“A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country,
and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
A half-dozen biographical essays or theses have now been written on George Kennan, including John Lukacs’s recent and compelling George Kennan: A Study of Character (2007). This latest endeavor, by Lee Congdon, is an effort to assess Kennan as a literary figure rather than as a political one. In this, the author only partially succeeds: His background as an historian assures that his paramount interest is in Kennan’s political ideals, not his literary style or form. Yet Congdon has provided a succinct and useful summary of Kennan’s essential ideas.
He begins with a reference to Kennan’s interest in his own antecedents, what Kennan memorably referred to in a passage (not cited by Congdon) as “the golden chain that binds the generations.” Kennan found in this inheritance a tendency toward practicality, to empirical rather than deductive approaches to human experience, to intellectual independence which “limited his ability to form intimate associations with others . . . [making him] a man apart, an observer of, rather than a participant in, modern life.” Congdon refers to Kennan’s father in particular, a reticent man, but one with an aesthetic sense. Kos-suth Kent Kennan was more than a “tax-lawyer,” however, as Congdon describes him; he was also a figure in the Wisconsin progressive movement and the draftsman of America’s first state income-tax law.
Congdon has little to say of Kennan’s Princeton career, which was neither academically nor socially successful. Further inquiry or mention might nonetheless have been productive. Kennan himself thought the most helpful course he took at Princeton was one in economic geography, a subject almost totally neglected in today’s schools and colleges, even in graduate schools of international relations. In an earlier time Goode’s School Atlas, with its stress on economic production and trade routes, was a staple of American education.
Kennan viewed the writings of his grandfather George Ken-nan on Russia as excessively indulgent toward the revolutionaries, with their “preposterous and indiscriminate campaign of terrorism” and on account of what Congdon calls “the extent to which their criminal actions had provoked a response that fell upon them and others less guilty.” This was the theme of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes: The dilettantes of revolution called forth reactions that were comprehensive and terrible in their effects. There are, as has been said, no liberal police forces and few liberal armies. This was foreseen by Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century. A contemporary writer of espionage novels, Alan Furst, facetiously alluded to
the Russian revolution that would change the world, which it certainly had—provoking counterrevolutionary fascist regimes in Hungary, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Portugal and Germany. Fine work, Comrade Lenin.
Kennan regarded the Soviet Union as a fragile and gradually decaying bureaucratic dictatorship, sustained by Russian nationalism and a waning Marxist faith. Its collapse was an instance of Hannah Arendt’s proposition that in revolution power is not seized but left lying in the street. The readiness of American elites, in the face of isolated terrorist acts and momentary economic dislocations, to shed traditional inhibitions against detention without trial, and to impose arbitrary control by the federal Treasury of huge segments of the economy, portends that the phenomena of which Kennan wrote are of universal significance, and not limited to Russia and her hinterland.
The Russian fixation on economic improvement meant that economic disappointment produced a loss of “faith and self confidence” on the part of “true believers.” “From the most morally unified country in the world, Russia can become overnight the worst moral chaos.” Kennan saw similar tendencies at work in the United States, yet he hoped Americans would “seek their happiness and their salvation in their relationship to society as a whole rather than in the interests of themselves and their little group of intimate acquaintances.”
Congdon’s apologetic discussion of Kennan’s ideas regarding the U.S. Constitution in some ways does Kennan an injustice. George Kennan’s early writings favoring the disenfranchisement of various groups may jar current sensibilities, but his belief in the merits of indirect election was that of the Founding Fathers and underlies all successful parliamentary systems. The essence of constitutionalism is not mathematically exact representation but the limitation of executive power. As Charles McIlwain once put it,
The two fundamental correlative elements of constitutionalism for which all lovers of liberty must fight are the legal limits to arbitrary power and a complete political responsibility of government toward the governed.
Even the later Soviet Politburo produced more stable, predictable, and responsible leadership than the vagaries of the current American presidential electoral system that has given us such “leaders” as John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, while placing politicians like Agnew, Quayle, and Cheney a heartbeat away from the presidency. As Learned Hand once observed in eulogizing Justice Brandeis,
[he] believed that there could be no true community save that built upon the personal acquaintance of each with each; that thus alone could character and ability be rightly gauged . . . to find their station through the appraisal of those who have any first-hand knowledge of them. Publicity is an evil substitute, and the art of publicity is a black art.
