No admirer of George F. Kennan’s should be surprised by the angry tone of the reviews his recently published Diaries has been receiving.  Of the several I have read, in the British as well as the American press, all were, to some extent or another, willfully unsympathetic.  That is only to have been expected, Kennan himself having been entirely out of sympathy with the modern world and its promoters and enthusiasts, greedy Republican corporate capitalists and demagogic Democratic politicians alike.  What struck me was the reviewers’ depressing historical ignorance and their astounding want of historical empathy and imagination in their confrontation with Kennan’s antimodern—but quintessentially American—intellect, ideas, and sensibilities, which collectively prompted Col. Andrew Bacevich (who shares his subject’s well-known antipathy for American military crusades abroad), writing in Harper’s Magazine, to judge Kennan “a crank.”

George Kennan was born in 1904 and died in 2005 at the age of 101.  That is about as long a life span as it is given man to achieve, and Kennan’s life embraced a century unprecedented in human history for the scope and speed of the transformative change it experienced.  It would be astonishing had a man of Kennan’s critical capacities and social and aesthetic sensitivities felt comfortable and at ease with all, or even most, of that change.  Today, George Kennan’s response to America and the world in the 20th century may indeed appear eccentric.  But surely a “crank” is someone who was regarded as eccentric by his contemporaries, and that Kennan certainly was not.  If he can be made to appear so, it is only because he was at once out of step with bipartisan Cold War policy in his heyday (and afterward) and an opponent of every form of political, administrative, economic, and cultural centralization that was working to overwhelm American society in his lifetime.  To demonstrate both of these facts is easy work.  To show that, below the level of American officialdom, his opinions were wildly unrepresentative of a substantial stratum of respectable American society is not.  And that is because it simply wasn’t so.

The critical reception of The Kennan Diaries, as of George Kennan’s previous work, is but one more piece of evidence leading me to conclude that, in order fully and truly to comprehend the extent to which America has changed in the past six decades, one must have been born and raised a WASP of a certain social class, the old WASP world being the portion of America that has been most altered during that time.  Kennan in the Upper Midwest, and I in the Northeast, were raised in very similar circumstances, 43 years apart.  His family, of British descent, arrived in the mid-18th century; mine, of the same stock, in the early 17th.  Like Kennan’s, my family was conscious of itself as being old-line American.  Both our fathers were professional men—his a lawyer, mine a professor of American and British imperial history.  Both of us had an upbringing that gave us an equal familiarity with rural and cosmopolitan society, and both of us were privately educated and afterward graduated from Ivy League schools.  Reading George Kennan’s more personal books is disconcertingly like reading my own mind.

In Windham, Vermont, and Manhattan, I grew up in the company of people—parents, family, family friends representing several generations, and my own boyhood ones—who had exactly the same view of the world, and entertained precisely the same preferences and dislikes, that Kennan expressed in his writings.  American was typically a pejorative adjective, shorthand for mass culture, popular ignorance, popular tastelessness, vulgarity, and modernity in general.  Civilized people were assumed to live either in the deep country or in the deep city, between which they divided the year; suburbia was the home of tens of millions of human blanks.  Suburbanization and sprawl were deplorable developments whose effects were the despoliation of nature, the cult of the automobile, and aesthetic degradation.  Political democracy meant rule by the mass man, though both my parents—like Kennan—admired and voted for Adlai Stevenson, twice.  Children were treated like small adults and immersed in the classical European culture our parents inhabited—music, literature, art, architecture, furniture—and were included in their adult social life: tea parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties.  Except for really informal occasions, parents and children dressed exactly alike: coats and ties for the young men, dresses and white gloves for the young ladies.  “Teen” culture did not exist, popular culture in every form was viewed with scorn, and television and comics books were verboten.  In social life, the differentiation of classes was noted, observed, and taken for granted.  There were “people like us,” and people one did not care to know, and didn’t (and didn’t need to).  Nonwhites, in domestic circumstances, were nannies, houseboys, chauffeurs, gardeners, or maids; in wider ones, they were hoodlums with knives and guns from the Southern states or Puerto Rico, whom one went out of one’s way to avoid in the streets.  Schools meant private schools, nominally Protestant usually, hardly ever Catholic.  The Midwest, while it was considered culturally dull, was socially acceptable, but Texas, Arizona, and California were beyond the pale, dreadful previews of what the United States as a whole was fated to become.  (“California for the Californians,” I recall one of my parents’ closest friends remarking in disgust after her return to her Vermont farm following a visit to the West Coast.)

