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America’s Melancholic Hero

The Kennan Diaries

by George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola
Norton, 712 pp., $39.95
Joan E. Kennan Collection
George Kennan en route to Moscow, where he served for five months as US ambassador, May 1952

George Kennan’s life spanned and defined the American century. He was born into a lawyer’s family in Milwaukee in 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt was president. He lived to become the chief intellectual architect of America’s victory in the cold war. He died in 2005, aged 101, in Princeton as another president dragged his country down into the mire of Iraq.

The decisive event in his life—losing his mother to peritonitis when he was two months old—occurred too early for him ever to master with words. Though doted on by his sisters and a tender father, their love never filled the void. He recurrently dreamed of his mother in an agonized state of unrequited devotion. On a visit back to Milwaukee, at age fifty-one, he felt, once again, “buried and helpless, all the love that could not be expended, all the tenderness that could not be bestowed. Dear Mother, it must have been hard and bitter to leave your little children.”

Her death left him with an insatiable longing for consolation that was the spur to his pursuit of fame but also the canker that devoured his happiness. Also at age fifty-one, he confided to his diary that he looked back on himself as “a moody, self-centered, neurotic boy.” His diaries suggest that he remained that boy for the rest of his life.

He entered the US Foreign Service out of Princeton in 1926 and made the prescient choice to turn himself into a Russian expert, following in the footsteps of a close relative, also named George Kennan, who had written on Siberia and the Russian empire. He learned to speak an aristocratic and fluent Russian, and the language and history of Russia became so all-consuming an identity that when Kennan visited St. Petersburg for the first time in 1945 he confessed to his diary that he felt he had been born there in another life.

A lifelong friend, Isaiah Berlin, thought Kennan’s love of Russia had the same insatiable and restless quality of so many other of his emotions. It was, Berlin wrote, “a kind of unhappy love affair, where love grows deeper and more desperate the more obviously it is unrequited.”

Kennan was right to think he had an artist’s temperament at war with a foreign service officer’s ambition. He was twenty-six years in the service of the United States in Riga, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, and Moscow, where he set up the first US embassy when US–Soviet diplomatic relations were established in 1933. He was in Moscow throughout the darkest periods of Stalin’s terror, but rarely saw the Kremlin butcher himself, catching sight of him once staring grimly from the armored interior of a vast Cadillac. While fellow-traveling American visitors and journalists from Lincoln Steffens to Walter Duranty visited Moscow and returned home proclaiming their faith in the Soviet experiment, Kennan never wavered. He saw it for the soul-crushing tyranny that it was.

He spent nearly as many years in Hitler’s Germany as in Stalin’s Russia and was interned by the Nazis from December 1941 until April 1942, but he never saw Nazism’s moral character as clearly. In 1988, William Shawn of The New Yorker reproached him for having done less than he might have done to awaken Roosevelt’s Washington to the danger of Hitler. This produced an explosion in Kennan’s diary:

Why should it be thought that I should have burst out in prose, expressing my horror of the Nazis? I was not a reporting officer, but an administrative one. To whom should I have addressed such outpourings? To the government?… They knew what the Nazis were as well as I did.

This was an evasive reply for someone who saw himself not as an administrator but as a moral visionary, someone who should have understood that the Roosevelt administration, far from knowing what the Nazis were, allowed itself to drift in willful blindness till 1941.

Kennan, in other words, was never a theorist of the two totalitarianisms, only of one. His hours of glory came when the United States, having won the war with its eastern ally, had to deal with Russia as an adversary.

The dawn of the cold war arrived in August 1944, when Stalin’s troops stood by on the river Vistula and watched the Germans crush the Warsaw uprising, afterward refusing to allow a free Poland to rise from the ruins. Kennan saw the drama unfold from Moscow and confided a bitter epitaph for Polish freedom to his diary. The Poles, he wrote, were “a people who have been our allies, whom we have saved from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends.”

From the Polish catastrophe, he took two decisive lessons: the United States could not reverse Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe by military force, but equally, Soviet rule would never be secure and would one day collapse. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall taught Kennan that imperial regimes that seek to rule other nations by force trigger the resentments that eventually lead to their overthrow.

In February 1946, from a sickbed in Moscow (he was often bed-bound), he composed the “long telegram” that encapsulated Stalin’s imperial designs but also predicted their eventual demise if contained by a determined adversary. He then became the first head of policy planning in the State Department, with an office next to Secretary of State George Marshall. During that time he gained public fame as the architect of containment and directly inspired its most brilliant achievement, the Marshall Plan for Europe in 1947.

