Solitary Expert: The Case of George F. Kennan

“He is a fascinating throwback, one of those now solitary American moralists, perfectionists, taskmasters, and schoolmasters who are still lucid in our frantic society.”So does one of America’s most lucid writers and critics describe George Kennan in this singular essay on the man and mind revealed in MEMOIRS: 1925-1950. Mr. Kazin’s most recent book is STARTING OUT IN THIRTIES. He teaches at State University of New York at Stony Brook and is at work on a study of the American imagination in the nineteenth century.



THERE is probably no reason to expect more of Foreign Service Officers than of other government servants, but they “represent” us and so get watched. Many of them have incomparably direct experiences of foreign countries, an un-American facility in foreign languages, and often do acquire unusual detachment from the home culture and some wit about the human scene in general. Some American diplomats have become scholarly specialists, just as naturally as professional scholars — James Russell Lowell, Claude Bowers, William E. Dodd, John Kenneth Galbraith — have become ambassadors. Nevertheless, the system seems not to turn up as much intellectual distinction as it might, and it is noteworthy that the former professors in the State Department now most zealous in explaining the white man’s burden in Vietnam were never very interesting minds to begin with. A leaning toward undertakers’ manners and pompously misleading prose is always in favor. The ability to swallow one’s objections, to impersonate under the anguished heckling of draft-age students the selfrestraint made famous by gentiemen-in-waiting at the court of Louis XVI, who by protocol sat horribly near the fire but were not allowed to move an inch — this seems to require exactly the superficial talents and even the slightly inhuman traits that have often been attributed to diplomats.

Still, the layman rarely knows. Foreign Service people are not encouraged to write for publication; probably the most dedicated of them anonymously give their talents away to training others; all belong to the “Department,” to their country, far more than they do to themselves. There are surely intellectual privileges to the diplomatic life — the extraordinary chance, for those capable of using it, to study other cultures; the peculiar freedom as well as the natural loneliness of living abroad. Despite the complacent types one meets in American embassies, who “never had it so good,” the more thoughtful ones are consoled by intellectual privileges for the subtle sacrifice they make of their temperamental selves to the success of the job. But those whose minds will not always permit them to be too deliberately ponderous, to swallow every disagreement with policy and outrage at an unnecessary threat to peace, will, sooner or later, get out and do what most educated people want most in the world to do — “write.”

Of all American career diplomats in our day, George F. Kennan is surely the best known and the most honored, at least by the scholarly world. Yet he has been the most disputatious of State Department advisers and twice (after he had retired from the Department in 1950) a stormy ambassador. He is now known as an impeccable scholar and historian, but he could conceivably have become an influential leader of American opinion instead of being rudely disparaged, as he has been, by Presidents and Secretaries of State. Kennan is one of the great Western scholars of Russia. He is a particular authority on Russian-American relations since the Revolution, on which he has published two volumes — Russia Leaves the War and Decision to Intervene — of a planned three-volume history. Its mastery of all the sources, its literary irony on the disparity between the efforts of diplomats and the decisions of their government, make Kennan one of the more authoritative minds among the many professors writing history in our day. This theme of professional frustration runs through much of Kennan’s writing, but never so fiercely as in his Memoirs: 1925-1950 (Atlantic Little, Brown).

Kennan entered the Foreign Service at twentyone, has specialized in Germany as well as Russia and the Baltic, was a principal figure in our Moscow Embassy from the day relations were resumed, was later a leading adviser on Russia, head of the State Department Policy Planning Board, counselor to the Department. Yet as ambassador to the Soviet Union near the end of the Stalin regime, he was so outraged by the more than usual bugging and snooping in the American Embassy that at a famous interview at the Berlin airport he deliberately compared Stalin’s regime to Hitler’s and so had himself declared persona non grata. As Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia his mission was again cut short, this time because he was so intent on Yugoslavia’s getting more aid from Congress; Kennedy felt that Kennan was too insistent on his own point of view, too impatient with the political necessity of placating and dealing with Congress. Though these missions were in a sense deliberate “failures,” they are typical of Kennan’s stern sense of principle in dealing with both the Russian leaders and the often gross representatives of our great democracy; in Russia he was outraged by the spying of Stalin’s police, and from Yugoslavia he was protesting against Congress’ lack of political imagination in admitting the break in the Communist camp. The reader of Kennan’s painfully self-controlled and tragically haughty memoirs soon becomes aware that he can be like no one else in the American diplomatic service; despite many anxious compliments to his old chiefs and colleagues in the Department, one can see that he thinks this too. His exceptional but peculiarly restrictive qualities can be seen in the self-conscious authority of his other books — notably American Diplomacy and Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. But because he is forced to say so much about himself here — he doesn’t want to, doesn’t always know how to, but is finally revealing in describing the difficult jumps between his private and official self — his expertness seems more testy, and his contradictions as a human being who is as emotional as he is principled become more fascinating. Rarely has the intellectual anguish that can lie behind political decisions been so clearly revealed.

