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In 2000, George Kennan published a slim volume titled An American Family: The Kennans-The First Three Generations. His purpose in writing the book was to deepen his self-understanding; "such," he observed in his introduction, "is the importance of inheritance and tradition in the determination of personality that without some knowledge of one's antecedents-of the conditions that formed them and of the ways in which they tended to react to those conditions-one will always be lacking in the ability (limited even in the best of circumstances) to understand oneself."
While by no means minimizing the importance of genetic makeup, Kennan was primarily interested in family traditions, those persistent qualities and ways of life which shape character. However singular his life's path may have been, he was convinced that he shared with his forebears certain structures of personality, certain habits of the heart. His genealogical researches-which he had pursued for a great many years-seemed to confirm his intuitions.
The Kennans-originally McKennans-came to the United States from Scotland or Northern Ireland in the eighteenth century. They settled in Massachusetts, but later removed to Vermont and later still to upper New York. Farming was their usual occupation, one that discouraged interest in abstract and theoretical questions and taught practicality. From them, Kennan believed, he inherited his love of rural life and detestation of large cities. Later, the family made its way to the Midwest, to Ohio and then Wisconsin, where Kennan was born on February 16, 1904.
Kennan wrote with particular pride of his grandfather's grandfather, Thomas Kennan (1773-1843), who followed his son John to Ohio in the 1830s. A Presbyterian minister, Thomas Kennan sided with those of his faith who rejected Calvin's doctrine of "total depravity" and who frowned upon the revivalist enthusiasm that Charles G. Finney brought to DeKalb, New York, while he was the local pastor. His, it is clear, was a serious but rationally mediated form of Christianity in which moral rectitude was more important than doctrinal purity or emotional fervor-the kind of Christianity to which George Kennan was always attracted. As we shall see, however, he never forswore a more moderate version of Calvin's view of human nature.
Thomas Kennan shared with other family members what Kennan described as an almost compulsive striving for maximum independence. He recognized this trait in himself and conceded that it limited his ability to form intimate associations with others. No wonder, then, that he and other family members instinctively chose "lonely [professions]-the farm, the law, the pulpit, the pen, and the scholar's dedication." He could have added "the foreign service."
The theme of loneliness, of belonging neither to the century nor the country in which he was born, runs through all of Kennan's writings. He viewed himself as a man apart, an observer of, rather than a participant in, modern life. This distance contributed to a rare clarity of vision, but it also produced a profound feeling of alienation. One can sense this in the personal note with which he began the first volume of his moving and beautifully written memoirs. From childhood on, we learn, he lived "in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them."
George Kennan never knew his mother, Florence James Kennan, who died shortly after he was born; from her side of the family, he believed, he inherited his love of the sea. He identified with his tax-lawyer father, Kossuth Kent Kennan, "a man of much loneliness" who managed to liberate himself from the constraints of Puritanism and to open his eyes to beauty. The senior Kennan was named after Lajos Kossuth, the leader of Hungary's failed revolution and war of independence against Austria in 1848-49. Americans came to know the Romantic revolutionary when, in 18,51, he accepted an invitation to visit the United States. As a symbol of freedom, he became the first foreigner since General Lafayette to address the House of Representatives-which he did in Shakespearean English!
In the early months of 1852, after having delivered his speech, Kossuth traveled the length and breadth of the country in the hope of raising money for another revolution. Along the way he became the subject of countless newspaper articles and editorials and the object of public adulation. Cities named streets and squares after him and politicians proclaimed him the Washington of the nineteenth century. The country was, for a season, in a state of intoxication.
Despite his name, however, Kossuth Kennan preferred men of the previous-the eighteenth-century; and so did his son. It was as a rather odd duck, then, that, in 1921, Kennan graduated-as class poet-from St. John's Military Academy (Delafield, Wisconsin), an institution that contributed greatly to the formation of his character. It was there that he learned self-discipline and self-respect. "We learned to dress neatly and how to keep a room in order," he said in a speech given at the academy in 1960. "We were not allowed to run around looking like hoboes or lumberjacks. We were not permitted to work at being sloppy." For that reason and others he looked back upon his academy years with gratitude and pride.
In the fall of 1921, Kennan entered Princeton University, which Upton Sinclair was soon to dub "the first school of snobbishness in the United States." He chose the Ivy League school in part because, as a senior at St. John's, he had read F. Scott Fitzgerald's newly published This Side of Paradise. Like Fitzgerald himself, the novel's protagonist, Amory Blaine, attends Princeton; like Kennan, he is from Wisconsin and, as Fitzgerald wrote, "he was unbearably lonely, desperately unhappy."
