Memoirs 1925-1950 is the story of a sensitive, intelligent boy from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who goes off to Europe, where he gains fame, if not fortune, in the service of his country, and after many trials and tribulations discovers that nobody ever understood him. It is a sad tale in which the author suffers mightily from snubs, rebuffs, frustrations, discomfort, and the boorishness of his fellow countrymen. Although he deserves a better fate than he meets, he keeps a stiff upper lip through his adversities, and eventually triumphs over defeat by finding a better life in the cloisters of Princeton, New Jersey.
For all its sadness, the story is an inspiring one that will move many readers to emotions of pity and indignation: pity for a man who was too wise to be listened to by his superiors; indignation at a system that did not provide him with even greater rewards and recognition than he received. It was George Kennan’s misfortune to live in a crass country and in a century where his finest qualities were not truly appreciated. In this lengthy reminiscence, gleaned from voluminous diary notes, unread documents, unpublished poems and travel impressions, thumbnail sketches of famous and obscure individuals, attempts at self-analysis, and accounts of crises and decisions in which the author was involved, the reader gains a new impression of a man who has become the nearest thing to a legend that this country’s diplomatic service has ever produced. These memoirs are expertly written, often fascinating, and in many ways depressing. In them this hero is transformed before our eyes into a very fallible mortal, and in some ways even into an anti-hero. What the author conceives as an eighteenth-century autobiography turns into a twentieth-century tale of alienation, very modern, very sad, and unintentional.
FOR ALL ITS LIMITATIONS, this is an important book, both as diplomatic history and as intellectual biography. These memoirs are more than a recollection of a distinguished, if disappointing, career in diplomacy. More than an explanation of how the embassy in Moscow is run, or what the author thought of Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, or how the Russians took over Eastern Europe. They are about a man as much as about a time: a man of intelligence and integrity whose effectiveness was hobbled by insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and a tendency toward selfpity. A man who counsels the virtues of being, like himself, “a guest of one’s time and not a member of its household”; who was “concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it”; who recognized “that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would”; who watched the Nazi rise to power, the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the devastation of Rotterdam with analytical dispassion, but who was painfully wounded when snubbed at Princeton as an undergraduate, or when his…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.