Kennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in February 1904, but his mother died soon after. He grew up close to his sisters, though not to his lawyer father or stepmother. After being schooled at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, he studied at Princeton University, graduating in 1925. Thereafter, he joined the newly formed Foreign Service, and, after training in Washington, was posted as a vice consul to Geneva, and then to Hamburg, before being selected to study Russian in Berlin. This led on to a posting in Latvia, and then, at the start of diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, to Moscow. In 1931, he had married Annelise Sorensen, and they were to have four children, the first, Grace, born in 1932.
Kennan did not last a year in Moscow before suffering a breakdown, which led him back to Vienna and a sanatorium, and a considerable amount of self-analysis, partly inspired by the teachings of Sigmund Freud. A move back to Moscow followed, where Stalin’s bloody purges were under way, thence to light duties in Washington, before a return to Europe (Prague, then Berlin). After the US entered the war in December 1941, Kennan was interred for six months, and, on his release, moved to Lisbon, London, and back to Moscow. There, according to biographers, Kennan felt that his opinions were being ignored by the new president, Harry S. Truman, and he tried repeatedly to persuade policymakers to abandon plans for cooperation with the Soviet Union in favour of a sphere of influence approach in Europe and a western European federation to reduce the Soviets’ power there. In early 1946, near the end of his term in Moscow, he sent to Secretary of State James Byrnes, what would become known as the ‘long telegram’, an appeal to understand that, ‘At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.’
Returning to the US, Kennan stayed with the State Department and went to work for the National War College in Washington DC, advising and lecturing on what would soon become known as the Cold War. Around this time, he developed his political ideas subsequently known as ‘containment’. By 1948, when the US administration was intent on escalating the Cold War, Kennan advised steering clear of military action, and finding ways instead to ease tensions - he had always advocated, he said, political, not military, containment. In the negotiations over post-war Germany, he visited Hamburg, and was affected deeply by the devastation he found there, leading him, over time, to question the validity of any war.
In 1951, Kennan helped initiate talks that would lead to an armistice in Korea, and he was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Once in Moscow, though, he found the country even more regimented than before, and his own position hampered by Truman’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Soviets. Before a year had passed, Kennan had been expelled by the Soviet government for a foolish comment to the press, likening his isolation in Moscow to that he had experienced in Nazi Germany. Back in the US, he was frustrated by the Eisenhower administration but continued to be an advisor. In 1956, he was appointed as professor of historical studies at the Princeton Institute, and the following year published the Pulitzer prize-winning Russia Leaves the War. While an Eastman Professor at Oxford, the BBC invited him to deliver the 1957 Reith Lectures, his views on nuclear weapons, arousing much controversy.
John F. Kennedy appointed Kennan as US ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961, but again Kennan soon found himself uncomfortable in a diplomatic role, frustrated at US policy and unable to stop a worsening of bilateral relations. He resigned in 1963, and subsequently spent the rest of his career as a writer and academic, an influential critic of US foreign policy. He lived to be 101, dying in 2005, by which time history was judging him kindly: The New York Times called him ‘the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war’; The Economist said he was revered as ‘America’s greatest living diplomat’ in his later years; and the Financial Times said of him that he was a ‘rare example of a diplomat who changed history through the power of his ideas and the clarity of his writing’. Wikipedia and Spartacus have fairly detailed biographies.
Kennan kept a diary, not always all the time, but all his life, from 1916 to 2004. There are some 8,000 pages stored with his papers at the Princeton University Library. Kennan, himself, chose some extracts for publication a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, published by Pantheon, New York - Sketches from a Life. The introduction and some pages can be read at Amazon. Now, however, the full set of diaries, spanning all of Kennan’s life, have been edited by Frank Costigliola and published by W. W. Norton as The Kennan Diaries.
‘In these pages,’ the publisher states, ‘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.’
The Kennan diaries has been well received in the US, but reviewers have generally acknowledged that the book is as much about Kennan the man, as about his politics. Fareed Zakaria, in The New York Times, says ‘Kennan shined a powerful light on the world beyond. But in his own land, from the beginning to his last days, he remained a bewildered guest.’ Douglas Brinkley in the Washington Post says, ‘great merits aside, “The Kennan Diaries” should come with a warning label: Beware of enough gloomy prognostications to give the book of Revelation a run for its money.’ And George Shultz, former Secretary of State, is quoted by the publisher as saying of the book: ‘An informed mind, a clarity of expression, candor in a private diary - all are present in George Kennan’s fascinating commentary on a period when the tectonic plates of the world changed. Read, enjoy, agree or disagree, and be stimulated to think.’