Kennan's years at Princeton, where he majored in history, only deepened his feeling of isolation, of not belonging. "He found himself confronted," he wrote of his young self late in life, "with the greater sophistication and smoother manners of many of his fellow students and was brought to realize that he cut a very poor figure, if any at all, in their eyes." He knew few of his peers and was known by fewer. He wept when, while still at Princeton, he read the passage in The Great Gatsby in which Nick Carraway speaks of his decision to leave the East and return to the Midwest. But unlike Nick, he found that he could not go home again; he decided-because his grades, even in history, were too low for admission to law school-to try for the newly organized foreign service.
To that end, he engaged a tutor to help him prepare for the exams, which he subsequently passed; and he began what was to become a legendary, though often difficult and controversial, career in the fall of 1926. In those days, Kennan later recalled, "there was a real old-fashioned dignity and simplicity about [the Department of State]. It was staffed ... by professional personnel some of whom were men of great experience and competence."
After several months at the Foreign Service School, Kennan was sent on temporary assignment to Geneva, where the Naval Disarmament Conference was in progress. As an official representative of the United States, he discovered that he could, and in order to perform his duties properly was obliged to, assume a new, less introverted, personality. But it was a mask, a way of overcoming, in public, an almost paralyzing self-consciousness. "Like the actor on the stage," he wrote in his memoirs, "I have been able, all my life, to be of greater usefulness to others by what, seen from a certain emotional distance, I seemed to be than by what, seen closely, I really was." This confession is the key to understanding the apparent contradiction between the tough, cool political realist and man of the world and the sensitive, shy, introverted private person.
Toward the end of summer 1927, Kennan moved on to his first permanent post, at Hamburg. There, and for a few months in Berlin in 1928, he continued the project of creating a more extroverted public persona by immersing himself in the external world. He enrolled in evening classes offered by the city of Hamburg, watched with fascination a communist street demonstration, and adopted a new tack, inspired by Alfons Paquet, a travel writer able to discern deeper meanings behind surface realities, in the diaries he had already begun to keep.
In the preface to a selection of entries that he later published, Kennan observed that "the careful reader will perceive its [Paquet's travel book's] beneficent effects in the comparison between the juvenile entries from Hamburg of 1927, full of romantic preoccupation with self, written before Paquet's book was read, and the greater extroversion-the greater turning of the gaze outward-in the pieces written thereafter, in the Baltic countries and in Berlin."
This did not mean that Kennan had lost interest in trying to understand himself; that he was never to lose. But he had now embarked upon a career in which excessive introversion would be a distinct handicap. Having thus turned his gaze outward, Kennan became acutely aware of the limits of his education; he therefore resolved to resign from the foreign service and to begin graduate studies. On arrival in Washington to submit his resignation, however, he had a chance encounter with William Dawson, chief of the Foreign Service School, who reminded him that he could receive training within the Service as a specialist in a little-known language-Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, or Russian. He chose Russian, in part because of what he took to be its future career promise, but also because of a family tradition begun by another George Kennan, born in 1845 on the same date as he, and a cousin of his grandfather.
That other George Kennan, a writer and lecturer from Norwalk, Ohio, set out for Siberia in the spring of 1885. Accompanying him was George A. Frost (the middle initial of our George Kennan stands for "Frost"), an artist and photographer from Boston. Century Magazine financed the journey, the purpose of which was to study at firsthand tsarist Russia's prison and exile systems. A former telegrapher, Kennan had made his first trip to Russia as a member of a team charged with advancing the project of linking America and Europe by a telegraph line that would run through Alaska, over the Bering Strait, and across Siberia to European Russia; the successful laying of the Atlantic Cable led to the project's abandonment.
Like Frost, Kennan spoke Russian and intended to confirm his belief that the tsar's government had received unjustified criticism for its treatment of revolutionaries, of whom he entertained a low opinion. During the difficult months that he and Frost traveled in Siberia, however, most of his "long-cherished opinions with regard to nihilists and the working of the exile system [were] completely overthrown." The nihilists whom he met were not, he wrote in Century Magazine and later in Siberia and the Exile System (1891), crazy fanatics, but civilized, intelligent, and reasonable men and women. In view of the cruel and barbarous conditions to which they were subjected in exile, their resort to terrorism seemed not only unsurprising but perfectly defensible. Wrong a man with the utmost brutality, "deny him all redress, exile him again if he complains, gag him if he cries out, strike him in the face if he struggles, and at last he will stab and throw bombs."
