George Kennan
George Kennan; drawing by David Levine

In the first volume of his Memoirs, published more than twenty years ago, George Kennan speaks of the “discomfort” he feels in the twentieth century, yet concludes that in playing the role of observer “it helps…to be the guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.” In the present volume of his diaries, compiled over a sixty-year period, he returns to that theme. The Western world, he muses in 1959, is composed of many people like himself “who have outlived their own intellectual and emotional environment” and have become

guests of this age, permitted to haunt its strange and somewhat terrifying halls—in a way a part of its life, like the guests in a summer hotel, yet in a similar way detached from it.

The quality of being in but not fully of the world around him, of seeing and feeling things intensely, sometimes too intensely, it seems, for a man whose professional life obliged him to make practical decisions, lies very close to the center of George Kennan’s complex character. He has been in many ways an anomaly in American life, as his personal, often elegiac, diary “sketches” reveal—a traditionalist and communitarian in an aggressively modern, atomized society, an eighteenth-century romantic speaking in the idiom of contemporary Realpolitik, an authoritarian and elitist representing a nation dedicated to egalitarianism, a stylist of fine sensibility trapped in an environment of slogans and electronic serial images.

No one’s name has been associated more closely with the diplomacy of the cold war than Kennan’s. He laid down the lines of the containment doctrine that for the past forty years has guided—albeit in forms he later found exaggerated—American policy toward the Soviet Union. From his early career as a diplomat he has also been a policy maker, a critic, a historian, and the nearest thing we have in this country to a public philosopher. Today he stands in a position of respect, even of veneration, that transcends the borders of politics, just as his own writings—as these elegant “sketches” testify—go beyond criticism into literature and at times to eloquent poetic images. He is a master of language, an impassioned voice of wisdom of foreign affairs, our luminous emissary to the world.

And yet there is something marginal about this most honored but nonetheless deeply alienated product of American society. Ever since he officially left the diplomatic corps in 1953 after a brief and disastrous assignment as ambassador to Russia, he has been an observer and critic rather than a practitioner of power. But even during the quarter-century of his government career he worked mostly on the fringes, emerging from obscurity only in 1946 when his appeals for vigilance against Moscow caught the attention of Washington policy makers aquiver to new dangers and opportunities for action. Three years later he resigned from the policy-planning staff of the State Department, after having helped work out the Marshall Plan, and protested the militarization of containment. By that time he had already lost favor with his superiors and had acquired a reputation for being insufficiently alarmed by the Soviet threat and the spread of international communism into various third world backwaters.

His reluctance to engage in cynical manipulation or the kind of reductionism exemplified by Dean Acheson, who once boasted that he loosened the purse strings of Congress by describing some imminent Red peril or another in words rather “clearer than truth,” limited Kennan’s effectiveness as a governmental official. So did his hypersensitivity to criticism, his ineptitude at bureaucratic gamesmanship, his lack of administrative skills, his over-dramatization of issues, and his tendency toward emotionalism. But these very qualities served him superbly as a critic, and they transformed a failed diplomat into a historian and political commentator of deep insight and influence. “It is this very marginality,” the young historian Anders Stephanson demonstrates in his provocative study of Kennan’s political style, “that has allowed him to see things outside the common purview and to argue, rightly or wrongly, what no one in a ‘responsible’ political position could.”

Over the years Kennan was opposed to a considerable number of “responsible” positions: the development of the H-bomb, the dispatch of American troops across the 38th parallel during the Korean War, the partition and rearmament of Germany, the Vietnam War, the retreat from détente during much of the Carter and Reagan administrations, and the reliance on nuclear weapons as a method of “defense.” His campaign against instruments of mass destruction has made him a hero of the antinuclear movement. His eloquent plea for the abolition of such weapons is perhaps his most famous peroration. “For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness,” he exhorted the great powers in 1980.


