The Radical

Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy

by George F. Kennan
Norton, 272 pp., $22.95

George Kennan is an odd case in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The republic these days has little to offer in the form of sages—persons of wisdom and experience to whom the young may look for counsel and guidance. A diplomat who began his professional career two thirds of a century ago, a historian whose work has won the respect of fellow scholars (and a couple of Pulitzer prizes), an admired analyst of current affairs and sought-after witness before congressional committees, Mr. Kennan is a man to whom the informed public at least listens, even if it often does not heed him. As his new book shows, he writes in his eighty-eighth year as trenchantly and elegantly as ever. Though Mr. Kennan has felt himself to be, like other prophets, not without honor save in his own country, he is indisputably an American sage.

The collapse of communism and the end of the cold war have come as the most recent certification of his sagacity. Forty-six years ago, his celebrated “X” essay advocated the containment of the Soviet Union in order to “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”1 As recently as 1989, a historian of the revisionist school rather patronizingly dismissed the containment policy:

Kennan’s faith in liberation, or a dramatic “mellowing” that included Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe, were [sic] the products of wishful, rather than realistic, thinking…. It is difficult to imagine any American approach that could have achieved his aims of liberation, or a Soviet capitulation, but Kennan blamed American society rather than accepting any responsibility for the misperceptions that governed U.S. policy.2

Once again, the cold war revisionists got it wrong. The “gradual mellowing of Soviet power” under Gorbachev was of course followed by “break-up,” and history has surely vindicated Mr. Kennan’s half-century-old remedy for the cold war.

What of the accusation that Mr. Kennan “blamed American society”? In fact he concluded his “X” essay by describing the cold war as “a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” Instead of complaining about the Kremlin’s challenge to American society, the “thoughtful observer,” he wrote,

will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

Did the West win the cold war because the American people pulled themselves together and accepted those weighty responsibilities to which history summoned them? In part, Around the Cragged Hill is Mr. Kennan’s fairly disconsolate comment on this question. More directly his new book is a response to scholars who, he notes, have labored to extract from his writings “something resembling a coherent personal and political philosophy” and have come away “frustrated,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

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.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.