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Memoirs-which is by turns surprising, enlightening, touching, and witty-is one of the essential American literary and historical documents.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.
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.
JUNE 14, 1940
Left Berlin shortly before one o’clock on the newly revived express train to The Hague. Prisoners, probably Polish, were working in the fields between Berlin and Hanover. The sun beat hard on the flat, treeless fields, and the armed guards kept the prisoners lined up in neat, Germanic rows.
Beyond Hanover we began to encounter long trains of boxcars with fresh prisoners of war, presumably from this western front. The only openings for light and air were little apertures cut high up, near the ends of the cars, and through these one could see the crowded heads, the pale faces, and the bewildered eyes that stared, full of boredom and homesickness, out over the cold severity of the north of German plain.
At the border two trainloads of SS, complete with motor vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and filed kitchens on flat cars, were waiting on a siding. Here, in contrast to the prisoners’ cars, the sliding doors of the boxcars were thrown open; the soldiers, crowding the doorways, all looking very much alike, stared at our luxurious train, and devoured the newspapers and magazines that some of the passengers tossed to them.
There was little damage visible in Holland, at least in the district through which we passed. Now and then there was a burnt-out farmhouse or a gutted warehouse along the tracks. But everything had already been thoroughly cleaned up with true Dutch neatness, and the bridge across the Ijssel, blown up by the retreating Dutch, had already been repaired sufficiently by the Germans to permit our heavy train to crawl over it.
By the time we reached Deventer, it was dark, and the blinds had to be pulled in the cars to observe the laws of the blackout. I sat through the rest of the evening listening to a conversation between a smug Nazi businessman and a successful Dutch fifth-columnist. I had to grip the cushion, in our first-class compartment, to keep from butting in and attempting to blast some of the complacency and hypocrisy out of the conversation. The German, cold and pompous, merely re-echoed the Volkischer Beobachter editorials and was scarcely worth annoying. But the Dutchman, who had a keen, subtle intelligence and a fine command of language, put my reserve to a hard test. Professing understanding for National Socialist ideals, he told the German of Dutch tradition and of the bourgeois conservatism of the Netherlands and pointed out regretfully how hard it would be to train Dutch youth, who had only a small country to fall back on and no great conquests to look forward to, to be National Socialists.
JUNE 15, 1940
Rain—a misty English rain, smelling of spongy meadows and of the nearby sea - sifted down through the great lime trees onto the cobblestone streets of The Hague.
In the afternoon I went for a long walk. The housefronts of the town, prim and well proportioned, breathed Puritanism and a solid, unostentatious prosperity. The sense of formality was so overpowering that I could only envisage generations of guests arriving for tea and being scrutinized with chilly suspicion by the servants. This was obviously a country where no grown-up who did not walk the primrose path could lay claim to warmth or forgiveness or tenderness. But civilization it was indeed.
I walked out to Scheveningen, getting thoroughly drenched in the process. A half a gale was blowing from the northwest. The great breakers were fighting their way in onto the sands in a melee of foam. The rain-swept boardwalk was deserted; and out at sea, in those mine-infested waters, no vessels moved.
The electric-railway station was dark and empty. I was not sure at first that the trains were running. In the guardroom a few German soldiers sat drinking beer, and an ugly waitress chucked one of them under the chin. On the train back to The Hague my only fellow passengers were four little Dutch schoolchildren, who chattered cheerfully, impervious to the gray day, the rain-streaked windows, the deserted places, and all the ruin.
The train deposited us at a big station somewhere in the eastern part of the city. It took me nearly an hour to find the legation again. The search led through miles of sober streets, across bridges, along quiet canals, through Shady little squares. I watched the sturdy, impassive, stubborn people trundling their bicycles and pushing their barges. Their fidelity to habit and tradition was so strong that it seemed as though nothing could ever change them.
JUNE 16, 1940
I took another long walk this morning, only to hear a German military band playing on a square to a sizable audience of placid, politely applauding Dutchmen, and to see a place, only a block or two from the legation, where bombs had wiped out most of the inside of a city block.
In the afternoon E. drove me around in his car. First we went over to a small nearby town, to see our consul at Rotterdam, whose office and home had been destroyed in the bombing and who had taken temporary quarters in that place. We found him at home, and had drinks with him. The room was opened completely on one side, toward the garden. There the rain drizzled onto the rich grass and a little weed-covered canal, and everything was very Dutch and sad and peaceful. Across the canal a stream of people passed on bicycles, and a beautiful copper beech shimmered in the rain.
From there we drove to Rotterdam. We came into town along a normal city street, with shops open, trams running, crowds of busy people on the sidewalks. Suddenly, with as little transition as though someone had performed the operation with a gigantic knife, the houses stopped and there began a wide, open field of tumbled bricks and rubbish. Here and there a wall or even the gutted framework of a house remained, but in most places there was only a gray plain of devastation. I saw a shop doing business and people living in a house on one side of which there was a perfectly normal city scene and on the other side of which, beginning right at the side of the house, there stretched nothing but a desert of bleached, smoking debris as far as the eye could see.
JUNE 17, 1940
Got up early in the morning to take a six o’clock train back to Berlin. The five-hour trip across occupied Holland, in the dead hours of Sunday morning, was very dull indeed. It was still raining; the towns were empty; one had a feeling of the world's being forsaken by everyone but the cows. I read the German paper, pondered gloomily the propaganda patter about the "senseless resistance" of the Dutch, and reflected that if there were anything in this war that had made any sense to me at all, it was the resistance that had produced the ruins of Rotterdam.
JULY 2, 1940
This morning, since offers of free rides were still not forthcoming from the Germans, B. offered me one of his cars, together with the requisite quantity of gasoline; and at exactly 2:00 P.M. I set out from his country place, near Waterloo, in a little Chevrolet bound for Paris. I had with me one of the American ambulance drivers, who was trying to get down to Paris to recover his clothes. Warned that the intervening country had been reduced by the fighting to a state of desolation that made it as uncharitable to travelers as a desert, we were armed with a bottle of drinking water and some chocolate, to keep us alive in case we broke down on the way.