Kennan’s reflections on European nationalism and on the breakup of Austria-Hungary have in considerable measure been shared by the postwar Europeans. The European movement, for all its bureaucratic excesses, has subdued militaristic nationalism, and the free movement of labor and the Schengen treaty have produced a considerable mingling of populations and a growth in mutual tolerance. The reactionary nationalism of Margaret Thatcher or Václav Klaus should not distract thoughtful persons from recognizing this achievement, which in imperfect measure derived from Kennan’s insistence that the Europeans should cooperatively devise the institution for receipt of Marshall Plan aid, as well as from the vision of continental statesmen like Monnet, Schuman, and Sforza and the preferences of Churchill and Macmillan, who were, in their way, good Europeans. Cong-don notes that Kennan was not deluded by the temporary weakness of Germany and Russia and foresaw the unhappy fate of Eastern Europe. The United States in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall was so deluded; hence the extension of NATO guarantees, decried by Kennan as inviting a recrudescence of Russian militarism.
Congdon notes the influence upon Kennan of Helmuth von Moltke and the Kreisau Group. It is an overstatement to say, as Congdon does, that Moltke favored “an authoritarian state.” The Kreisau Constitution that he drafted contemplated an indirectly elected national government with local foundations. Congdon regards Kennan’s wartime recommendation of a postwar partitioning of Germany and a return to “small kingdoms . . . picturesque localisms of an earlier day” as “wildly unrealistic.” But the Kreisau vision of bottom-up government formed the basis of Allied policy in Germany after the war. Local elections preceded Länder elections, which, in turn, preceded those to the Bundestag. The Basic Law, at the insistence of the Americans, resembled an idealized version of the original U.S. Constitution. Law enforcement and education, both higher and lower, are still reserved to the states, which also retain important controls over the Constitutional Court and are guaranteed both portions of the national fisc and freedom from conditions on fiscal grants by the national government. For this Kennan’s memoranda are in some measure responsible.
Kennan was not a believer in national martyrdom in the face of totalitarian threats, preferring to take the long view as expressed by Learned Hand that “few things have done more to bring human beings from the abyss than the habit of acquiescence to the law as it is.” He was a critic of Roosevelt’s “unconditional surrender” policy and its effect on German resistance. He prophesied accurately that life in postwar America would not be conducive to “independence of speech and thought, honesty and courage of public life, dignity and quiet serenity of the home and of the family.” And Congdon notes Kennan’s prescient warnings that Americans should “restrain their excitement at the silent, expectant possibilities in the Middle Eastern deserts” and avoid positions “which tend to make the State of Israel a permanent war and military liability of the United States.”
The American policy of withholding recognition as a sign of disapproval of foreign governments was reproached by Kennan; he wrote less on the currently fashionable practice of almost automatic economic boycotts, heedless of their consequences, that have given us such regimes as those of North Korea, Libya, Iran, Burma, and Cuba, as well as Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria. (There are lessons here in the evolution of China and Vietnam after economic sanctions were removed.) For Kennan every country had to be dealt with on an individual basis.
He also shared the view, expressed by the young Henry Kissinger in his doctoral thesis, that the central problem of politics is not the limitation of evil but the limitation of righteousness. He regretted his role in fostering “covert operations” by what became the CIA. He would not have smiled upon the growth of an intelligence establishment with a recently revealed budget of $48 billion. Methods of deception cause their authors “to lose all realistic understanding of the interrelationship, in what they are doing, of ends and means.”
Military force, in Kennan’s view, was not concerned so much with destruction for its own sake as with changing the enemy’s frame of mind. Diplomacy was almost invariably of value—not summit diplomacy, but “the patient, quiet, orderly use of the regular channels of private communication between governments, as they have grown up and proved their worth over the course of the centuries.” The quest for mutual interest had value; Kennan did not share Robert Kagan’s view that diplomacy is properly viewed merely as an expression of military strength. Indeed, military victories are frequently illusory because of the social disruption that precedes them and the imponderability of their results. The stability of Europe was not fostered by the Allied “triumph” in World War I, the peace settlement, and the fragmentation of large rivals rendering Germany the geopolitical victor. Kennan noted, “it was precisely the German conservatives who recognized the dishonor that Hitler had brought upon his country.” Nonetheless, he cautioned that even despotic rulers have, “as Gibbon once pointed out, a certain identity of interest with those who are ruled.” He urged recognition of “a world of relative and unstable values”—not music to the ears of Manichaeans of any stripe.
Kennan rejected the utopian impulse toward “the centralization of all social and political authority, the subordination of all local and individual impulses to a collective purpose, centrally defined.” Rather, he exhorted young people to make “humble efforts to bring a little order and civility to . . . immediate surroundings.” He decried
persistent externalization of the sense of danger—the persistent exaggeration of the threat from without and blindness to the threat from within . . . symptom of some deep failure to come to terms with reality—and with one’s self.
