The Man Who Knew Russia Best: George Kennan’s Revealing Diaries

What would America’s most insightful strategist of Russia make of the invasion of Crimea? A new collection of his diaries reveals much about the man and his fine mind.


George Frost Kennan, America’s most influential 20th century diplomat, wouldn’t have been at all surprised by Russia’s recent military incursion into Ukraine. Indeed, it could very well be said that he predicted such a development as early as 1997. “I have been rendered most unhappy,” wrote the former US Ambassador to Moscow, by the admission of “Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to membership in NATO.”

How was such a development “to be reconciled with the assurances to the Russians that they need not worry, that the extension of NATO’s borders to the east has no military implications?” Indeed, Kennan saw nothing in the rapid and reckless expansion of NATO “other than a new Cold War, probably ending in a hot one, and the end of the effort to achieve a workable democracy in Russia.”

By that point, Kennan had been worrying about US-Russian relations for well over half a century. And he had shaped the course of those relations profoundly. As the number two man in the American embassy in Moscow in the waning days of World War II, Kennan waged a lonely crusade to persuade his superiors, especially the ailing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to remove their rose-colored glasses and see Russia for what it was, not what they wished it to be.

Stalin had proved an indispensable ally, the conventional thinking in the FDR administration went. Surely he intended to honor his commitments to respect the freedom and self-determination of all peoples in shaping the postwar world, regardless of Marxism’s doctrinal hostility to the democratic capitalism? Surely, he should be dealt with in a spirit of cooperation, and granted massive American aid for reconstruction, along with the other allies?

As every casual student of the postwar era knows, it took about a year after the War ended in Europe for those illusions to be put rest. Kennan did more than any other individual to bury them. On February 22, 1946, not long after Stalin’s “iron curtain” had descended over Eastern Europe, Kennan fired off to Washington the longest telegram in American diplomatic history. In 5000 words, with laser-like precision, he described the nature of postwar Soviet foreign policy, locating its sources deep in imperial Russia’s long history of expansionism and paranoia about the intentions of foreign powers. Then—as if that wasn’t enough for one telegram—he proceeded to lay out a brilliantly conceived counterstrategy for the United States.

Stalin, said Kennan, would paint the capitalist West out to be an implacable enemy of the Soviet state, bent on its humiliation and destruction. He was deeply hostile to the West, especially the United States. “We have here [in the Kremlin],” wrote Kennan, “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life destroyed ... if Soviet power is to be secure.”

Nonetheless, there was reason for optimism. The new Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was composed of proud and talented peoples who would not submit to the Soviet domination forever. Marxism was a doctrine of alluring but false promises. Taken all together, the Soviets possessed a lousy political system. In time, it would inevitably collapse of its own weight.

In view of these realities, the United States “must pursue a policy of long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” through “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of continually shifting geographical and political points.”

The “long telegram” changed everything, and fast. Everyone important in the Truman administration read it. Virtually everyone, certainly Harry Truman, believed it. In a matter of weeks, “containment” became the master American strategy for the waging the Cold War. And so it remained for the next 45 years.

George Kennan would go on to play a pivotal role in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the postwar reconstruction of Japan, and the reconfiguration of the disjointed foreign policy planning process in Washington. After leaving the State Department in the early 1950s following a short stint as ambassador to the Soviet Union, he returned to Princeton University, where he had been an undergraduate, and took up a second, equally celebrated career as a scholar, public intellectual, and behind-the-scenes foreign policy “wise man.”

Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did the prophetic brilliance Kennan’s ideas come fully into view. Just as Kennan predicted, the Soviet Union had imploded. Democratic capitalism had won the Cold War not with a bang, but a whimper.

Yet as Frank Costigliola’s irresistibly readable The Kennan Diaries makes plain, for all the recognition he received for his work as a diplomat, George Kennan was deeply ambivalent about diplomacy as a profession. The Foreign Service paid more attention, Kennan claimed, to “backslapping cordiality with members of [local] governments and diplomatic corps than on the real work of the mission.”

