From his Wisconsin high schoolyearbook -- where his entry lists his pet peeve as "The Universe" -- to his elegant if sometimes morose memoirs, Kennan has never shied from describing his alienation from and unhappiness with the modern world. On various occasions, he has called himself "an expatriate in time" and even "an 18th-century person" stranded in a very different age.
The "realities of American foreign policy" (a term Kennan used frequently) dictated cutting American losses in Vietnam, seeking nuclear disarmament, and working to reverse environmental degradation -- policies he defended strictly in terms of national interests. Within a decade after devising containment, Kennan denied paternity for it, saying it relied too heavily on armaments (especially nuclear ones) and not enough on diplomacy. Kennan was a more of a Cold Warrior than a warrior.
"I sometimes wonder whether . . . democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin . . . He is slow to wrath -- in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat."
"A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct and dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain situation then prevailing, and as a response to it."
George Kennan's only real failure has been his failure to understand that he has been struggling against his natural ambition to be Kissinger. But only Kissinger can be Kissinger, as only Rostow is Rostow. There is a coarseness there, a lack of moral imagination, that George Kennan does not suffer from. What he does suffer is the fatality of wanting to be nothing but an insider—while thinking like an outsider. Which is why he writes and writes. And can be read.
For all its limitations, this is an important book, both as diplomatic history and as intellectual biography. These memoirs are more than a recollection of a distinguished, if disappointing, career in diplomacy. More than an explanation of how the embassy in Moscow is run, or what the author thought of Averell Harriman and Dean Acheson, or how the Russians took over Eastern Europe. They are about a man as much as about a time: a man of intelligence and integrity whose effectiveness was hobbled by insecurity, intellectual arrogance, and a tendency toward selfpity. A man who counsels the virtues of being, like himself, "a guest of one's time and not a member of its household"; who was "concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it"; who recognized "that I stood temperamentally outside the passions of war—and always would"; ...
Forever giving warnings that went unheeded and penning diplomatic dispatches that remained unread, Kennan shows himself in these memoirs as one who struggled to protect the interests of the United States in distant lands, yet who became increasingly estranged from his own compatriots. His book is an effort at self-analysis—a thinly-disguised confessional. What he reveals is not always flattering, but it offers a fascinating insight into a career which fell short of what it might have been, and suggests why this may have been the case.
Kennan is perhaps the most impressive figure ever to have emerged from the shadowy labyrinth of the American diplomatic establishment. His quarter-century in the Foreign Service was marked by loneliness and frustration, by dubious triumphs, and finally by the taste of ashes. These memoirs end with his departure from the Foreign Service, and with his frustration when he felt that he would never be able to translate his views into policy. By 1950 he decided that his usefulness was at an end, and, as he left the State Department to begin his second career as an historian at Princeton, he wondered, speaking of himself and his friend Chip Bohlen, "Whether the day had not passed when the government had use for the qualities of persons like ourselves—for the effort at cool and rational analysis in the unfirm substance of the imponderables."
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