In his introduction to a reprint of Siberia and the Exile System, the later George Kennan painted a respectful portrait of his relative, but in a personally revealing passage he wondered about the absence of any published criticism of his character. This lacuna suggested that no one knew him well, no one "who could penetrate below the surface to the deeper reality of the human soul, which is never without weakness and contradiction." He did not think that Kennan had taken full account "of the preposterous and indiscriminate campaign of terrorism" the revolutionaries had waged against the government and of the extent to which their criminal actions had provoked a response that fell upon them and others less guilty. He had come to think, in fact, that the tsarist government's treatment of revolutionaries had been, if anything, on the lenient side.
Kennan's observation concerning the ready reception which his relative's book and popular lectures received was also significant. "It was a time," he wrote, "when America was coming of age, abandoning the egocentricity of its youth, and turning its eyes to the world beyond its borders"-rather as he had done as he threw himself into his Russian studies. Before, however, he could begin those studies, Kennan had first to serve twelve to eighteen months in the Russian field, which, because the U.S. did not then maintain formal relations with the USSR, meant the Baltic states, only recently freed from Russian rule. In the summer of 1928, he took up an assignment as vice consul in Tallinn, Estonia, where he lived in solitude and began seriously to study Russian.
At the beginning of 1929, Kennan received a transfer to Riga, Latvia, where he served his "trial period" in preparation for training as a Russian specialist. But he also continued to keep a diary in order to perfect the art of writing. In an entry of March 29, 1929, he described a brief trip to Dorpat (now Tartu), Estonia. There he visited the ruins of an old cathedral, a sight that appealed to his melancholy temperament and his belief that he was alienated from his own era. "Even as a ruin," he wrote, the cathedral "becomes a towering reproach to the weakness of our own generation."
That summer, Kennan moved on to Berlin where, for a year, he studied Russian subjects at the University of Berlin's Seminary for Oriental Languages, founded by the "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck. The following year he moved over to the university proper, where he took courses in Russian history from two distinguished professors: Otto Hoetsch and Karl Stählin.
This was the time of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, the years of the Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler. But Kennan's world was not the cabaret world of "Mr. Ishevoo" and Sally Bowles. He lived quietly and, during his free time, regularly took up the pen. "Once," he later recalled, "I succeeded, with intense pride and excitement, in publishing an article in a liberal German magazine." His diary, however, remained his principal outlet. Those entries which he chose to publish reveal little concerning the Weimar Republic's death agony, though on August 8, 1931, he reported seeing a banner along the road to Stettin that read: "No one has any money. The French have taken everything from us."
The destination of that particular journey was Norway, where Kennan was going to meet the parents of Annelise Soerensen, whom he had met in Berlin and to whom he was engaged. The two were married on September 11 and, after a honeymoon in Vienna, headed for Riga, where Kennan took up a new post in the Russian section of the American legation, one that he manned until autumn 1933. We know that he filled his diaries with travel accounts during those years, but he published only one, in the first volume of his memoirs; in it he wrote of his November 1932 visit to the port of Libau.
One cannot help but be struck by the young Kennan's powers of observation-sharpened no doubt by his habit of drawing sketches-and his sense, one that was to deepen over the years, of what Spengler, whom he had read with care, called "Der Untergang des Abendlandes," the going under of the West. In Libau's factory district, he walked among the ruins of buildings. Will, he wondered, the buildings ever be brought back to life, or are they already museum pieces, "to be wondered at by future generations like the crooked medieval streets of Western European cities?"
At his work desk, Kennan studied and reported on economic conditions in the USSR. Asked by a superior to provide an estimate of how the newly announced Five-Year Plan might affect public opinion, he produced a document, dated August 19, 1932, remarkable for its prescience. Great numbers of people, he pointed out, were discontented, their nerves shattered by the demands of rapid industrialization. Others, particularly the young, participated enthusiastically in a utopian project that made them forget the more personal questions of human existence.
At some point, however, one of two things would occur. Either the regime would achieve its economic goals and the young would begin to ask themselves what there was left to live for, or the plan would result in economic disappointment, even chaos, and the true believers would lose their faith and self-confidence. "From the most morally unified country in the world, Russia can become overnight the worst moral chaos." In other words, Kennan foresaw the internal logic of the system and its ultimate collapse.
Excerpted from GEORGE KENNAN by Lee Congdon Copyright © 2008 by ISI Books. Excerpted by permission.
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