The devastation, especially south of the old Belgian frontier, was indeed formidable. All the towns were damaged, and certain large ones, particularly Valenciennes and Cambrai, were completely gutted, deserted, and uninhabitable. Here the road led through streets where the house façades were standing on both sides, but back of the façades, visible through the gaping, paneless windows, there was wreckage and ashes and debris. In spots the odor of decomposing corpses still stole out to the streets to tell its grim message to the outside world. These communities seemed to have been entirely vacated, probably at the insistence of the military authorities, by any inhabitants who had escaped destruction in the bombardment. They were shut off and guarded by German sentries, probably to prevent pillaging; and it affected me strangely to see these inscrutable, weather-beaten German sentries, standing guard there over their own handiwork of destruction. As though it mattered now who stood before these shattered homes and these stinking corpses! As though this tangled litter of half-destroyed human belongings had any more value when life and hope had already been destroyed!
Refugees were laboriously making their way back northward, in search of their homes. Most were traveling on the great two-wheeled horse-drawn cart of the French peasant, which could accommodate a whole family and many of its belongings. Some were on bicycles. Some pushed baby buggies with a few parcels of belongings on them. Their faces were unforgettable, stripped of all pretension, of all falseness, of all vanity, of all self-consciousness, seared with fatigue and fear and suffering.
I saw a young girl bouncing along on top of one of the carts. Her dress was torn and soiled. She had probably not had her clothes off, or been able to wash, for days. She was resting her chin in her hand and staring fixedly down at the road. All the youth had gone out of her face. There was only a bitterness too deep for complaint, a wondering too intense for questions. What would be her reaction to life after this? Just try to tell her of liberalism and democracy, of progress, of ideals, of tradition, of romantic love; see how far you get. What is going to be her impression of humanity? Do you think she's going to come out of it a flaming little patriot? She saw the complete moral breakdown and degradation of her own people. She saw them fight with each other and stumble over each other in their blind stampede to get away and to save their possessions before the advancing Germans. She saw her own soldiers, routed, demoralized, trying to push their way back through the streams of refugees on the highways. She saw her own people pillaging and looting in a veritable orgy of dissolution as they fled before the advancing enemy; possibly she joined in the looting herself. She saw these French people in all the ugliness of panic, defeat, and demoralization.
In the suburbs of Paris there were few people, but the streets looked no less normal than those of Brussels. As we drove down the rue Lafayette, the passers-by became fewer and fewer. By the time we reached the Opéra, the streets were practically empty. The city was simply dead. Policemen stood listlessly on the corners, but there was no traffic to direct and no pedestrians to guard. At the Café de la Paix six German officers sat at an outside table. They looked lonely sitting there with the empty café behind them and the empty cold street before them - no passersby to watch, no other guests to support them, no one but themselves to witness their triumph.
JULY 3, 1940
Spent the morning driving around town looking up friends of friends, none of whom were there. I wondered about the reactions of the Germans. I saw their officers in the restaurants, trying so desperately to be genteel when there was nobody to be genteel before. I heard that Goebbels was at the Ritz and thought how different that forsaken square, the Place Vendôme, must have seemed from the glamour and luxury of that place as he had pictured it. I was told that the Germans were making efforts to reopen the Casino de Paris for the benefit of their troops, but couldn't do so because all the British girls were gone and the French girls, if any could be found, were too individualistic to keep time in a chorus.
I struggled all day to find a metaphor for what had happened. Could one not say to the Germans that the spirit of Paris had been too delicate and shy a thing to stand their domination and had melted away before them just as they thought to have it in their grasp? Was there not some Greek myth about the man who tried to ravish a goddess, only to have her turn to stone when he touched her? That is what has happened to Paris. When the Germans came, the soul simply went out of it; and what is left is only stone.
There follows an excerpt from a letter written to my wife from Berlin, shortly before Pearl Harbor and my own internment by the Germans.
OCTOBER 21, 1941
In general, life in Berlin has been much as you knew it. The major change has been the wearing of the stars by the Jews. That is a fantastically barbaric thing. I shall never forget the faces of people in the subway with the great yellow star sewn onto their overcoats, standing, not daring to sit down or to brush against anybody, staring straight ahead of them with eyes like terrified beasts - nor the sight of little children running around with those badges sewn on them.
In 1944, having served in 1942 and 1943 in Portugal, and then in early 1944 in London, I was reassigned as Averell Harriman’s deputy in Moscow. In June of 1945 the Soviet authorities permitted me, then still serving as the number two at the American embassy in Moscow, to visit the leading city of Siberia, Novosibirsk, and the major metallurgical center Kuznetsk, not far from the Mongolian border.
The following is my diary account of the beginning of this trip.
Left Moscow on Saturday, June 9, at 3:00 P.M., on the Trans-Siberian express. The train, pulled for the first hour or so by an electric locomotive, moved briskly through the Moscow suburbs-more briskly, indeed, than it was destined to move in general on its long journey to Vladivostok. Barracks, factories, dachas, swamps, and birch groves streamed steadily past the window. In little more than an hour we were stopping at Zagorsk and suffering the first of those invasions of women and children selling food which were to beset us at every station for four days and nights. Barefoot or beslippered, but always with clean scarves on their heads, looking exactly the same at one station as at another, they came bearing their offerings: milk (fresh, boiled, or curdled), cottage cheese, cream, eggs (raw or hard-boiled), radishes, berries, pancakes, boiled potatoes, onions, garlic, pickled carrots, and in Siberia, butter. Some of them traded at wooden stands set back a bit from the tracks, but most of them did business at trainside. There, on the black-cinder track, hard-trodden and greasy with the oil and the droppings from the trains, under the feet of the milling crowds of passengers, train personnel, and station hangers-on, without regard for the clouds of soot and dust, a thriving business was done; milk was cheerfully poured from old jugs into empty vodka flasks or army canteens; greasy cakes were fingered tentatively by hands black with train soot; arguments ran their course; bargains were struck; passengers pushed their way triumphantly back to the cars, clutching their acquisitions; and timid little girls with bare feet, who had not succeeded in selling their offerings, stood by in sad but tearless patience, awaiting with all the stoicism of their race the maternal wrath that would greet them when the train had gone and they returned home with their tidbits unsold.
