Gotham Diary:
Expense and Enjoyment
28 November 2011

When I saw that the editors of the Book Review had assigned John Lewis Gaddis’s new biography to Henry Kissinger for review, my brow furrowed. I don’t know much of anything about the personal politics of American diplomacy, but I have never thought that Kennan would approve (or even begin to approve) of Dr Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik. Indeed, when I read one of Kennan’s last statements, published in an interview in the New York Review of Books, in 1999 —

This whole tendency to see ourselves [Americans] as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.

— I thought, not of Henry Kissinger certainly, but of his political masters and the pitch that they made to the American public. Dr Kissinger worked tirelessly (in the time remaining after self-promotion, it always seemed to me) to calculate ways of making America’s narcisissm practicable, and probably did a better job of it than anyone else might have done. But Kennan would have dismissed the entire undertaking as, ultimately, undesirable.

The Kissinger review was predictably suave, friendly and forgiving. What was there to forgive? “Kennan blighted his career in government through a tendency to recoil from the implications of his views.” So says Henry Kissinger. Of the book itself:

We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, throughtful, human, self-centered, contradictory, inspirational — a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis’s moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary.

The fix was in. The first review of Gaddis’s book that I encountered was Louis Menand’s, in The New Yorker.

The one puzzle in John Lewis Gaddis’s first-rate biography of the diplomat George Kennan, which Gaddis began in 1982, when his subject was seventy-eight, and waited nearly thirty years to complete, since Kennan lived to be a hundred and one, is the subtitle. The book is called George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin; $39.95), and the most peculiar thing about Kennan, a man not short on peculiarities, is that he had little love for, or even curiosity about, the country whose fortunes he devoted his life to safeguarding.

That’s a way of looking at what Kennan himself said, quoted above, but looked at from the outside. Kennan was not interested in the cultural life of the United States; to some extent, he doubted that it had one. He was always more captivated by what used to be called the “Russian soul,” and he was a passionate advocate of the proposition that the Russians would eventually have done with Communist foolishness and Stalinist barbarity. This was, indeed, the wellspring of his notion of containment. Left to themselves — unprovoked by foreign aggression, military or otherwise — and kept to themselves — encircled by firm Western alliances, the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would sooner or later, but inevitably, replace it with something more humane and workable. As in fact they did.

In a very provocative and somewhat chilling piece in the current issue of the NYRB, Frank Costigliola, the editor of Kennan’s massive diaries, challenges the “authorized” claim of Gaddis’s work. There is no doubt that Kennan authorized the project. But his diraries, over the two decades and more that followed the green light, evidence a growing pessimism about the outcome.

By 2000, Kennan, now ninety-six years old, despaired in his diary that Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle I was waging … against the almost total militarization of Western policy toward Russia.” Looking back at the nuclear holocaust narrowely averted during the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961, and at the costly proxy wars waged in Vietnam and elsewhere, he believed that “had my efforts been successful,” they “could have obviated vast expense, dangers, and distortions of outlook of the ensuing Cold War.”

Gaddis, Costigliola charges,

sides largely with Kennan’s critics, such as former secretary of state Dean Acheson, in the heated debate over Kennan’s advocacy in 1957-1958 for US “disengagement” from the cold war in Europe.

What kind of a life — what kind of an authorized autobiography — is that? Well, it is the kind of life that will “save” Kennan for the American cause. Gaddis (and Henry Kissinger) praise the parts of Kennan’s thought that suit their understanding of the Cold War — in retrospect, a fatuous exercise of military expense and enjoyment (to borrow from Jane Austen; in Mansfield Park, she describes the heir, Tom Bertram, as “born for expense and enjoyment,” keenly nailing enjoyment to expense) — and they rap him on the knuckles for the rest, asking us to believe that Kennan was “inconsistent.” But the importance of George Kennan, for the people of the world, is precisely that he was a greater statesman than American; he knew which was more important. Costigliola writes,

Though he captures much of the man’s complexity, Gaddis’s depiction of Kennan is ultimately clipped and flattened. Perhaps the problem is trying to frame with “an American life,” as the subtitle has it, the  biography of someone who mused that even his friends did “not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repugnance of the things [the American public] lives by.” As compared to the portrait in the biography, the personality revealed in Kennan’s diaries and letters — even the figure who emerges in the transcripts of Gaddis’s interviews — was more irreverent as a collegian, more deeply identified with Russian culture as a fledgling diplomat, more ambivalent about his marriage, more alienated from American life, more inclined to conceealment, and more tortured by the limitations of old age. The Kennan of the letters and the diaries is far less conventional and more complex and elusive than the person we encounter in Gaddis’s biography.

George F Kennan: An American Straitjacket. Let’s hope that John Lewis Gaddis’s attempt to bury his subjecct in it will not succeed.