George Kennan: A Writing Life by Lee Congdon

Cross-posted to The Right Reads.

George F. Kennan‘s is not an easy figure to place on our rather simplified political spectrum.  His positions on the hot button issues of the day placed him on one side or the other, but just as often seemed to contradict each other.

He was opposed to Joseph McCarthy, nuclear weapons, the militarization of the Cold War, and the Vietnam War; he was an agrarian localist that decried industrialization; he preferred engagement to demonization; and he served under, and advised, a number of iconic liberal presidents.

And yet, he was staunchly anti-communist (and anti-Stalinist) and set the course of the early Cold War; opposed the creation of the United Nations; largely preferred the free market system to the centralizing tendencies of socialism; was deeply suspicious of democracy and universalist views of politics; and decried the idealistic vision of liberal foreign policy.

Biographers and academics have tried to make sense of these, and many other, apparent contradictions (as did I in graduate school).  In George Kennan: A Writing Life Lee Congdon takes a different approach.

From the inside cover:

There were two George F. Kennans. The first was the well-known diplomat and ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia-a tough political realist and man of the world who gained fame as the theorist of America’s Cold War “containment” strategy. This was a “persona” that Kennan adopted in order to carry out his professional responsibilities. The second, largely unknown, but real George Kennan was a writer and aesthete-a shy, lonely man who felt alienated from both his country and his times, and a man who made major contributions to American literature.

Thus argues Lee Congdon in George Kennan: A Writing Life, a groundbreaking study of Kennan’s life and thought. Congdon narrates Kennan’s legendary work in the foreign service, his later career as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and the schools of thought to which he made significant contributions: political realism, antidemocratic social and political criticism, Spenglerian gloom, and conservative cultural analysis. Congdon concludes that notwithstanding his great accomplishments as a diplomat and geopolitical strategist, Kennan merits consideration above all else as an original and penetrating American writer.

This argument breaks down into two components: 1) Kennan’s aesthetics and personality explain more than his surface political and professional reputation 2) Kennan was a writer who deserves to be in the upper echelons of American letters. Congdon is quite persuasive on the first point, but less so on the second.

Congdon argues that, despite his reputation, Kennan was not a politician or diplomat but a writer at heart; and that he brought this sensibility to his entire life and work. This is particularly important since Kennan’s extremely shy and self-conscious personality meant that his writing was the one place where he could not only thoughtfully explore the most important issues and questions but truly express himself.

Digging beneath just the publically available material, Congdon explores Kennan’s archival papers (notes, journals, letters, etc.) and finds this thread running throughout his life from a very early age.

In my opinion the argument that Kennan assumed a persona in order to succeed as a policy maker and diplomat fits very well with the historic evidence. And Congdon persuasively shows that viewing Kennan as a shy, but extremely gifted, writer and “aesthete” is more clarifying than attempting to see him as a political thinker or strategist. And this, when combined with his career path, contributes to much of the confusion about Kennan’s policy recommendations.

From a conservative perspective what is interesting is that Congdon seems to be claiming Kennan as a sort of pre-paleo-conservative, to use an awkwardly hyphenated term.  He is clearly pushing back against the conservative rejection of Kennan at the time as a liberal of no use in the critical battle against the Soviets.

Anti-communists at the time saw Kennan as naïve about the role of ideology as motivation for Soviet action and as dangerously idealistic about military strategy and the use of force; particularly his anti-nuclear weapons opinions.

Congdon argues, however, that Kennan was deeply pragmatic; saw the pitfalls of idealistic and universalistic doctrines; and at the same time fully aware of the long term weaknesses of the Soviet Union. In their anti-communist fervor too many on the right dismissed the wisdom Kennan offered.

For Kennan the best weapon against the Communists was a strong and vibrant West.  He argued that focusing on living up to our own ideals would, in the long term, do far more good than utopian schemes to make the world more like America.

Kennan reject the leftist view of the perfectibility of man:

That fact ruled out all utopian projects, all hope for a world of permanent peace and harmony, all efforts to remove considerations of power from the diplomatic equation.  A prudent foreign policy was on that accepted the realities of power and interest and strove to to keep the inevitable conflicts between nations within tolerable limits.

This sensibility, however, often put him at odds with the anti-communist conservatives and the internationalist liberals.

For Kennan, realism mandated moderation, a sense of proportion, and a recognition of limits.  He evinced no sympathy for moral crusades, imperial adventures, or interventions in foreign lands.


But realism meant something else as well: a rejection of any idea of American “exceptionalism” or messianism, any claim that superior virtue placed upon Americans a redemptive burden on a global scale.

In this sense, intellectually and politically Kennan was a man without a home.  In many ways he was a 18th century European conservative trapped in the 20th.  As noted above, he was an agrarian localist who despised the leveling aspects of mass commercial culture. He was distrustful of mass democracy as well and long held that such a political structure was incapable of a balanced and wise foreign policy.  He was an elitist politically and culturally in a time of rising egalitarianism on both the left and the right.

These views, Congdon notes, made him a reactionary, in a “strict and nonpejorative sense” rather than a conservative as he “preferred the past to the present and looked to it for wisdom and guidance.”

Clearly being labeled a reactionary in a nonpejorative sense is, and was at the time, nearly impossible.  And Kennan’s views are easily caricatured. But Congdon carefully puts them in to context and helps the reader understand Kennan in light of his upbringing, personality, and intellectual influences.

The portrait that emerges is of an intelligent, sensitive, and skilled writer who despite an active public career never quite felt at home in his own time and place.  Not surprisingly then, some of the most important work Kennan leaves behind is as a historian (having won the National Book Award as well as the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes).

Whether Kennan deserves to be seen as one of the greatest writers of his era, or as Congdon claims the “greatest American of the century now ended, is a question I am not prepared to answer.  But I can say without hesitation that he is a figure that deserves to be more widely known and for more than just the term containment.

Luckily, Congdon has provided the perfect introduction for anyone seeking to know more about this important, and yet poorly understood, man.  But really, anyone who is interested in the art of writing or the intellectual history of the 20th century would enjoy this slim elegant portrait.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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