George Kennan
George Kennan; drawing by David Levine

George Kennan’s famous controversy with the students, consisting of his speech at Swarthmore College, numerous replies by students and teachers, and his own reply to the replies—all published in the paperback Democracy and the Student Left—revolves around two issues: Mr. Kennan’s idea of what a university should be; and his reflections on the behavior and attitudes of the rebellious students in their reactions to the war in Vietnam, the draft, racism, and other issues.

The interest of the debate lies in the light it throws on Mr. Kennan as a controversialist. This is complex and fascinating. Mr. Kennan takes up an aristocratic position against rebellious plebeian opponents whom he condemns with curling Roman lip, condescending only occasionally to some bleak expressions of sympathy with them. He talks always from the standpoint of values so radiant that several of those who argue against him do so with protestations of pain and compunction, torn between their feelings of disagreement with, and their admiration for, him. Others, like Lucifer confronted by the Almighty, are provoked to blasphemy and obscenity.

One suspects that for Mr. Kennan the most decisive consideration is really style, to which he attaches an exalted importance, and in which he finds the students so remarkably deficient:

…Another characteristic of this generation of students is of even broader significance and presents a particularly sharp contrast to the student population of my own day. This is the lack of interest in the creation of any real style and distinction of personal life generally. While this often finds its expression most strikingly in dress, it goes much deeper and enters into manners, tidiness, physical environment and even personal hygiene. The idea that life could be made richer, more tolerable and enjoyable, and even perhaps more useful socially, by an emphasis on the being as well as the doing, by a cultivation of the amenities, by the creation of a dignified and attractive personal environment; the recognition that if great masses of people are to be elevated out of degradation or vulgarity it is important that some people should set an example of graciousness and good taste; the thought that one might even gain strength as an individual and communicate some of it to his intimate entourage by lending to his personal life qualities that sustain confidence in the very possibility of a rich, wholesome and unsordid human experience: all this seems to be quite foreign to the writers of these letters.

One might disagree with this and yet agree that it is true from his point of view, by which I mean the angle of his style. This angle might be described as statuesque. One would scarcely expect Mr. Kennan, standing on a column and crying out as it were to become chiseled immortality, to notice that many of the letters written to him about his article were extremely polite, several of the writers even proclaiming that to them he represented the ideal. Still less would one expect him to see that a most striking characteristic of the young is their search for a style. For to him, a style not fitting his description is no style, any more than a university not according with Woodrow Wilson’s account of “a place removed—calm Science seated there, recluse, ascetic, like a nun; not knowing that the world passes, not caring, if the truth but come in answer to her prayer…” is a university.

All the same the young do have a style, which may be as much a key to their rhetoric as Mr. Kennan’s is a key to his. Their style is evident in their beards, their long hair, the medallions they wear, their garb, sometimes like sack-cloth, sometimes like fanoy dress. Many observers in Paris noticed that the rebellious students had the expression and gestures of characters in scenes from the French Revolution or the Commune, depicted by David or Daumier. Looking at the British student variety of Beatles, Beatniks, Hippies so unlike the conventional English gentlemen of the first half of this century, I have found myself wondering, perhaps too fancifully, whether the welfare state young people are not Rip Van Winkles who have woken up after two hundred years’ sleep of the Industrial Revolution, during which they were confined in the iron and brick industrial Black country. Now they stretch, yawn, and parade down the streets, with long hair and beards and wearing necklaces and jewels, much as they might have done in King Charles’s Golden Days or on the village greens of Merrie England.

A style, of course, has no tolerance of another style, except in so far as a certain charity (this happens with Mr. Kennan) is part of the style. Mr. Kennan’s true style is either exalted or satiric. It is incapable of being conciliatory however much the author would like it to be. It is revealed in his description of some hippie whom he takes to be typical of his generation as “a perverted and stony-hearted youth, by whose destructiveness we are all, in the end, to be damaged and diminished”—an account not without a touch of mordant truth. The description has the bite of one style condemning another. Unfortunately it rings truer than the wish, later expressed by Mr. Kennan, that “we and they—experience on the one hand, strength and enthusiasm on the other—could join forces.” Mr. Kennan seems incapable of expressing such a sentiment without sounding a bit absurd, Naturally the exponents of the other style (non-style to him) regard this as rank hypocrisy, which as we shall see, it isn’t entirely.


