For more than half a century, the diplomatic dispatches and political and historical writings of George F. Kennan have enriched and enlivened American public debates and our intellectual and academic scenes. Often Kennan’s iconoclastic views on world affairs have annoyed and exasperated conventional thinkers and ideologues of either the left or the right. But it is difficult to name another American writer who has been so intellectually stimulating over such a long period, and who has commanded such constant attention on the great problems of the nuclear age.
Now a different side to Kennan emerges in this, his 18th book, “Sketches From a Life,” a collection of diary excerpts and miscellaneous notebook writings from his earliest days in the U. S. Foreign Service as a vice consul in Hamburg in 1927. Here is Kennan the vivid travel writer and observer of humanity--a kind of diplomatic leg-man reporter turning up in places barely marked on maps, brimming over with wonderfully colorful and sensitive descriptions, coupled with acute, discerning and frequently caustic pictures of his fellow man.
Even if this is not a travel book per se, Kennan takes the reader along on a lifetime of travel that is little short of phenomenal, and he is a constantly stimulating and provocative escort-in-writing wherever he goes. He has lived on diplomatic assignments in Hamburg, Geneva, Berlin under Hitler, Riga, Prague, Moscow under Stalin, Lisbon and London during World War II, and of course in Washington, and he has a summer home in Kristiansand in southern Norway. But gifted in four or five languages and with an insatiable love of trains, boats, bicycles and long walks, he goes ceaselessly to places like Voskrensk because Chekhov once lived there, Baku, Yalta, Baghdad, Helsinki, Cairo, Mexico City, Marrakech, Beijing, Oxford, Bergen, Hangchow, Munich, Leningrad, Ischia, Hong Kong, Vienna, Florence, Tokyo, Tehran, Stockholm and on and on and on. Of course he has crisscrossed America from Princeton, N. J., his home, to Pasadena.
Kennan says that early on he learned that “there was nothing wholly meaningless in life, that in all scenes observed in remote places, and hence with the freshness of a first impression, there was quite literally more than met the eye, a deeper reality seldom visible on the surface, but there to be sensed.”
He also records, keeping a sketchbook with him and frequently settling down to draw a landscape or a little harbor or an ancient ruin. If these sketches are so vivid as his fluid and elegant prose, then he could probably fill an art gallery as well.
But at each stop along the way in Kennan’s constant travelogue there are people to be observed--and nothing is casual or superficial. The tone is mordantly critical and often acidulous. At best he is sadly sympathetic with his fellow man, but more often there is a sense of bitter effrontery, deep disappointment, moral indignation and intellectual outrage.
Citizens of foreign lands get off more lightly in Kennan’s observations than do his fellow Americans, from whom he seems to expect more and therefore finds himself more continuously irritated, disappointed and incensed. These are not diaries of the heart, of personal introspection or self-examination, but in his observations Kennan reveals himself as a kind of 19th-Century figure continuously saddened and lonely in the turmoil and waste and mindless profligate decay and deterioration of the way of life in the 20th Century.
In an epilogue written after preparing and editing his diaries, Kennan acknowledges that “I am startled to note the bleakness of the impressions of my own country,” but remorselessly he continues:
“I view the United States of these last years of the 20th Century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources which it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality of which 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 19th Century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of a nation’s life.”
The other side of George Kennan--shaper of U.S. foreign policy in the crucial postwar years from 1945 to 1950--is examined by Anders Stephanson, a Swedish university scholar with degrees from Gothenburg, Oxford and Columbia, where this book was largely written. He acknowledges that he writes “from the viewpoint of a neutralist Swede of socialist convictions,” which means that he brings more weaknesses than strengths to his subject.
Through pages and pages of rather dense prose that often reads as if translated from Swedish, Stephanson tirelessly seeks out inconsistencies in Kennan’s diplomatic dispatches and other writings, Kennan’s intellectual prejudices, Kennan’s bias toward Europe and his indifference to the Third World, the short cuts and shortcomings that he finds in Kennan’s famous Long Telegram on Soviet behavior, on communism, on Russian history and on Stalin’s motivations.
The overall purpose of this tedious and often inconsequential academic inquest seems to be to find some new angle on revisionist history that was in vogue 20 years ago. The point this time seems to be that if Kennan had not been Kennan, and had couched his advice to the State Department with a better view to accommodating Stalin and the Soviet Union, then the Cold War could have been avoided.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Stephanson writes, “that a settlement with Moscow was possible. Prior to 1948 a reasonable offer on reparations and demilitarization (of Germany) might substantially have put agreement through, although Kennan never recognized that possibility.”
Well, Stephanson in his research seems to have missed the fact that in 1946 and 1947 the United States, Britain and France did offer to join the Soviet Union in a 25-year four-power treaty to keep Germany disarmed. The offer was on the table for 15 months but Stalin was not interested. Any accommodation with Stalin would have been good enough for neutral Sweden in those turbulent times, but fortunately that was not the attitude in Britain, France, the United States--or for that matter in Norway.
As for Kennan’s inconsistencies, which he would certainly acknowledge, Stephanson should have been more alert to the famous admonition of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” And some academics.