George Kennan was—and remains—an important, even compelling, figure in the early history of the Cold War. But these selections from his voluminous and often overwrought diaries reveal him to have been something other than what this honest, if not always moderate, this calm, but not always cool, and detached professional diplomat took himself to be.
The Kennan Diaries, edited by Frank Costigliola (768 pages, W.W. Norton, 2014)
Before picking up this book, pick a year, any year, between the 1920s and the opening decade of the 21st century. Then dip in. No matter the year, you’re likely to find a Kennanesque lament of some sort. Here’s one: “I am now in the truest sense of the word an expatriate.” George Kennan confided this to his diary in 1951, but something similar might have been penned—and often was—during virtually any year of this American diplomat’s long life.
To be sure, 1951 was a particularly difficult year for the architect of the containment doctrine, who had recently been deposed as the chief of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. On the outs with the Truman administration generally and Secretary of State Dean Acheson in particular and convinced that McCarthyism had “already won,” Kennan was feeling thoroughly aggrieved; hence a further lamentation: “There is no place in public life for an honest and moderate man.”
Convinced, as always, that he was both honest and moderate, Kennan in 1951 was on his way to a somewhat reluctant retreat to private life, whether on his Pennsylvania farm or within Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where the professional-diplomat-turned-amateur historian would produce important works of diplomatic history. As time went on, these works would be interspersed with books of public lament over the impending doom of a nuclearized world gone mad, a world largely created and shaped by a nuclear-maddened America.
But whether as a private citizen or as a public official, George Kennan would never again be in a prime position to restore America, much less the world, to his version of sanity. Save for a brief stint as President Kennedy’s envoy to Tito’s Yugoslavia, this “honest and moderate man” would never again hold an official position in the American government.
Did he desire such a position? More than a few diary entries would suggest that he did. Would he ever lower himself to lobby for this or that post? No. The George Kennan always kept himself above that sort of thing.
Had Kennan continued his diplomatic career without interruption this volume would likely have been significantly slimmer. It seems that whenever Kennan was seriously engaged in making or implementing American foreign policy he had little time—or inclination—to indulge in these private observations—and lamentations. As a result, we learn little that is new about the George Kennan who was very present at the creation of early Cold War policy. At the same time we learn much that rapidly gets old about his post-State Department state of mind. This would be the George Kennan who was often out of sorts and generally dyspeptic, whether owing to his having been slighted, misunderstood, or just plain ignored. It is not a pretty picture.
Then there is the not so minor matter of his sense of alienation from his country and his fellow citizens. Still, it would not be quite right to say that Kennan carried on a love-hate relationship with the country that he represented abroad for better than a quarter of a century. After all, he did have a certain affection for certain aspects of American life, especially bucolic aspects of his native Wisconsin and his adopted Pennsylvania. And disdain, rather than hatred, better captures Kennan’s attitude toward the typical American—or at least the typical American as he observed the breed.
Long a critic of democratic foreign policy making, Kennan reveals here that he had little use for American democracy period. This is mainly so because he had little confidence in or respect for either its people or the society they had created. Here is the youthful Kennan of the 1920s: “Our civilization is like a body of water which, lacking profundity, spreads out over its banks and floods the countryside with a thin sheet of stagnant water.” By 1930 he managed to get down to cases, unable as he was to “conjure up an image of an American who is prepared to put the public good before their personal lives.”
On the eve of World War II he would dismiss the United States as little more than an “accumulation of millions of individual philistinisms,” who had been “drugged and debilitated by cars and ads and radios and movies.” As a result, it was the misfortune of this career diplomat to represent a country that could not conjure up “much in the way of a foreign policy.”
That such a people could defeat the Axis powers and successfully wage a Cold War against the Soviet Union did not exactly change Kennan’s mind. Here is George Kennan on Americans in Germany in 1954: “their presence here infuriates me. Everything about them I view with loathing: their callousness, their softness, their imperviousness to things around them, their garrulous conviviality.” Okay, maybe he occasionally did dip below mere disdain and into elements of loathing, if not hatred.
Near the end of the Eisenhower years Kennan offered this variation on his perpetual theme: “Is it any wonder that a society so heedless, so selfish, so contemptuous of its own cultural heritage, should find it difficult to act as a mature nation?” And in case anyone might be tempted to think that the United States had only recently taken a wrong turn, Kennan could not resist reflecting that the American colonial experience had been an “unfortunate one.” Why? It amounted to an “escape from, rather than a projection of, the greatness of Europe.”
