Home/Articles/Arts & Letters/The Poet of Containment

The Poet of Containment

illustration by Michael Hogue

In January 1997, a 92-year-old retired diplomat and prize-winning historian based out of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton confided in his diary the following thoughts with regard to the proposed expansion of NATO to include three former Warsaw Pact countries: “The deep commitment of our government to press the expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold War period. I stretched my mind … trying to find any reason for this colossal blunder. I could find none.”

A week later, George Frost Kennan—the “father of containment” and author of the fantastically influential “X” article in Foreign Affairs that spurred America’s Cold War strategy—would go public over his misgivings in an op-ed in the New York Times. He was, as he suspected he would be, promptly ignored by the upper echelons of the United States government.

Strobe Talbott, then serving as President Clinton’s “Russia hand,” recalls in his memoirs of those years being asked by the president, who had read the op-ed, why Kennan was wrong, to which Talbott responded that he admired Kennan “but not as a source of all wisdom. Kennan had opposed the formation of NATO in the first place … so it was no great surprise he would oppose its enlargement.” And like that, Kennan’s opposition, which now seems prescient, was dismissed.

Yet Talbott’s dismissal couldn’t have come as any surprise to Kennan, who writes in his diary of his sympathy with Henry Adams’s sentiment that being regarded as a “sage” actually means, in Kennan’s words, that one’s recommendations “were not to be taken seriously when it came to public policy.” The knowledge that the respect with which he was heard never translated to influence was, as these diaries make plain, something that Kennan never reconciled himself to. It’s entirely possible that if his counsel, so eagerly sought yet so quickly discarded, was heeded, we—the United States and our NATO allies—may well have avoided the crisis with Russia we have lately found ourselves in.

So the publication of The Kennan Diaries is timely. It is also perhaps the capstone event of what has been in recent years a resurgent interest in the life and work of George F. Kennan. The dénouement of George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure in the White House saw a renewed interest in the political philosophy of mid-20th century realists like Kennan and his contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr. These two men were very unlike those leaving power at the end of the Bush years, in that they urged a foreign policy that had a “proper respect for the decent opinion of mankind.” Around that time candidate Barack Obama, clearly dissembling, told David Brooks that Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.”

The contours of Kennan’s life and career are by now familiar. Born at the turn of the last century in comfortable enough circumstances in Milwaukee, Kennan graduated from Princeton before joining the recently formed Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. After initial postings in Geneva and Hamburg, he found his true métier as a Russia specialist and accompanied the first U.S. ambassador to the USSR, William Bullitt, to Moscow upon resumption of diplomatic relations in 1933. Later assigned to the Prague and then Berlin embassies at the outbreak of World War II, he endured six months of internment in Bad Nauheim before a repatriation agreement was negotiated between Washington and Berlin.

He served as the first director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and later as ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he was declared persona non grata by Stalin only six months into his tenure. Kennan’s public career had launched some years earlier, upon the publication in 1947 of his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” His authorship soon became known, and by the mid-1950s he was a much sought-after public intellectual. He also wrote several distinguished volumes on Russian history, including the Bancroft Prize- and National Book Award-winning Russia Leaves the War.

He was an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his very long life. His close friend, the historian John Lukacs—who also happens to have authored the most perceptive biography of the man—called him “a conscience of his nation.”

If that’s right, and I think it is, he was also, as these diaries make plain, something of a tortured soul. According to the editor of this volume, historian Frank Costigliola, Kennan’s wife of 73 years, Annelise, “stressed that he tended to write in his diary when he was feeling morose, and rarely when he was not”—to which this reviewer can only add: and how!

What strikes the reader of these diaries, besides the sheer abundance of literary talent on display, is Kennan’s capacity, in the space of a single entry, for deep wisdom and even deeper melancholy. This duality runs like a thread through these pages, and a little of the latter goes a long way. Take one example from April 1951: “It would be a miracle if, with some combination of personal and public problems, anything remained for me personally in life … this will be a time for leadership or for martyrdom or for both. I may as well prepare myself for it.”

