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A man of impressive mental powers, of extraordinary intellectual range, and?last but not least?of exceptional integrity, George Frost Kennan (1904-2005) was an adviser to presidents and secretaries of state, with a decisive role in the history of this country (and of the entire world) for a few crucial years in the 1940s, after which he was made to retire; but then he became a scholar who wrote seventeen books, scores of essays and articles, and a Pulitzer Prize?winning memoir. He also wrote remarkable public ...
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A man of impressive mental powers, of extraordinary intellectual range, and—last but not least—of exceptional integrity, George Frost Kennan (1904-2005) was an adviser to presidents and secretaries of state, with a decisive role in the history of this country (and of the entire world) for a few crucial years in the 1940s, after which he was made to retire; but then he became a scholar who wrote seventeen books, scores of essays and articles, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir. He also wrote remarkable public lectures and many thousands of incisive letters, laying down his pen only in the hundredth year of his life.
Having risen within the American Foreign Service and been posted to various European capitals, and twice to Moscow, Kennan was called back to Washington in 1946, where he helped to inspire the Truman Doctrine and draft the Marshall Plan. Among other things, he wrote the “X” or “Containment” article for which he became, and still is, world famous (an article which he regarded as not very important and liable to misreading). John Lukacs describes the development and the essence of Kennan’s thinking; the—perhaps unavoidable—misinterpretations of his advocacies; his self-imposed task as a leading realist critic during the Cold War; and the importance of his work as a historian during the second half of his long life.
When George Kennan was born, in 1904, there were about eighty-one million Americans. When he died, one hundred and one years later, there were about two hundred and eighty million: so many more, and a different people, and a different country. When this book is published I fear that to the vast majority of Americans his name will be unknown. This is, and will remain, regrettable. He was an extraordinary man, who not only represented but incarnated some of the best and finest traits of American character. Evidences of that make up the substance of this book.
There are great and grave difficulties ahead for his biographers. He was not a celebrity-indeed, nothing like it. He had a very important office in the government of the United States for not more than a few years. The memory and the signification of his name for the diminishing number of people who recognize it exist in their minds mostly because of what he did during those few years. Yes: his achievements at that time-by and large, three or four years in the 1940s-were remarkable. The studies written about him deal with his role during that time. Yet that chapter of his life was brief and transitory. Toconcentrate on those few years is as insufficient as it is wrong. That is one, but only one, problem that any biographer of his will have to face.
In these few introductory pages I must sketch something of the main course in the life of this extraordinary man. He was but one offspring of the great mass of the American middle classes in the Middle West, a son of a modestly respectable family, not easily distinguishable within that large class of people. There was a dun climate in their lives. George Frost Kennan-there is a coldness in the very middle of his given name, the Frost that he would almost never use, save as an initial. Very soon after he was born his mother died: a loss that constricted this child's heart for very long; his father's choice of a second wife gave little comfort, let alone happiness, to the Kennan children. The young George Kennan was introverted, serious, shy. That temperament marked his personality throughout his life.
He is a student-rather impecunious, and very considerably lonely-he enters Princeton. The interests of his mind begin to cohere. He goes through the entrance examinations of the then recently regulated Foreign Service of the United States. He is posted to various cities in Europe. He marries a young Norwegian woman; they will have four children. He has learned Russian, he knows Russian, he is posted to Moscow: first before the coming of the Second World War, then during the last two years of it. He raises his individual voice-on paper-against the dangers of Russian expansion and Communist aggression. Suddenly-though belatedly-his voice is heard in Washington. He is called home. He is given an important position in the top councils of the government of the United States. He writes an article which rephrases his earlier argument to the effect that it is time to "contain" the Soviet Union. That article becomes and remains the main instrument of his fame. Then he finds that his counsels are wanted less and less, if at all. He resigns.
He does not know-how could he?-that more than a half of a very long life is still ahead of him. Five decades of a mentally active life, seldom interrupted or marred by illness, but inspired by his anxious concerns about his country. He writes great and valuable books, mostly histories, including, at the age of sixty, an unusually fine memoir. He is respected by many but followed by few. He lives and works at Princeton, leading a scholarly and more or less isolated existence, together with his wife. He is almost one hundred years old when he-gradually-puts down his pen. He dies one year and one month and one day after his one hundredth birthday. A long life: blessedly so, not punctuated by great personal crises and dramatic adventures. That may be one problem for a putative biographer.