Mr. Kennan is so dominated by his style that it becomes as it were a medium—like light through stained glass—that colors everything seen through it. Sometimes it throws things into sharp illumination, sometimes it renders things unreal, sometimes it adds passionate warmth to the landscape. It is always dramatic. One can usually make allowance for these stage effects. For instance one understands very well that for him a university is a floodlit ivory tower, and he will have none other. When, in his concluding thoughts, he suggests that perhaps we should envisage there being two universities, one all cloistral calm and another “one uninterrupted current affairs course, consisting primarily of off-campus field work, participation in demonstrations, social work, political organizational activity, etc., punctuated occasionally by reading periods devoted to the pages of daily newspapers and weekly news magazines and to seminars on the burning problems of the day and the techniques of mass political action…,” he can only pour scorn on the idea of the “involved” university and produce a caricature of it which, in the terms of his style, is very amusing. This, however, opens up little prospect of his “experience” and their “strength and enthusiasm” joining forces.

A result of Mr. Kennan being trapped in his style is, sometimes, an apparent contradiction between his idea of what is decorous and the implications of the liberal political views which he holds. From his speech, it is rather difficult to remember—despite his reminders—that he himself is an opponent of the war in Vietnam, which, indeed he describes here as “a foolish messy war,” “conducted halfway round the world.” For much as he disapproves of the war he disapproves still more of people whose protest against it takes forms to which he objects. Sometimes this leads to an effect of self-parody. He points out in his concluding remarks that he has spent five hours on television speaking against the war. Yet if some unfortunate student, having listened to Mr. Kennan being exalted on this (for him) improbable medium (and at such length) had been converted to his objections to the war, and, accordingly, had refused to be drafted into an enterprise denounced with all Mr. Kennan’s superb moral authority, Mr. Kennan would have objected on two counts: in the first place to his having drawn his conclusions on the basis of listening to a mere five hours of Mr. Kennan’s rhetoric, when he should have devoted years of secluded study to the complex problem; and in the second place to his having taken Mr. Kennan so seriously as actually to refuse to be drafted into a war denounced by Mr. Kennan.

Some student wrecking activities are of course very suitable objects for Mr. Kennan’s satiric scorn, and his plea for studies unrelated to contemporary affairs (not that these are seriously threatened on more than one or two campuses) commands respects. The trouble though is that he makes little distinction between students wrecking the university and making it impossible for those who do not share their politics to pursue their studies, and their performing illegal acts which seem to them their only means of protest against the war. And just as he makes almost no distinction between vandalism and the extremer forms of conscientious objection, so he appears to assume that the students opposed to Vietnam all combine “massive certainties” with failure to study the complexities of the problem. His rhetoric floats over all the teach-ins and volumes like The Vietnam Reader prepared especially for students and giving views on the war, ranging from those of Lyndon B. Johnson to Tom Hayden’s and Staughton Lynd’s reports on their visit to Hanoi.

To judge from the letters written in answer to Mr. Kennan’s speech, the opportunity for a dialogue with a great scholar in contemporary affairs, whose political views are in fact remarkably similar to those of many of the anti-Vietnam anti-military-and- industrial-complex students, is lost largely because Mr. Kennan has no patience with their impatience and with their style or lack of style.


If Mr. Kennan really wished to find common ground on which to meet the students, that might have been reached in a discussion of the time in which changes can be made. He is forever calling the students “impatient” but if the reader tries to ascertain how patient he thinks they ought to be, with regard to the draft, for example, the answer is perhaps contained in this sentence (my italics):

The best thing the government could do, when this miserable war is over, would be to revise basically the entire system governing the relationship between the young male American and his obligation of military service.

But until the miserable war is over, the young have to be drafted and if they have moral objections to the war they are told that “they have put themselves under the obligation of saying in what way the political system should be modified, or what should be established in the place of it, to assure that its workings would bear a better relationship to people’s needs and feelings.”

It is obvious that Mr. Kennan operates mentally on one timetable and the students on another. Mr. Kennan’s timetable has dates on it which say that whatever is approved by the government which is democratically elected, even if it means the hour by hour cruelty, waste, and sacrifice of “a miserable war.” cannot be revoked until those who object can persuade a majority of their fellow citizens to change the American political system. The reply of the majority of those who wrote in answer to Mr. Kennan’s speech was in essence that their protest was one of conscience against evil, against people murdering and being murdered, and that in these circumstances to wait on democratic procedures was to permit further cruelty, waste, and destruction.

