Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Kennan Diaries: Part 1

I am currently working my way through the recently published The Kennan Diaries:  George F. Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola.  The journals of interesting people make for compelling reading, and so I expect to finish within a few days.  Born in 1905, Kennan recorded his first journal entry at age 11.  He penned his last 88 years later at age 99, two years before his death at 101 years of age.   
I would venture to say that most Americans today have never heard of the man.  History, however, will be kind to Kennan, I think.  In the realm of foreign diplomacy, commentators and scholars increasingly reference him for insight into the particular crisis of the month.  In time, I believe the writings of George F. Kennan will perhaps be to the 20th-century what Toqueville’s are to the 19th. 

Characterized by endless frustrations and set-backs, Kennan’s career in the Foreign Service did not, on first glance, appear particularly successful.  Indeed, in a fit of exasperation, he declared that he was nothing more than a “glorified clerk.”  An intense man, Kennan immersed himself so completely into Soviet Russia during his first posting there that he suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown.  His two ambassadorial postings—to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in 1961—ended disastrously.  For all his brilliance, Kennan had a penchant for the injudicious and careless remark, which torpedoed his ambassadorships.
Kennan’s legacy, however, is to be found in his written word.  He is best known, of course, for the “Long Telegram” of 1946, from which the Cold War policy of Containment evolved.  He advised neither compromise nor confrontation with the Soviet Union, and advocated the strengthening of institutions at home, as well as the rebuilding of Europe (the Marshall Plan was largely his idea.)  Very quickly, however, successive American administrations molded his idea into whatever they wanted it to mean.  And so, Kennan spent much of the last 50 years of his life explaining why the pursuits of particular policies were not at all what he meant.  As a discredited Cassandra, sidelined from any real input into policy, his warnings went generally unheeded. 

The reason Kennan is somewhat back in vogue now is that History has proven him to have been prescient more often than not.  He scorned the notion of an ideological “war on Communism” (as he would later scorn the notion of a “war on terror”).  He was appalled at the arms race and opposed the expansion of nuclear armaments into Europe, advancing the idea of a united and demilitarized Germany.  Kennan spoke out against the Vietnam War early on, and enthusiastically backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968.  He worried that the fall of the Soviet bloc was “too sudden.”  He opposed our intervention into Somalia upon supposedly humanitarian grounds.   Kennan thought the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to be the worst foreign policy blunder of his lifetime.  This, of course, was before George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  At age 97, he and Eugene McCarthy met in Washington to speak out against this folly.  To dismiss him as a simple isolationist is to totally misunderstand the thrust of his arguments.  Kennan believed that the best approach abroad was to strengthen those domestic institutions that would bind the American people together and give meaning and structure to our larger society. 

The great irony of Kennan’s career is that he is credited with articulating our Cold War strategy against Soviet Russia, while concurrently pursuing a lifelong infatuation with all things Russian.    Kennan even liked to think of himself as Russian, writing “my Russian self…is much more genuine than the American one.”  In a letter to his sister, he noted that he would “rather be sent to Siberia among them (which certainly would happen to me …if I were a Soviet citizen) than to live in Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”  Kennan despised the Soviet government, but as his journals clearly illustrate, this was not from any ideological opposition to Communism (for he was scathing in his criticism of American capitalism and the bourgeoisie), but rather from the harsh paranoid Soviet policies that limited the contact he so desired with average Russians.

His journals are a rare treat, and I will be posted some excerpts, in chronological order. 

Washington, March 17
     "I pace the city like a man who is lost:  across the viaduct, into the muddy paths of Rock Creek Park where the snow has not yet melted, through the lines of white-pillared houses between Sixteenth Street and the Park.  I know this city as I know my own name, and yet there is something which I cannot find.  Somewhere, in one or another of these quiet streets, there must be genuine beauty and life, to solve the riddle.  Somewhere there must be the hidden key of significance, to unlock the meaning of this preposterous, mocking Sunday afternoon!
     Or is there no key?  Does all the life and purpose of this country flow so relentlessly into its workshops and its offices that on the days when these are closed there is nothing left but a vast, senseless desolation of stone and steel and aimless motion?  A world of lost faces, drifting helplessly in the vacuum of their own restlessness?"

Reval [Tallinn], August 5

     Week-end visit to Carlson at Hapsal.

     "I leave Reval in an execrable humor.  I feel physically tired and repulsive; I hate the world, and the world hates me.  I resent Reveal, and all the people in it; it angers me that I should have to visit Carlson when I do not want to.... It was kind and good of Carlson to ask me.  He meant well by it.  Yet what right have these people to force on me their drab world and their rigorous, middle-class standards?  What right have they, to demand, as they will, that I adapt myself to their conventions, that I play up to their weaknesses and their prejudices?

     We sit a long time at dinner, the Carlson and the Britisher chatting, while I sulk.... And what can these people know of that hope and that mystery, sitting here and chatting their foreign-colony gossip?  Their whole lives have degenerated into foreign colony gossip and they would like to pull mine down to their same level.

     The Britisher asks me if I play bridge.  I say yes, but that I do not intend to play it in Reval.  I say that I expect to do some studying and in general to be pretty busy.