There was little bickering. Where it occurred, it was generally over quantity, not price. In view of the great variety of receptacles used by buyers and sellers (each had to supply his own), there was considerable vagueness, and sometimes disagreement, over quantities. Strong words were passed; but they were passed, for the most part, with humor and good nature. I witnessed one scene where a soldier, surrounded by a sympathetic crowd of onlookers, accused an old peasant woman of tricking him over a purchase of milk. "You'd better be careful, little mother," he said gaily, "not to run across me in the other world. The archangels are all my friends." To the crowd's delight, the old girl crossed herself anxiously, and the incident ended in general laughter.
The car was captained and tended by two husky and good-natured girls: Zinya and Marusya. They had a tiny kitchen where they made tea from a samovar for the passengers. They fed the samovar from scraps of wood that they picked up along the right-of-way. It was their duty to emerge with little red flags at every stop, guard the entrance to the car, and drive off the ragged little boys and other species of humanity who tried to hide on the steps, the couplings, or the bumpers. This task they performed with vigor and dignity and without exasperation. They took turns at their duties, one sleeping while the other worked. I asked them what hours they observed. The question surprised them. They had not given any thought to it. One worked until the other was slept out. Then the other worked and the first one slept. It was very simple.
I was given the end compartment. The one next to it, which shared the washroom, was occupied by two uniformed NKVD officials: a fat and important one, and a young junior-member one with a dark, morose face. The fat one rarely left the compartment. The young one occasionally scuttled out at the stations, revolver flapping authoritatively at his side, to buy food. Sometimes when the train stopped, Icould hear the younger one reading aloud to his superior from Sepanov’s Port Artur. He read jerkily and laboriously but with commendable determination. Neither of them spoke to me at any time during the trip,
Among the other passengers there was a theater director from Irkutsk; a deputy of the Supreme Soviet from a district in the Urals; a husky man in seaman’s trousers, who had once been a Party agitator, looking slightly revolutionary and old-fashioned; a Jewish woman who was going to fetch an evacuated child back to Moscow from Krasnoyarsk. The theater director was a real Siberian, suffered from the heat, and spent the time wandering up and down the corridor clad only in pants and undershirt. He expatiated at any provocation on the beauties of the Angara River and the virtues of the Irkutsk winter. “Real cold,” he would say, thrusting out his arms in a species of deep-breathing exercise, “real broad Russian cold.” The deputy of the Supreme Soviet prepared with considerable ceremony to get off at a small stop in the Urals, only to get carried remorselessly thirty-two kilometers past his station. He was furious; and I could hardly blam him, for it must have cost him plenty of effort to get back.
Here follow excerpts from the account of a journey from Moscow to Helsinki in September of 1945, shortly after the cessation of hostility in the European theater of the Second World War.
I had been in Leningrad three days of my life, and yet it was like coming home. I had read so much about it; and through the years spent in the Baltic states I had come to love the flat horizons of the north, the strange slanting light, the wintry bleakness of nature, and the consequent accentuation of all that is warm and rich in human relationships.
We were driven across the Kamenny Ostrov [Island] and the bridge, along the Kamenno-Ostrovski Prospekt, past the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, across the Nevski Prospekt, to the hotel. The others immediately set out again to see the exhibition of the defense of Leningrad. I went out by myself to walk around the center of town.
I walked past St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Summer-Garden. The weeds and grass were high between the paths, under the oak trees. The equestrian statue of Peter the Great, just recently freed of its wartime sandbags, reared high over the riverbank.
The river stretched out tranquilly to its bright, far horizons. The surface of the water was smooth, but if you looked at it carefully, you could see that it moved rapidly with that silent, majestic current which Pushkin noted.
Up past the Admiralty. Near the bridge the icebreaker Sibiryakov was lying at the quayside, gleaming in a coat of fresh brown paint. On the bridge men were laying new electric cables under the pavement. There was little traffic across the bridge. Occasionally a three-car train of streetcars, bursting with human beings, would groan up the incline to the center of the bridge.
The Winter Palace was being painted, but many of the windows still gaped vacantly. The surrounding streets were quiet, almost deserted. On the empty embankment, under the shadow of the palace, two children rode bicycles up and down --as impervious to the past glory as to the present ruin about them.
I walked up the Moika Embankment, behind the General Staff buildings, to the Nevski Prospekt, sat on a bench before the Kazan Cathedral, and watched the people. They looked sober, a bit tired, but still vigorous. There were swarms of them waiting for the streetcars and trolleybuses that still made up most of the traffic along the famous old street.
Alone, I made my way back to the hotel—behind the cathedral, down the gloomy Gorokhovaya Ulitsa, and again along the Moika Embankment. Here, near Mariinskaya Square, where the canal is lined with poplar trees, two of these had fallen over into the water, bending and twisting the iron fences in the process. The tops must have broken off and stuck in the mud, for many of the branches were still alive with green leaves.
