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 visited Moscow and returned home proclaiming their faith in the Soviet experiment, Kennan never wavered. He saw it for the soul-crushing tyranny that it was.
He spent nearly as many years in Hitler’s Germany as in Stalin’s Russia and was interned by the Nazis from December 1941 until April 1942, but he never saw Nazism’s moral character as clearly. In 1988, William Shawn of The New Yorker reproached him for having done less than he might have done to awaken Roosevelt’s Washington to the danger of Hitler. This produced an explosion in Kennan’s diary:
Why should it be thought that I should have burst out in prose, expressing my horror of the Nazis? I was not a reporting officer, but an administrative one. To whom should I have addressed such outpourings? To the government?… They knew what the Nazis were as well as I did.
This was an evasive reply for someone who saw himself not as an administrator but as a moral visionary, someone who should have understood that the Roosevelt administration, far from knowing what the Nazis were, allowed itself to drift in willful blindness till 1941.
Kennan, in other words, was never a theorist of the two totalitarianisms, only of one. His hours of glory came when the United States, having won the war with its eastern ally, had to deal with Russia as an adversary.
The dawn of the cold war arrived in August 1944, when Stalin’s troops stood by on the river Vistula and watched the Germans crush the Warsaw uprising, afterward refusing to allow a free Poland to rise from the ruins. Kennan saw the drama unfold from Moscow and confided a bitter epitaph for Polish freedom to his diary. The Poles, he wrote, were “a people who have been our allies, whom we have saved from our enemies, and whom we cannot save from our friends.”
From the Polish catastrophe, he took two decisive lessons: the United States could not reverse Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe by military force, but equally, Soviet rule would never be secure and would one day collapse. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall taught Kennan that imperial regimes that seek to rule other nations by force trigger the resentments that eventually lead to their overthrow.
In February 1946, from a sickbed in Moscow (he was often bed-bound), he composed the “long telegram” that encapsulated Stalin’s imperial designs but also predicted their eventual demise if contained by a determined adversary. He then became the first head of policy planning in the State Department, with an office next to Secretary of State George Marshall. During that time he gained public fame as the architect of containment and directly inspired its most brilliant achievement, the Marshall Plan for Europe in 1947.
Though in his diary he dramatizes himself as a lone warrior for truth, he achieved none of this alone. He was lucky enough to work in company with men often more judicious than he was: Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Marshall, and Averill Harriman. They in turn admired his lucid drafting skills and his synoptic vision, but among themselves, questioned his penchant for self-dramatization.
He outlived all his fellow wise men, ending up at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, loaded with every conceivable honor—Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees by the score. He was married for seventy-three years to Annelise Sorensen, a wise Norwegian woman who endured his infidelities, bucked him up when he was down, gave him four devoted children, pricked the bubble of his conceit when needed, and never seemed to flag in her affection. Despite the solid anchorage of a domestic life and public recognition beyond any man’s reasonable expectations, he went to his grave with an enduring sense of lonely regret and, astonishingly, a fear that he had never been valued at his true worth.
Such is the impression conveyed by his diaries, now published and ably edited by Frank Costigliola. To be savored, they should be read in conjunction with the magisterial, admiring, but unsparing biography by John Lewis Gaddis that appeared in 2011. Kennan’s diaries are more than just one man’s agonized confession. They also offer deep insights into the temperament demanded of an entire generation as they struggled to win the cold war.
Gaddis’s biography picks out the vein of melancholy self-pity that runs through the diaries. Here is Kennan, aged twenty-eight, reflecting gloomily: “I am beginning to comprehend that I am condemned to a rare intellectual isolation…. My mental processes will never be understood by anyone else.”
Whenever he was intensively employed and appreciated by his superiors, his diaries fall silent. The years 1946 and 1947, when he was at the peak of his influence, are all but blank. The instant he felt neglected or slighted, self-flagellation returned. During a stop-over at Heathrow, at the age of sixty-one, he moaned, “My piece is spoken. My usefulness to my time is exhausted…. My reputation follows me around like a shadow or like a mask that I am obliged to wear.”
