berlin at the height of Hitler’s military successes, in 1941, I tried to persuade friends in our government that even if Hitler should succeed in achieving military domination over all of Europe, he would not be able to turn this into any sort of complete and long-lasting political preeminence and I gave reasons for this conclusion. And we were talking, then, only about Europe. Applied to the world scene, this is, of course, even more true. I can say without hesitation that this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power.

R.U.: It isn’t only our military power that makes us number one. For better or worse, our cultural impact is equally profound. The world flocks to American popular culture.

G.K.: This, alas, appears to be true. We export to anyone who can buy it or steal it the cheapest, silliest, and most disreputable manifestations of our “culture.” No wonder that these effusions become the laughingstock of intelligent and sensitive people the world over. But so long as we find it proper to let millions of our living rooms be filled with this trash every evening, and this largely to the edification of the schoolchildren, I can see that we would cut a poor figure trying to deny it to others beyond our borders. Nor would we be successful. In a computer age, it is available, anyway, for whoever wants to push the button and receive it. And so we must expect, I suppose, to appear to many abroad, despite our military superiority, as the world’s intellectual and spiritual dunce, until we can change the image of ourselves we purvey to others.

Kennan may declare himself to be a spiritual exile in his own land. But rather than being a handicap, this has helped him to see American society more clearly, and to bring to it not only his intellectual capital but his passionate engagement. It is a mark of the infinite, if sometimes perplexing, fecundity of this country that it produces and finds an honored place for this man who goads us to be worthy of ourselves. Ironically Kennan is never more American than when he freely criticizes the society that he honors and to which he so inextricably belongs.

Kennan is our counselor, our scold, our conscience, our lyric philosopher of loss and nostalgia, our Ancient Mariner, our traveler in time and space between the worlds of power and of feeling. He is a curious amalgam. In his earlier political writings he could be coldly analytical. Yet in his urgent essays deploring our national follies and particularly in the published excerpts from his diaries, he can be deeply emotional and even poetic. Consider this entry by an enraptured young man who wrote on a ship in 1919:

It is all too rich, too full, this summer day. It is more than one can stand. One would like to cry out to the gods to take it away again.

Yet of course he cannot, and does not live in a world of overflowing emotions. He has devoted his life to helping Americans understand themselves and their place in the world. It is a work of the enduring optimism of this congenital pessimist that he could write in a 1993 collection:

There is nothing in man’s plight that his vision, if he cared to cultivate it, could not alleviate. The challenge is to see what could be done, and then to have the heart and the resolution to attempt it.

George Kennan has never lacked the heart or the resolution to rise to that challenge. That is why he deserves not only our congratulations on this milestone, but our gratitude.