Dan McCarthy, who has reviewed Prof. Lukacs’ excellent George Kennan: A Study in Character for TAC, points us to the WSJ’s reviewer of the same book. You can read both if you like, but if you’re pressed for time I recommend that you just read Dan’s. As someone who has read the book and having written a review of it myself (publication to be announced later), I can say with confidence that Joffe does not really do justice to the subject of the study or to the work of the scholar who wrote it.
Presented with a fascinating character study of an important, learned and serious historian and foreign policy analyst, Joffe takes the predictable route of checking off ideological boxes. The problem with the review isn’t just that the reviewer gets hung up on Kennan’s lack of enthusiasm for parliamentary democracy in the 1930s (be honest–if you had been around in the 1930s, would you have thought much of parliamentary democratic systems?) and his admiration for certain conservative authoritarian rulers (which is so far from “baffling” that it is baffling that Joffe would find it baffling). This focus hardly helps to get to the core of the book, which actually has less to do with Kennan’s attitudes towards democracy and dictatorship. His political views are part of the story, but the brilliance of the book is its illumination of the inner life and, obviously, character of the man. I don’t want to say more, lest I give away too many of my own thoughts about it.
In the end, one gets the distinct impression that Joffe does not know, or does not know well, much of anything else that Prof. Lukacs has written, nor does he understand the close affinities between the author and subject that help to explain some elements of the book. For instance, it is rather relevant that Prof. Lukacs has been a noted anti-anti-communist for decades, but a reader of Joffe’s review would have no idea about any of this. It is sufficient for a WSJ reviewer to dismiss those lacking in ideological purity. It is my strong sense that the George Kennan described in Prof. Lukacs’ fine work would not want even the faint praise of someone writing for that paper, since it has become the journalistic center of everything twisted and wrong with American foreign policy thinking in our time.