George F. Kennan: Subject of a short biography by John Lukacs

Historians in the News

En route to Moscow to serve as Ambassador Averell Harriman’s minister-counselor in June 1944, George F. Kennan spent two miserable days in Baghdad. Musing on America potentially supplanting Britain as the dominant Western power in the region, he wrote in his diary:

“Are we willing to bear this responsibility? I know—and every realistic American knows—that we are not. Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy toward areas remote from its own territory.”[1]

Over sixty years later, Kennan is enjoying a renaissance, as academics (Ian Shapiro), think tankers (John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven) and pundits (Peter Beinart) reflect on his legacy and see important lessons for our present trials and tribulations in Iraq and beyond. Almost six years after 9/11, the Bush Administration’s approach to the War on Terror has generated popular frustration, and thus a look back at the origins of another ideological conflict—the Cold War—and the ideas of a man who history proved clairvoyant despite his earlier marginalization, makes sense.

Most studies of Kennan emphasize his contributions to Cold War strategy from 1944–1950, a miniscule portion of his lengthy life. Unfortunately, his inaccessibility as an individual has, in some cases, facilitated the misappropriation of his strategic legacy, and so to truly grasp Kennan’s impact, we need a broader and more personal examination, which is exactly what historian John Lukacs provides in George Kennan: A Study of Character.

Chronicling Kennan’s character is no easy task. Many commentators have neglected analyzing the man in favor of the strategist. But his character is inextricably bound to his place in history; each informs the other and cannot stand alone. Kennan’s fellow Scotsman Thomas Carlyle said over 160 years ago: “Could we see them [great men] well, we should get some glimpses into the very marrow of the world’s history.” Lukacs sees Kennan and provides a glimpse into the marrow of America and the world’s experience in the twentieth century. George Kennan is not a biography because it does not feign objectivity. It is a panegyric, Kennan’s friend’s deeply personal appeal to a country that insufficiently appreciates one of its great sons....

Despite the gap separating Kennan from an increasingly tech-based society, Lukacs contests that Kennan (who had an illustrious career at Princeton)—through his histories, his lectures and his public stances (specifically his opposition to the Vietnam War)—was “the conscience of a nation.” But can a man be such a conscience without the nation acknowledging it? Can Kennan be the conscience of a nation, of which he might not approve? If Kennan were such a conscience, this book would be less important. Even Lukacs hints that his claim is exaggerated in the book’s final pages.

In these closing pages, where the author abandons any shred of objectivity, he writes, “Save for these last sentences this is not the memoir of a friend but the work of a historian.” But the whole work is clearly that of a friend, and it would be unfulfilling without a friend’s insight. There is no shame in that, though Lukacs goes too far in his concluding sentence, comparing Kennan to Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps, through the diligence of historians like Lukacs, Kennan may yet achieve his rightful place in the pantheon of American statesmen, but Mount Rushmore will not be undergoing renovations anytime soon....

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