The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

We derive the title of this month’s cover article from Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas's book, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, about Robert Lovett, John J. McCloy, Averell Harriman, Charles Bohlen, Dean Acheson, and George F. Kennan, whom it calls the "architects of the American century." Two of these men are still living, and one of them, Kennan, is still highly visible in public life-especially, in recent years, in his passionate opposition to the nuclear-arms race.

Diplomat, scholar, writer of rare literary gifts, Kennan is one of the most remarkable Americans of this century. A book to be published this month—George Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy, by Anders Stephanson—describes him as perhaps the greatest analyst and maker of foreign policy since John Quincy Adams. Kennan is our foremost expert on the Soviet Union. His books, including American Diplomacy 1900-1950, Realities of American Foreign Policy, and Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, are works of cold, brilliant clarity, in contrast to the murky generality and romantic rhetoric so prevalent in America's public discourse on foreign policy. His two-volume autobiography, Memoirs-which is by turns surprising, enlightening, touching, and witty-is one of the essential American literary and historical documents. Kennan's books have won the Freedom House Award, the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Kennan has been both a witness to and a participant in history. He was in Russia during Stalin's purges. He was in Prague when the Germans took over Czechoslovakia. He was in Berlin when Hitler declared war on the United States. He was in Moscow again, as deputy to Averell Harriman from 1944 to 1946, during the difficult negotiations with the Soviets regarding the shape of the postwar world.

At the close of the Second World War, when our erstwhile allies in the Kremlin turned increasingly hostile and uncooperative, it was Kennan who, in outlining his views to Harriman, Charles Bohlen, Dean Acheson, and President Harry Truman, defined the American response that became known as containment. In the early postwar years, when the nation's leaders realized that bold action was necessary to save the economies of Western Europe, Kennan, as the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, played a major role in drafting the Marshall Plan—one of America's most spectacular diplomatic successes. He served as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the Truman Administration and as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the Kennedy Administration.

Through most of his time in public life, Kennan has been known as farsighted—almost as a seer. During the early forties, when many Americans, including our President, had warm feelings toward the Soviets, Kennan repeatedly warned his superiors in the government that this outlook was based on wishful thinking and on a total misunderstanding of Russian politics, Russian intentions, and Russian history. Soon after the nation finally heeded his warnings, he began to warn against seeing containment solely in military terms, and against extending it beyond the prudent task of protecting American vital interests into a grandiose promise to police the world.

During the Korean War he asserted that there was a danger of Soviet or Chinese intervention if we crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea, and of course the Chinese intervened and sent the Americans reeling in retreat. He predicted splits in the Soviet bloc, and his predictions were fulfilled by Yugoslavia and China. He was clairvoyant regarding Vietnam. As early as 1950, when Vietnam was French problem, he warned in a memo to Dean Acheson against "getting ourselves into the position of guaranteeing the French in an undertaking which neither they nor we, nor both of us together, can win." Called to testify in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's televised hearing on Vietnam in February of 1966, he told the committee that Vietnam was not vital to American interests and that we should withdraw as soon as possible.

America has never known quite what to make of this prophet, especially because he cannot be placed securely on either the right or the left of the political spectrum in the making of foreign policy. The left's desire to save the world by good works and the right's desire to save it by military adventure are, in Kennan's view, just two versions of an ill-informed, ahistorical, and doomed romanticism. Saving the world is beyond America's capacities, and is likely to harm both us and those we are trying to save, he says. Weariness and exasperation mark his descriptions of American policymaking. "One stands stupefied at the frivolity and irresponsibility reflected in this response. . .” “We would do well... to avoid histrionics and over-reaction.” One should avoid "the abundant pitfalls of attempting to strike noble poses with relation to a situation one did not create, cannot remove, and understands very poorly." “I had been struck by the contrast between the lucid and realistic thinking of early American statesmen of the Federalist period and the cloudy bombast of their successors of later decades." And so on.

Kennan's autobiography explains momentous events and brings to life a dazzling array of great men. In contrast, the portion of his diaries that he has chosen to publish deals, for the most part, with places. These diary entries show that their author is as skilled at evoking Leningrad and Berlin as he was at portraying, in the Memoirs, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Dwight Eisenhower. Here we see him in motion rather than behind a desk, and his thoughts turn less frequently to statesmen than to poets and novelists. But he is the same man we remember from the Memoirs: impossibly learned yet commonsensical, stern in his judgments yet gentle, drawn to the spotlight yet private and shy, a shaper of this century who increasingly feels himself a visitor from another—a man, unfortunately, like we may never see again.

A selection from Kennan's diaries will be published next month by Pantheon. What follows here is a selection from that selection.

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