You have a duty not just to the generation of the present—you have a duty to civilization’s past, which you threaten to render meaningless, and to its future, which you threaten to render nonexistent.

Increasingly, in response to his deep emotional feeling for nature, he has reached beyond politics, the demands of “national security,” and the posturing of statesmen and of nations, to appeal for the protection of the environment against its human predators.

The Kennan revealed in Sketches From a Life will not be surprising to those who have read his previous works carefully. The introspection, the asceticism, the sense of order and propriety, the tightly controlled emotions straining for release, the sharp insight, the unerring sense of the significant detail—all of these mark the style of a rich and subtle sensibility. So suggestive is this style, so seductive, that it envelops and even imprisons the reader in the author’s moral field. One may be exasperated by Kennan, but never unmoved. These sketches, together with the earlier two-volume Memoirs, stand alongside Henry Adams’s Education as American classics of style, intelligence, and democratic disillusion.

Rarely has such an exquisitely controlled prose been put in the service of political feeling and prescription. Rarely, too, in American letters, is the intensely personal fused with wider political concerns. Kennan’s sketches abound with feeling that flows across intellectual boundaries and an intense Iyricism that can infuse the most mundane event. But almost invariably there is the wider evocation. Take, for example, Kennan’s 1968 entry in which his teen-age son and some friends prepare for a sailing trip:

They looked, against this pitiless, barren background, like something out of a surrealist painting; and I was suddenly seized with a great pang of love and concern for these young creatures: so helpless, so vulnerable, so endangered despite all their changed voices, their incipient whiskers, and their great protective show of callous amusement over life—vulnerable and endangered not so much by the sea to which I was now entrusting them in my little boat, and not so much by the built-in tragic nature of the individual human predicament which men had always had to face, but rather by the enormity of what the human community was now doing to itself, with its overpopulation, its precipitate urbanization, its feverish hyperintensity of communication, its destruction of the natural environment, and its cultivation of weapons too terrible for the wisdom and strength of any that might command their custody and use.

To go from the particular to the general, from the stab of emotion to the impassioned or resigned exortation—that capacity is what takes these sketches beyond verbal brilliance, and puts Kennan’s art in the service of an intense personal vision.

There is in these pieces, some a few paragraphs long, others of several pages, a stripping away of dissimulation, even in the rather self-conscious entries written when he was very young. Kennan demands that his reactions be felt as well as heard, and what one observes in so many of them, and particularly as they build in power and urgency as the years pass, is the event eating into his consciousness and forming, like acid biting into the copper plate of an engraving, images one could not have foreseen. Writing in 1960 of wandering among the ruins in the once imperial center of Berlin on a twilight evening, he becomes aware of “a stillness, a beauty, a sense of infinite, elegiac sadness and timelessness such as I have never experienced,…the measureless tragedy of the Second World War—the millions of dead, the endless seas of bereavement and sorrow.”

Then, at the top of a flight of enormous steps leading to the remains of the cathedral, he sees

half-hidden in the shadows three adolescent boys—motionless, themselves like statues, themselves silent, endlessly alone and abandoned; and their lost, defiant figures burned themselves into my vision to the point where I see them still today—elbows on the knees, chins resting on the palms of hands—the embodiment of man’s lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand.

So in Kennan we find a lyric poet, a moralist with a tragic vision of life and an ineradicable sense of the futility of most human endeavors, though one who never succumbs to a nihilistic pessimism. Yet how are we to relate this explorer of the human condition to the other Kennan: the detached analyst of national interest, the dispassionate diplomatic historian, the cold war policy maker, the antinuclear activist? This is the task of interpreters, and both David Mayers and Anders Stephanson, in very different ways, help to illuminate what Kennan has done and what he believes.

