Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A policy shaper's analyses, regrets

"The Kennan Diaries" by George F. Kennan,edited by Frank Costigliola. From the book jacket
"The Kennan Diaries" by George F. Kennan,edited by Frank Costigliola. From the book jacket

The Kennan Diaries

By George F. Kennan

Edited by Frank Costigliola

W.W. Norton. 712 pp. $39.95

Reviewed by Edward A. Turzanski


Sixty-eight years ago, George F. Kennan sent his "Long Telegram" (5,363 words) from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to Washington, explaining the motivation behind Soviet expansionism.

The following year, he anonymously wrote what is arguably the most influential article in U.S. foreign policy history: "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" by "X" (Foreign Policy, July 1947).

Taken together, these analytical pieces shaped the remarkably consistent way in which American presidents of both parties acted to "contain" the Soviet threat for nearly half a century. And Kennan often came to regret it.

In The Kennan Diaries, Frank Costigliola provides a valuable insight into why and how Kennan thought his ideas on containment were misapplied, along with a detailed look at the many, complex aspects of the man - all in his own words. The task was much more formidable than might be imagined.

Costigliola had to work through a staggering volume of material: 20,000 pages of diary entries covering 88 of Kennan's 101 years of life, along with 330 boxes and 136 line-feet of other materials.

Distilling this mass of documentation into a still prodigious work of nearly 680 pages was made all the more difficult by the personal peculiarities of his subject. Kennan's first-rate mind hosted an equally vibrant libido (in the introduction, Costigliola warns the reader: "the inescapable dilemma of creativity-through-sexual-freedom versus dullness-from-responsible-monogamy runs like a red thread through much of the journal." and "Kennan takes us through a . . . series of affairs, flirtations, and fantasies."). Kennan, though liberal in his euphemistic and somewhat coded discussion of personal indiscretions, also offers a clear guide of what to expect on matters of public interest: "I tended to write diaries when I was depressed, and not when I was not."

While at the absolute height of influence as Secretary of State George Marshall's head of policy planning in 1946 and '47, Kennan made hardly any journal entries (in 1946, five pages of notes on a book, Atomic Power and the New World Order, edited by Bernard Brodie; and in 1947, only a 14-line poem, written while on his way back to the United States from a trip to Paris.) By contrast, the entries for 1952 are considerable and they show him at one of his lowest points, having been declared persona non grata and expelled from the Soviet Union while serving as U.S. ambassador. The entry for Sept. 29, 1952, is especially illuminating. Kennan felt a helplessness that bordered on despair because both Soviet and U.S. policymakers could not or refused to see that their actions were placing both countries on a path to nuclear war. Though war did not come, Kennan continued to caution against miscalculation of motives and capabilities on both sides of the Iron Curtain for the remainder of the Cold War - more so on the part of Washington.

One of the more routine (and biting) criticisms of Foreign Service officers is to accuse them of "going native" (being more sympathetic to the views of their hosts than to their home country). Kennan invites the observation by noting "my Russian self [was] much more genuine than the American one." But a comprehensive and careful reading of the Diaries illustrates that Kennan's affection for the Russian people, nurtured from an early age by the example of his grandfather's cousin, George Kennan, a self-taught expert on tsarist Russia, was a complement to, rather than a substitute for, his love of America.

Though he wanted a better life for the long-suffering Russian populace, he also wanted America "to tackle its domestic problems with 'improve[d] self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit.' " And he desperately wanted America to avoid the needless waging of war, whether in Vietnam, or Somalia, or Iraq. A December 1992 entry is instructive: "The television screen is showing live pictures of the Marines going ashore, in the grey dawn of another African day, in Somalia . . . . I regard this move as a dreadful error of American policy; and I think that in justice to myself I should set down at this point, if only for the diary, my reasons for this view . . . ." And so he does.

Kennan intended that the Diaries serve as a guide to and justification for his views on American foreign policy and America's place in the world, and they do so in an intellectually and literarily compelling fashion (Mary Bundy, daughter of Secretary of State Dean Acheson and a friend of the Kennans', observed that the "seductiveness" of Kennan's prose "excites people all the more in the ideas.") Costigliola has done a service to policy-makers and students of foreign policy and history by organizing this rich trove of wisdom and experience from one of the greatest minds in the history of U.S. foreign affairs.


Edward A. Turzanski is the John Templeton Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Scholar-in-Residence at La Salle University.

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