The Lonely Voice of ConscienceDaniel Larison - 02/07/08
Review of John Lukacs, George Kennan: A Study of Character (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 224 pp. $26.
John Lukacs has presented us with a concise, instructive, and genuinely inspiring portrait of George Kennan in his roles as policy advisor, writer, historian, and voice of patriotic common sense and conscience in an age of hysterical nationalism, anticommunism, and interventionism. Telling the story of Kennan’s life can be challenging, because those who know of him at all concentrate their attention on a few years in the middle of his long life when he worked in the Truman administration and penned the (to his mind, unduly) famous “X” or “Containment” article of 1947, but as Lukacs reveals there was far more of interest to the man and his thought than this brief span of work in the upper echelons of government.
In George Kennan: A Study of Character, besides a detailed recounting of these momentous years in Kennan’s life, which helped to shape U.S. foreign policy,the reader also discovers the private and often lonely Kennan (loneliness is a recurring theme throughout the book), the travel writer and diarist, the anticommunist critic of the passions of popular anticommunism, the critic of the follies of democracy, the patriotic critic of ruinous American hegemony. Few know the details of Kennan’s life, and fewer still know his voluminous works, which are so extensive that they threaten to defeat any attempt to describe them, but in this brief work Lukacs not only admirably condenses a rich life into an accessible and interesting portrait of the man, but he also assesses Kennan’s major books and offers short but valuable commentary on each.
Those acquainted with even part of Lukacs’s own vast corpus, including the published correspondence between Kennan and him, will encounter familiar and vital themes that relate this biography to Lukacs’s other political writings while also highlighting those matters which deeply concerned Kennan throughout his life. The distinction—indeed opposition—between patriotism and nationalism is all-important here, for patriotism, according to Lukacs, “is the love of one’s land and its history” (which Kennan possessed in abundance), “while nationalism is a viscous cement that binds formless masses together.” Also significant for understanding Kennan and this biography about him was Kennan’s penetrating insight of the far greater power and significance of nationalism as a modern political force over that of socialism; Lukacs has also long argued for both of these views. Perhaps even more important for understanding Kennan’s character was his veritably Chestertonian sense of patriotism that allowed him to remain faithful to his country even as his country changed radically and rapidly over the course of his life. Lukacs writes:
But his solitary estrangement from American politics went wider and deeper than the matter of how to deal with the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1936 he spent a vacation of two months in his ancestral Middle West, in his sister’s then home in Illinois (where his wife had preceded him and their second baby was born) and then in her summer cottage in Wisconsin. Seeking solitude, seeking memories, he chose to retrace one hundred miles in central Wisconsin on a rented bicycle. He felt sad and alone. What he saw (or at least what he thought he saw) was no longer a world of his. He would, because he must, remain loyal to his country. “But it would be a loyalty despite, not a loyalty because, a loyalty of principle, not of identification.”