Though in his diary he dramatizes himself as a lone warrior for truth, he achieved none of this alone. He was lucky enough to work in company with men often more judicious than he was: Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Marshall, and Averill Harriman. They in turn admired his lucid drafting skills and his synoptic vision, but among themselves, questioned his penchant for self-dramatization.

He outlived all his fellow wise men, ending up at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, loaded with every conceivable honor—Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees by the score. He was married for seventy-three years to Annelise Sorensen, a wise Norwegian woman who endured his infidelities, bucked him up when he was down, gave him four devoted children, pricked the bubble of his conceit when needed, and never seemed to flag in her affection. Despite the solid anchorage of a domestic life and public recognition beyond any man’s reasonable expectations, he went to his grave with an enduring sense of lonely regret and, astonishingly, a fear that he had never been valued at his true worth.

Such is the impression conveyed by his diaries, now published and ably edited by Frank Costigliola. To be savored, they should be read in conjunction with the magisterial, admiring, but unsparing biography by John Lewis Gaddis that appeared in 2011. Kennan’s diaries are more than just one man’s agonized confession. They also offer deep insights into the temperament demanded of an entire generation as they struggled to win the cold war.

Gaddis’s biography picks out the vein of melancholy self-pity that runs through the diaries. Here is Kennan, aged twenty-eight, reflecting gloomily: “I am beginning to comprehend that I am condemned to a rare intellectual isolation…. My mental processes will never be understood by anyone else.”

Whenever he was intensively employed and appreciated by his superiors, his diaries fall silent. The years 1946 and 1947, when he was at the peak of his influence, are all but blank. The instant he felt neglected or slighted, self-flagellation returned. During a stop-over at Heathrow, at the age of sixty-one, he moaned, “My piece is spoken. My usefulness to my time is exhausted…. My reputation follows me around like a shadow or like a mask that I am obliged to wear.”

His career after he left the State Department in 1953 is an object lesson in the pathos of the public intellectual’s career once he has tasted power and then lost privileged access. He complains to the diary that he has more invitations than he can cope with to give lectures, to attend conferences, to contribute chapters to books, but none of it matters because real positions of power are denied him. After the president had bestowed the Medal of Freedom, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had twice stood and applauded the tour de force of his testimony, he was still seeing himself as a failure, “the most elaborately honored non-political and non-governmental personage in this country, yet totally without influence where it counts.”

How are we to explain the besetting melancholy and self-pity of this most successful of men? Diaries are notoriously unstable mirrors. Kennan wouldn’t have been the first person to use a diary to conjure up the worst in order to ward it off, to flagellate himself so someone else wouldn’t have to, or to play with gloomy illusions in private only to discard them in public. It is a mistake, then, to suppose that the recurrent gloom in his diary is the true Kennan. The book includes a section of photographs that may actually paint a truer picture. The jaunty snapshot of him at the family farm in East Berlin, Pennsylvania, decked out in Oshkosh overalls, a baseball cap on his head, a bandanna around his neck, and a broad smile upon his face, gives us a glimpse of the happier man he must have been, at least sometimes.

Perhaps too, to see the real Kennan, we need to escape the claustrophobic self-absorption of the diary and see him as his friends did. Isaiah Berlin, who first met him in Moscow in 1945, was a shrewd if cruel judge. The trouble with George, he told Elizabeth Hardwick, was that he always said he didn’t want to be lionized, but was always disappointed when he wasn’t. In a letter to Felix Frankfurter, Berlin described Kennan and his wife with pitiless clarity:

[George’s] grey fanatical passionate Presbyterian appearance, with a total lack of spark anywhere, and the bleak, solemn, sweet, serious Ibsenite look on the face of his wife.

Kennan’s friends may prefer to remember a lighter, self-mocking soul. But this person is not there in his diaries. What is there is a tortured man who seems unconsoled by any of the honors he keeps receiving. It is tempting to surmise, as he did himself, that he might not have been so miserable had he not lost his mother so young.

But there may be a less imponderable possibility: no life can be happy that is spent so explicitly seeking recognition as a public sage. If you wish to be one, you had better be impervious to scorn or neglect. Even when a reputation is won, it never becomes so Olympian as to be safe from criticism. Kennan’s very soul seemed rubbed raw by every criticism, every slight, imagined or real, that he received in the course of a long and much honored life. It may have been Kennan’s fate that he lacked the temperament to be either the sage he became or the man of action that he wished he could have been.

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