But there is another problem, or obstacle, which is entirely different and immeasurably greater. It is that the written material he left behind is immense; instead of being too sparse it is too thick; not thin but very rich; not small but enormous in its mass; not in the least insufficient but perhaps even inexhaustible. Such are his literary remains. He was a man of the written word. "The use of letters," Gibbon once wrote, "is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge and reflection." When Gibbon wrote this, in the eighteenth century, that was a truism, almost too boring to be repeated. But two hundred years later George Kennan's writing-his "use of letters"-had become the principal quality that distinguished him from a herd of otherwise educated people less and less capable of knowledge and reflection.
Sometime around the age of twenty this shy and solitary young student started to write-to write for himself alone. Except perhaps in one instance there was nothing very remarkable about the papers he had to write for his teachers at Princeton. As is the case for most writers, his impulse to write was inseparable from his impulse to read, in his case especially of classics of English literature. That was important enough; but there was more than that. Somerset Maugham said that a young man's "discover[y] that he has a creative urge to write ... is a mystery as impenetrable as the origin of sex." I do not believe that this is so. Writing, after all, is a form of self-expression. T. S. Eliot understood this better when he said that the motive to write is the desire to vanquish a mental preoccupation by expressing it consciously and clearly. That was the case of George Kennan through eighty years. He wrote to clarify his own mind-and, on occasion, when he so chose, the minds of others. He did not analyze or perhaps even know the source-that is: the motive less than the purpose-of that impulse. He had no desire to psychoanalyze: not himself, and not others.
But he kept writing: diaries, letters, travel journals, notes for himself, through, I repeat, eighty years. This presents an enormous problem for his biographers. The mass of his papers, of his published but, even more, unpublished writings and of his correspondence, is enormous. Historians and biographers customarily struggle against the contrary obstacle: they wish they had more material. In George Kennan's case there is too much. We now live at a time when, for all kinds of reasons, biography is one (and perhaps the only one) form of art that flourishes, since it attracts readers as well as writers. The result is the tendency of biographers to attempt to be encyclopedic, to construct exhaustive or at least nearly exhaustive biographies of their subjects. But what Kennan left behind is not only too much; it is, more than often, too rich. Researchers and eventual authors customarily face the wearisome and often difficult task of reading and reading through reams of papers and other manuscripts buried in archives from which their task is to extract a few sentences that prove or illustrate something. But in Kennan's writings there are passages so well written, so illuminating, that their eventual commentators can hardly paraphrase or improve on them, or not at all.
George Kennan knew that he could compose well and clearly. Did he know that he was an exceptional, perhaps even a great, writer? I do not think so. He had to write-often only for himself, at other times for those close to him. He did not have the desire to be a famous writer. Once or twice in his life he thought of writing a full biography of Anton Chekhov, whom he admired; but even then his impulse was not to become Chekhov's established biographer. He let few people, including members of his family, know that he was writing diaries from time to time. Portions of these he sometimes included in letters directed to family members or close friends. He did not believe that these were extraordinary. He was reluctant when a friend attempted to impress him to collect and publish some of his travel diaries, which he then did, in 1989, under the somewhat indifferent title Sketches from a Life. A last problem, if problem that is. Future students or biographers of George Kennan who wish to know more about psychic circumstances or interior tribulations of his life will learn little about these from all of his accumulated writings. That was not the result of some kind of a Freudian suppression; and it is not attributable simply to Kennan's honest and often severe reserve about himself. That reserve did not exclude or protect him from somber moods of pessimism and even despair: that much we may know. But his interest-and ever so often a profound and penetrating interest-was for the conscious, not for the subconscious, mind: his own and also what he saw of the minds of others. The workings and the evidences and the complexities and the problems of the conscious mind were rich and wide and deep and sufficient for him. So they ought to be for his potential students and eventual biographers.
What is the result of all this? It is that, for the sake of an American posterity, Kennan the writer and thinker is, or should be, even more important than Kennan the political advocate; that Kennan about America is even more important and enduring than Kennan about Russia; that Kennan the actual historian and essayist has left us even more valuable things than Kennan the potential statesman. Though he was often withdrawn and unsure of himself, his character was both more stable and more inspiring than that of Henry Adams. He was a better writer and a better thinker than Adams. The qualities of his achievements were, largely, the results of his mind, of his character, of his conscious employment of his talents. So to the origins and to the formation and to the crystallization of George Kennan's character I must now turn.
