The Kennan Diariesby George F. Kennan
A landmark collection, spanning ninety years of U.S. history, of the never-before-published diaries of George F. Kennan, America’s most famous diplomat.On a hot July afternoon in 1953, George F. Kennan descended the steps of the State Department building as a newly retired man. His career had been tumultuous: early postings in eastern Europe followed by/p>
A landmark collection, spanning ninety years of U.S. history, of the never-before-published diaries of George F. Kennan, America’s most famous diplomat.On a hot July afternoon in 1953, George F. Kennan descended the steps of the State Department building as a newly retired man. His career had been tumultuous: early postings in eastern Europe followed by Berlin in 1940–41 and Moscow in the last year of World War II. In 1946, the forty-two-year-old Kennan authored the “Long Telegram,” a 5,500-word indictment of the Kremlin that became mandatory reading in Washington. A year later, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he outlined “containment,” America’s guiding strategy in the Cold War. Yet what should have been the pinnacle of his career—an ambassadorship in Moscow in 1952—was sabotaged by Kennan himself, deeply frustrated at his failure to ease the Cold War that he had helped launch.
Yet, if it wasn’t the pinnacle, neither was it the capstone; over the next fifty years, Kennan would become the most respected foreign policy thinker of the twentieth century, giving influential lectures, advising presidents, and authoring twenty books, winning two Pulitzer prizes and two National Book awards in the process.
Through it all, Kennan kept a diary. Spanning a staggering eighty-eight years and totaling over 8,000 pages, his journals brim with keen political and moral insights, philosophical ruminations, poetry, and vivid descriptions. In these pages, we see Kennan rambling through 1920s Europe as a college student, despairing for capitalism in the midst of the Depression, agonizing over the dilemmas of sex and marriage, becoming enchanted and then horrified by Soviet Russia, and developing into America’s foremost Soviet analyst. But it is the second half of this near-century-long record—the blossoming of Kennan the gifted author, wise counselor, and biting critic of the Vietnam and Iraq wars—that showcases this remarkable man at the height of his singular analytic and expressive powers, before giving way, heartbreakingly, to some of his most human moments, as his energy, memory, and finally his ability to write fade away.
Masterfully selected and annotated by historian Frank Costigliola, the result is a landmark work of profound intellectual and emotional power. These diaries tell the complete narrative of Kennan’s life in his own intimate and unflinching words and, through him, the arc of world events in the twentieth century.
The legendary diplomat and architect of America’s containment policy toward the Soviet Union fights the Cold War and his own tortured soul in these brooding journal entries. The diaries, spanning 90 of Kennan’s 101 years, are frustratingly silent during crucial periods—the year 1947, when Kennan’s writings remade American foreign policy, merits a single poem—but contain lengthy discussions of Kennan’s ideas on limiting Soviet power while avoiding World War III through a blend of military firmness and political engagement (he also describes his anguish at escalating confrontations between the U.S. and Soviet Union that he felt powerless to stop). Many entries paint a lurid picture of Kennan’s dark, fragile, misanthropic psyche, expressing his narcissistic hunger for influence and accolades and self-loathing over failures; his love-hate attitude toward Russia’s barbarian vitality, which he felt would win out over the decadent West; his disdain for what he considers to be lesser races and lower orders; his distaste for monogamy and the “boredom, boredom, boredom!” of bourgeois life. Kennan’s Spenglerian gloom and depressive funks can drag—“I have nothing to live for, yet fear death,” he mourned, with 50 years to go—but he was a talented writer who penned vivid travelogues, shrewd profiles, and intricate scenes of diplomatic fencing. The result is an engrossing, novelistic record of Kennan’s long twilight struggle in geo-politics and in life. Photos. (Feb.)
Kennan, whose "Long Telegram" of 1946 and "X" article of 1947 articulated the West's postwar containment strategy against the U.S.S.R. and who then became an architect of the Marshall Plan, was among the most prominent creators of 20th-century U.S. foreign policy. He was also among its most famed critics, speaking out against what he saw as the militarization of American Cold War policy and the senselessness of its nuclear buildup. In addition, for 88 years of his 101-year life (1904–2005), he was a diarist. Editor Costigliola (history, Univ. of Connecticut) here abridges those 20,000 pages of self-examination. As accomplished as he was, Kennan rarely measured up in his own reckoning, agonizing over what he saw as failures in both his public and personal lives. Neither did he feel that the country he served so well for so long measured up, as in private he frequently condemned its commercialization, mechanization, and environmental degradation. VERDICT As Kennan notes, his diary tends toward the "personally plaintive." John Lewis Gaddis's authorized George F. Kennan, or Kennan's own rich memoirs will be better entrées for readers new to the writer. Scholars and others familiar with Kennan, however, will relish these reflections and all will respect the light editing by Costigliola, who allows Kennan to speak for himself. [See Prepub Alert, 8/19/13.]—Robert Nardini, Niagara Falls, NY
One of 20th-century America's most significant diplomats offers a window into his inner life and private concerns, fears and dreams. With an eye to posterity, Kennan (1904–2005) assiduously kept a diary for nearly 90 years, compiling thousands of pages on everything from his impressions of Soviet leaders to notes on wave patterns in the North Atlantic. Costigliola (History/Univ. of Connecticut; Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, 2011, etc.) has selected the most representative and revealing passages for this dauntingly thick but eminently readable volume. In this age of ubiquitous social networking and oversharing, it seems remarkable that Kennan could write so much, about so many topics, without being dull or self-absorbed, but nearly every entry contains a perspicacious observation or insight. His dry wit is evident from the earliest years: At Princeton, he complained of an assigned book, "[i]t is really a great aid in the allopathic treatment I am taking this spring to cure my imaginative tendency, because it takes real assiduous mental concentration to dope a sentence out of it." Displaying a tendency toward self-doubt that he hid in his confident public pronouncements and publications, Kennan's diary entries evince an enduring belief that he could never quite live up to the goals he had set for himself. As early as 1959, he fretted that "[t]he Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great party [sic] by people like myself who have outlived their own intellectual and emotional environment." Inexorably drawn again to Russia and endowed with an aesthetic and humanist imagination much broader than the State Department could contain, Kennan's life's work was, more than any political squabble, a searching for the "answer to the universal question of this wistful, waiting Russian countryside." Students of modern history will take great interest in this work, which ably straddles the frontiers of the personal, political and philosophical.
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Meet the Author
George F. Kennan was America’s most acclaimed Cold War diplomat as well as a prize-winning historian and author.
Frank Costigliola is an author and historian at the University of Connecticut specializing in U.S. foreign relations in the twentieth century.
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