His career after he left the State Department in 1953 is an object lesson in the pathos of the public intellectual’s career once he has tasted power and then lost privileged access. He complains to the diary that he has more invitations than he can cope with to give lectures, to attend conferences, to contribute chapters to books, but none of it matters because real positions of power are denied him. After the president had bestowed the Medal of Freedom, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had twice stood and applauded the tour de force of his testimony, he was still seeing himself as a failure, “the most elaborately honored non-political and non-governmental personage in this country, yet totally without influence where it counts.”
How are we to explain the besetting melancholy and self-pity of this most successful of men? Diaries are notoriously unstable mirrors. Kennan wouldn’t have been the first person to use a diary to conjure up the worst in order to ward it off, to flagellate himself so someone else wouldn’t have to, or to play with gloomy illusions in private only to discard them in public. It is a mistake, then, to suppose that the recurrent gloom in his diary is the true Kennan. The book includes a section of photographs that may actually paint a truer picture. The jaunty snapshot of him at the family farm in East Berlin, Pennsylvania, decked out in Oshkosh overalls, a baseball cap on his head, a bandanna around his neck, and a broad smile upon his face, gives us a glimpse of the happier man he must have been, at least sometimes.
Perhaps too, to see the real Kennan, we need to escape the claustrophobic self-absorption of the diary and see him as his friends did. Isaiah Berlin, who first met him in Moscow in 1945, was a shrewd if cruel judge. The trouble with George, he told Elizabeth Hardwick, was that he always said he didn’t want to be lionized, but was always disappointed when he wasn’t. In a letter to Felix Frankfurter, Berlin described Kennan and his wife with pitiless clarity:
[George’s] grey fanatical passionate Presbyterian appearance, with a total lack of spark anywhere, and the bleak, solemn, sweet, serious Ibsenite look on the face of his wife.
Kennan’s friends may prefer to remember a lighter, self-mocking soul. But this person is not there in his diaries. What is there is a tortured man who seems unconsoled by any of the honors he keeps receiving. It is tempting to surmise, as he did himself, that he might not have been so miserable had he not lost his mother so young.
But there may be a less imponderable possibility: no life can be happy that is spent so explicitly seeking recognition as a public sage. If you wish to be one, you had better be impervious to scorn or neglect. Even when a reputation is won, it never becomes so Olympian as to be safe from criticism. Kennan’s very soul seemed rubbed raw by every criticism, every slight, imagined or real, that he received in the course of a long and much honored life. It may have been Kennan’s fate that he lacked the temperament to be either the sage he became or the man of action that he wished he could have been.
The diaries allow us to connect the doctrine of containment with the temperament of the man who created it. His biographer believes containment deserves to be called grand strategy, and Kennan certainly saw it as such, yet the truth is that his grand strategy did not survive first contact with the enemy.
As Gaddis persuasively shows, Kennan’s doctrine was minimalist, not maximalist. It called for America to do less, not more, in facing the Soviet threat. Kennan criticized the Truman Doctrine for its grandiose commitment to fight communism on all fronts. He even advocated abandoning China to the Communists if need be. Yet as soon as the North Koreans moved south of the thirty-eighth parallel in the summer of 1950, with Chinese and Soviet encouragement, Kennan jettisoned minimalist containment and supported maximum military action to push the Communist forces back.
His original doctrine also called for American withdrawal from Western Europe in return for Soviet withdrawal, and for the whole of Germany to be reunified as a neutral, demilitarized state. Instead, NATO was created, Germany was split in two, and Europe remained divided till the wall came down in 1989. None of these events occurred as or when he wished. When he left government service in 1953, he had reason to feel that both he and his doctrine had lost all leverage on events.
So why do we still believe that Kennan’s strategy actually won the cold war? What proved enduring was not the strategy but the temperament, the habits of mind that he counseled Western leaders to display in the face of the Soviet threat. Once we see containment as a temperament, not as a strategy, we can begin to understand why it proved so enduring.
What Kennan grasped brilliantly was the appropriate psychology for American leadership in the cold war. Americans, he insisted, should neither overestimate Soviet belligerence nor underestimate America’s capabilities. They should disabuse themselves of the illusion that nuclear weapons either conferred omnipotence or exposed them to civilizational peril. A threat contained was a threat that could be overcome.