This description of my native, formative milieu would no doubt horrify a liberal reader a generation or more my junior, and not of WASP extraction, who happened to read it, never guessing that much, perhaps even a majority, of this milieu—including my parents, who voted Democratic until the 1960’s—were liberals, at least in some degree, and that certain of them, including the wealthiest and most aristocratic, considered themselves socialists.  As academicians, my parents had many academic friends who successfully combined liberalism with their conscious and unapologetic position in the old-line American upper-middle and upper classes, a type that has gone almost entirely extinct in the last 30 or 40 years, certainly in academia but in many other circles as well.  George Kennan, so far from being considered a “crank,” would have fitted quite naturally and effortlessly into the socially and intellectually irreproachable society of my family’s world, for the very good reason that he belonged to it.

It is not only personally and rhetorically unfair of critics like Andrew Bacevich to imply that, in Kennan’s case, a distaste for democracy, mass culture, the mass media, the automobile, California, multicultural and multiracial society, consumerism, and the destruction of nature and nature’s resources in the rapacious pursuit of material gain and personal comfort is characteristic of the reactionary, bad-tempered “crank”; it is unhistorical as well—astoundingly so, when one considers how many 21st-century liberals similarly abhor Americans’ car fetish, air transport, polluting coal plants, mass culture (particularly to the extent that it exalts violence), popular culture (including the gun culture), extractive industry, the farm-subsidy program, the destruction of wilderness and the commercial development of farmland, overpopulation, and a great many other things Kennan deplored.  Bacevich’s fundamental objection—the underlying cause of the scorn, the mockery (Bacevich has his fun with Kennan’s wandering eye and his affairs, all of which cost him painfully, with which he grapples in the Diaries, and of which he seems genuinely to have repented), the barely concealed loathing—to George Kennan is all too obviously his views involving race and ethnicity, a subject on which even “conservative” Americans succumb to a peculiar form of modern hysteria: Kennan’s belief that democratic institutions cannot be sustained by non-European peoples, and the horror with which he imagined a future in which all the races have been interbred, by global policy, to a dull, brown, featureless uniformity, and their uniquely valuable civilizations confounded in a Walmart world.  But here again, plenty of civilized liberals were still around in the 1960’s to oppose the Immigration Act of 1965 on the same or similar grounds, assumptions, and preferences.

To repeat: For a full appreciation of how drastically America has changed since the 1950’s and 60’s, a WASP identity and a WASP upbringing are probably necessary—WASP culture, of all the contemporary American subcultures, having been the most greatly affected and diminished by the subsequent push for egalitarianism and social uniformity.  To the extent, for instance, that Catholic America has been altered during this period, I suspect that these changes owe more to the reforms of Vatican II, and to the progressive Americanization of the Church of Rome in this country, than to anything secular liberal pressure and federal action have accomplished, even if the government’s current aggressions against the Church, together with increasing popular animosity toward Catholic culture and belief, may soon produce a readjustment of those respective influences.  In the case of American Judaism and Jews in America, there is no question that both have gained vastly in cultural influence and individual confidence in the second half of the 20th century, significantly at the expense of WASPs, in general, and the WASP elite, in particular.  The progress of both these subcultures has necessarily been made at the expense of the formerly dominant WASP one, partly because, being dominant, it had the most to lose, but partly also because that was the result the egalitarian and revolutionary logic intended from the beginning.

As someone who was born a WASP and remains so socially and culturally, despite having lived and worshiped as a Catholic now for one third of his life, I am ideally positioned to recognize the extent to which the metaphysical thinness of the native Protestant civilization contributed to its weakening and encouraged it finally to cooperate—often with incomprehensible enthusiasm—in its own destruction, but also how much America has forfeited by the eclipse of the founding culture that shaped and inspired it during the first three quarters of its existence.  Love or despise the Old—the true—America, it is dishonest and unhistorical to suggest that it existed only in the minds of “cranks,” and historically demagogic to attempt to sully the character and intellect of principled Americans, like George Kennan, who loved and understood it because their ancestors helped to make it.  Worse, it is ungentlemanly.  But then, it has always been a part of the instinctual knowledge of the WASP that one should neither look for, nor expect to find, much in the way of gentlemanliness beyond the ranks of his own kind.