He would have found in the blustering of today’s neoconservatives an illustration of the British diplomat Sir Horace Rumbold’s definition of nationalism: “patriotism plus inferiority complex.” To the apostles of “national greatness,” he opposed the view that “Great countries . . . are a menace to themselves and everyone else.” Kennan took strong issue with Richard Pipes’ view of Soviet Russia as an unchanging and militaristic state: Institutions, he argued, “were merely frameworks; what mattered most was les manieres.” Congdon himself chastises the neoconservatives: “having awakened from their dogmatic slumber, they, like Pipes, saw little difference between Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev or Stalin and Brezhnev.”
Congdon makes much of Kennan’s misgivings regarding the immigration of great masses of people reared in quite different climates of political and ethical principle. This concern about the decay of the English political tradition of gradualism, tolerance, and respect for law has been voiced throughout American history by nativists who have successively taken alarm at the arrival of conformist Germans, rebellious Irish, Marxist Jews, and Italians with a suspicion of all public authority. It is Congdon, rather than Kennan, who concludes of today’s Mexicans that “most of them arrived without any intention of assimilating . . . they expected Americans to accommodate their language and culture.” While the rise of public officials like Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo to high office may seem to justify such forebodings, the generality of the new Latin American and Oriental immigrants has no attachment to the Mexican federales and “crony capitalism” and their Oriental equivalents, and may indeed possess the same admittedly imperfect capacity for assimilation to a society founded on a free market in labor and limited government that characterized most of the groups that preceded them.
Similarly, in acknowledging Kennan’s environmentalist sympathies, Congdon declares that it is “one thing to exercise authority within national frontiers and quite another to do so internationally.” Such international controls, in Congdon’s view,
aimed less at conservation than at reconstructing the social order along socialist lines . . . an international and bureaucratic tyranny would take aim primarily at the Western nations. Kennan was also excessively optimistic about the role that communist nations could be expected to play.
Yet experience thus far does not disprove the possibility of effective international environmental controls. The Montreal Protocol on ozone, negotiated under the Reagan administration by two career diplomats, John Negroponte and Richard Benedick, was conditional on the participation of almost all the generators of chlorofluorocarbons and secured the adherence of communist states. Other proposed environmental treaties, the Law of the Sea (LOSA) agreement and Kyoto agreement among them, are, whatever they may be, not socialist documents. LOSA expands the rights of littoral countries and seeks to limit the “tragedy of the commons,” while free-market “cap and trade” systems are in vogue even among environmentalists. Kennan had kind words for Al Gore, and for an advisory international environmental authority appointed by the National Academies of Science.
Congdon is right in declaring that Kennan had no belief in the beneficent effects of unlimited economic growth. (As Ellis Hawley has shown in The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly, the same was true of most of the men of the second New Deal.) Kennan was also a critic of the industrialization of agriculture. This is not merely a nostalgic preference, as Cong-don implies by identifying Kennan with the Southern Agrarians, notwithstanding the absence of any conscious parallelism of view. The European Common Agricultural Policy, and now that of Britain, are squarely aimed at social and environmental goals and are based therefore on income rather than price subsidies; the fateful watershed for American policy was the rejection of the similarly conceived Brennan Plan in 1949. Its hour may come round again.
Kennan plainly did not embrace capitalism as a secular religion. But it is a disservice to the relevance of Kennan’s teaching, and that of his friend John Lukacs, to identify both men as reactionaries (Lukacs’s self-identification as such notwithstanding); the changes in opinion that will follow from the recent economic disturbances may result in renewed attention to social views such as theirs.
Congdon notes the importance of Kennan’s diaries but sheds no light on the question of whether plans exist for their publication. One hopes that the Princeton archivists in control of access to his papers will be more forthcoming with them than were the literary executors of Learned Hand, who appear to have suppressed his correspondence in the interest of political correctness. Perhaps Professor Cong-don’s present publisher, ISI Books, will take an interest in their release. (Professor Lukacs is currently editing for publication his own correspondence with Kennan.)
Congdon ends with a recognition of Kennan’s tragic sense of life. “[M]easured by his literary distinction, service to country, wisdom and character, George Kennan was the greatest American of the century just ended.” This is a just assessment, in light of Kennan’s public influence during the Truman administration, which saved the world from unnecessary war and founded a prosperous postwar order in Europe and Japan. I suspect his criticism of the social and environmental policies of the Brundtland government in Norway is all that prevented him from being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Congdon’s concise appreciation of him, though it does not analyze or explain his literary style, is a fine distillation of the work of this admirable man.
[George Kennan: A Writing Life, by Lee Congdon (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 208 pp., $25.00]