Kennan’s artistic imagination, his love of Chekhov and Tolstoy, his emotional affinity for the Russian tongue and the impulsive warmth of ordinary Russians, were sometimes mocked by his more hard-nosed colleagues, but they served to save his doctrine from ideological dogmatism. Like Isaiah Berlin, his love for the Russian people tempered his hatred of the regime and prevented his doctrine from locking American policy into a war between civilizations.
This in turn enabled him to bring American righteousness and moralism under the control of a strategically patient temperament. The captive nations of Eastern Europe certainly deserved freedom, he conceded, but it was senseless to risk a third world war to secure it for them. America might be responsible for global order, but, as he wrote, “we cannot be the keepers and moral guardians of all the peoples in this world.” It was more important, he confided in another entry, “to convince others that we were strong than to convince others that we were right or idealistic or virtuous.”
What elevated this version of cold war liberalism above the Kissingerian cynicism that followed were two redeeming elements: his faith, inspired by Gibbon, that no empire could rule captive nations forever by force and his insight that American hegemony was best assured by empowering its allies. America’s deepest interests, he repeatedly argued, lay in getting friends to share burdens that would overextend America if it were to shoulder them alone. The key to American hegemony lay in getting Germany back on its feet, loosening General MacArthur’s tutelage so Japan could stand alone, and giving Europeans the decisive say in how to use the Marshall Plan, rather than imposing an American grand design.
Empowering friends, picking your battles, always checking principle with prudence, never overestimating American capacities, but never overestimating the enemy’s strength: this is best seen not as a strategy for all contingencies but as a disposition, a habit of mind, a temperament. By and large, with some horrible exceptions—the Vietnam War, which he opposed in these pages, and the intervention in Iraq—American presidents have followed the recipe of Kennan’s pragmatic realism ever since, and with results that have allowed the US to maintain both military and economic superiority into the twenty-first century.
Key to the temperament was a shrewd humility about the capacity of presidential power to shape the course of historical outcomes in countries far away. Kennan liked to quote John Quincy Adams’s remark that America should never be ranging over the world in search of monsters to destroy. In later life, when containment had done its work and the Soviet Union was no more, Kennan’s positions became very nearly isolationist. He was consistently anti-Zionist and warned against letting America’s commitment to Israel drag it into Middle Eastern conflicts. He was entirely out of sympathy with the fashions of post–cold war foreign policy. He had little or no belief in humanitarian intervention and little more than indifference toward rising powers like India and Brazil. He thought China would always be a rival, while Japan could always be kept a friend. He was a life-long skeptic about international law, the United Nations, and human rights. When George Schulz tried to persuade him that human rights ought to have a place in American foreign policy, Kennan was firm, especially about China. Human rights in China were their affair, not America’s.
All of these instincts may be unattractive to some, but they were at least consistent. Kennan’s achievement was to graft world-weary European historical pessimism of the Bismarckian variety onto the sunnier dispositions of the immigrant society that found itself, in 1945, a new global hegemon. But he was actually doubtful that the graft would take, remarking not a little foolishly that “an understanding of history and of human nature…are simply incompatible with Americanism. To be an American is to distrust these things….”
Most remarkably of all, his vision of the temperament required to ensure American hegemony had little if any place for American patriotism. Kennan himself was entirely free of any belief in American exceptionalism or its global mission as an evangelist for democracy. When much later presidents like Ronald Reagan adopted these triumphalist tropes, Kennan recoiled in dismay.
If the absence of American patriotism saved Kennan’s doctrine from missionary zeal, its absence in Kennan himself left him feeling lonesome and at odds with his countrymen. His lifelong alienation from the country he served is truly remarkable, leading his biographer, John Gaddis, to observe, rightly, that he understood Russia a good deal better than he understood America.
Examples of this lofty incomprehension abound. Still only twenty-four, he vented contempt in his diary for Europe’s new passion for Hollywood movies and soft drinks and jazz. “The Americanization of Europe,” he wrote “like Bolshevism, is a disease which gains footing only in a weakened body.” In 1938, on a return from Europe to his native land, he expressed disgust at “a diseased world and…people drugged and debilitated by automobiles and advertisements and radios and moving pictures.”