The American-it has been said and written and declared over and over again-is a self-made man. That may be largely true, but not true enough: because there existed (and, we may hope, there still may exist) significant exceptions (significant, because they are not less American) to that. The self-made man is one whose life and whose career and whose achievements are not determined by his ancestry, by his breeding, by his social provenance. Or, at best, hardly influenced by these; his achievements are largely the results of what he chose to abandon or even reject. A classic American example is Benjamin Franklin, the prime Public Relations man in American history, with his public, rather than private, self.
George Kennan was (and could not have been) more different. He was a deeply private American, who respected and venerated his ancestors. More than that: instinctive elements of his character were formed by his ancestry. In his nineties he paid more and more attention to the history of the Kennans, beyond a purpose to complete their genealogy. That often occurs to and spurs the mind of family fathers after they have reached a certain age. What was unusual was that George Kennan, in his late nineties, chose to approach that kind of work with extensive research and reading and even travel, costing him much expense and effort. The result was a considerable book that he completed in his ninety-seventh year, the composition and the style of which show no symptom of mental decline at that age.
An American Family: The Kennans, the First Three Generations is both precise and pensive. The Kennans were people from Dumfries in Scotland. James Kennan translated himself to America around 1720, and married a New England girl. My purpose here is not genealogy, as it was not George Kennan's either, save where it was necessary to find dates and names. It is to draw attention to a remarkably straight trend. The Kennans were Scots in origin; Presbyterian was the official denomination of their religion. All of them were farmers in small towns, including Thomas Kennan, who served as a Presbyterian minister but returned to private farming after his wife's death. (With him George Kennan's book ends.) They moved, through generations and in stages, gradually westward in New England and then in upstate New York and then eventually to Wisconsin, where George Kennan's grandfather, Thomas, the first professional man, an attorney with a civic reputation whom George as a child still knew.
Since this book is not an extensive biography but what I hope is a biographical study of George Kennan's character, let me draw attention, necessarily cursory, to four elements in what he obviously received from his ancestors. One of these is physical resemblance: light blue eyes, a strong expressive mouth, self-imposed limits of speech (perhaps, too, repressed emotions of concern and anger), and a large and impressive forehead. The second element is that of personal and family pride or, more precisely, a personal self-sufficiency that George Kennan maintained and possessed throughout this life. People who have written about him emphasized that he, among the "Wise Men" of the late 1940s, was inhibited because he was bereft of the worldwise and wealthy and sophisticated upbringing of his associates and friends. I think that this is insufficient and exaggerated. He was inhibited not because of suppressed feelings but because of his character; he was reserved not because of a sense of inferiority but because of his independent sense of self-esteem.
A third element-expressed again in his family history-is his own, and probably somewhat exaggerated, attribution of the virtues of his ancestors to their New England origins. It is true that the Kennans were not untypical of a large mass of New Englanders who were moving westward and who settled in what later became states and towns and communities in the American Middle West. But did their descendants remain New Englanders for long? Traces of those customs and traditions lived on, but they also became changed, transformed, were even abandoned. I think that, in this instance, George Kennan emphasized the New England factor too much. The true sources of his mind and temperament and inspirations and belonging were broader and deeper than that. It is quite possible that after his retirement from the Foreign Service, Kennan may have found a place not at Princeton but at Harvard. But he would have never become a typical Bostonian. True, New England's remote origins were Scottish and English. The physical and sometimes even intellectual characteristics-and, more important: inspirations-of George Kennan were northern: but also European, meaning, among other things, something wider than Scottish or English or Bostonian. He had what a sensitive French writer in the early twentieth century (it may have been Valéry Larbaud) once phrased as la nostalgie du Nord, a phrase whose literal translation in English may be precise but somehow inadequate.
The fourth element that he may have inherited from his ancestry was something probably not very typical of many of them, and yet something that was a definite component of George Kennan's personality: a kind of sensitivity so fine as to be somehow feminine-surely feminine rather than masculine. It existed not contrary to but in harmony with his other, so often straight and sometimes even rigid but at other times boyish kind of manliness. In his family history, which includes only the histories of the male Kennans, husbands and fathers, he often paused to pay tribute to the women who married them and then bore their children. He saw virtues in them that went beyond the respectable everyday achievements of domesticity. Throughout his life there were some women whom he respected and admired more unreservedly than he did most men.
Two months after George Kennan was born (on 16 February 1904) his mother died. His father married another woman who was nervous and cold, a former teacher, not a good stepmother either for her stepson or for her stepdaughters. In sum, George Kennan did not have a happy childhood.
Excerpted from George Kennan by JOHN LUKACS Copyright © 2007 by John Lukacs. Excerpted by permission.
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