One of the students, Mr. David King, puts this point of view in an extremely polite letter. While expressing his admiration for Mr. Kennan, whom he considers “the personification of the balance between idealism and realism that I would like, eventually, to attain,” and while stating that he himself is not against the draft, which he regards as an odious necessity, he adds that nevertheless he supports those who consider that when it involves their being sent to Vietnam, “the draft constitutes a violation of their personal morality.”

In this situation the law is reaching into the domain of a man’s soul…. In the end, every individual is responsible to a higher authority than the government and whether it is religious or personal it is sacrosanct. The United States itself held this view in the Nuremberg trials when it found that “following orders” does not excuse one from the consequences of his actions.

He considers that a man is justified in “resisting the government’s attempt to subvert his morals.”

In reply to objections of this sort, Mr. Kennan is quietly ironic about those who identify the American government with the Nazis; and he is sharp about a characteristic of the present younger generation, “its insistence on an immediate, instantaneous relationship between cause and effect—between volition and action.” However, the fact that some students mistakenly declare that there is no more freedom in present-day America than in Hitler’s Germany or the Soviet Union does not mean that they are wrong when, believing that the war is evil, they ask whether if they fail to make such protest as in their consciences they regard as effective, they are not open to the reproach leveled against the Germans that they did not protest against the Nazi concentration camps.

In the Nuremberg trials, beyond the trial of the Nazi war criminals there was a shadow trial of all those Germans who gave their acceptance of the laws of the German state as their excuse for not protesting against crimes against humanity. By implication the Nuremberg trials set a precedent: that other peoples, living under whatever regime, democratic or totalitarian, who failed to protest against such crimes might be found guilty before a tribunal of the world. It is the nature of the crimes, not of the regime, that matters. Moreover, the Nuremberg trials, if they failed in everything else, should have set up a tribunal in everyone’s heart before which he is judged by a law of humanity which may be contravened by the leaders of his country and by its laws and regulations.

However absurdly they behave, the students express a conscience answerable not just to their country but to humanity. They may be confused, they may be impatient, they may be unwise, but they do realize that we live in an age of monstrous and inhuman crimes, made possible above all by the machinery of power. The students have not found a way of dealing with these things. That is true. They hit out in all directions and sometimes succeed only in being destructive of their own interests. But it should be clear that waiting for such time as they can alter the system by democratic procedures is not a way of dealing with them either.

Mr. Kennan easily demonstrates that the students are often morally confused. But he has his own moral confusion, and unfortunately it is of a kind which sometimes makes him adopt exactly those positions which the students most rightly (as it seems to me) oppose. To Mr. Kennan, for example, the student objections to South African investments are an “absurdity” because supporting the South African economy, under its present regime, actually helps, he thinks, blacks. Drawing on his private sources of information, he writes:

I myself recently spent some time in South Africa, and I know of no one familiar with the situation there who does not see in the continued rapid development of the South African economy the greatest single impediment to the realization of the official concept of apartheid and the greatest hope, accordingly, for advancement of the country’s black and “coloured” inhabitants. It is further evident that every intensification of the isolation of that country from the world community plays into the hands of the regime in its efforts to impose the policies of “separate development.” Whoever is sincerely interested in the breakdown of the existing racial restrictions there ought normally to be interested in encouraging both the development of South African industry as such and the maximum participation of foreign capital in the process.

One might at this point remind Mr. Kennan of a remark he addresses to the students in his discourse: “It lies within the power as well as the duty of all of us to recognize not only the possibility that we might be wrong but the virtual certainty that on some occasions we are bound to be.” Here he is supporting a policy of giving aid to a regime which he regards as immoral, on the grounds that to do so will weaken it, grounds which, on the basis of his conversations with unnamed experts, he considers incontrovertible. One is inevitably reminded of those visitors to Nazi Germany (and here we really are dealing with a racist regime comparable to the Nazis) who come back saying that after meeting some German aristocrats and industrialists they were convinced that nothing was so likely to weaken Hitler as for foreigners to support the German economy.