By the 1980s Kennan was calling for the United States to ape the alleged greatness of Europe in a very different way. Apparently, he had determined that it was high time to rein in American population growth. Specifically, he called for policies that would cap the number of American philistines at 200 million, or, better yet, 175 million. To accomplish such a goal he would do Europe twice better by calling for compulsory sterilization after two children and the “shutting” of American borders to all immigrants. All of this was consistent with a youthful Kennan’s endorsement of eugenics and an aging Kennan’s preference for some sort of an American autarky. One should not be surprised to learn that this diplomat-in-retirement would be increasingly inclined to label himself an isolationist, especially as his frustration level mounted and these diary entries accumulated.
Whether as a limited cold warrior (Kennan always had difficulty with the open-endedness of the Truman Doctrine) or as an incipient Ron Paulite, Kennan always preferred to see himself as a detached, cool-headed rational advocate of a foreign policy grounded in realism and the national interest. Therein resides a minor mystery, not to mention a question that might well be unanswerable.
If the identity of the “Mr. X” who authored the Foreign Affairs article that became the intellectual foundation for the containment doctrine was once a mystery, just who was George Kennan? Was it the George Kennan who essentially supported President Truman’s prosecution of the Cold War (including his decision to fight in Korea)? Or was it the George Kennan who roundly criticized President Reagan’s rhetoric and decisions (especially the boost in military spending) that contributed to winning that same war forty years later?
If this collection of diary entries is any guide, neither of these Kennans was quite what he advertised himself as being. Not far beneath the calm and cool Kennan surface, whether in the 1940s or the 1980s or any point before, between, or after, was a cauldron of emotions. There was the haughty disdain of this urbane cosmopolitan for the American man in the street, not to mention the American man on the road. Then there was the targeted disdain of this Stevenson-style Democrat for any and all simplistic-minded Republican neanderthals from the briefly victorious Joe McCarthy to George W. Bush, who “light heartedly” (Kennan claims to divine) took the country to war in Iraq.
On a more personal level, there was Kennan’s resentment at being ignored or otherwise not listened to, whether he was in government or out. There was also his envy of those who did have the ear of policy makers. And then there was the ordinary turmoil of married life and family obligations, mixed with a wandering eye for the fairer sex that never seemed to abate, his calm and cool demeanor notwithstanding.
In sum, the George Kennan was full of ordinary human emotions, emotions that were not necessarily rational, but were nonetheless quite normal and readily understandable. In other words, the ostensibly cool-headed Kennan was, in some respects, not all that different from that much-maligned man on the street. This, of course, would be the same George Kennan who was always pining for the day when American foreign policy could be divorced from the messiness of American politics and given over to a panel of experts composed of men much like himself, experts who would always somehow know—and be free to act upon—that which was in the country’s best interests.
There are three problems/questions with such utopian pining. Which George Kennan was the Kennan who knew best? Was it the cold warrior or the autarchic isolationist? Or was this foreign policy authority somehow at his cool-headed best when he was poised somewhere between these two poles?
Secondly, shouldn’t a foreign policy realist be realistic enough to realize that the intrusiveness of democratic politics is an inevitable component of the American policymaking process?
Lastly, if the messiness of democracy is a given, the existence of a permanent cadre of identifiable, disinterested, and thoroughly rational experts is not. They simply do not exist. In the first place, the thoroughly rational among them will not always agree. Secondly, witness this collection of diary entries written by someone who thought (or at least wished?) that they did exist—and who presumed that he was one of them, even as these same diary entries reveal that he wasn’t. To be sure, Kennan’s expertise cannot be denied, but his self-presumed disinterestedness, as well as his considerable differences with other rational foreign policy authorities, constitute, well, another cauldron of fish.
Of course, it didn’t help matters, not to mention George Kennan’s frame of mind, that the heyday of his influence within the American government closely coincided with the heyday of someone else. That would be fellow Wisconsonite, Senator Joe McCarthy. When Kennan, the diplomat, wasn’t preoccupied with figuring how best to counter Stalin and his Politburo henchmen, Kennan, the diarist, was fulminating about McCarthy and his fellow Republican witch-hunters.
As far as George Kennan was concerned, Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism represented something far worse than the messiness of American democracy at its worst. The senator and the phenomenon had combined to hijack Cold War foreign policy by diverting attention from matters external to matter internal. Countering Stalin had been reduced to finding communists and communist sympathizers among Kennan’s State Department colleagues.
Were the McCarthyites simply premature isolationists? Or were they perhaps just early advocates of a version of American autarky before it was considered cool-headed and rational to be such?
As far as the infamous Hiss-Chambers imbroglio was concerned, Kennan remained essentially neutral nearly a half century after the fact. In a 1997 entry, he noted that he “never trusted either of the two men. Both were too perfect in their respective roles…. (Their) poses, for anyone who knew something about the Russian-Communist intelligence apparatus, were too vaguely pretentious to be wholly plausible.”