     The Britisher laughs.  'That's what they all say', he replies, 'but before long they are playing around and having as good a time as the rest of them.'

       That makes my blood boil.  Damn him, do I look like the 'rest of them?'. Does he think that I, too, have so little strength of character, so few resources within myself, that I will be forced to seek refuge from boredom, as they have done, in the dull pettiness of foreign-colony social life?

     In the morning I feel stuffy and bilious.  Sunshine floods the cool garden, mocking my bitterness.  At breakfast, I sense the hostility.  I am not surprised.  I deserve it.  Before the others are through eating, Mrs. Carlson suggest that I amuse myself as I see fit.  I take the hint and excuse myself.  As I walk away, I can feel the remarks which I cannot hear.  They are all against me.  I am not their kind."

Reval, September 5

     "I was overcome with an unbearable depression.  It seemed to me that America was full of puzzled young men living tragedies, seeking pitifully in the results of their occupations some excuse for the throwing away of their own lives."

Reval, September 6

     "I feel, sometimes, the temptation to escape from the ordinary futile trend of our times by visiting strange places, doing strange things, seeing strange people.  There is always the allure about the place where no American has ever been, and one feels, when one gets there, that one has shaken off the shackles of his own environment, and has elevated himself above his fellow-citizens who stayed at home.
     It is a dangerous mistake.  The period of discovery is nearing its close.  Scourged by boredom, nitwits pursue the rare and exotic to the ends of the earth.  There is little that remains unseen, undescribed.  Halliburton's travel lecturers, wealthy professors, they all swarm through the few dim regions that have thus far resisted the twentieth century.  Anybody can travel, who has health and persistence.  Talking movies, radio, radio movies, these will soon destroy the few small fragments of the unusual which have still been
preserved from the profane view.
     Where, then, lies the escape from the squirrel-cage?  Where is the opportunity to raise one's self, by sacrifice and hardship, if need be, out of the whirlpool of the commonplace?

     It lies in depth, rather than breadth.  Our civilization is like a body of water which, lacking profundity, spreads out over its own banks and floods the countryside with a thin sheet of stagnant water.  Like a glutton reaching for new and rare morsels, heaving undigested those which he already has, it fastens with fleeing, uncomprehending curiosity on one thing after another, strips each of its coverings, gapes idiotically at it, and finally discards it again in a library or museum.  Always something new, for God's sake, something new.

     Yes, the solution lies only in depth.  There is nothing new under the sun, in the ordinary sense excerpt ourselves.  It is not farther away from all that we are familiar with, that we are going to make discoveries, but rather deeper down in our own selves, about which we know everything, and understand nothing.
 Reval, October 20

     "That's why I am probably always going to be a considerable radical." [After commenting in letter to sister about how much he despised the "boundless optimism" felt by many Americans about their "perpetual prosperity."]


Berlin, May 30
     "I rejected the communists, I said, because of their innate cowardice and their intellectual insolence.

     They had abandoned the ship of Western European civilization like a swarm of rats, when they considered it to be sinking, instead of staying on and trying to keep it afloat.  Abandoning the ship, they had grasped at a theory for economic adjustment, possibly right though somewhat antiquated, and had hoped by means of this theory to cross at a bound the gulf across which the rest of mankind had been struggling through centuries of slow and painful progress.  They had credited their own intelligence with powers far greater than those of all previous generations, had laughed at all the things which have stirred and troubled men for centuries, had called all their forefathers and most of their contemporaries hopeless fools.  I was not a religious man, I said, but this impertinence struck me as a form of sacrilege, cultural and intellectual sacrilege, if you will, as a tremendous blasphemy against all the previous struggling and suffering and sacrificing of the human animal.  I felt that it must some day be punished as all ignorant presumption and egotism must be punished.

     I tried to make it clear that this applied to communism only in its international aspect.  As a purely Russian phenomenon it might have a different meaning; for Russia it might be a constructive necessary development in a certain sense.  For us in the West, though, it could only be regarded as a Untergangserscheinung, a sign of retrogression."


Riga, May 7

     "I returned from London on the George Washington, as I recall.  There were several hundred Rotarians on board.  I find this entry in a notebook:  Several hundred Rotarians on board.  I seek their company, somewhat shyly, not because if affords me any pleasure or profit, but because I want to find something in their way of thought to which I can attach myself.  After all, if I am not an American, then I am nothing at all.
     It strikes me that while they are all nice people, there is not a real lady or gentleman among them.  These are the people whose interests I am supposed to defend.  I am not sorry to do it; they are good naïve people, most of them--kind and generous.  They work hard at home and deserve their place in the sun.  But they are children, and it is a bore to have to protect children from their environment when you cannot discipline them and teach them to protect themselves.

     Also from the notebook:

     Golf is a game for people who like walking but are afraid of being left to their own thoughts.

     Bridge is a game for people who don't even like to walk."


Brad said...

A very good post - thanks for educating me on Kennan. This period of recent American history is key to understanding many current events. I don't like that so much of modern education in the US merely focuses on's these other less prominent figures that drove much of history. US History as a mere list of presidents is so minimalistic, and ensures easy propaganda toward the young.

John said...

Absolutely. I start on the chapter on the Cold War with my students tomorrow. You better believe that they will hear about George Kennan!