KENNAN is a formidable scholar in his special subject, Russia: he has a particular understanding of nineteenth-century Russia, when virtually all its great literature was produced, when its greatest spirits were striving for an ethical clarity that, as they thought, would teach the people to find some solution to their political and social frustrations. Many an American, visiting the homes of the great nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals, has recognized physical and moral resemblances to old-fashioned life in New England and the Middle West. The Lenin family home at Simbirsk — the home of an inspector of schools — reminded Edmund Wilson of the plain and bookish houses of Concord. At Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, among the wooden schoolhouses where Tolstoy himself taught peasant children, I found it utterly natural to see a great autographed picture of William Lloyd Garrison with the inscription “Liberty for each, for all, forever!” As Kennan points out, both Russia and the United States developed a significant literature only in the nineteenth century. Both were frontier-minded, with a strong sense of the destiny manifest in their being undeveloped continental masses; both looked to Europe for cultural tradition but were repelled by its worldliness. Addressing students at the Columbia Russian Institute, Kennan once noted with satisfaction that the dominating culture ideal inside Communist Russia was still Pushkin, Tolstoy, Moussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, the architecture of the Kremlin, the palaces of Leningrad, the tradition of the Moscow Art Theater and the Russian ballet — “the fairytale world of the age of chivalry.”

“You cannot tell me that in these Russian minds the lessons of the nineteenth century have been lost.” (But as only a lover of Tolstoy and Chekhov can, Kennan hates the fifty years of Soviet authoritarianism, brutality, and mendacity. He celebrated the “St. Petersburg era” in Russian culture, when it was eagerly looking to the West, for “the incredible freshness and sincerity and clarity of perception which placed the Russian intellectuals of the nineteenth century among the greatest of all critics of contemporary Western civilization.”) Then he added significantly of the Communist aftermath: “What fault were [the Russian] people guilty of that led to this result?” With his ScotchIrish Presbyterian background, Kennan is much given to the question of human “fault,” and obviously he has often confronted his own intellectual pride and knows himself to be austere, didactic, unbending, and noticeably ungiven to the common touch. What he does not like as a fact of life, admit into his thinking, is the influence in politics of people unlike himself.

Kennan complained at Columbia of the tendency “in Russia of the crueller, more brutal and more aggressive natures to rise by some sort of natural attraction to the political surface of society and to monopolize the business of government.” His memoirs are full of uncomprehending contempt for politicians and the political process. He is a fascinatingly complex case even as a professional diplomat. He often writes history with a diplomat’s professional minimizing of the larger historic issues, and obviously feels that negotiation is too important to be left to mere statesmen. There is more than a touch in his memoirs of the old State Department hauteur in dealing with anything so “irregular" as refugees. Yet considering the long and hard training to which he has been put, to which he has put himself, his obvious reverence for many State Department regulars and State Department customs, it is equally clear from the long, hard struggle with authority recounted in his book that he is not an organization man, and essentially very unlike the cool types one is always meeting in American embassies abroad. He is a fascinating throwback, one of those now solitary American moralists, perfectionists, taskmasters, and schoolmasters who are still lucid in our frantic society. Out of his fierce professional involvement, living so long abroad, absorbing German and Russian as if they were his own languages, he has become disgusted with American slickness, commercial pap, the phony benignity and good fellowship, the limitless selfindulgence and angry self-centeredness. But always more alert to the power relationships between countries rather than those between groups in his own country — this has often led to the misapplication or rejection of his advice — Kennan’s strenuous single-mindedness not only has made him uninfluential in Washington, but also has left him an interestingly sharp antagonist of American ways.