Among McCarthy’s targets was Kennan colleague and friend, John Paton Davies. Did Davies deserve to be hounded from the Foreign Service? Probably not. Was Davies wrong about Mao? Yes. As late as 1970 this “China hand” described Mao to Kennan at a Washington dinner party as a “combination of earthy pragmatic peasant and romanticist.” Did Kennan, the diarist, add any skeptical editorial commentary by way of rebuttal? No.
The lack of such comment may have had something to do with Kennan’s drift toward isolationism, a drift that began sometime in the 1960s and had a good deal to do with America’s Asian policies generally and the war in Vietnam specifically. According to Kennan, there were two types of isolationist: those who deemed the “world outside” to be essentially “unimportant or wholly wicked” and those who “distrusted the ability of the United States to involve itself to any useful effect in most foreign situations.”
In the name of removing all doubt it should be noted that Kennan placed himself in the latter category. Part of his reason for doing so is certainly traceable to his gloomy assessment of his fellow Americans. Another part is consistent with his generally dismissive attitude toward the entirety of the Third World, as well as his “plague on both your houses” approach to both Israel and the entirety of the Arab world. But a significant piece has more than a little to do with Kennan’s increasing reluctance, if not open refusal, to see significant elements of the “world outside” as “wholly wicked.” That would include the Soviet Union.
Did Kennan regard the United States as somewhat wicked? Was he one of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “San Francisco Democrats?” Perhaps. Or did he at least regard his home country as highly misguided? To be sure. Here is an example. In 1978, or the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Kennan confidently decreed that Moscow is “not the problem; we are.”
Writing in almost Carteresque tones, he went on to assure himself that “they are not going to attack anyone, and if only our good allies to the east and west of the U.S.S.R. could get over their jitters… they would have nothing to fear. It is the West, not Russia, that finds it hard to live with the present ambivalent relationship.”
Unlike President Carter, Kennan does not appear to have changed his mind about the Soviet Union in the aftermath of its invasion of Afghanistan. Like Carter, Kennan was a consistent critic of the Democratic president’s successor and what he termed the “Reagan regime.” It was “ignorant and unintelligent,” “complacent and arrogant,” “frivolous and reckless.” On top of all that, it was forever hurtling the world “toward a wholly unnecessary and disastrous war.” That such a war did not take place never seems to have shaken Kennan’s conviction that it would.
Did the Reagan regime make any significant contribution to ending—and winning—the Cold War without benefit of a hot war? No. In Kennan’s estimation the credit belonged to Mikhail Gorbachev instead.
By the 1980s Kennan had clearly jettisoned any thoughts of having a formal role within the American government. But he had not given up all hope of influencing American foreign policy. In fact, from the 1960s on Kennan was an on-again, off-again participant in the messiness of American democracy as it applied to foreign policy making. This was certainly the case in 1966 when he testified before the Fulbright-led, dovishly-inclined Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Vietnam. There is little doubt that he saw himself as a cerebral, if only honorary, member of the American peace movement then—and later. In speeches, op-ed pieces and books he did what he could to help steer the United States and the rest of the world away from nuclear weapons and the ever-impending doom that has not yet managed to materialize.
To be sure, Kennan was publicly and privately critical of the in-the-street and in-your-face antiwar movement, especially as it manifested itself among the youth of the 1960s. But he was far less critical of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. If anything, he saw himself as part of it. His private reaction to the 1983 Soviet shooting down of a civilian South Korean airliner is more than slightly telling. That action was not evidence of Soviet skullduggery, let alone wickedness; rather it was a “great blow to the entire peace movement” in the United States and a “serious blow… to my own effectiveness.”
That “effectiveness,” such as it was, had long been confined to his outsider status. Nonetheless, this critic of the place of democracy in foreign policy making was for many years an active participant in this messy process. In other words, he was playing the role of a democratic citizen who disagreed with the 1980s version of elite American policymakers. Along the way Kennan also departed from his long-held strictures against inserting moralistic elements into the making of American foreign policy. In retrospect, he conceded that the 1975 Helsinki Accords proved to be something other than a “lot of nonsense,” that in fact they proved to be a “wedge for toppling communist rule.”
Such a concession on Kennan’s part is rare in these diary entries. But this is not to say that he was a model of consistency. His gradual slide from Cold Warrior to autarchic isolationist was both real and significant. This is not to say that Kennan, published diarist, now stands exposed as a man lacking in erudition or expertise. George Kennan possessed a good deal of both. He also was—and remains—an important, even compelling, figure in the early history of the Cold War. But these selections from his voluminous and often overwrought diaries reveal him to have been something other than what this honest, if not always moderate, this calm, but not always cool, and detached professional diplomat took himself to be.
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