This walk brought up countless associations from the past: of the picture of Pushkin and companion leaning on the embankment looking at the river; of Kropotkin exercising with his stool in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul; of Alexander I looking out of the Winter Palace during the flood of 1824; of Prince Yusupov throwing the body of Rasputin into the Moika; of the crowd moving across the square toward the Winter Palace on the night the place was stormed; of the generations of music teachers and pupils going in and out of the conservatory; of the Italian opera of one hundred years ago; of the unhealthy days of Leningrad's spring thaws, with little groups of black-clad people plodding through the slush behind the hearses to the muddy, dripping cemeteries; of the cellar apartments of the gaunt, dark inner streets, full of dampness, cabbage smell, and rats, and of the pale people who manage to live through the winters in those apartments; of the prostitutes of the Nevski Prospekt of the tsarist time; of the people cutting up fallen horses in dark, snow-blown streets during the time of the siege. This is to me one of the most poignant communities in the world: a great, sad city, where the spark of human genius has always had to penetrate the darkness, the dampness, and the cold in order to make its light felt, and has acquired, for that very reason, a strange warmth, a strange intensity, a strange beauty. I know that in this city, where I have never lived, there has nevertheless been deposited by some strange quirk of fate—a previous life, perhaps?—a portion of my own capacity to feel and to love, a portion, in other words, of my own life; and that this is something no American will ever understand and no Russian ever believe.
That evening I resumed the journey by taking the night train from Leningrad to Helsinki. When I woke in the morning, we were just pulling out of the totally mined and deserted (formerly Finnish) town of Vyborg. We moved slowly through a war-devastated and deserted country. Weeds and scrub trees were growing on the abandoned farms. The houses, doorless and windowless, were obviously sinking gradually into the new vegetation around them. When you occasionally got a glimpse into the interiors, you saw that the floors were full of rubbish and offal. And you knew that the rank new vegetation still concealed thousands of live land mines.
After an hour we reached the new Finnish border and stopped at the first Finnish station. Here everything was suddenly neat and cheerful. A new station building had been erected, simple and of wood, but with a certain distinctive modern touch. The platform was in good repair, and clean. There was a freshly painted kiosk where newspapers were on sale. Food was the only essential not in evidence. But the station was almost deserted. The sky was gray. And everything was a little sad.
Our Russian locomotive retired, leaving our sleeping car, together with two "soft" cars full of Russians bound for the new Soviet naval base at Porkkala, to wait for the Finnish train. We had long to wait. I paced up and down the platform in the wind, a slave to the Anglo-Saxon habit of exercise. The Russians stared vacantly out the windows of their car, and on their faces was written the same stoic emptiness with which Russians stare out of train windows all over their vast, melancholy Russian world.
The sidings were full of freight cars loaded with Finnish goods being shipped to Russia as reparations. Little cars, wheels, and tracks for a narrow-gauge logging railroad, bright with shiny metal and new paint, were carefully stored and lashed on big gondola cars. On others there were piles of clean-sawed lumber, neatly cut and carefully stacked. All these contributions bore the mark of orderly, conscientious Finnish workmanship. I wondered at first whether such offerings did not sometimes rouse pangs of shame among the inhabitants of the great shoddy Russian world into which they were moving. But on second thought I was inclined to doubt this very strongly.
The station platform was almost deserted. A young, lithe Finn, with a knife in his belt, gave side glances of hatred and contempt at the Russian cars as he went about his work as a switchman. Woodsmoke from the little switch engine was torn away by the wind and carried across the clearing, its odor reminiscent of the north woods at home. A Finnish railway man in uniform rode sedately up to the station building, parked his bicycle, and went inside to transact his business. A peasant cart drove up with a family in the back. The family might well be hungry, but the horse was fat and sleek, and trotted with a happy briskness no Russian horse possesses. Over the entire scene there lay the efficiency, the trimness, the quietness, and the boredom of bourgeois civilization; and these qualities smote with triple effect the senses of a traveler long removed from the impressions of a bourgeois environment.
In the summer of 1951, by which time I had completed my Foreign Service career and was already living, as a scholar, in Princeton, the Kennan family made the first of many postwar trips to Kristiansand, Norway, where my parents-in-law resided. They were then installed at their summer home, in the islands some miles from Kristiansand, a place we were later to inherit. These were still the days of ocean liners rather than transoceanic airplanes. On this occasion the liner, one of the fine old Norwegian-American Line ships, proceeded first to Bergen, and thence, with stops at Stavanger and Kristiansand, to Oslo. The first three of those ca/Is were made on the same day.
Norway simply took my breath away—not just, or even primarily, the colors of the mountains and sea and sky, but rather the places where the hand of man had softened and ordered this hard nature: the little docks, the villages at the foot of the rocks, the white cottages, the hay drying on fences around the tiny green pastures, an old stone monastery church on a treeless, rocky island near the sea—stubborn, hard, defiant, braving century after century the long winter bleakness, the gales, the loneliness, the rain and the cold, living the poetry of windswept rock and sky and sea and only that.
Shortly after lunch we were in Stavanger. It was blowing great guns by this time, but still
brilliant sunshine. We docked in what seemed to be the very center of the town. Seen from our high decks, on a level with the rooftops, the little cobblestone quayside street below us looked like a stage setting—everything so compact, so neat, so sedate, yet so full of life: warehouses, offices, stores, all doing business before our eyes; bicyclists, horses and carts, people standing in the sunshine just looking at the great ship above them, piles of cargo on the street at shipside. This was a harbor street as harbor streets were meant to be, teeming with life, with sociability, with the intimacy of ship and shore.
Looking across the slip to the street on the other side, I found myself conscious of the subtle but amazing difference in the form and perspective, and plasticity of objects which still divides the old continent from the new. There were two or three old warehouse buildings on the quay. How they differed from American buildings I cannot say; and yet there was an expressiveness and eloquence and meaning about them, combined with naiveté and simplicity, that simply caused one to gasp. That it could have lain in the dimensions of the buildings themselves I doubt. It was something connected with the entire pattern of shape of quayside, of skyline, of space arrangement. I doubt that any of it was deliberate with, or even a part of consciousness for, those who had created it. Perhaps it does not even have any relation to the present generation.
