George Kennan is a revered figure on the American intellectual scene. As a diplomat, he decisively influenced postwar foreign policy, articulating the Cold War strategy of “containment.” His later career as a diplomatic historian resulted in brilliant works. Kennan’s memoirs of his years as a diplomat constitute a standard for this genre. Kennan has also functioned as a brilliant gadfly. Seen as a “mystic,” “romantic,” and “alienated intellectual,” he is a biting critic of mass culture.
Part 1 is “an effort to call attention to certain congenital imperfections in human nature and to show how these affect, everywhere, the indispensable institutions of government and politics.” Kennan focuses here on psychic insecurity, sexual passion, susceptibility to collective egoisms, and the allure of the demonic. Kennan construes political reality as a place where individuals seek to cure their own insecurities through the exercise of power.
Part 2 discusses domestic problems in a rather reactionary fashion. Kennan laments the unavailability of household servants; decries forced desegregation; and argues for the concept of a social elite—a class deserving deference and respect because of the offices they hold. For Kennan, everything in America is too big: population, cities, bureaucracy, the deficit. Worse, Americans have become “a people of bad social habits.” They are “addicted” to the private automobile and accept both its community-destroying effects and its massive waste of resources. Television is a second addiction, which Kennan sees in the broader context of “the extensive domination of almost every kind of public communication by the advertisers.”
Kennan concludes by constructively proposing the creation of a “Council of State.” This body would take advantage of an untapped well of creative insight available in the personages of “ex-presidents, ex-cabinet members, ex-governors, former distinguished legislators or jurists, retired diplomats, and many others.” Elder leaders from business, the academy, journalism, and science would also be appointed.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, November 15, 1992, p.562.
Chicago Tribune. January 3, 1993, V, p.1.
Kirkus Reviews. LX, November 1, 1992, p.1355.
Library Journal. CXVIII, January, 1993, p.146.
The New York Review of Books. XL, February 11, 1993, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 3, 1993, p.7.
The New Yorker. LXVIII, February 8, 1993, p.113.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 7, 1992, p.52.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 21, 1993, p.17.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 11, 1993, p.11.