GEORGE KENNAN is a serious man. In our time serious people know that “history” tears everything apart, starting with themselves. As a young diplomat in Germany, Kennan was once moved to tears by a Communist demonstration one Sunday in Hamburg, for he suddenly realized that the working people in that parade had no other day, and no other way, to show the burden on their lives. This is the same man who insists throughout his memoirs on the generally messy emotions and uninformed experiences that often conflict with the hard, limited, consciously stoical work of diplomacy. The reader soon realizes that there are two kinds of writing in the book, expressive of two conscious selves — a lower and a higher, a vulnerable human being and a solemn professional. When he describes his early years in Milwaukee, his sense at Princeton of being “imperfectly visible,”his embarrassment when he tried to earn some Christmas money at college by delivering the mail and made a mess of it, one is aware of someone unused to describing personal emotion to the public, but who has been doing it all his life in private memoranda. As a young consular official in the twenties. Kennan was already a specialist but was limited then to Baltic countries. His diaries of those years — it is clear from the many private documents he quotes that he is a compulsive writer and practiced in “the curious art of writing for oneself alone" — are moody landscape studies, full of loneliness and intellectual excitement and the suggestiveness that Baltic “white nights” leave on the Riga strand — “a condition of nature under the spell of which all human emotions and situations seemed to take on a heightened poignancy, mystery, and promise.”

Kennan’s seriousness has been largely concentrated on his intellectual passion for Russian, which as a young Foreign Service Officer he studied in Germany and perfected in the nine years he spent in Russian-speaking environments. This feeling for a foreign language, for another place and perhaps another time, of course kept Kennan outside his own country, and by concentrating its features in his memory, made him stricter about America, more censorious. Yet his stern, cold disapproval of Communist minds and Communist manners is typically ethical, American, old-American: “cynicism, shamelessness, contempt for humanity — all triumphantly enthroned.” “I was never able to accept or to condone the stony-hearted fanaticism that was prepared to condemn to the loss of all civil rights, to ignominy, persecution, and ‘liquidation as a class’ entire great bodies of people . . . for no other reason than that their members had been born into certain stations in life. These savage class distinctions seemed to me only a mirror image of the feudal institutions Russia had so recently rejected.”

A cousin of his grandfather’s, the first George Kennan, was a self-educated telegrapher who first went to Siberia to explore the possibilities of setting up communication by cable. There he learned Russian perfectly, and eventually went back to Siberia again to write for the old Century magazine a series of articles that became a classic, Siberia and the Exille System. This was the first great account of Czarist oppression to be written by a foreigner; the book was translated into Russian and became a precious document inside the Russian revolutionary movement. Prison officials, this first George Kennan said, “could not understand a curiosity which was strong enough to take travellers into a Siberian prison hospital”; Siberia and the Exile System is a wonderfully graphic book, yet as delicately written as a Howells novel; it is full of the plain-speaking idealism which was to make other nineteenth-century Americans so valued by Tolstoy. The present George Kennan’s father was a farmer, born in 1851. It is hard not to see in many of the diplomat’s conflicts with Washington the frustrations of a nineteenth-century man in mid-twentieth-century Washington — especially when this nineteenthcentury man was a principal adviser on Russia inside the State department.

Kennan’s deepest frustrations came from his efforts after World War II to “contain” Soviet power in Europe without yielding to military solutions or to a McCarthyite crusade against Communism. Kennan’s position was that the Russians could be held by a steadfast, “self-confident,” “mature,” wholly political American strategy. Subjective appeals to the Russians’ “better side,” he had said during the war, made absolutely no impression on them. Kennan pleaded against the Roosevelt-Hopkins attempt to flatter and charm Stalin and Molotov into becoming regular fellows. He had been horrified by the Soviet massacre of the Polish intelligentsia, of the Polish officer corps in the Katyn forest, by the despoliation of East Prussia — of which he says, with typical State Department obliviousness to the extermination of the Jews, that “the disaster that befell East Prussia with the entry of the Soviet forces has no parallel in modern European experience.”

But he makes the important point that one reason for Stalin’s treatment of Poland was his need to back up the Soviet police, who had murdered so many Poles in 1939. Kennan thought the Nuremburg trials were unnecessary and absurd; the leading Nazis should have been shot on the spot, and the sight of Soviet judges sitting on the bench revolted him. Kennan’s basic position, one that he defined in the famous Foreign Affairs article of 1947 under the signature “X,” was that Americans now had to learn patience and fortitude in dealing with “sheer power relationships.” Although his article was often taken as a brief for military resistance to Soviet expansion, Kennan feels that this misunderstanding is inherent in the either-or thinking of Americans on foreign policy. He complains that in the old days Americans didn’t like to make specific decisions on specific problems, that they had a weakness, as Wilson did, for high-sounding “universal” solutions. But now, he says, American policy is all too tough and military-minded. So, as usual, he is in the opposition, out in the cold; despite the leading service he gave as an unwitting architect of the cold war, he is opposed to present policy. But, also as usual, he has not been able to change anything. Kennan insists that Russia would never attack us, for “that is not in their tradition,” and that war is not inevitable. The makers of American policy have thought differently for some time, and George Kennan gratefully retired from the Foreign Service in 1950, when, he was forty-six.

