The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan


The great majority of these pieces were not written with any particular thought to publication. This assertion, of course, does not deserve too sweeping an interpretation. Every diarist has moments, I am sure, of a vague hope that what he has just written, particularly if he himself is pleased with it, will someday fall under at least a few eyes other than his own. I cannot claim to have been totally immune to this very human impulse. But my recollection is that most of the pieces reproduced below were conceived in the mind of the man who wrote them primarily as reminders to himself of the particular experiences they described, lest he forget them, lest they cease to take their part in the richness of remembered experience and rot away, neglected and unused, in the attic of memory. But some entries, too, were conceived by him as benchmarks of intellectual and emotional growth by which he hoped to be able to measure in later years his progress, his false starts, his retrogressions.

The pieces were written, for the most part, only when traveling. For this there was good reason. At home the performance of daily professional and personal duties normally left no time for this sort of thing; beyond which, this sort of writing required, as suggested above, the novelty and freshness of first impression. You would not write this way about things you saw or experienced every day. Familiarity deprives such scenes, as it does people, of their mystery and their magic.

So the sketches were, measured against the ordinary substance of life, a digression of sorts-a private luxury. And they were a digression not just from daily life in general but also from other, and far more demanding, forms of writing. During the years from which these excerpts were drawn, their author produced some eighteen books; diplomatic reports and dispatches in great number; and lectures, articles, and speeches running into the hundreds. Anton Chekhov, a doctor, said somewhere that medicine was his wife, literature his mistress. The situation of the writer of these pieces was analogous, except that the mistress was far less beautiful than Chekhov's and had to content herself with much smaller pickings. The pieces brought forward here constitute, in other words, only a fringe-a fringe reflecting impulses of another kind-on a far greater body of professional writing.

The reader will note that these efforts were widely and irregularly scattered over the decades they embrace. There were long lapses when I produced next to nothing. For this, too, there were reasons. One of those reasons, coming in at the outset of the 1930s, was marriage and parenthood. When impressions were shared, at the moment, with someone else, there was less incentive to commit them to paper. And travel with small children, instructive as it was in other ways permitted only the most harried and distracted glances at the passing scene. More important still, large portions of the 1930s and 1940s were spent either in Stalin’s purge-plagued, terrorized Moscow or in Hitler’s Berlin. In both places official service was strenuous, rigorous, and absorbing. Opportunities for travel were few. Urgent involvement with the problems of the day was the enemy of relaxed reflection. And in those politically hostile environments security considerations created a disinclination to commit to paper anything more than was necessary.

The considerate reader will note, finally, that these sketches were spread out chronologically over a very long stretch of time. During that period the environment to which they were addressed changed greatly—more, one would suppose, than life had ever changed in a similar span of time. The world with which the last of the sketches dealt was separated from the earlier one by a whole series of momentous and in part mind-shattering events: the two great tyrannies of Stalin and Hitler; the Second World War; the gathering of the shadows of nuclear apocalypse and environmental disaster.

But if, then, the external scene was a different one in 1988 from that to which the first observations were addressed, so were the eyes with which it was observed. The young Foreign Service officer, full of uncertainty about himself and wonderment about everything else, was not the same man as the retired professor of 1988, aware that his own contribution to the life around him had been, for better of for worse, substantially completed, but still profoundly concerned for the imminent fate of his own country and of the European civilization of which he had long considered himself a part. The glimpses of external reality presented in this book must therefore be seen as the interaction between two moving objects: the scene observed and the pair of eyes that observed it.

The documents reproduced here must, I fear, be seen in this dynamic perspective—as a progression in the development of both the viewed and the viewer—if they are to have any significant meaning. But it is the hope of the man who now looks back on them (rather than that of the man who wrote them) that they will, if viewed in this way, add their bit to the understanding of this troubled century, and help others to find their bearing at the pass to which the events of these dramatic years have brought us.

Upon completion of two years of Russian studies in Berlin, in the summer of 1931, I went to Norway in September and married my present wife, Annelise Soerensen. We then served for two years at Riga, where our first child, Grace, was born.

In December of 1933 I accompanied to Moscow our first ambassador to the Soviet Union, William C. Bullitt, when he went there to present his credentials. I was then assigned to Moscow as second secretary of the new embassy and served there most of the time until mid-1937.

From the time of the outbreak of the war, in 1939, until Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941, I served as administrative officer of the American embassy in Berlin.

The German armies that had swept over the Low Countries and northern France in May and June of 1940 had overrun the American embassies in the capitals of those countries, cutting for a time all normal communications with the outside world. For some days neither Washington nor the Berlin embassy was able to establish telegraphic or telephonic communication with those missions or to find out what had happened to them and their personnel. Btu the German military authorities agreed to permit and officer of the Berlin embassy to proceed to the cities in question, by whatever transportation he could find, and to establish contact with the remaining American personnel. I was designated to perform this duty. Here, excerpts from my personnel accounts, written at the time, of the visits to The Hague and to Paris. The reader should bear in mind that in both those places military operations had just barely ended. The German forces were still in strict military occupation of the areas they had overrun. There was scarcely any communication with the outside world.

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