It was midnight when we reached Kristiansand. In the early nocturnal dawn of the white night we walked over to the motorboat harbor, whence we were to be taken, in the family's boat, out to the archipelago. The red dawn was reflected in the water, as I remember it being reflected from the Dana, at Riga, in other days. A row of little sailboats was silhouetted in it, and the effect was overwhelming.
B. and I were let off at the fisherman's house on the south side of the point, where Annelise and I were to stay, and I left the baggage there. Then for half an hour we stumbled around the paths of the peninsula, trying to find our way to the main house. There was a loveliness about everything that surpassed any memories I had retained: the early dawn, the freshness, the cleanliness of air and land and water, the fragrance of evergreen and rock and grass—a little of Bermuda, a little of Maine, a little of Portugal.
Liberated in 1950 from my official duties in government, I naively thought there would be time for everything, and I accepted commitments in many directions. One of these was for service on the board of trustees of one of our great national foundations, and this brought me to meetings in southern California, where I had scarcely ever been before. Here, one of my first impressions.
The reader might care to bear in mind that of the past twenty four years (that is, since I was twenty-three years old) I had spent only five in the United States. I was seeing my country, consequently, with fresh eyes.
NOVEMBER 4, 1951
I have today that rarest of luxuries: a day of complete leisure, with no obligations, away from home, where not even family or house or neglected grounds can lay claim to attention. I am out here for three days on business and am the guest of a friend whose home, swaddled in gardens, looks down from a hill on the rooftops and foliage of Pasadena. It is strange, and somewhat enervating, after watching the death of the year in the growing austerity of the East Coast autumn, to sit now in a garden, to listen to the chirping of birds and the tinkling of a fountain, to watch the foliage of the eucalyptus trees stirring in a summer breeze, and to feel the warm sunshine on the back of one's neck.
My thoughts are full of this southern California world I see below me and about me. It is easy to ridicule this world, as Aldous Huxley and so many other intellectuals have done—but it is silly, and a form of self-condemnation, to do so. These are ordinary human beings: several million of them. The things that brought them here, and hold them here, are deeply human phenomena—as are the stirrings of anxiety that cause them to be so boastful and defensive about it. Being human phenomena, they are part of ourselves; and when we purport to laugh at them, as though we stood fully outside them, it is we who are the ridiculous ones.
I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids—oil and water—that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of miles—and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth through shopping, education, work, and recreation, even courtship, to the final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use—these things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating them. What disturbs me most is man's abject dependence on this means of transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early starvation, thirst, and extinction.
One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of the helplessness.
But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people, there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again, this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very imperfectly.
Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods and in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects: fun-loving, quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven constantly to protect his status in the group by an eager conformism—yet not unhappy. In this sense southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity—with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it must, it will be—as everywhere among children—the cruelest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development elsewhere.
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.
Berlin again, fifteen years after the war.
JUNE 16–22, 1960
Now, for the first time, one had the impression of a wholly new Berlin, with a quite different arrangement of functions, arising—or, better, superimposed—on the skeleton of the old one, the street pattern being largely unchanged. It was a shock to reflect how much of the old city, particularly the parts of it that had once been so central and so imposing, so seemingly timeless and indestructible—the great teeming business center between Potsdamer Platz and the Friedrichstrasse, and the old residential Tiergartenviertel—had passed utterly into history, so that coming generations, in fact even today's young people, would not even know that these quarters had ever been there, and would be unable to picture them even if told. Five years ago the old Berlin, if only in the form of its ruins and rubble, had still prevailed: the new life had only camped, tentatively and almost apologetically, on what was left of it. Today the new Berlin has taken over. The old one, the scene of such vitality, such pretentions, such horrors and such hopes, is being thrust down into the oblivion of history, before the eyes of those of us who knew it.
On Monday evening I went to the theater, over in the Communist eastern sector of the city, with M. It was the former Theater am Schiffbauerdamm—the theater where, until his recent death, Brecht had directed. The area around the theater, once the very teeming center of this entire city, was now empty, silent, almost deserted. Across the parking plaza and the river loomed the huge corpus of the Friedrichstrasse railway station, once the main station of Berlin, now dark and empty, witness only to the passage of an occasional half-empty elevated train.
The play was a dramatization of Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don -translated, obviously, from the Russian. The acting was good. The house was not full. In the corridors people whispered and glanced furtively at one another. One had suddenly the feeling that we—the actors and the little band of spectators—were the only living people in the great, ruined, and deserted area that stretched for miles around, that we were going through a ceremony of sorts in the midst of this great void, as in a dream, as though some menacing spirit were mocking us, putting us through our paces. Fear-guarded, concealed, nameless fear-presided over the whole performance, and we, the hushed, defensive, haunted audience, were as much a part of the strange spectacle as were the actors.
M. and I sat, in stony silence, in the second row, behind two silent figures in some sort of Communist officer's uniform. Even when the curtain was down, there was not a sound among the audience. A whisper would have been heard all over the hall. It was clear: I was back in Russia—not the Russia of today but Stalin's Russia. The dreadful, furtive spirit that Khrushchev had largely exorcized among his own people had found refuge here in this distant Russian protectorate, and it now presided, like a posthumous curse of the dead Stalin on the "faithless" Germans, over the ruins of the "eastern sector."
The first of the two parts of the play—one and three-quarters hours of the wretchedly primitive ideology of the early Stalin period—was all I could take. We left during the intermission. The square in front of the theater lay empty and barren as we emerged. On the nearby railway station there was a moving band of electric writing: the words of a Tass news program fleeing out of the darkness to the right and disappearing into the darkness at the left; but there was no one but ourselves to read those words, and we had no interest. A street running off the square, narrow like a chasm, between two rows of undestroyed apartment houses, was brilliantly lighted yet utterly empty like the corridor of a prison. One wondered whether the houses behind these frowning façades were real, or whether they were only papier-mâché and the whole thing some evil, mocking trap.
