Review: Sketches From A Life by George F. Kennan

Grant Mitchell Reviews

Those with an interest in the Cold War era should be familiar with the eminent American diplomat George F. Kennan. Kennan is the architect of the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union and the author of the infamous ‘X memo’ – arguably the crucible to the start of the Cold War. His contribution to US foreign policy has been studied ad infinitum and considered somewhat controversial.

His memoir, published in 1989 is unlike most by public figures. There are no self-serving explanatory rabbit holes to wander into, no mea culpas sugar coated with bromides in order to achieve the illusion of authenticity. Rather, this is a memoir in the strictest sense, with personal reflections of a life both affected by and affecting the major ideological schism of the twentieth century. Published thirty years ago, it remains relevant today and even more so given the current geopolitical situation.

Even at the time of its publication, Kennan already seemed to be a figure from a bygone era. Today, even more so given the increasing coarseness of public discourse. He was patrician, elitist and mannered to a fault. One example is his disdain for the egalitarianism of the welfare state:

The sacrifice of an attractive and gracious form of living on the part of the few is rationalized by the same arguments about better conditions for the many that have led to all these great and depressing urban accumulations, in Europe and elsewhere; but it is not the real reason for them…No, the sacrifice is the expression of the politics of envy…

Kennan served as a diplomat in Germany prior to the onslaught of the Second World War. Later, he served as deputy to Averell Harriman, ambassador to the Soviet Union. Kennan vividly recounts his travels both alone and with his Norwegian born wife throughout Europe, North Africa, Iran and the Soviet Union. His perspective as a US expatriate as his diplomatic career progressed provides the reader with a glimpse of both the US and the Soviet Union and their allies during the interim period prior to the Cold War. His ‘sketches’ of the day-to-day lives of citizens living on either side of the Cold War are sensitive and insightful.

Given his unique vantage point in history, Kennan’s observations of how his own country changed – often to his dismay – provide the reader with a unique insight. It can be described as a sort of reverse culture shock, a phenomenon expatriates come face to face with when returning home. In the United States, day-to-day customs and habits disappointed him while he represented it on the international stage:

I am startled, as I look over these items, to note the bleakness of the impressions of my own country. A reader might think that I saw only ugliness, vulgarity, and deterioration.

On the other hand, his love of the Russian people, as opposed to his visceral hate of the Soviet government is highlighted by the following passage:

When a people finds itself in the hands of a ruthless authoritarian regime which will stop at nothing, it finds itself beyond the power of others to help.

In response to this, Kennan goes on to describe, almost unintentionally, his policy of containment:

This being the case, what does he do? The answer is anybody’s. But I, for my part, should have thought, with the sights and sounds of Siberia still vivid in my mind, that in these circumstances he would be wisest to try neither to help nor to harm – to make plain to Soviet policy-makers the character of his own aspirations, the limits of his patience, and the minimum conditions on which he can envisage polite neighborly relations with them – and then leave the Russian people – encumbered neither by foreign sentimentality nor foreign antagonism – to work out their destiny in their own peculiar way.

Kennan’s memoir was published thirty years ago, on the cusp of the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War. It is a deeply personal account of an era fading further into the past. Yet, given the current challenges to the status quo from Russia coupled with a possible retrenchment of the US hegemon from NATO, is it time to consider a renewed containment strategy for Russia, and if so, who will step into the breach?