He made no secret of the fact that he was not at home in the egalitarian, multiracial immigrant society America was to become. As he confided to himself in the 1930s: “The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers.” His elitism was unrelenting and unapologetic. From the early 1930s right through to the end of his life, he always said he preferred America to be ruled by an oligarchy of well-born, well-educated experts like himself instead of the vulgar democratic politicians he served.
There was even a sour eugenic caste to his elitism. Once while gazing at portraits in the National Portrait Gallery in London he found himself regretting “the obvious erosion of the genes, brought about over this past century by the effect of modern hygiene.” In the 1980s we find him thinking out loud about how much better America would be if it stopped immigration altogether and sterilized any male who had more than two children.
Were we to take all the nonsense in his diary too seriously, we would risk turning a decent and honorable man, admired by almost all who knew him, into a reactionary crank. The trouble is that though it was elitist and eugenic nonsense, he stuck with it throughout his life. The saving irony is that the nonsense—his belief that America was corrupt, doomed, and that its multicultural experiment would founder—saved him from the American triumphalism that would have turned containment into a missionary project for an American empire.
There is also a tragic element to his alienation from the country that honored him. Kennan records a heartbreaking exchange with Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who was denied a security clearance as a result of McCarthyite accusations that he constituted a security risk. Kennan recalled suggesting to Oppenheimer that he should emigrate. “He stood there for a moment, tears streaming down his face.” Then he stammered, “Dammit, I happen to love this country.”
Kennan knew he could not say the same. Yet when he remembered Oppenheimer’s tears twenty years later, in a Bonn hotel room, while watching South Pacific on TV, with its cheerily innocent rendering of American power at play in the Far East, Kennan found himself in tears too. Even then, his love for America was only elegiac: “I can say that I loved, and love in memory, something of what the country once was.”
The deepest question about him is whether he himself mastered the temperament of American leadership that he counseled presidents and secretaries of state to adopt. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous remark about Franklin Roosevelt—that he had a second-rate intelligence and a first-rate temperament—in Kennan, these quotients may have been reversed. His loyal biographer admits that while he was brilliant, he was also moody and excitable. Against influential hawkish strategists, he counseled patience and calm about nuclear weapons yet recurrently convinced himself that nuclear war was just around the corner and that all that was left to him was to enlist and die in combat. He yearned too much to be a prophet and a seer to be an effective executor of his own policies.
When in 1951 Truman and Acheson chose him to be the next ambassador to the Soviet Union, a job he must surely have dreamed of all his professional life, he displayed signs of panic, confessing in a letter to a surprised Presbyterian minister in Princeton that
I find myself weighed down, these days, with the realization that responsibilities are now being placed upon me so unusual and so vast in their implications that I have no chance of coping with them to any good effect except in a spirit of dedication to purposes higher than myself and greater than myself.
The diary records an unintentionally comic scene afterward when he goes to the State Department to receive his instructions as ambassador and his colleagues sit there, exchanging glances, astonished that the magisterial architect of containment should be asking for guidance.
This scene prepares us for the disaster that followed. In September 1952, on leave from a first visit to Moscow as ambassador, he foolishly told a reporter that the restraints imposed on US diplomats there were worse than those he had experienced in Nazi Germany. In allowing himself to say this, he had violated the first lesson of his own containment theory: avoid needless provocation of an adversary. In retaliation, the Soviets declared him persona non grata, and his ambassadorship—indeed his official career, apart from a brief stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia under Kennedy—was at an end. It is hard not to conclude from this episode that the achievement of Kennan’s life—the crafting of the temperament and disposition that led America to victory in the cold war—was inseparable from a real tragedy: the inability of its author to live up to what he himself had prescribed.
It turns out to be quite common that powerful minds lack the temperament they counsel for their princes. This irony is what gives Kennan’s diaries their pathos and appeal. Yet if he lacked the steadiness and pertinacity for command, he more than made up for it with courageous and unrelenting self-examination and a tenacious will to hold together a life that, by his own admission, went on too long. “Write, you bastard, write,” became the master exhortation that guided the last fifty years of his life, as if he knew that his true vocation was to save insights from the wreck of his own ambitions. The insights he saved—the disabused, historical skepticism that kept insisting on both the responsibilities and limitations of American power—will outlive the times he lived in, for they capture so eloquently the enduring temperament required for American leadership.