Books

I used to like George Kennan. Then I read his diaries

A review of The Kennan Diaries, edited by Frank Costiliogla. Has America ever produced a nastier, more snobbish bore?

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

The Kennan Diaries Frank Costiliogla (ed)

W.W. Norton, pp.688, £28

George Kennan, the career diplomat and historian best known for his sensible suggestion that the United States try to resist the Soviet Union ‘without recourse to any general military conflict’, is much in vogue these days, at least in Washington, where Senator Rand Paul is presenting Kennan’s theory of ‘containment’ as an alternative to George W. Bush’s disastrous, and disastrously expensive, ‘war on terror’. Now, after two recent biographies and a volume of correspondence, comes a selection of Kennan’s diaries: 684 pages (not including notes) out of some 8,000 extant, covering a span of 87 years — the longest chronological period of any published diary of which I am aware.

The longest, chronologically, and probably the most boring diary I have ever read. Unlike the great diarists — Greville, Nicolson, Lees-Milne — Kennan writes very little about others. His diary is a record of himself, a Domesday book of the acres and perches he has surveyed in his own head: a wide range of ambitions, complaints, masturbatory fantasies, unpublished literary criticism, amateurish verse (‘Beauty is but a rank, eternal lie! / A flower which, only sought, will fade and die’).

Above all it is a collection of cocksure opinions. And what opinions they are! From America (‘an accumulation of millions of individual philistines’) to Zionism (‘nothing to be gained by starting in that direction’) we now know what Kennan thought about nearly everything. The main thing I have taken away from his opinions is that he was very tedious and even more unpleasant. How unpleasant? Here he is writing from Latvia in July 1932, a month before the Nazis won their first general election:

Nothing good can come out of modern civilisation, in the broad sense. We have only a group of more or less inferior races, incapable of coping adequately with the environment which technical progress has created. . . This situation is essentially a biological one. No amount of education and discipline can effectively improve conditions as long as we allow the unfit to breed copiously and to preserve their young. Yet there is no political faction in the world which has any thought of approaching the problem from the biological angle.

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The ellipsis comes from the editor, Frank Costigliola, and the mind reels to think what it might omit. Later that year, in December, with Hitler a month and a half away from becoming chancellor, the problem is capitalism, which ‘entails democracy’: ‘I believe in dictatorship, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat. The proletariat, like a well-brought up child, should be seen and not heard.’ It is hard to imagine a better example of what is usually called ‘situational irony’. A pity that Kennan, who served the state department in Berlin from 1929 to 1931, and again from 1939 to 1941, failed to get his hands on a certain best-selling memoir published in the middle of the previous decade: all his worries might have been assuaged.

Though the word ‘eugenics’ does not appear once in John Lewis Gaddis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning authorised biography, this morbid interest in the ethics of reproduction seems to have been with Kennan for most of his life. Here he is at Princeton, aged 20, arguing with a friend called ‘Army’, whose identity Costigliola does not reveal:

He half-converted me to his ‘extermination of the lower races’ idea. I cannot see why it is wrong in principle, although, like most sound theories, it seems impossible when one thinks of the practical difficulties. However, I’m a theorist as long as I’m in college, and as long as possible afterwards. On with free trade & birth control!

Well into his forties he is prattling on about ‘the decline of the race’, and more than half a century later, in May 1987, he’s still at it: ‘Men having spawned more than two children will be compulsively sterilised. Planned parenthood and voluntary sterilisation will be in every way encouraged’ — this under the heading ‘What, if I had my way, would be done in place of what is being done’.

Harold Nicolson thought that diarists ‘should have a remote, but not too remote, audience’ in mind. Who, I wonder, will want to see scorn heaped on ‘the Soviet dissidents, so-called’ and the case made for banning newspaper advertisements? I opened these diaries with a more or less favourable impression of their author, and closed them questioning my beliefs in the many areas in which I agree with him. Is restraint in foreign policy a bad thing? Have most of America’s major cities really become hopelessly ugly? Is Vermont, whose good people produce 5.5 per cent of the world’s maple syrup, ready to become a sovereign republic? One can no longer be sure. If only I had George Kennan’s dull, unflagging confidence.

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Show comments
  • awfulorv

    One of todays larger problems seems to be that there are far too many jerks, certain that their viewpoint is the right one, per monitor

  • tonguetiedfred

    Eugenics and culling of “inferior races” was incredibly popular among the intelligentsia before Hitler made it unpopular and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it still is popular, just not spoken of in front of the help anymore…

    • Jambo25

      One of the things which we now no longer like to admit is that the strongest opposition to truly batty and dangerous ideas such as eugenics came from people who are now deeply unfashionable: that is Christians.

  • lukelea

    Presentism of the worst kind, this reviewer represents. And surely he does not find Kennan boring so much as he finds his opinions — not so uncommon for his time and place — unacceptable. And for reasons that he does not even bother — or perhaps know how — to articulate.

  • supplyguy

    Why am I not surprised that someone who worked for the State Department held such awful views on race?
    What does surprise me is how the so-called inferior races still vote for people like him.

  • Peter_Akuleyev

    “Have most of America’s major cities really become hopelessly ugly?” Is that a rhetorical question? Certainly you have to admit Kennan was spot on in that judgement. Outside of New York, San Francisco and Boston American cities are horrible.

    • M_Young

      Boston? New York? Hopelessly ugly too, esp. the people.

  • M_Young

    Oh lord, he’s sinned against the Gods of the City — Zionism and the idiocracy of egalitarianism.

  • Paul Bingham

    The only pompous bore I see is the fag who wrote this article.

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    What a lovely attempt at a posthumous knife stab, mr. journo. Kennan was quite an interesting fellow, actually, and your attempts to portray him are as one-dimensional as the layout of your brain. Misquoting from a 700 page long diary to attack ONE of his views, at the times rather common, in terms of today’s ideology – which is about as likely to remain carven in stone as there is of you finding an integer c solution of a^3 + b^3 = c^3 – is a the work of a lowlife hack.

  • celtthedog

    I actually used to think very little of George Kennan, but since reading these diaries I recognize what a great man he was. He was spot on about almost everything.

  • Ashutosh Jogalekar

    This is the most biased and cherry-picked review of The Kennan Diaries that I have read so far. There’s so much more to Kennan’s writings than his thoughts on eugenics.

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