George Kennan’s life spanned and defined the American century. He was born into a lawyer’s family in Milwaukee in 1904 when Theodore Roosevelt was president. He lived to become the chief intellectual architect of America’s victory in the cold war. He died in 2005, aged 101, in Princeton as another president dragged his country down into the mire of Iraq.
The decisive event in his life—losing his mother to peritonitis when he was two months old—occurred too early for him ever to master with words. Though doted on by his sisters and a tender father, their love never filled the void. He recurrently dreamed of his mother in an agonized state of unrequited devotion. On a visit back to Milwaukee, at age fifty-one, he felt, once again, “buried and helpless, all the love that could not be expended, all the tenderness that could not be bestowed. Dear Mother, it must have been hard and bitter to leave your little children.”
Her death left him with an insatiable longing for consolation that was the spur to his pursuit of fame but also the canker that devoured his happiness. Also at age fifty-one, he confided to his diary that he looked back on himself as “a moody, self-centered, neurotic boy.” His diaries suggest that he remained that boy for the rest of his life.
He entered the US Foreign Service out of Princeton in 1926 and made the prescient choice to turn himself into a Russian expert, following in the footsteps of a close relative, also named George Kennan, who had written on Siberia and the Russian empire. He learned to speak an aristocratic and fluent Russian, and the language and history of Russia became so all-consuming an identity that when Kennan visited St. Petersburg for the first time in 1945 he confessed to his diary that he felt he had been born there in another life.
A lifelong friend, Isaiah Berlin, thought Kennan’s love of Russia had the same insatiable and restless quality of so many other of his emotions. It was, Berlin wrote, “a kind of unhappy love affair, where love grows deeper and more desperate the more obviously it is unrequited.”
Kennan was right to think he had an artist’s temperament at war with a foreign service officer’s ambition. He was twenty-six years in the service of the United States in Riga, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, and Moscow, where he set up the first US embassy when US–Soviet diplomatic relations were established in 1933. He was in Moscow throughout the darkest periods of Stalin’s terror, but rarely saw the Kremlin butcher himself, catching sight of him once staring grimly from the armored interior of a vast Cadillac. While fellow-traveling American visitors and journalists from Lincoln Steffens to Walter Duranty…
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.