We drove across the bridge and turned left along the river, behind the university, heading toward one of the great squares that fronted on the onetime (now destroyed) Imperial Palace. Suddenly we emerged onto this vast open area from the little park in front of the ruins of the old Zeughaus. We got out of the car, walked out onto the deserted square, and were suddenly overwhelmed—but utterly, profoundly, as I have not been in many years—by what we saw and felt around us.
It was now late twilight—the long-drawn twilight of the northern night. Under the trees it was dark, but the sky was still partly bright. There was a touch of gold in the air. Before us there was only the great square confronting the ruins of the enormous Wilhelminian Romanesque cathedral. The entire area was unbelievably silent and empty. Only one pair of lovers, standing under the trees by the Zeughaus, moved uneasily away at our approach. All about us were the ruins of the great old buildings, semi-silhouetted against the bright sky. And what ruins! In their original state they had seemed slightly imitative and pretentious. Now they suddenly had a grandeur I had never seen even in Rome. We both became aware that this was, somehow, a moment like no other. There was a stillness, a beauty, a sense of infinite, elegiac sadness and timelessness such as I have never experienced. Death, obviously, was near, and in the air: hushed, august, brooding Death—nothing else. Here all the measureless tragedy of the Second World War—the millions of dead, the endless seas of bereavement and sorrow, the extinction of a whole great complex of life and belief and hope—had its perpetuation. So overpowering was the impression that we spoke only in whispers, as though we were in a cathedral, instead of standing in the open, before the ruins of one. Not a soul was now in sight. But no, far up, at the top of the enormous flight of steps leading up to what was left of the cathedral, on the pedestal of one of the huge marble columns, we saw, half-hidden in the shadows, three adolescent boys: motionless, themselves like statues, themselves silent, endlessly alone and abandoned; and their lost, defiant figures burned themselves into my vision to the point where I see them still today—elbows on the knees, chins resting on the palms of hands—the embodiment of man's lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand.
We drove back, in silence, down the dead space of what was once the great Unter den Linden, to the Brandenburger Tor and through the Tiergarten; and when we got back into the bright lights and the busy normality of West Berlin, it all seemed toylike and trivial: an officious little busybody of a civilization, fussy and impermanent. None of it seemed to matter. Neither of us could forget the great awesome ruins, standing so patiently and majestically and sorrowfully, under the night sky, four miles away.
In the summer of 1960 I traveled from Norway to Venice for an international conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Leo Tolstoy.
The Tolstoy conference took place on the Island of St. George, just across the channel from the Piazza, off the mouth of the Grand Canal. The island is taken up mostly by the monastery of the same name, now owned by an Italian foundation, which has restored the whole place. The monastery, built partly by Palladio, is Italian Renaissance at its best: severe, spacious, rigidly symmetrical, very serene.
We were a motley band who assembled in the old refectory, under the great Tintoretto, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Tolstoy's death by giving voice to reflections about his life and work: Italian professors and the writer Silone; several Indians, wearing the homespun cloth that Gandhi taught them to wear; the Spaniard Madariaga; Madame de Proyart, the translator of Pasternak; an old French beekeeper who in his youth had known Tolstoy, who was a "follower," and who looked like Maxim Gorky; from England, Lord David Cecil and Sir Isaiah Berlin, and also a very brilliant lady don from Cambridge and her don husband; three Soviet Russians, accompanied by an interpreter whom everybody took for the police escort; several members of the Tolstoy family, from Paris (all grandchildren); my friend Nicholas Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin) with his eighty-four-year-old uncle, also from Paris; a young Polish Jew who had been for six years in Soviet prisons and concentration camps; and from the American side John Dos Passos; Professor Ernest Simmons, Tolstoy's biographer; Marc Slonim, a left-wing émigré and literary critic, from New York; and myself.
The Russians were an interesting group: aside from the soft-eyed little interpreter, there were Professor Ermilov, of the University of Moscow, a Party-line critic and the veteran of innumerable literary-political intrigues, a man whose owl-like head was sunk down between his shoulders, as though for protection, giving him also something of the air of a turtle; Markov, the new secretary of the Writers' Union, reserved and suave; and old Professor Gudziya, editor of the new, complete ninety-volume edition of Tolstoy's works that the Soviet government is now publishing, and an unregenerated representative of the old regime, untouched by the forty-year episode of communism that he has so miraculously survived, a man full of sardonic humor and natural human feeling.
For three and a half days we chewed over Tolstoy: hailing his artistic greatness; deploring or defending, according to our respective temperaments, his philosophic and religious speculations. In general, we kept off East-West differences. On the last day we were all happily and miraculously united by the presentation made by one of the Tolstoy grandsons, a youngish doctor from Paris, a man of such gentleness and innocence of character that he reminded me of Dostoevski's "prince" in The Idiot. For nearly an hour he talked, quite simply, about the family, and did it in so disarming a manner that he held us all, Soviet Russians and foreigners alike, in a state of sympathetic and respectful attention. It was at this moment that I realized that the figure of the old Tolstoy himself, with his enormous literary and moral authority, was one of the few images imposing enough to bridge even the overriding ideological conflict of our day. Neither side could afford to disown him; both of us had to do our obeisance to him and claim him for our own-a sure sign that there were things in life more fundamental than the differences between communism and capitalism.
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.
Commencement at a large American university.
