George Kennan: Sketches From a Life

George F. Kennan lived from 1904 to 2005. A long time. For a critical part of that time, he was a US diplomat. During that time, he authored an article that became the guiding principle of US foreign policy in the immediate post-war era. He proposed the idea of containing rather than directly confronting the Soviet Union. Truman based his decisions on this idea. Kennan later changed his views and argued that dialogue with the Soviets was in US interest. That advice was largely ignored and Kennan embraced the role of foreign policy analyst and critic.  He kept at this for over fifty years.

His book “Sketches from a Life”, came out in 1989, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. It is a selection of his diary entries and contains many interesting passages. This  one appears in the last entry

I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth 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. For this intelligentsia, the dominant political forces of this 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 nineteenth century, the helpless spectator of the disturbing course of a nation’s life. If love of country includes this sort of concern for its future, then, I too, love this particular country and am a part of it.

This was written well before 9/11, and I am confident that even as far seeing as Kennan was, he could not have foreseen that particular tragedy. And yet, Kennan might have foreseen the foolish reactions that US presidents have had to terrorist threats including but not limited to 9/11. For many of those reactions were not made for strategic reasons. Instead, presidents responded, by and large, to domestic political concerns, using foreign policy when it suited them to enhance their popularity.

In this sense, Donald Trump, as outrageous as he may be, is not so different than those predecessors who did the same sort of saber rattling, chest pounding, etc. that he is doing now. Of course, one does believe that unlike Trump, even the dullest of his predecessors knew where their aircraft carrier strike forces were headed at critical moments, or if they did not know, they had the sense to ask before expounding on that topic. Ooops!

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4 thoughts on “George Kennan: Sketches From a Life”

  1. George Kennan was a deeply intelligent foreign policy analyst and diplomat. His Memoirs should be required reading for anyone going into that complex and invaluable field. He served with my uncle (who you knew) in the Sate Department in the decade after WWII, and I remember having dinner with him at our place in Geneva in the early 70’s. Kennan’s long telegram is one of those signature moments in 20th Century international affairs. The evolution of his views following the telegram was not a sign weakness, but rather of maturity and perspicacity.

    I often ponder what my parents would think of the state of the world today, and perhaps shortsightedly, am not entirely sad that they do not have to experience the appalling ineptitude/foolishness/stupidity (you pick the word!) of current US, and world, politics. That said, and this may be the only positive thing I can say about the current administration, the ability to change their views and policies may be a good thing.

  2. Hmmm … well said. But let’s be honest. The foolishness started before. For example, Nixon interfering in the Vietnamese peace negotiations so that he could beat Humphrey in 1968. As for Trump, his views do change. Sadly, his persona, I think, is relatively fixed.

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