Mayers’s book is the more straight-forward, and also the more conventional, of the two, a political and intellectual biography that carries on and expands Barton Gellman’s excellent study of a few years ago, Contending with Kennan (Praeger, 1984). A conscientious and scrupulously fair scholar, Mayers examines Kennan’s works and career with a thoroughness never before attempted. He cites liberally from published and unpublished sources, puts events into perspective, assesses the dominant motifs of Kennan’s character, explains why these made him a more effective diagnostician of American problems than practitioner of its diplomacy, and places him firmly in the conservative intellectual tradition.


While generally admiring of his subject, Mayers takes him to task for a “conservative utopianism” marked by an “incurably romantic attachment to the past,” for “racial and ethnic stereotyping,” and for an “anti-democratic” approach to politics. Kennan the conservative, with his sympathy for the system of apartheid and authoritarianism, and his contemptuous dismissal of the third world as too neurotic, violent, and corrupt to bother about jars tender liberal sensibilities. But Mayers does not let his annoyance with Kennan’s temperament interfere with a rigorous and objective assessment. His is a serious work that provides the best detailed account we have of Kennan as diplomat, analyst, and critic.

Kennan seems to be an inexhaustible subject—not only because he played both sides during the cold war, first as architect, then as critic, but also because of the very prejudices and sensibilities that so powerfully shape his Sketches. One of the many virtues of Stephanson’s idiosyncratic analysis of Kennan as a policy maker and thinker is the way this nimble scholar leaps across conventional intellectual boundaries. While writing what is essentially diplomatic history, he draws heavily on theories of ethics, aesthetics, and ideology. Such lines of inquiry are not normally pursued, if indeed they are even recognized, by social scientists. But they are ideally suited to the scrutiny of a man whose own thinking defies easy categorization.

Stephanson’s study breaks new ground, not only in the impressive range of its sources (not many historians of the cold war would make reference to Adorno, Barthes, and Foucault) and its multi-faceted approach to the subject, but its ability to penetrate beneath the surface manifestations of political action and opinion. Although Stephanson is influenced by poststructural analysis, with its ahistoricism and virtual abandonment of politics. His is a revisionist work in the most serious sense: one that forces us to reevaluate our own categories of thought even as we are led through the labyrinth of Kennan’s.

Stephanson views Kennan through three perspectives: as observer of the Soviet Union from the 1930s to 1950, as a diplomat whose career has much to tell us about the American concept of national interest in the post—World War II period, and as a political and cultural critic of American society. On the first count he faults his subject for misunderstanding Soviet Marxism and exaggerating the potential for Russian expansionism. On the second count he shows how Kennan by 1948 began to turn against his own containment policy as it became increasingly militarized, and why Kennan—despairing of the influence of Congress, pressure groups, and domestic politics on foreign policy making—decided that global interventionism was more than the US could handle. Kennan’s trajectory, the author suggests, might be described as “a movement from wanting to contain the gushing Soviet flood to wanting to contain the ensuing American one.”

But it is on the third aspect of Kennan’s thought that Stephanson is the most instructive. Others, including Mayers, have commented on Kennan’s deep-seated cultural conservatism, his disgust with the standardization and mechanization of American life, his antidemocratic instincts. But Stephanson examines these in greater depth, and it is here that his cross-disciplinary approach yields considerable rewards. He shows Kennan’s antipathy to money making, commercial values, and materialism and emphasizes how this distinguishes him from an American conservatism that militantly celebrates the Hobbesian jungle. He delineates Kennan’s preference for a structured class society governed by an intellectual aristocracy, relates his frequently expressed admiration for benevolent authoritarianism, and shows his intellectual links to the eighteenth-century aristocrat and historian he so admires, Edward Gibbon. For the author Kennan is an “organicist conservative” in the manner of such other romanticists of the right as Spengler, Ortega y Gasset, and D.H. Lawrence, and even such Marxists as Georg Lukács, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse.