The diaries seem to point to at least one source of depression for Kennan: that in spite of his enormous success, he was at heart an artist, a bohemian doomed to a life of middle-class conformity. Upon learning he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Russia Leaves the War, he writes: “why this lack of enthusiasm I cannot explain, even to myself … perhaps it is fiction I should write.”

Yet the diaries aren’t all doom and gloom; indeed, they have their charms. Upon reading the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, Kennan immediately recognizes that the portrait of Trotsky as a humane man of letters—a view, incidentally propagated by several generations of leftist intellectuals, including Christopher Hitchens—was nonsense.

In an entry from 1959, Kennan notes: “a man like Trotsky, whose life was one long outpouring of the most ferocious summons to class warfare and violence, became not a saint, not a prophet, not a high-minded benefactor of humanity, but something very close to a criminal.” His take on a worldview not dissimilar to Trotsky’s, that of America’s neoconservatives, elicits the thought that they “have the need to think that there is, somewhere, an enemy boundlessly evil, because this makes them feel boundlessly good.”

His quick portraits of two southern boys made good, Lyndon Baines Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton, are indelible. Kennan recoiled at LBJ’s shtick: “what this man represents—this oily, folksy, tricky political play-acting, this hearty optimism, this self-congratulatory jingoism, all combined with the whiney, plaintive, provincial drawl and the childish antics of the grown male in modern Texas.” He is somewhat nicer about President Clinton, who, though he never heeded Kennan’s policy advice, did have the decency to give him a respectful hearing. In the aftermath of the revelation that the president lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Kennan notes in September 1998 that Clinton could hardly be blamed, after all “he is the outgrowth of a seriously decadent and spoiled society … he is shallow in his philosophical background and in his human relationships.”

About his sometime home city of Washington, D.C., Kennan is rather less charitable, writing after a stroll on an 86-degree day—in November—that he felt like he was “living in what seemed to me a sort of foreign city, a sort of super Dar-es-Salaam.”

The worst review of these diaries, Fareed Zakaria’s in the New York Times, spent far too much space taking Kennan to task for being “cranky” or “racist” and for not reveling in the America of the “booming 1990s.” It strikes me, however, as hardly surprising that a man born in the middle of the country in 1904 turned his nose up at what surely was—with the grossness of the Clinton/Lewinsky entanglement, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the lugubrious outpouring of grief over the death of Diana Spencer—a most tawdry decade.

There was, to be sure, a part of Kennan that liked to épater les bien-pensants, and it is true that the diary entries from his later years express views that are startlingly, shall we say, unconventional: here I have in mind an entry in which he looks kindly upon the idea of “sterilization” as a solution to what he perceived as the threat of overpopulation. Such entries can’t help but make one wish that Costigliola had pruned a bit more—though in fairness, he was faced with a herculean task of selecting entries from a diary that spanned over 20,000 pages. thisarticle

The early chapters here could have been done away with: juvenilia are, after all, juvenilia, even if they come from the pen of George F. Kennan. And while it is of interest that Kennan was something of a Freudian and kept a detailed “dream diary,” I’m skeptical that entries from that journal add much in the way of understanding this very complicated man.

The diaries, while presenting a more balanced portrait of Kennan than the one found in John Lewis Gaddis’s 2011 biography, tend also to go over a rather lot of familiar ground. Kennan’s two volumes of memoirs, the aforementioned Lukacs and Gaddis biographies, another by Lee Congdon, an excellent book of correspondence between Kennan and Lukacs, Kennan’s reminisces in Sketches of a Life, and his best-selling book of personal philosophy, Around the Cragged Hill, make much of the diaries redundant. Thus I fear that this volume—while at times entertaining, illuminating, and obviously put together with great care—will ultimately be of limited value to the specialist and too dense for the general reader.

James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.

leave a comment

Latest Articles