The next example which, in my opinion, shows a kind of moral blind spot in Mr. Kennan’s thinking is his defense of the CIA. Among absurdities of our time, he counts high that public criticism which has led to the paralysis of

a number of highly useful and constructive things that the Central Intelligence Agency was once doing. The Agency was doing them largely for the simple and innocent reason that our government structure had (and still has) no federal ministry of culture to handle matters of that sort, and it was the only governmental agency with sufficient financial and administrative flexibility to perform them.

This is surely an astonishing argument to come from one whose attack on the students is based on the conviction that they should not protest against actions which they regard as evil until they have “modified the political system…to assure that its workings would bear a better relationship to people’s needs and feelings.” Surely after this one would have expected Mr. Kennan to say that it was entirely inappropriate for an Intelligence Agency to take over the tasks of a ministry of culture, and to point out that if there was need to undertake such tasks, then the first thing to do was to modify the government in order to include such a ministry. Why should the students be blamed for acting out their opposition to the war, instead of changing the political system, and the government be excused for supporting cultural propaganda through the secret channels of the CIA?

One would have thought that Mr. Kennan would have been the first to see the disadvantages of such a course of action: that the sources of the funds coming from the CIA would be secret and that an elaborate structure of deception would have to be set up for them to reach the people who were doing “the highly useful and constructive things”; that the CIA would inevitably plant its agents among the people who were carrying out cultural projects, to make sure that these did not run counter to the purposes of Political Intelligence; that the personnel engaged in these projects would be divided between the planted agents and the cultural dupes.

Exalted on his column, Mr. Kennan, who can see so clearly what is wrong about the students taking the law into their own hands, can see only the beneficial results of the CIA cultural operations. With much reluctance I want to give a single example of how they worked. I shall make the illustration hypothetical, because although it corresponds exactly to something that did happen, those responsible have suffered enough already, and more than this, they have apologized.

Let us suppose then that there is a Freedom Agency supported by the CIA and situated in Amsterdam. Its sponsors are purported to be American Foundations universally respected for their independence and objective concern with culture. They are listed on the literature of the Freedom Agency. Let us suppose that the Freedom Agency has an honorary president in England, Lord X, who is a man of the most undoubted and sometimes the most disconcerting integrity. Let us suppose that all over Holland the Freedom Agency has subsidiary associations called Friends of Freedom. One day a girl in—say—Utrecht, writes to Lord X, explaining that the Freedom Agency is really an outlet for American political propaganda, paid for not by its named sponsors, but by a branch of the American government. Lord X resigns. Let us suppose that the heads of the Freedom Agency then approach a member of their local committee in England who is on friendly terms with Lord X, asking him to persuade him to withdraw his resignation. They point out that the writer of the letter communicates nothing but rumors unsupported by a shred of evidence and they assure the Englishman that there is no truth whatever in the allegations. Accordingly he goes to Lord X, who receives him with a courtesy equalled only by that of Mr. Kennan, and Lord X withdraws his resignation.

Surely it should be clear to Mr. Kennan, with his great sensitivity about political structures, that given the built-in lie of the CIA in its cultural activities, this kind of thing was bound to happen. It was a pattern repeated in the youth movements penetrated by the CIA, in the relationship of the current American editor of Encounter who was cognizant of the CIA funds channeled to that magazine, with his English co-editors who were deceived. It is the pattern of those who were disinterested having their reputations used in order to cover up a deception put about by those who were interested. The fact that “highly useful and constructive things were done” makes no difference to this. What would have made the difference—as Mr. Kennan of all people should surely know—would have been either for the sources of the funds to be openly stated, or for the whole operation to have waited until America did have a recognized cultural ministry.

But I cannot associate Mr. Kennan with the horror of the CIA intervention into cultural life. His defense of it must be due to his having his eyes only on certain cultural achievements supported by these funds. In general, he seems able to see only one thing at a time. For example, astonishingly he produces his own timetable of destruction done to the American landscape, which one might have thought would have produced in him some sense of urgency and made him revise his attitude to the students. At the end of his answers to the students, he suggests (very reasonably, I think) that the destruction of the physical geography of America is something with which they might be concerned. He asks, rather magnificently (and I wish that the students would hear him):