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But then again, George Frost Kennan was a deeply introspective man. Like the Puritan ancestors he never succeeded in escaping, he found fault with just about everything, especially himself. Aspirations always fell short of achievements. Insecurities abounded, and Kennan, it seems, pretty much always had his knickers in a twist about something. As one close friend remarked, “It isn’t easy being George Kennan.”

For those who knew him best, he remained a study in contradiction. He was an “idealist and a realist at the same time,” said his close friend, the British Diplomat Frank Roberts. Kennan clearly thirsted to be among the common people wherever he found himself. In these well-sculptured diary entries, he seems to drink up their energies and yearnings with great feeling, but he was also a first-class intellectual snob with a clear preference for meritocracy over democracy. He took a dim view of the impact of Latinos and Blacks on America’s WASP culture core.

The diary is a compelling and extraordinarily rich chronicle. It served its author as very much more than a place to record private observations about the events of the day. Here he worked out much of his thinking on the weighty moral and geopolitical issues of the postwar world, and here he reflected on his own failures and successes, personal and political. Castigliola deserves high praise for turning 8000 pages of raw material into an accessible, inviting book that skillfully balances insights into the public and private man.

There’s no quarrelling with his assertion that the entries were “written in elegant, insightful prose.” Next to Lincoln, it’s hard to think of any government official in American history who wrote so evocatively. Kennan had a passionate, lifelong interest in the craft of writing, and the diary was clearly a place to hone his craft. He was something of a frustrated poet, and a keen observer of landscapes, both physical and moral.

As Kennan drove down out of the hills to Frankfurt not long after the Big War, he saw that “the sky was still bright in the west and the stars were out. In the villages people were out strolling, enjoying the first evening of fine spring weather. There was brisk vehicular traffic all along the road, and most of it German. I thought of the whole ... area stretching off behind us in the dusk; and it seemed to me that you could hear the great low murmur of human life beginning to stir again, beginning to recapture the rhythm of work and life and change, after years of shock and prostration ... Nothing could keep them from seeking again some outlet for the basic need of the human being to feel that he is doing something important and fruitful and necessary.” Moving stuff. The Kennan Diaries contains many other keenly observed descriptions of people, places, and events.

After serving as ambassador to Yugoslavia between 1961 and 1963, Kennan returned to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. For the remainder of the Cold War, as an academic and public intellectual, Kennan served as a trenchant critic of Washington’s application of the containment strategy. In frequent appraisals of America’s cold war initiatives, he invariably saw the hole rather than the donut. He despaired over the militarization of US foreign policy, and thought it foolish for the United States to challenge Communist adventurism in places like Vietnam, which hardly seemed a vital interest of the West. In Vietnam, and elsewhere, Kennan felt Washington shunted aside adroit political strategy and diplomacy in favor of a ham-fisted militarism.

He wrote at length about the dangers of the nuclear arms race. In 1982, as President Reagan’s pronouncements toward the Soviet Union became increasingly strident, Kennan noted that the “military policies and even more the rhetoric of these two great countries are on a collision course, and I feel quite helpless in the face of the situation.” The Soviet Union had “indulged in polemical exaggeration and distortion” for 60 years, “but what of my own government and its state of blind military hysteria?”

In his later years, he continued to lament his government’s disregard for the most constructive aspect of containment—the call to reinvigorate American society and democratic values by addressing the issues of poverty, racism, inequality, and the disintegration of a sense of common purpose and community. Here, it seems the personal was inextricably intertwined with the political, for Kennan often wrote—and dreamed—about the beauty and happiness that only community could provide, but in an immensely productive life of just over a hundred years, he never seemed to have escaped what one friend called “a haunting sadness, deep in him.”

With these Diaries, then, Mr. Kennan has come through one last time with a book that illuminates in intricate and imaginative ways not only his times, but himself.