Yet as Stephanson rightly emphasizes, Kennan’s conservatism is light-years away from the anarchic individualism and predatory market capitalism of the American right. His concern for communitarian values, the place of hierarchy and ceremony in life, for submission to personal limitations, for communion with nature and respect for the other animals of the planet, for opposition to what he once described as “the utopian dream of progress and equality,” makes the label “organicist conservative” seem a plausible one. Just as his hatred of the psychology of the mob led him to oppose McCarthyism, so did his respect for authority inspire a fervent denunciation of the radical student protests against the Vietnam War (a war which he himself opposed). His way of reconciling his values with the political structure of a society that is aggressively anti-organicist, Stephanson suggests, has been “the kind of radicalism into which the conservative is sometimes propelled when circumstances are unpropitious.” Such radicalism entails a “defense of authority when a radical opposition actually appeared, and resistance to ‘com-modified’ life by means of art and style.”

This approach helps us to understand the anomaly of an intellectual hermit as a worldly man; someone deeply out of touch with much of modern life and for this very reason capable of seeing it with a coruscating clarity, a pessimist who has never retreated into sterile withdrawal. There is something touching and almost heroic in Kennan’s protests for the values of an age gone by, of an American commonwealth of sturdy, pious Wisconsin farmers, like his ancestors, who seem to have retreated deep into the shadows and mythology of American folklore. In what must be a personal struggle against despair, the elegance of his manner and his work, his immense gravitas and his elegiac phrasing can be seen as barriers against the chaos beyond the walls. “His fixation on style, method, means over ends, ultimately art itself may be read,” Stephanson argues,

as an attempt to escape the unresolvable dilemma…: how to be an organicist conservative in a place that is constitutionally unorganic without ending up in a condition of what he rightly referred to as “internal migration.”

There is no end of examples in the Sketches of pronouncements that underline Kennan’s conservatism: his 1968 complaint about the leveling-out of standards in travel as elsewhere that “leads not to everyone’s living well but rather to no one’s living well”; his 1973 musings whether there was not “a certain reassurance, a certain twinge of hope, to be derived from the reflection that someone, at least, in the place you inhabit, even if it is not you, lives well”; his 1977 despair over tourists glimpsed on a Swedish ferry, “occupants, all of them, of the intellectual and spiritual vacuum which the European welfare state produces”; and his conviction on visiting the comfortable house of his wife’s relatives in Norway in 1978 that “the sacrifice of an attractive and gracious style of living on the part of a few” under the rationalization that it creates better conditions for the many is really “the expression of the politics of envy.” There are also abundant references to what he calls the nightmare of “the present age…with all its noise, its overpopulation, and its mad wastage of energy,” the “materialism, greed and decadence of modern society,” the “ragged, dirty, and repulsive” look of young people today, and his assessment of the United States as “essentially a tragic country.”

In his strictures against technology and the onrushing pace of modern life one feels an excess of emotion and even a sense of dread. Traveling by train across the country in 1950 he recounts passing in the half-light of dawn through the business district of some unknown city. “It occurred to me that for cities there is something sinister and pitiless about the dawn,” he writes:

The farm, secure in its humility and its submission, can take it. It can even welcome it, joyously, like the return of an old friend.

But the city, while sleeping, cowers restlessly under it, particularly under the Sabbath dawn. In this chill, calm light, the city is helpless, and in a sense, naked. Its dreams are disturbed, its pretense, its ugliness, its impermanence exposed, its failure documented, its verdict written. The darkness, with its neon signs, its eroticism, and its intoxication, was protective and forgiving—tolerant of dreams and of delusions. The dawn is judgment: merciless and impassive.

Yet is it the city Kennan is writing about, or the terror, the fragility, the dreams of life? Here he is, only a few years earlier, in the mist-shrouded ruins of postwar Leningrad:

I know that in this city, where I have never lived, there had nevertheless been deposited by some strange quirk of fate—a previous life, perhaps?—a portion of my own capacity to feel and to love, a portion—in other words—of my own life; and that this is something no American will ever understand and no Russian ever believe.