How long can man go on overpopulating this planet, destroying its topsoils, slashing off its forests, exhausting its supplies of fresh water, tearing away at its mineral resources, consuming its oxygen with a wild proliferation of machines, making sewers of its rivers and sea, producing industrial poisons of the most dreadful sort and distributing them liberally into its atmosphere, its streams and its ocean beds, disregarding and destroying the ecology of its plant and insect life? Not much longer I suspect. I may not witness the beginning of the disaster on a serious scale. But many of the students who have written me will. And let us not forget that much of the damage that has already been done is irreparable in terms of the insight and effort of any single generation. It takes eight hundred years to produce a climax forest. It will take more than that, presumably, to return the poisoned, deadened waters of Lake Michigan, on the shores of which I was born, to the level of plant and fish life and natural healthfulness that they had at the time of my birth.

Now let us suppose that the young of America found some area of the country which is about to be destroyed beyond recovery for many hundreds of years, and suppose they were inspired with the idea that instead of tearing down their own universities, they should go out and occupy this territory and protect it, not in the name of property but in the name of nature and of human life. Presumably Mr. Kennan would tell them to wait until they had altered the laws of property in such a way as, constitutionally, to keep out the killers of nature and the poisoners of life. How long would this take? If, as it is reasonable to suppose, it would take at least thirty years, how much of the American heritage would there be left at that time to save, and in how many centuries would that which had been destroyed be redeemed?

In the same way one might ask Mr. Kennan to do some other sums. How long will it take to restore the damage done to cities, nature, and human lives by what he regards as a miserable and futile war? And against this how long would it take the students to alter the laws so that “people may be heard?” One can sympathize with Mr. Kennan when one detects the note of despair with which he explains,

namely, that the decisive evil of this world is not in social and political institutions, and not even, as a rule, in the will or iniquities of statesmen, but simply in the weakness and imperfection of the human soul itself, including my own and that of the student militants at the gates.

But what is terrifying about the world today is not the weakness and imperfection of the human soul, but the strength and perfection of the forces of military and industrial power against which it is difficult to imagine any combination of human souls prevailing. No doubt if all human souls all over the world were transformed tomorrow, a meeting of the United Nations might remedy the world’s ills. But apart from the fact that this will not happen, human nature has very little to do with the contemporary situation. Indeed, one generalization one can make about ordinary people is that they would feel immensely hopeful if world leaders, who seem to control these forces but who are really controlled by them, were able to act like human beings, with all their imperfection and weakness. Notoriously when a new American President is elected, there follows a few weeks’ breathing space, referred to as his “honeymoon” with the American (now perhaps the world) public. There is something about this pause which is not just journalistic. Is it not a space in which millions of people dare to hope that an American President will act like a human being, and out of his weak and imperfect soul, say in student expletive “fuck you!” to the interests of the “military-industrial power complex”?

Perhaps what most differentiates the modern world from the past is the near-impossibility of believing today that man can save his world through his humanity. Religion, though insisting on the weakness of human nature, nevertheless insisted on the possibility of imperfect man redeeming the world if he modeled himself on a perfect God. There is about some of today’s students a religious-anti-religious feeling, which has the same relation to past religion as the anti-novel has to the novel. Despite their claims to Student Power, in their “style” the students emphasize the weaknesses and imperfections of their human nature—those qualities which Mr. Kennan so dislikes. It is as though they thought that the powerful and the great are dehumanized, they would like to multiply their weaknesses and imperfections—which are the signs of their humanity—to the greatest power. To do this may not make a political revolution but it is at least a human revolution which might at any rate cause the political structure to collapse, gnawed hollow by the termites of the campus communes. Perhaps the young with their love-ins, their “pot,” their lack of what Mr. Kennan calls “style,” their abrogation of all power except the powerless kinds (Black Power, Student Power, etc.) are instinctively trying to corrupt and disintegrate the impersonal power by cultivating a self-destructive ineffectiveness.

If however, they are really out to change the world, they cannot do so by themselves. They need the guidance (I hesitate to use this word) of older people who can direct their attention to the limited but very important aims in which they might be successful. At the end of his “reply” Mr. Kennan shows considerable awareness of what these should be. It seems a minor tragedy that he seems unaware that in order to “join forces” with the young in the manner of which he dreams, it would be necessary to relate his timetable of patience unto the death of everyone and the end of everything, to theirs of instant revolution.

This Issue

April 24, 1969