Even the most sympathetic reader of these memoirs can see why Kennan is now limited to scholarly eminence and why he does not have the kind of influence on American opinion that he might have had, only recently, when he testified so brilliantly against our ever-increasing aggressiveness in Vietnam. For the fact is that Kennan does not see history, not even Russian history, as moving from people to the leaders; he does not respect social opinion and ferment, the prejudice and passion that make politics. It is probably difficult for a diplomat to live abroad for a long time without losing touch with the vulgar but effective commotion of common opinion. Kennan tends to overvalue diplomacy not because he believes in its effectiveness, but because it is his special thing, his Fach, as the Germans say. And he has a kind of German professorial zeal in stressing single points, a quite conscious condescension toward “slower colleagues,” that explains why, among the relatively invisible members of the diplomatic service, Kennan has long stood out. He has had a way of irritating even the most unrufflable fellow ambassadors. Even that last word in unrufflability, Dean Acheson, said rudely in 1958; “Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships, but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.”

All this means, of course, that George Kennan is a man of extraordinary intellectual passion, a man who loves certain principles and values so intensely, and hates what he hates so fiercely, that he has been left to more subtle minds than Dean Acheson, and they do understand him. Yet what an extraordinary break with his old training, and perhaps with modern liberalism as well, he now represents. To love Russia itself so much, and yet never to grant anything to the Bolshevik Revolution; to despise Americans in their military-government compounds abroad, lapping it up at the PX, spoiled, materialistic, faithless to their traditions, yet all the while angrily to blame them for not being politically more intelligent than they are — these are some of the views that make Kennan the extraordinary figure he is. Here are three little snapshots:

In 1937, during the purge trial of Radek, Krestinski, and Pyatakov, Kennan sat in the courtroom with our ambassador, Joseph E. Davies, “hissing into his ear the best I could produce in the way of a simultaneous translation of Vyshinski’s thundering brutalities, of the cringing confessions of some of the accused, and of the delicate innuendoes in the statements of some of the others. During the intermissions I was sent, regularly, to fetch the ambassador his sandwiches, while he exchanged sententious judgments with the gentlemen of the press concerning the guilt of the victims. I cannot recall . . . that I ever discussed the matter with him. His own reports make it evident that he placed considerable credence in the fantastic charges leveled at these unfortunate men.”

In the summer of 1944 Kennan had the unpleasant experience of standing at the curb on one of the great Moscow boulevards and watching the passage of some fifty thousand German prisoners in process of being marched several miles across town from one railway station to another. It was a hot day; members of the Soviet police establishment often rode their horses into the ranks, forcing the soldiers to stumble about and to run on the double quick; some soldiers fainted. As Kennan says, “It was not a very great brutality, as brutalities of war go. The Germans, God knows, had done many times worse.” But he came away from the sight shaken, saddened, and unsatisfied. “Was it right, then, I asked myself, to punish them all for the acts of a government to whose power their fathers had consigned them already as children and whose policies they had never had the faintest opportunity to oppose? . . . I recognized, at that moment, that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war — and always would. . . . I had my moments of indignation. . . . The days, in fact, were seldom without them. Wherever I lived — in Berlin, in Moscow, in Washington — the evidences in the daily prints of hypocrisy, of deliberate falsehood, of vindictiveness and pettiness of spirit , had never failed, and never would fail in the future, to send me into elaborate physical hearings, and mutterings of outraged sentiment.”

Once after the war, when he had received permission to visit western Siberia, Kennan on his way back to Moscow happily found that the usual NKVD tail had temporarily lost track of him. “The office at Novosibirsk was, I suppose, done with me, and the center at Moscow had not yet picked me up. The result was that I had, for once, the feeling of not being a stranger, of belonging to a company of ordinary Soviet people. My companions on the plane, in any case, did not seem to recognize me as anything out of the ordinary. At the airport in Omsk, sitting in the grass under the shade of the wing of the plane in the heat of the day, I read aloud to a group of them, at their request, from a volume of Aleksei Tolstoy’s Peter The Great which I had with me.”