On George Kennan
JB comments inspired by Stephen Galin, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America's Empire (2011), p. 36 (see below quotation from the book):
In the late 1970s, as a graduate student in Russian History at Princeton, I had the unique opportunity to work at the recently-established Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, then located in the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall in Washington, an opportunity for which I am eternally grateful to two of my Princeton University mentors and distinguished scholars of Russia, James H. Billington and S. Frederick Starr. Thanks to them, I had, on a number of occasions, enough of a foot-in-the-door to observe/listen to George Kennan at a close distance, since my "secretarial" space at the Institute was next to Kennan's office at said Institute, named for "his cousin twice removed, diplomat and historian George F. Kennan." (Of course, few in Washington, D.C. knew anything about Kennan's cousin, but they did know about the George, the author of the "X" article, so the Institute, in "real life," was and is still a homage to him, George F. Kennan).
My three-year semi-formal job at the Kennan Institute, where I worked as a coordinator-researcher, in essence consisted in compiling, with Dr. Steven Grant (an intellectually admirable Harvard PhD and dear friend) the catalogue, "The Russian Empire and Soviet Union. A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States," which is now online, thanks to Steve's many efforts to make this possible.
But back to George F. Kennan, who, needless to say, is far more important than a catalogue. My best memory of this rather shy, pensive, and reticent man -- who, despite his ill-fitting State-Department-looking three-piece suits, really looked like a tormented intellectual, the perfect character for a Russian novel about the intelligentsia -- was when he spoke, in his elegant Russian, to a group of Soviet visitors, who clearly were impressed by how he had mastered the language of Pushkin. I had the impression that the Soviets (most of them Russians, as far as I could tell) concluded, with evidently considerable regret and envy, that he expressed himself in their native language better than they did, uncluttered as his words were by "Sovietese." To them, I felt, he seemed a kind of civilized Russian nobleman/intelligent, a person from another, more cultivated era -- the 19th century novelist Turgenev maybe. And official Russian Soviets, for all their official genuflecting to "Kommunizm," had a sense that their "russkaya kul'tura" -- with which George Kennan was quite familiar -- defined them much more than Leninism/Communism. Or so I would say.
Also, inadverdently -- and I point this out as I do not want to leave this minor footnote to the historical record blank -- I overheard, through no, I assure you, no intention of my own, Ambassador Kennan on the telephone (as I said we had "adjoining offices," and he kept, in his All-American midwestern way [only part of his character] the door between them open) engaged in rather confidential conversations, not all of which were flattering to his genius. I did not close the door separating our two "spaces," as I probably discreetly should have, in hindsight. But I thought, at the time, that such an intervention would suggest that I was listening to his telephone conversations -- which, in fact, I could not help but do, unwillingly, without leaving my assigned office space duties or wearing ear-plugs. Had I been deaf I would not have faced this dilemna.
It is no secret that Kennan admired the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, a midwesterner (like Kennan himself), also attended Princeton. "When I first read it, while still in college, I went away and wept unmanly tears," wrote Kennan regarding The Great Gatsby, sounding a bit like a Soviet dissident reading an American novel for the first time.
A bit of humor, by the way: The above-mentioned Soviet visitors, if my memory serves me right, also seemed to think the Smithsonian was established by, and named after, a prosperous, philanthropic Armenian, given the last three letters of its designation.
Here is the quote about George Kennan from the above-cited book:
"George Kennan -- diffident, thoughtful, soft-spoken -- was a human Rorschach test. ... [He] seemed to be of at least two minds about everything, and Washington elites often exploited his genius to give their divergent biases and presumptions respectability. He is popularly judged as the man who counseled a hard, even militant against Soviet expansionism but then spent the rest of his career arguing that Russia was in fact non-hegemonic. He was adopted by hawks in the Truman administation but considered himself a sober-minded realist who counseled a static confrontation between capitalists and communists in their respective spheres of influence. He bitterly opposed American meddling in places such as Indochina and Latin America, which he considered distractions from the far more important job of balancing Western power and resources to that of its Eastern rival. According to Karl Marx, a communist victory was inevitable because capitalism would succumb to its own class divisions and corruption; early in his career, Kennan predicted, rightly, that just the opposite was true.
Kennan was a profoundly conflicted and solitary creature. Socially awkward and shy, he nonetheless craved affection and approval. That paradox -- being in the world but not of it -- was a source of both personal melancholy and professional empowerment. As he was always the outsider, his views were uncluttered by emotional or ideological commitment. He basked in the fame of being containment's creation [containment of the USSR] but later, horrified at its abuse in the hands of Washington alarmists and demagogues, withdrew into the wilderness. A prolific reader -- not surprisingly, he was fascinated with the doomed and darkly enigmatic heroes of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels -- and with a passion for history, Kennan was everywhere during the Cold War but left behing little trace of himself."
P.S. My comment to a facebook reader who was kind enough to comment on this blog entry:
He [Kennan], at heart, longed to be a novelist, but was perhaps too "intelligent" to fulfill this aspiration. He thought too much to be a writer -- although, granted, he is more of a stylist than a "logical" thinker.
Kennan image from