But I can find few reviews, to date, among the UK media, except for one by Matthew Walther in The Spectator. It’s such a wrong-headed, idiotic review, I cannot resist quoting a bit: ‘The longest, chronologically, and probably the most boring diary I have ever read. Unlike the great diarists - Greville, Nicolson, Lees-Milne - Kennan writes very little about others. His diary is a record of himself, a Domesday book of the acres and perches he has surveyed in his own head: a wide range of ambitions, complaints, masturbatory fantasies, unpublished literary criticism, amateurish verse. [. . .] Above all it is a collection of cocksure opinions.’
Kennan’s diaries are certainly not boring, they are the opposite, almost always interesting, intriguing, intelligent. Walther’s comment that Kennan writes very little about others is a dead giveaway: he, Walther’s must want gossip, tittle-tattle, but Kennan, when writing for himself in the seclusion of his diary was not a name-dropper. Ideas, particularly about policy, but also about culture and society, are what excited him, drove him to put pen to paper; and beyond ideas, he was unusual in being so interested in his own feelings to the point of trying to pin them down, and fix them, as it were, in the diary pages. It is this kind of self-criticism, self analysis that lifts the diary from being simply of political interest to one that has more universal appeal, to one that has something to say about the human condition. And, as for ‘cocksure opinions’, Walther’s might not matter, but as one of US’s most important foreign policy advisers, Kennan’s opinions certainly did matter, and thus are of great interest.
Costigliola has done a very fine job with The Kennan diaries, synthesising 8,000 pages down to about 700 (leaving out much about sailing, apparently). He has kept footnotes to a minimum, provided short biographical notes for every year - astonishingly there is only one year between 1927 and 2004 (1943) lacking any diary entry - and included a useful index. Here are a few extracts, more can be read online, again, at Amazon, and at Googlebooks.
8 April 1934
‘I have always thought of literature as a type of history: the portrayal of a given class at a given time, with all its problems, its suffering and its hopes, etc. For that reason, the diplomatic corps has always defied literary approach. From that point of view, it is too insignificant, too accidental, to warrant description.
Perhaps that is all wrong. Perhaps they should be described simply as human beings, not as diplomats (so-called) of the twentieth century. If Chekhov could describe Russian small town folk with an appeal so universal that even the American reader gasps and says: “How perfectly true,” why cannot the Moscow diplomatic folk be written up the same way.’
3 September 1934
‘Here human flesh lives in one seething, intimate mass - far more so, even than in New York. It streams slowly, endlessly, in thick, full currents, along the boulevards, between the dark trees, under the gleam of the street lights; it is carried, as herded, tired animals are carried, in box-cars, in the long trains of street cars. And it is human life in the raw, human life brought down to its fundamentals - good and evil, drunk and sober, loving and quarrelling, laughing and weeping - all that human life is and does anywhere, but all much more simple and direct, and therefore stronger.
There is something unmistakably healthy in it all: not the health we strive for by the elimination of microbes and danger and physical hardship, but the health bred of the experience and survival of all these ills. Revolution, like nature, is lavish and careless. Its victims are no more to it than the thousands of seeds which are cast to the wind, in order that one tree may grow. But in its blind masterfulness, it has at least given new scope for the survival of the fittest, the nervously and physically fittest, who are by no means the most intelligent, or the freest from dirt and disease. The principle of natural selection, deprived of its beneficial operation by vaccinations and nursing homes and birth control, has been allowed to come into its own in its full ruthlessness. This is the answer to the question: how do the Russians stand it? Many of them didn’t stand it. And these whom you see on the street: they are the elite, not the elite of wealth or of power or of the spiritual virtues, but nature’s own elite, the elite of the living, as opposed to the hoi polloi of the dead!
It is this tremendous health, this earthy vitality, which attracts the over-civilised, neurotic foreigner. The fact that he himself could not stand it for six months, that it would crush him as it crushes all forms of weakness, does not dissuade him. There is something in its very cruelty which appeals to his sick fantasy. It is a form of flagellum [flagellation] perhaps, like all deliberate self-abnegation.’
24 June 1963
‘I feel that I have been dead for months. I do not even recognise my former self. This evening, strolling around town with Christopher [in Valkenburg, The Netherlands], I suddenly saw, staring me in the face from a bookshop window, my own name on a Dutch translation of Russia & The West. [. . .] I had the feeling of “Hello, stranger,” & I wondered whether the fellow who wrote that book would ever return.
What bothers me is a total separation of personal life and intellectual life, so that when I tend to personal affairs, even to the children, the intellect stagnates . . .
Have the feeling, even now, that I ought to be writing about this trip. But writing: what? About this Western Europe? I used to think there was something mysterious & wonderful about it. Today, I know there is not. I looked at this place tonight and I realised that here there could not even be a literature, because there is no nature except in parks & without nature, as a foil at least, there is no real human experience.
Why was it different in the railway age? Was it really only that I was younger?’