MAY 8, 1977
Sunday morning in a wretched motel, waiting for the commencement ceremonies. The motel barricaded like a fortress against the fresh air and sunshine of the spring morning. Not a window open. Everything locked up tight, the air-conditioners roaring incessantly. Unventilated corridors, smelling of stale tobacco. An overcrowded cafeteria, with sloppy service. And through the sealed-up windows, a scene of asphalted desolation such as only the American developer, given his head, can produce: a Ford dealer's enormous headquarters, lying amid its parking lots like an island in a sea; warehouses; factory chimneys; tall buildings in the distance; a bank, empty, still, and similarly barricaded by vast empty parking lots; sloping sides of turnpike elevations; but not a tree, not a pedestrian, not a sign of actual life except, here and there, a moving car, its occupant likewise walled off against nature in his own tiny, lonely, air-conditioned world. Not a touch of community; not a touch of sociability. Only the endless whirring and roaring of the air-conditioners, the wild wasting of energy, the ubiquitous television set, the massive bundle of advertising pulp that masquerades under the name of a Sunday newspaper. All unnatural; all experience vicarious; all activity passive and uncreative. And this wasteland extending, like a desert, miles and miles in every direction. A fine end of the world we have created in the American city.
Later. The commencement is over. Matters of memory, now, are the chance introductions in the robing room; the smell of the gymnasium—right out of St. John's Military Academy (1917-1921) and Princeton (1921-1925); the hot, sun-baked stadium; the yelling, whistling students; the dreadful list of doctoral dissertation topics in the program ("A Comparison of the Academic Achievement of Sophomores Living in University Residence Halls With That of Sophomores Living Off-Campus in Selected State Universities"); the inevitable appeal to come and teach ("We hoped we could get you here"); the empty student faces.
And yet, and yet: the vitality of these places; the truly superior faculty; the magnificent library; the unflagging belief in the country; also, the many people who have read my books and speak kindly to me about them. Truly, this country whipsaws you.
The official personality was, as it seems, always the enemy of the personal one, so that the years as ambassador to Belgrade (1961-1963) were devoid of such observations of the local scene as would fit into these pages. But these Belgrade years left warm friendships, and returns to that city in later years were vivid experiences, replete with memories.
MARCH 28 1982
AVALA, NEAR BELGRADE
Today, with Saleh (The embassy chauffeur of earlier years) driving, we were taken out, as Maria A.'s guests, to the restaurant on the road to Avala where several years ago we had spent a memorable and hilarious evening with the J. 's. On the way we stopped first to see the beautiful new park just across the Sava, where that great river joins the Danube. Then we went on to the similar place at Topcider. The weather was magnificent: the first fine warm spring day. Everywhere people were out enjoying the advent of spring: children playing, people strolling and sitting on benches, balls being kicked around, lovers caressing—all wonderfully informal, natural, unselfconscious. This obviously is one of the rare happy times Serbia has known.
At the restaurant there was a similar milling-around of people. I was recognized, embraced, and kissed by the majordomo. We sat outside on the terrace, in the sun. Next to us we discovered, to our surprise, a whole company of American officers—this year's members of the National War College, as it turned out, on a tour of Europe. These insisted that I, as an erstwhile (in fact, the first) "deputy for foreign affairs" at that institution, be photographed together with them (something that would, I am sure, have been greeted with stupefaction by the present Secretary of Defense had he known of it). Plum brandy was brought, and marvelous freshly baked bread, as fine as any that could be found anywhere in the world. There followed wine from the grapes of the premises, and course after course of Serbian meats.
A young boy, detaching himself from a large family party at a nearby table, came over and interrogated us sternly, in his schoolboy English, on our provenance and status, running back repeatedly to report the results to the whole family.
The sun shone benevolently. To both sides of us the land fell off, and there was a wide view—on one side off to the lovely hills of Sumadija, on the other out onto the great plains of the valley of the Sava. It was a good moment.
In the autumn of 1984 there was a visit to friends living on the Italian island of Ischia, where I had never previously been.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1984
Annelise and I walked down to the center of the village this morning to change money. Traffic, at this time of day, was permitted on the main street, so that in addition to the normal human hubbub there were cars and motorcycles trying to push their way through the crowds. This obviously involved dangers and what in other human climates would have been experienced as annoyances. But here it all seemed to be cheerfully accepted.
The bank was closed, but we, having been properly briefed by our hosts before departure, found a tiny, incredibly cramped and crowded little one-room grocery store, where the patron, after running across the street to check the rate at the window of the bank, performed the transaction for us with great good humor, and sent us on our way.
We pushed our way to the place where the street ended in a sort of promontory, from which one could look down from three sides onto the sea. A stiff wind was blowing in from the west, the heavy seas thundering and disintegrating on the rocks and seawall below us. The center of the promontory was occupied by a seventeenth-century church—la Chiesa del Soccorso—dedicated to the Virgin in her capacity as the one who aids seafarers in extremity. The church stood facing the village, its apse raised like a protection against the sea. Inside, the image of the protecting Virgin was there, above the altar—on one arm the Christ Child, the other brandishing what appeared to be some sort of a club. One of her feet was planted firmly on a prostrate male figure whose identity I could only imagine, while at her side, by the other foot, stood the figure of another child, apparently a boy, whose identity I could not imagine at all.
I thought on the way back of the qualities of this very Italian place: the incongruous mixture of tolerance, naiveté, overcrowding, sociability, family solidarity, localism, acceptance of modernism in its most hideous forms and yet some sort of an inner self-defense against it—life led, in short, in the small dimension, full of pettiness, no doubt, and not without its small cruelties and injustices, but borne along by the broad, wise, disillusioned charity of the Catholic Church, by the comforting familiarities of family life, and by the unvarying, reassuring support of the Christian sacraments. And I thought: So long as it lasts, imperfect as it is, all this perhaps is not the worst of worlds, and perhaps is even the best that one could hope for—a messy life, full of dirt, overcrowding, confusion, and disorder, but with its failings, like its possibilities, limited by the intimacy of its localistic orientation; and all of it, at least in the personal sense, intensely human. Better, in any case, than the great, highly developed, impersonal modern societies, with their lordly ambitions, their nuclear weapons, and their vast, technologically advanced abuse of the natural environment.
