The literary critic I. A. Richards was famous for asking students to evaluate a poem without first knowing the identity of its creator. This technique produced strikingly bold and heterodox judgments. A similar strategy might be usefully employed on readers of public affairs and political thought. Deprived of the knowledge that such-and-such writing is the work of John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, William E Buckley, Amitai Etzioni, Jeremy Rilkin, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or James Fallows, the reader would simply confront an array of titles and texts. The result might be a refreshing new sense of where convergencies and differences lie, a revisioning of the spectrum of positions and persuasions.
But how might such a reader react to Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy? Here is a book with the following discomforting elements: (1) an argument for a theology that deprives God of any responsibility for creating and sustaining the natural order in which we are “compelled” to live; (2) a description of the sex act as “brief, bestial, and potentially humiliating, so much so as to require elaborate rituals for concealment, disguise, cant, and prevarication just in order to be made even approximately compatible with the decencies of normal social intercourse”; (3) the suggestion that the United States would be better off if reorganized as a system of nine “constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment”; (4) an appeal for a revitalization of the institution of domestic service on the grounds that there are people “for whom service in or around the home pretty well exhausts their capabilities for contributing to the successful functioning of a society”; (5) an indictment not only of television but also of “radio, the rock-and-roll cassette player, the movie, [and] even the passive watching of sport in the open.
Assuming that our naive reader had not in fact abstained from cinematic pleasures, she might at this point paraphrase a famous Western: “Who is this guy?” Indeed, who would dare to include in the same relatively short volume chapters on “Man, the Cracked Vessel,” “Faith,” “Dimensions” (on the disadvantages of bigness), “Egalitarianism and Diversity,” and “Foreign Policy, Military”? Who would—in the book’s epilogue—describe himself in words as oblique and fey as these?
Eccentric as might be the figure he presented on the present national scene—esoteric in its social and cultural origin, slightly dépoysé by the many years spent abroad, and colored by membership in a generation now close to total disappearance—he still thought of himself as an American (what else could he be?) and felt some sense of responsibility in that capacity.
The answer to these questions is, of course, George Kennan. And because that is the answer, making light of Around the Cragged Hill is simply impossible. For as Peter de Leon has rightly said, George Kennan is “a national asset.”
Kennan’s contribution is a threefold one. First, as a career diplomat, he exercised decisive influence on the entire course of postwar foreign policy. An expert on Germany, the Baltic States, and the Soviet Union, he produced the famous 1946 “Long Telegram” from the embassy in Moscow and the 1947 “X- article” in Foreign Affairs that laid the intellectual basis for the Cold War strategy of containment. Kennan here depicted the Soviets as inherently expansionist, needing to be “firmly contained at all times by counter-pressure which makes it constantly evident that attempts to break through this containment would be detrimental to Soviet interests.”
Kennan’s early analysis seems particularly prescient in light of the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. He believed that expansionism was necessary to mask the profound weaknesses and pathologies of Soviet society. These had pre-Marxist origins, but that ideology—especially in its glorification of the Communist Party—could serve the interests of post-Czarist despots like Joseph Stalin. By countering both the international machinations of the Communist Party and the specific thrusts of the Red Army, the West would force the Soviet Union to rely upon its own resources. Since these were inherently faulty, Kennan claimed, “Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.”
Kennan’s second contribution has been as a diplomatic historian. After serving as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1951-1952, he retired from the Foreign Service. His hopes for an appointment as secretary of state were thwarted both by his enmity toward John Foster Dulles and by the failure...
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