book cover imageGeorge Kennan: A Writing Life
by Lee Congdon
ISI Books (Wilmington, DE)
xii + 208 pp., $25.00 cloth, 2008

If American history textbooks manage to find any space at all for George Kennan, they typically mention him as author of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and as chief architect of containment. To be sure, Kennan’s article, published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, deserves its reputation as a landmark document of the Cold War. Seemingly overnight, it made Kennan’s career. But the expert on Soviet affairs regretted almost immediately the linkbetween himself and the oversimplification of his views that hardened into containment orthodoxy under Harry Truman and later presidents. Far from a Cold Warrior, Kennan criticized the Truman Doctrine when he first read it. He went on to reject the fashionable but narrowly conceived anti-communism that gripped the nation, to oppose the hard line taken against the Soviets in the early years of the Reagan administration, and to call for a generous policy toward the Russians the moment the communist regime fell in 1991. His balanced perspective, formed through years of experience in the Foreign Service and shaped by a careful study of history, counseled a selective and nuanced approach to diplomacy that Kennan believed all too rare among career policymakers in the twentieth century.

But even well-read students of the Cold War who know the subtleties of Kennan’s diplomacy might not be aware of the private man of letters who devoted far more of his long life to writing and scholarship than to service in the State Department. Recently, John Lukacs paid tribute to his friend’s larger achievement in George Kennan: A Study in Character. Now, in what makes a fine companion volume to Lukacs’s book, Lee Congdon offers George Kennan: A Writing Life. Congdon, Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison University, goes so far as to say that the craft of writing was Kennan’s “true calling.” Indeed, Congdon believes he has found the “real George Kennan” in the writer and not in the diplomat. By delving into Kennan’s literary imagination, he brings to public view, perhaps for the first time for many readers, a Kennan of remarkable intellectual depth and eloquence.

Congdon’s sympathetic reading of Kennan’s letters, diaries, memoirs, and scholarship reveals a lonely man estranged from his time and place. Congdon places the public world of politics and foreign affairs in the background of the story to allow Kennan’s private, interior world to emerge. The result is a persuasive account of a sensitive, melancholic, and highly literate man whose detachment gave him the ability to see uncomfortable truths about America and the world that others might overlook or choose to ignore. Kennan was more at home with the civilization of eighteenth-century Europe than with his native America. Indeed, his Old World, aristocratic temperament made him a reactionary who echoed other American dissident voices such as the southern Agrarians.

Kennan’s detachment led in several instances to profound alienation from what the United States had become in the modern age. There was little room in his realist temperament for extravagant claims about American exceptionalism. No nation could escape history. Despite its pretensions, America faced the same limits to power as any other nation past or present. Standing within the realist tradition, Kennan took the world as he found it, affirmed the primacy of national interests in the conduct of foreign affairs, and favored balance-of-power politics over Wilsonian dreams of multilateral cooperation and global meliorism. He rejected any policy prescriptions that committed the United States to grand strategies while failing to take into account actual circumstances and the shifting demands of national security. He continued to warn against foreign policy doctrines well into the 1990s.

His attraction, by temperament and choice, to the eighteenth-century world of Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke only intensified his estrangement from America and the modern world at large. His life spanned a century of horrors. He witnessed total war, utopian revolutions, and the ugly face of populist nationalism. In Europe he saw firsthand the costs of war, especially after the Second World War. The Allies’ indiscriminate bombing of civilians and of irreplaceable architectural treasures filled him with dismay. In his judgment, the pursuit of unconditional surrender and total victory as war aims needlessly prolonged conflict and escalated violence. Wars fought for national interests could be stopped once those limited objectives were reached. But wars to end war guaranteed more of the very violence and suffering they sought to eliminate. In short, idealism exacted a terrible price on civilization.

Of particular concern to Kennan, Congdon rightly notes, was America’s “universalistic and messianic pretensions.” These illusions obscured how the world really works, including what truly motivates a modern empire on the scale of the United States and what policies best serve the national interest. Kennan’s reading of the particularities of historical circumstances led him to reject efforts to spread the American way of life. America’s institutions were historically unique, and “any attempt on our part to recommend [them] to others must come perilously close to the messianic tendencies of those militant political ideologies which say, in effect, ‘You should believe because we believe.’” Kennan’s America was not more wicked than other nations, but it was still part of a fallen world and needed to set its own house in order before preaching to others. These insights, Congdon believes, lay at the heart of Kennan’s realism. “For Kennan,” he writes, “realism mandated moderation, a sense of proportion, and a recognition of limits.” Indeed, these qualities of mind and character were necessary not only for foreign policy but also for the individual and for the health of the nation’s culture.

It is not surprising then that Kennan paired this realism in foreign policy with an increasingly dark view of America civilization. He saw signs of decline everywhere. In particular, Congdon highlights Kennan’s fear of the emergence of mass man and vulgar mass democracy; the hyper-individualism that broke apart communities; the industrialization and urbanization that destroyed the family farm and agrarian values; the mechanization of life brought by the automobile; the strain of unchecked immigration; and the rise of drug use, crime, and pornography. Most of these problems seemed to involve the question of scale. With this key point in mind, Kennan warned in the 1960s “that our country is too large for its own good. Great countries . . . are a menace to themselves and everyone else. People are not meant to live in such vast, impersonal political communities.”

Congdon stresses repeatedly that Kennan sought to achieve self-knowledge and self-understanding through his reading and writing. Whether he achieved that—and Congdon believes he failed—his labors among his books nevertheless gave him the capacity to ask the unfashionable questions that might still lead America to self-knowledge and self-understanding. Total war, the enmassment of society, and the limits of power are even more pressing issues today than when Kennan first began to keep a diary and contemplate a literary career in the 1920s. If these questions remain unfamiliar to most Americans, if Kennan truly was “a prophet without honor,” as Congdon calls him, then the fault is ours and not Kennan’s. Hopefully Congdon’s important book will introduce Kennan to a new generation of thoughtful readers with the courage to ask the hardest questions about America’s recent past and its trajectory in the future.

Richard M. Gamble is Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Professor of History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. He is the author of The War for Righteousness: The Progressive Clergy, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (ISI Books, 2003) and editor of The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being (ISI Books, 2007).