Book review: ‘The Kennan Diaries’ by George Kennan, edited by Frank Costigliola

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and a CBS News historian. His books include “Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71” and “The Reagan Diaries.”

When I was a graduate student at Georgetown University in the 1980s, studying U.S. diplomatic history, George F. Kennan was the high priest of Cold War thinking. Dubbed the “father of containment” because of his authorship of the 5,540-word “Long Telegram” (sent in 1946 from Moscow) and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (a 1947 Foreign Affairs article), he was revered by academics as a Chekhov-loving adviser to President Harry Truman, Sovietologist par excellence, old-fashioned diplomat, public philosopher, foreign policy sage and brilliant historian who never wrote in stale bureaucratese.

No matter which professional hat he wore, Kennan possessed, in his own words, a “consuming curiosity about all things Russian.” Straddling the worlds of academia and government with superhuman grace, he was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (both twice). One simply cannot understand the Cold War without Kennan’s sui generis insights about the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. When a colleague of Dean Acheson’s said that Truman should hire “a man like Kennan” for a key State Department job, the then-assistant secretary at Foggy Bottom snapped incredulously: “A man like Kennan? There’s nobody like Kennan.”

(W. W. Norton) - ‘The Kennan Diaries’ by George F. Kennan and Frank Costigliola

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Acheson was spot on. Only once every couple of generations does the American system produce a diplomatic soothsayer with the prescience of Henry Adams and the strategic wherewithal of George Marshall. So the publication of “The Kennan Diaries” is a major event. University of Connecticut historian Frank Costigliola has ably culled Kennan’s herculean, 20,000-page private diary (which he kept for 88 years and which is now housed at Princeton University’s Mudd Library) into an erudite, reader-friendly volume. “The Kennan Diaries,” as edited, reveals some of the inner workings and self-doubts of Mr. Containment. Kennan’s real-time entries about the Foreign Service, the Marshall Plan, German reunification, the Japanese Peace Treaty, the Vietnam War and NATO expansion are eye-opening and at times bracing.

Because his advice wasn’t often heeded by U.S. government offices, he used his diary to keep counsel with future generations. “The deepest source of my sense of frustration is that I know my own insights and ideas in the political field to have been largely right — more right than anyone else I know, over these past years,” Kennan wrote in August 1960. “Yet they were listened to only with a detached, amused interest because I stated them engagingly. They have not been used, nor taken seriously — either by the government or (in the U.S.) by public opinion.”

In his epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University states that a certain Kennan diary entry “demands discount.” Gaddis’s case in point was Kennan’s fantasy that President Ronald Reagan, in a hypothetical White House one-on-one with him, would question his patriotism. Kennan hoped — in the event that this should come to pass — he would tell Reagan that he loved America before hyper-industrialization made “a wasteland, a garbage dump, a sewer out of it.” Gaddis astutely surmises, “Reagan, always a gentleman, would never have asked so pointed a question, and Kennan, equally polite, would never have given such a harsh answer.”

Great merits aside, “The Kennan Diaries” should come with a warning label: Beware of enough gloomy prognostications to give the book of Revelation a run for its money. As a philosopher, Kennan is a gold-plated Cassandra. Moreover, on a number of occasions, he espouses views that are homophobic and pro-eugenics. “Nothing good can come out of modern civilization, in the broad sense,” he writes of his dissatisfaction with life in a 1932 entry. “We have only a group of more or less inferior races, incapable of coping adequately with the environment which technical progress has created. . . . This situation is essentially a biological one. No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and preserve their young.”

Although Kennan was born in 1904 in blue-collar Milwaukee, after his graduation from Princeton he came to epitomize the WASP elite (now known as the Eastern Establishment). While his erudite entries from his stints in government — director of policy planning at the State Department (1947-50), ambassador to the Soviet Union (1952) and ambassador to Yugoslavia (1961-63) — are the most historically significant, the juiciest tidbits emerge from his ivory-tower bench in Princeton. Only Kennan, the contrarian, could find an upside to the Soviet nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, deeming it a “great blessing” because it had the potential to end the folly of nuclear weaponry once and for all.

Disdainful of automobiles and the Californication of America, full of loathing for strip malls and traffic jams, he reveals his preference for sailing above all else. “I turn my back, figuratively, on the land and keep my eyes fixed on the horizon of the sea — the abused, raped sea, deprived of its dignity and its mystery by the ubiquitous oil rigs, the monstrous thundering automobile ferries, the airplanes over head, the pipelines underneath.”

While Kennan should be beloved by Henry Wallace-George McGovern liberals for preaching his views on the limits of American interventionism, his support of apartheid and his antiquated opinions on women’s rights make it impossible for him to be a true hero to the left. The Reagan right, of course, will turn red with rage at Kennan’s siding occasionally with the Soviet Union. “The two superpowers are incapable of composing their differences and putting an end to the arms race, or even mitigating its extent,” Kennan writes in July 1986. “For this, I put by far the greater part of the blame on the United States.”

While Kennan considered Mikhail Gorbachev a “remarkable man, so remarkable as to be inexplicable in terms of his own professional background,” he derided Reagan as a war hawk brimming with “inadequacies.” (Kennan admits, however, that Reagan was a lucky foreign policy president.)

Much of Kennan’s vitriol is directed toward the scholars and reporters who pricked him throughout his career. He wrongfully slams Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, co-authors of “The Wise Men” — the 1986 group biography of Eastern Establishment players — for writing an often “dreadful book . . . shallow, gossipy, supercilious.” Of course, what Kennan really objected to about “The Wise Men” was being portrayed, in his own hyperbolic words, as a “plaintive neurasthenic and a bad writer in the bargain, the author of masses of ‘florid’ and pretentious prose which bored all those to whom it was submitted.”

Surprisingly, Kennan declares his sometimes-nemesis Acheson a “man of honor in the highest degree.” But he also fingers Acheson’s chief limitation at Foggy Bottom: viewing everything from a legal perspective. After Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused the famous China hands of the Truman years of being communist sympathizers, Acheson — their boss — failed to properly rush to their defense. “He could see no obligation on the part of the State Department or the Secretary of State, personally, to defend them,” Kennan laments. “There were laws and courts, were there not?”

Just how linked Acheson and Kennan are in Cold War history shines forth in the diaries. Kennan believed himself the intellectual superior. In July 1951, when Acheson told Kennan that Truman was considering him for the position of ambassador to the Soviet Union, the dispassionate containment guru shrugged. “It is reasonable that I should look forward with a sense of relief to the prospect of again being an ambassador,” Kennan wrote, nose upturned. “It is just about the only profession one can have these days in which nothing, but really nothing, is either expected or required of you.”

Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Rice University and a CBS News historian. His books include “Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71” and “The Reagan Diaries.”

THE KENNAN DIARIES

By George F. Kennan

Edited by Frank Costigliola

Norton. 712 pp. $39.95

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