The Kennan chapter is O’Gorman’s best because Kennan, of his four subjects, is the best exemplar of the interplay of policy and personality. “Without stoicism,” O’Gorman writes, “we would never have had Kennan’s containment.” That is probably an overstatement, but one knows what he means. And the argument can be taken even further, as Kennan himself probably did. It might be said that Kennan’s particular brand of pessimism, his tragic sense of life, is a necessary prerequisite for the conduct of sound foreign policy, that benevolent optimists and other do-gooders are not equipped to handle affairs of state.
It’s fair to say that the United States has been particularly plagued by such optimists and do-gooders during the last twenty years, and U.S. foreign policy has become even more badly warped as a result. Prudence and pessimism naturally put Kennan at odds with the dangerous moralists and optimists of his day:
Readers of John Lewis Gaddis’s authoritative George F. Kennan: An American Life already know that throughout his life Kennan was sour, morose, and pessimistic. “Life can never be other than tragic,” he said, and that outlook, or “worldview,” dictated a policy of caution, moderation, and quiet if unflagging strength. Moralism, with its absolutist strictures, was a dangerous and hopeless pursuit, its implicit utopianism “almost criminally unforgivable.” The world was never going to be brought together in universal brotherhood, and it would be reckless for the United States to build its foreign policy on a program of intervening to eradicate what it viewed as evil. It was better advised to understand its genuine interests and to safeguard them.