AMERICAN LIFE IN THE fifties is remembered as dull in general, the Eisenhower administration's programs are recalled as even duller, and the nation's foreign policy can be briefly summarized as Dulles. Insofar as it deals with public life, George Kennan's second volume of memoirs does not appear to have a terribly interesting subject. But even if the period was the boring middle act of a bad tragedy, Kennan's attempts to divert the course of events into less static lines command attention, if only for the force of his personality.
By 1950 American foreign policy had become rigidly set as a military response to what was seen as a world-wide Communist challenge. Kennan's influence in the councils of the powerful waned with the departure of his bureaucratic angel, General Marshall. Dissatisfaction with prevailing powers compelled Kennan to retreat to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. While Dean Acheson put the finishing touches on his creation, solidifying NATO and arranging the rearmament of divided Germany, Kennan lectured, wrote, and informally negotiated with the Russians over the Korean conflict. He was unhappy with foreign policy, and destined to remain that way.
Throughout the decade he continued as a semi-public participant in the debate over American policy. But in retrospect, he has a strange enthusiasm for labelling his efforts failures. He describes his delinquencies as ambassador to the Soviet Union, a post he lost when that government declared him persona non grata. He recounts his misadventures as Kennedy's ambassador to the Yugoslavs, and his resignation from the post after a disastrous run-in with Wilbur Mills. By cataloguing numerous failures, he successfully dissociates himself from the outcome of American diplomacy, but at the same time makes his career sound very painful.
Leadership of the Free World may have meant hegemony rather than empire, but Kennan's policy recommendations denied that domination was the goal. He preferred to believe the national interest lay in more modest directions, and an emotional commitment to a unified Europe that could offset a powerful Soviet state. He showed no patience for people desiring to make the world over in America's interest, and he never even acknowledged the legitimacy of their participation in American government.
KENNAN SOUGHT POWER. He wanted his advice accepted. But he had no partisan aims and detested competitive, less knowledgeable, contributors to American foreign policy--especially the Congress. Certainly his ambition has been anything but unique among post-war Intellectuals. What surprises is that he felt so completely frustrated. The success of a Kissinger or a Rostow contrasts markedly with Kennan's failure. But to explain the different outcomes in terms of personality begs the question. Kennan's failure was rooted in an institutional bias in favor of a Cold War mentality which could not appreciate the subtleties of Kennan's analysis.
Kennan never found much pleasure in any career separated from power, and he reacts with occasional arrogance to the pettiness of his academic colleagues. He grumbles through the second volume of his memoirs about the problem of getting good domestics in various countries (house servants are uncooperative in the Soviet Union, nonexistent in the United Kingdom). A deep-seated elitism becomes quickly transparent. Kennan has a commitment to the existence of an elect, not necessarily of the people, but of God, or at least of a natural order that distributes talents unevenly.
He had a professional commitment to the national interest, but he never determined who should define it. His contempt for the petty weaknesses of others made it difficult to vest anyone but himself with that authority.
That position qualifies as moral arrogance and contempt for democracy. When combined with a vigorous interpretation of the American role on the world scene, it has produced a bitter domestic political atmosphere and a depraved Asian policy that the country cannot abandon. But Kennan combined it with a limited role for America. His comments on popular American culture imply no particular enthusiasm for it. And his discussion of Midwestern provincialism show little respect for the natives' capacity to manage their foreign affairs. He calls the region "a great slatternly mother, sterile when left to herself, yet immensely fruitful and creative when touched by anything outside herself." But he means this to be complimentary.
YET MEN EVERY bit as committed to rule by an elite as Kennan devised the very policies that drove him from the foreign service. Acheson and others, credited by the revisionist historians of the sixties with creating the Cold War, were very sophisticated (whatever else they may have been, they were sophisticated) men. Their policy led to the solidification of a divided Europe and a bipolar world. It led to internationalization and intensification of Third World domestic crises. In retrospect, Kennan's options were preferable, and, in view of his superior expertise (specific expertise preferable to sophistication) that isn't surprising.
That he got out must stand to his credit. When the loss of his ability to influence policy outcomes became apparent, he left, removed himself from any complicity in politics he despaired of and mourned over his lack of influence. Memoirs are never a sound basis for an assessment of character, but this is far from The Vantage Point. Kennan is not only more balanced then President Johnson, he is more morose. He lacks the some of historical justification and approval that Dean Acheson filled his own account of this period with, and replaces is with reflective melancholy. That makes it an easier book to read. But, of course, it is very difficult to entertain pleasant reflections on having been present at the creation of a of a monster.