"Little" is of course not always beautiful—that is an exaggeration. It is also not wildly hopeful. But it is also not monstrously destructive. And it at least allows for those occasional wonderful outbursts of the human capacity for creating beauty, such as the Renaissance, that have accounted for so much of the beauty that still surrounds us in this place. So I must not, I thought, hold this littleness in disrespect.
DECEMBER 9, 1987
I have been back in Washington for these past three days—not my Washington, of course, but let us say the Washington that might have appeared to anyone else who was born in 1904, had seen something of that city in the days of his maturity, had then died at a normal age, but had been permitted, by some extraordinary indulgence of Providence, to be resurrected from the dead and to revisit this scene, together with others, of his brief passage across the face of history.
I on this occasion found the city cowering under a faint, cold December sunshine, but roaring more than ever with surface and airplane traffic; and I viewed it, resurrected as I was from the past, with a slight shudder, and an offer of thanks to Providence that I was absolved from contributing further to its active life.
Ten days ago I reiterated in these notes my periodic complaints about the endless series of visits I seemed to have to make, for one reason or another, outside Princeton; and I described them as "empty formality: nothing accomplished, nothing to show for it." Today's events—or one of them, at least—put those self-pitying words in their place as the overdramatization they were.
These events were connected with the historic visit to Washington of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. The first of them contained, to be sure, no surprises. It was a great luncheon tendered by Secretary of State and Mrs. Shultz for Gorbachev and his wife—an affair (as we used to say in the old diplomatic service) of some two hundred and fifty "plates." I shall not go into the political aspects of this affair or the speeches given by the principals; all that will take its place in the overabundant historical record, to enjoy there the privacy of a deep oblivion. I recall only that we waited an interminable time for those principals to make their appearance, and that I sat next to a lady from somewhere in the Southwest, the wife of some prominent politician, I believe, whose ignorance of my identity was as great as mine of hers and, since neither of us was particularly interested in enlightening the other on this matter, remained that way to the end.
The afternoon appointment was another matter. It was a reception for Gorbachev at the Soviet embassy, to which I, in company with one or two hundred other Americans, had been invited by the Russians. (How these persons were chosen by the Soviet hosts I do not know. The press, always anxious to make a story out of it, alleged afterward that we were "the intellectuals," although I saw there a number of eminent Republicans, including a couple of former Secretaries of State, who would probably resent being thus described—and in some instances perhaps not without reason.)
The function took place at the Russian embassy building on Sixteenth Street, right next to what was once the Racquet Club, where I sometimes went to swim on the dark winter afternoons of 1926. After penetrating the successive lines of security guards deployed for several blocks around the place, we guests had our credentials carefully but politely examined at the entrance to the building and were then taken upstairs and shown into a large and beautiful chamber, of ballroom ambiance, already densely packed with people.
Remembering my wife's admonitions not to stand uncomfortably in the background as I normally do on such occasions but to insist on meeting the guest of honor and adding my particular set of banalities to the others he was condemned to endure, I decided to make the effort. So I pushed through the crowd and eventually squeezed myself into the small circle of photographers, journalists, and other pushy guests surrounding the distinguished visitor. The latter, whom I was meeting for the first time, appeared to recognize me, and amazed me by throwing out his arms and treating me to what has now become the standard statesman's embrace. Then, still holding on to my elbows, he looked me seriously in the eye and said: "Mr. Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you."
I cannot recall what I said in response to this statement. Whatever it was, it was wholly inadequate.
We soon moved to another room, filled with small tables. Gorbachev, seated at one of these tables, delivered himself of a lengthy (too lengthy for American tastes, short by Russian standards) impromptu address. The table to which I was assigned included, as I recall it, Ken Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, and a lady of most striking appearance, who chain-smoked Danish cigars and appeared to be rather bored with the whole performance. I was later told that I should have recognized her—as the widow of a famous rock singer.
My ears failed me badly during Gorbachev's long talk, and I amused myself by fidgeting with the earphones and trying to figure out which was harder to catch: the speaker's Russian or the plodding artificialities of the simultaneous translation. But actually, I could not concentrate on what he was saying. His words to me still rang in my ears. And as I reflected on them, the whole sixty years of my involvement with Soviet affairs (which included, at one point, being banned from Russia as an "enemy of the Soviet people") revolved before the mind's eye; and I could think of no better conclusion to this entire chapter of activity—at least none from the Soviet side—than this extraordinarily gracious and tactful statement, worthy, when you think of it, of the finest standards of royal courtesy. I reflected that if you cannot have this sort of recognition from your own government to mark the end of your involvement in such a relationship, it is nice to have it at least from the onetime adversary.
LATE SEPTEMBER, 1988
I am startled, as I look the bleakness of the impressions of my own country. A reader might think that I saw in it only ugliness, vulgarity, and deterioration. I am sorry about this. Had I not had my own sort of love for the place, these imperfections on its surface would not have hit me so hard or found such abundant record in these scribblings.
I am not oblivious of the fact that the United States of 1988-1989 has its glorious sides. But these seem to me to lie primarily in two areas: in the magnificence of those purely natural beauties that have not yet fallen victim to commercial development; and then in the personalities of many fellow citizens I have been privileged to know. But natural beauty alone without the human element, much as it may offer for admiration and wonder, offers nothing for interpretation and makes poor subject matter for the traveling diarist, as it does for the artist. And as for the people: yes—many have engaged my admiration, along with a considerable number who have engaged the opposite. But to depict them individually is the task of the novelist, not of the traveler—and particularly not of the traveler moving through regions where he has no personal acquaintances at all and where he sees, for the most part, only masses of anonymous figures with whom he has no possibility of interacting.
I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources that it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality. For this intelligentsia the dominant political forces of the country have little understanding or regard. Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the nineteenth century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of its nation's life. If love of country includes this sort of concern for its future, then I, too, love this particular country, and am a part of it.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.