George Kennan’s second and concluding volume of memoirs tells such an unrelieved story of failure as a State Department adviser and ambassador that it is just as well that he has no more “public” life as a diplomat to describe. There is surely no other American Foreign Service officer of our time, no regular State Department man, whose ambition to influence our policy has been so intense and so well-publicized—and who at the same time blames himself so severely for the “personal” lapses which he thinks have often been responsible for his failure to redirect the government. At the same time it is impossible to think of any other American so well informed on Russia, so expert and loving on the Russian language, so authoritative on the continuity of Russian political habits, whose deep-seated ambition is so little to be a scholar alone in his study.
Kennan has, of course, written excellent diplomatic history. Ever since 1950, when he first retired to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Study, he has been of necessity, faute de mieux, a research scholar, except for his two well-known “failures” as ambassador to Russia in the last months of Truman’s administration and as Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia. But a life devoted to scholarship has never been Kennan’s idea of reality; he has everything it takes to make a scholar except the ability to enjoy being alone and (in the eyes of the world) unimportant. To judge by the indifferently polite and remote notes about academia in this book, reliving the Russian past will never satisfy this extraordinarily charged, ambitious, Olympian yet always self-lacerating man.
Kennan entered the Foreign Service at twenty-one. Though he first left it in 1950, at forty-six, he was constantly being called back as a consultant, and he was understandably sent by Truman and Acheson to Moscow. Yet both his horror of Russia in Stalin’s last years and his opposition to Acheson’s high-handed militarism are typical, like so much else in Kennan’s career, of a tendency to stand out from the usual rut of diplomatic life (though this has been his life), a tendency to assert essential new positions for his country without being able to pursue them and/or to persuade those who had the power to change policy.
George Kennan is indeed like no one else in the contemporary American picture. The conflict of his essentially institutional style with his easily despairing, even “religious” temperament is reflected in the paradox of his distinction as a historian, which gives him less joy than his powerful but disregarded memoranda to State. And it is reflected in his austere, shrewd, realistic, yet modestly tactical thinking, first on the “containment” of Russia, then against the all-out cold-war policy. For though Kennan was a hundred times right in trying to persuade Washington that the Soviet ambition was not a military invasion of Western Europe, his own total despair of both the Soviet system and of postwar American society made his positions seem abstract, rigid, and necessarily temporary. It was as if he were saying to the American policy makers—“Russia is hell on earth, but you have to work with these people. And American society is now so contemptible that you must disregard everything about it and always do right even though you are an American.”
Given these lofty feelings and rigid removals, Kennan himself was so provoked by the spying and bugging of the United States Embassy that at a famous interview at the Berlin airport he gladly compared Stalinism to Hitlerism and so had himself declared persona non grata. Later, as ambassador to Yugoslavia, he was so angry with Congress for treating Yugoslavia as another Soviet satellite (and though he does not admit it, with Kennedy for not supporting him against Wilbur Mills) that again his ambassadorship ended in a public clash somehow humiliating to Kennan himself. Similarly, he clashed with Acheson, who said in his superior way that “Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” He provoked Dulles to more convulsive public irritation than even Dulles usually showed. He allowed congressional leaders to treat him as if he were a hopelessly ineffectual protester rather than the prime authority on Russia and Eastern Europe.
Kennan is a man deeply cultivated and honorable, brilliantly forceful in his writing, a man of almost painful integrity, one professional diplomat who more than anyone else in the Foreign Service (I would guess) has since the outset of the cold war tried to set limits to our overweening sense of our own power. Kennan courageously defended John Paton Davies—who was being driven out of the State Department as pro-communist for having had the sense and honesty to describe the Chinese situation as it really was on the eve of the communist victory—against the McCarthyite terror at a time when even before Dulles the State Department was positively assisting its enemies in the McCarthy camp. He was right on Yugoslavia. Again and again he has been a lonely voice in the councils of state fighting to establish some sane perspective on our often insane sense of unlimited mastership over world events.
Why, then, is it possible for someone who admires him, agrees with him, is grateful for his independent perspective, to put down this book with the feeling that Kennan need not have “failed” so often—and so resoundingly, publicly, self-commiseratingly? It seems to me arrogant and officious of Kennan not to understand that a root of his failure is not, as he thinks, the intensity of his temperament but his contempt for ordinary people, his disregard for politics in his own country, his inability to deal with politicians, and his totally unsympathetic and therefore unhistorical frame of mind in dealing with opinion in general.
I notice in reviews of Kennan’s memoirs that, with the usual glib association in these things, Kennan is being portrayed as another Henry Adams, another “failure” and martyr to the degradation of the democratic dogma. Henry Adams, unlike Kennan, was an imperialist, a promoter of American power, and a supporter of big-power wars. Adams was like Kennan only in the sense that his greatest interest was foreign policy (the Adams family tradition was to be an ambassador in your teens). But unlike Kennan, Adams recognized that this specialty was an elitist skill that could not be squared with the American democracy which nevertheless he understood very well.
Kennan makes me sad because he does not realize how much he views history as an affair of diplomacy—and that it is impossible to succeed in this game without submitting to the rules. It is clear to me, at least, that Kennan’s real love has always been the State Department, the ritual of what he likes to stress as “style,” and that he has always seen himself as a subservient Foreign Service officer, though his assertiveness has been that of a Secretary of State—a post that he rightly suspects to be unsuitable to his need of approval.
There is a fateful contradiction between Kennan’s deep-seated sense of “belonging” to the State Department, and nowhere else, and what is at once his self-righteous expertness and personal vulnerability. In short, he really sees himself as the adviser whose advice must prevail, but who knows himself to lack the thick-skinned complacency of Rostow, Kissinger, Bundy. He does not trust, understand, tolerate Americans who do not know all he knows, he does not like politics, and he is so much the old-fashioned diplomat that he can transcribe from his diary his astonishment that on a visit to Chicago he saw men walking around without hats, men wearing blue overcoats, men with shoestrings dangling.
Unlike such cold-blooded and thoroughly arrogant promoters of American toughness as Acheson, Kennan has no roots in American business, law, Washington—not even in American universities. He has remained a visitor here, a critic of American manners, American sociability, American youth, in the large terms that some nineteenth-century Englishman might have used. And not understanding how much he still believes in the State Department as the ultimate tool of human enlightenment and of the right foreign policy as the answer to our troubled era, he comes out with a sense of “failure” that he sentimentally insists on because it suits his contempt for American society to insist on it.
When Henry Adams (occasionally) called himself a “failure,” he was having his joke at the expense of all officeholders—he never ran for office and could never have wanted to. And of course anyone who knows anything about Adams’s life knows that the suicide of Marian Adams rather than Adams’s passionate life of scholarship was responsible for his gloom. But for George Kennan “failure,” as is all too natural these days to all discouraged critics of American “toughness,” tends to be an assumption of superior virtue. This is “elitism” with a vengeance, and I foresee that after November 7 it will be more pronounced, more foolish and feeble than it is now. How can the American people let us down!
George Kennan’s only real failure has been his failure to understand that he has been struggling against his natural ambition to be Kissinger. But only Kissinger can be Kissinger, as only Rostow is Rostow. There is a coarseness there, a lack of moral imagination, that George Kennan does not suffer from. What he does suffer is the fatality of wanting to be nothing but an insider—while thinking like an outsider. Which is why he writes and writes. And can be read.
November 2, 1972