The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

By invitation of the history department of Ripon College, in Ripon, Wisconsin, I visited that institution in 1965 to deliver one public lecture and to conduct discussions with students. My father had attended Ripon College in the 1870s, working his way through by doing various chores around the place. I naturally had this circumstance much in mind in accepting the invitation, and the consciousness of it did not leave me during the visit.

FEBRUARY 9–14, 1965

I took a train in the early evening, from Trenton. When I woke up the next morning, it was still very early, and we were somewhere in Indiana. The sun was rising. A golden half-light bathed the little towns that streamed past. There were glimpses of empty early-morning streets, glistening from the night's rain, of wind-ruffled puddles, of little wooden houses, shabby, patient, and half-asleep, and above all, the strange, still flatness—a flatness like no other flatness, subdued and yet exciting, as though filled with deep unspoken implications. This was not my country; but it was already in no sense the East. I knew I was close to home.

As the train pulled into Valparaiso, Indiana, a bank of clouds to the northwest (over the lake, no doubt) created the perfect, even disconcerting, illusion of a range of low mountains. What, one wondered, would life and people have been like had there been such a mountain range there? Life, presumably, would have been more varied, more violent, more interesting; but the massive inert power of the midwestern cultural tradition, with all its virtues and all its weaknesses, sufficient to constitute the spiritual heart of a nation, would not have survived.

On the train from Chicago to Milwaukee I sat in the observation car, looking out in the direction of the near but not visible lake, across the flat countryside, littered now with the debris of our overelaborate, wasteful civilization: highways, junkyards, power lines, filling stations, and whatnot. I fell to wondering what, for the likes of me, was, after all, "home."

From the time the family came to Wisconsin, in 1850, to the time when I myself left for good, in 1921, barely seventy years elapsed. Was this span of residence, for a family, enough to make a place "home"? Roughly, it was a span of two generations. True, so far as I knew, the family—the paternal line, at least—had never lived any longer than that in any other place, at least not since they left Scotland, which was presumably in the time of Cromwell. They had lived successively in Ireland, in Massachusetts, in Vermont, in upper New York state, and finally in Wisconsin, but never anywhere longer than those two generations. If Wisconsin, then, was not "home," what was? Well, there was now Princeton, and the farm in Pennsylvania, and the cottage in Norway. But there was more than that. There were those curious places—parts of Rhode Island, certain sections of Moscow and of Leningrad—where l had felt so overpowering a sense of familiarity as to evoke the mystery of a former life. Home, then, was the whole great arc of the northern and western world, from Moscow across Scandinavia and the British Isles to Wisconsin. One was, in other words, a sort of Nordic cosmopolitan, truly domiciled only in the natural beauty of the seas and countrysides of this northern world: in its seasons, its storms, its languid summers, but occasionally also in its vanishing urban settings, the half-remembered ones, pictured as they were before the inundation by the automobile.

My program, as a visitor to the college, began the day after my arrival. I had protested in advance that I could not deliver lectures to the classes in Russian and American history they wanted me to attend; I could only sit in on them as a visitor and take part, perhaps, in the discussion. All to no avail. At the Russian-history class that first morning, there they all were: regular students, other students, faculty members, and townspeople, seated expectantly before me, with that maddening, complacent, irresponsible expectancy that always makes me feel they are saying, "Get up and talk. We want to see what you look like when you are talking." There was nothing for it. Then, and in the American-history class the following morning (where there were well over a hundred people), I had to declaim, impromptu, for the full academic hour to a curtain of curious, respectful, but impassive faces, scattering my little seeds and leaving them to their fate on this unknown soil.

Lunch was eaten in the great modern cafeteria where the whole student body of some eight hundred takes its meals. It was my first good chance to look at the students. They gave the impression of being more relaxed, less troubled, less involved, than those at Princeton. The faces were open, pleasant ones, with curiously little written on them at all. The women, as always, seemed more mature personally than the men, superior to them, too, socially and in style: more cosmopolitan, less provincial, more a part of the age, in general more like modem women in Vienna or Milan or wherever else you like than the men of similar age in those places. The women took, it seemed to me, a larger view of the competitive sphere in which they considered their lives to evolve-the reflection of an awareness, perhaps, of the relative uniformity in women's problems everywhere. The men were good-natured young louts, immersed in their world of records and athletics and fraternities and summer jobs, mildly curious about the great wide world beyond, but less closely keyed to it than the women. It is the woman who is truly international.

Observing the greater relaxation of the atmosphere and the faces in this heterosexual common room, I thought of the recent demand of the Princeton college editors for coeducation at Princeton. Plainly, it would be easier, softer, more comfortable, with women around. Life would be more agreeably homogenized, less harshly stratified into the components of term and vacation, of study and recreation, of indulgence and abstention. But would the intellect benefit? The intellect, after all, was a lazy, sluggish faculty. Its growth occurred only under discipline and discomfort. It had to be scourged into the unfolding of its powers. This was why the great environments for the flowering of the spirit had been not the sunlit gardens of California or Florida but rather the dark, cold rainy places—the ones that involved deprivation, discomfort, loneliness, and boredom. Coeducation produced, no doubt, better-adjusted people; but was there not a certain conflict between this ease of life and the training of the mind?

In the evening, in the bare-walled gymnasium, with its shiny floors, its overhanging basketball boards, and its faint smell of sweaty tennis shoes, I delivered my lecture—to an audience of several hundred. (I spoke, on that occasion, about America's major international involvements of the past century, pointing out the inadvertence by which we had backed into them, our tendency to make moral crusades out of them once we became involved, and the irony of the relationship between these lofty objectives and the actual political consequences of our involvement. "It is," I said, "simply not in character for such a country as ours to try. . . to produce great changes in the lives of other people, to bring economic development and prosperity to everyone, and to assure to everyone complete peace and security under law. This is true whether the effort be made by force and coercion or by sweetness and light.") I came away, as usual, disliking what I had said, feeling that I had hacked my way through the delivery of it like a droning snowplow, unable to gauge the effect, wishing I had never undertaken the effort.

My diaries contain a number of accounts of cruises, in our own boat, in Scandinavian waters. The following is an excerpt from the account of one such cruise, taken in the summer of 1968.

This trip to town was a mildly painful one, full of sadness and contrary feelings. I am not oblivious of the Norwegian virtues. If I really had my pick of places to live in, I would probably choose Norway. But (and all these buts were visible in Tønsberg today) the climate is harsh; nature is spare and grudging; and everyone is as busy and determined as he can be to promote the most rapid possible destruction of the beauty and peace of the country and of the inner harmony of its life through the reckless, unlimited cultivation of the internal combustion engine.

If some twenty to thirty years ago the Norwegian government had come to the solemn conclusion that in the shortest possible time every Norwegian town and village must be exploded, disintegrated, and rebuilt to worse standards; that every small white traditional Norwegian house, the house that fits so magnificently into this landscape, must lose its function and be replaced with some sort of a concrete block; that the air as well as the coastal waters must be polluted with maximum speed; that Norwegian youth must lose its modesty, its respect for its elders, and its love of nature, and learn to see its own identity only in its association with the motorbike and the automobile; that railway and maritime transport must be deprived of their function in favor of the motor vehicle and the investment in them written off as rapidly as possible if this had been its decision, it could not and would not have acted differently from the way it has.

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