The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

In 1955, driving with my sister, Jeanette, through my native Milwaukee, I paid the first visit I had ever had occasion to pay to the graves of my parents: my mother, who had died two months after my own birth, and of whom I had no recollection; and my father, who had died while I was accompanying Ambassador William C. Bullitt to Moscow in 1933.

JULY 16, 1955

Today was a day of dreams. We left mid-morning and drove (rather slowly, in the dense Sunday traffic) to Milwaukee. Wisconsin Avenue looked almost exactly the same, as did much of the lakefront, but the parks were smarter, more extensive, and more populated.

On our way into town we passed the Forest Home cemetery and stopped off there to visit our parents' graves. The cemetery was huge: hills, valleys, miles, it seemed, of curving, crisscrossing roads, in which we got quite lost. We had no idea where the graves were, and there was no one to tell us. But at one point we both sensed the nearness of them. I got out of the car and walked away alone, dazed and excited, among the headstones, a little panicky, like a lost child. (Father, Father, where are you?) And it was as though if I did not find the grave, we would be forever lost and separated.

Jeanette finally saw the family name on a stone, a little off the road. We got out and walked over. There they lay the tombstones still sturdy, respectable in a Victorian sort of way; the inscriptions uncompromisingly legible and specific; the mounds still showing where the bodies had been laid.

First—my mother, Florence James Kennan, whom I never knew, struck down by death only two months after the birth of the fourth of her children. Here, buried and helpless, lay all the love that could not be expended—all the tenderness that could not be bestowed. (Dear Mother, it must have been hard and bitter for you to leave your little children. We have all held you, in retrospect, in a sort of awed adoration—our ever-young, dead mother, beautiful, unworldly, full only of love and grace for us, like a saint. In imagination we have received all you would have given us. Pity, only, that we with our youth could not have borne some of your frailty—could not have breathed back into you some of the strength you once gave us. May our love, somehow or other, reach you.)

Next to her—my father, Kossuth Kent Kennan. (God be praised that they lie side by side.) It was a real marriage, full of difficulty, embarrassments, and pain—family differences, differing social origins, and what not—but full of real love and a total mutual commitment. My father: awkward; shy almost to the point of cowardice; often putting his foot in it; unable to explain himself; oversensitive; proud; slightly boyish to the end of his days; always in some ways a yokel, in others a man of noble intellect; capable of being utterly broken up and disintegrated by too much beauty; a sentimentalist like the rest of us; a man from whose taut, severe, lawyer-like face the love of someone else could suddenly shine forth with great warmth and intensity; a man of much loneliness and much suffering; gaunt, tough, abstemious, scarcely knowing illness after his youth, living life to the very end—to a dark and tortured and lonely old age. Myself a moody, self-centered, neurotic boy, as shy as he, and confiding in no one, I must have given him little solace in his old age; but I loved him as I have loved no other man but my son; we never grated on each other; I appreciated his silence and his forbearance. And I understood, perhaps better than anyone in the family, but only later and in retrospect, his loneliness, his unhappiness, his despair, and his faith.

On his grave, too, the mound looks little and pathetic and slightly helpless.

I still dream from time to time, with tenderness and affection, of my father, and long to be reunited with him (now that I am in my prime and could lend him strength and understanding). Yet he lived out his life. And the sight of his grave, though I had never seen it before, was somehow more expected; and I could look at it with greater equanimity than I could at that of my mother.

May the God in whom he believed so desperately give him grace and respite and healing in the afterlife—above all, peace, and the sense of communion with others.

California again, this time for research at the Hoover Library in Palo Alto.

MAY 13, 1956

California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many—not all—of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating one another about the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now, the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant, nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

California is outwardly one-dimensional, in the emotional sense. Looking at the faces, listening to the snatches of conversation, one wonders whether such a thing as anguish exists at all—whether, in fact, there is even any anguish in love, or whether this, too, comes, is experienced, passes, and dies with the same cheerful casualness that seems to dominate all the other phenomena of existence.

These people practice what for centuries the philosophers have preached: they ask no questions; they, live, seemingly, for the day; they waste no energy or substance on the effort to understand life; they enjoy the physical experience of living; they enjoy the lighter forms of contact with an extremely indulgent and undemanding natural environment; their consciences are not troubled by the rumblings of what transpires beyond their horizon. If they are wise, surely the rest of us are fools.

Written in Rheinfelden, a town on the Swiss side of the Rhine, not far from Basel, where I was attending an academic conference.

SEPTEMBER 18, 1959

One afternoon just before departure I took my passport along and crossed the bridge to the German side. I was overwhelmed by the contrast. Here, more clearly than anywhere I had ever been, one saw the difference between a country that had involved itself in two world wars and one that had not. On the Swiss side one had in every way this wonderful feeling of intactness, both in space and in time. One felt that the generations had merged imperceptibly into one another, that values of the present had been erected carefully and reverently on the foundations of the values of the past, that families had remained families. On one old house in the Swiss part of the city, I had noticed, in fact, an inscription:

Lasset uns am Alten,

So es gut ist, halten.

(Where the old is good,

Let us hold to it.)

And the fact that the tail end of a late-model Mercedes protruded from a garage in the same building somehow failed to destroy the force of the motto.

On the German side all was different. Whether or not there had been physical destruction by bombing I do not know; but the place had the air of a town that had been torn to pieces and was being reconstructed: no harmony, no center, little beauty. And the people were as different as night from day. There was, compared with the prim Swiss, a ravaged, desperate, and brutal quality to their faces. One saw at once that here was a place that had been through moments of something like a breakdown of civilization. There was still a tinge of wolfishness in the way people viewed each other: the memory of a time (the final years of war and Nazidom) when man was enemy of man, as in the Russian Civil War. On the other hand, there was, as compared with Switzerland, a certain wide-flung, careless energy on the German side. The Swiss, too, were energetic, but with them this force was contained, well bred, bourgeois to the core. In Germany these middle-class values had disappeared, so that one had, along with the sense of coarseness and brutal competition, a sense of greater scope and power and ruthlessness of action.

Curiously enough, the women on the German side had also been in some way affected by the disintegration and looseness of values. They had the sheer, coarse, sexual attractiveness of primitive women, again contrasting strongly with their prim and repressed sisters across the Rhine. Surely, one thought, this cannot be just the force of environment: this must reflect the fact that in Switzerland, over the course of generations, the discreet influence of parents, interested less in the girl's, physical attractiveness than in her qualities as a person and a member of society, has been important in shaping marriages; whereas in Germany the children of this age are the products of the catch-as-catch-can sexual mores that have prevailed in that country for the past forty years. Here, by consequence, the sultry belle of the streets has taken a prominent share in motherhood. Her children show it.

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