What this reveals, of course, is not his distaste for urban life, but rather the yearning of a motherless boy with an elderly and detached father to belong, to participate, to feel fully a part of something and someplace. This yearning was so clearly present in the haunting early pages of the first volume of his Memoirs, where he speaks of being a lonely student at Princeton, “an innocent, always at the end of every line, always uninitiated, knowing few, known by few.” Many of his complaints about the hollowness, anonymity, and materialism of American (indeed of modern) life flow from this yearning for the lost community. When he speaks of contemporary America as a tragic country, of a remembered idyllic Wisconsin now polluted by technology and avarice, and himself as “an expatriate as much within my own country as outside it,” it is with a profound sense of loss. Of accusations that he has become an expatriate (even though he has lived in Princeton for the past forty years since he left the government), he protests quite rightly that if the word applies at all, he is “an expatriate in time rather than in place…an expatriate as much within my own country as outside it.” For him Europe is today no better, and the third world, with its noise, misery, and terror unthinkable. What he years for is a world he himself knows is irretrievably gone. What gives his life a heroic quality is his refusal to retreat into passivity, his conviction that action matters, and that men somehow must be saved from themselves.

It is not a sin to be out of step with one’s time, for this sense of alienation makes possible insights that the comfortable and the adjusted will never have. Kennan has always had a longing to be elsewhere. As a twenty-three-year-old vice-consul in Hamburg he writes of his “regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner,” and in 1927 on an ocean liner in port he recounts that on glimpsing

…the high mast lights of a black tramp freighter gliding silently past us, down the stream, I felt an irrepressible yearning to exchange, as though by some magic transformation, my cutaway for sailor’s dungarees and…to ride into the darkness and the night rain, down the long black aisles of twinkling channel buoys on the river, past the clustered harbor lights of Cuxhaven at the mouth, on beyond, to where the channel buoys ceased and the revolving beams from the lighthouses cut great sweeping circles around the black line of the horizon, and farther on to where the wind, coming sharp and cold and salt-tanged from the North Sea, sung an ecstatic low song in the stays and the wireless aerial, and the bow of the freighter rose almost imperceptibly to the first long swell of the sea.

These are not the thoughts of a cramped spirit, but of a romantic one, a man who wanders restlessly through his life, across the country and around the planet, seeing much to make him despair, but always some muted shaft of light to convince him that, even at the age of eighty-five, there is no possibility of withdrawing to his rose garden, no excuse for not engaging himself in the work and follies of a world he has never felt fully a part of.

Though no one complains more bitterly about all the alienating paraphernalia of contemporary American life—the endless, lonely highways, the antiseptic shopping malls, the polluting, isolating cars—there is something quintessentially American about the lonely and withdrawn boy from the Middle West who has become a citizen of the world in part because he is so sensitive an observer of the follies and grandeurs, the bombast and noise and quiet decencies of his own land.

One of the most revealing entries in a book that sometimes makes you almost feel the palpitations of Kennan’s heart, is a half-comic, half-nightmarish 1977 commencement ceremony at an American university. In the isolation of a motel “barricaded like a fortress against the fresh air and sunshine of the spring morning,” in the scenes of an “asphalted desolation such as only the American developer, given his head, can produce,” in the “endless whirring and roaring of the air conditioners, the wild wasting of energy, and the ubiquitous television set,” in a setting where there is “not a tree,…not a sign of actual life except, here and there, a moving car, its occupant likewise walled off against nature in his own tiny, lonely, air-conditioned world,” in “this wasteland extending, like a desert, miles and miles in every direction”—in the midst of all this anonymity and desolation, he nonetheless finds paradox and even solace: “the truly superior faculty; the magnificent library; the unflagging belief in the country.” “Truly,” he concludes in a dismay tinged with puzzlement and maybe even a glimmer of hope, “this country whipsaws you.”

Sketches From A Life is a book that does the same.

This Issue

August 17, 1989