Sketches from a Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Very much in addition to his place as one of the more prominent American diplomats of the twentieth century, George F Kennan has enjoyed a considerable reputation as a historian, memoirist, and political commentator. As well the character and insight of his ideas have owed much to his position where, living at the vortex of major historical events, he was an observer of developments which were grasped only at second hand by certain political leaders and by the general public. The present work gives evidence of an unusual and highly refined temperament, possibly to a greater extent than would be inferred from his past writings. Viewed from a personal standpoint, Kennan’s career brought him to a number of varied locales, often during historical periods of storm and upheaval, and along the way his own experiences shaped and reinforced beliefs on wider issues. Although the reader should look first elsewhere for more forthright commentary on history and American foreign policy, the present work should supply some reflections on the sorts of persons and places which in small but memorable ways left impressions of some moment on Kennan. There is no stated theme or moral to this collection of diary notes and letters; while indeed some passages could be read for their own sake, on most counts this work is of interest largely for the additional light it casts on Kennan’s own life and thoughts.

George Frost Kennan, whose ancestors predominantly were Scottish and Irish immigrants, some of whom had settled in Wisconsin, was born in Milwaukee in 1904. His father, Kossuth Kent Kennan, had been an engineer and a tax lawyer; as a self- made man, he seemed to exemplify the virtues of dedication and self-restraint. After secondary education at a military academy and undergraduate studies at Princeton University, George Kennan entered the United States Foreign Service. Beginning in 1927 he served as a vice-consul in several European cities. It is from this point that the present work commences. Among the more interesting entries are those from the first part of the book which afford some glimpses of Europe and Russia on the eve of and during the onset of crises provoked by worldwide depression and the consolidation of power by the Soviet and Nazi dictatorships.

In Hamburg, toward the beginning of his first tour of duty abroad, Kennan saw a massive Communist demonstration that was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Quite apart from the cynical and manipulative impulses which lay behind the blandishments of Soviet propaganda, he was struck by the underlying sincerity, however naive it may have been, of the actual participants. At other junctures he speculated that liberal and conservative standpoints no longer possessed any direct and discrete appeal. For that matter he mused that the destructiveness of modern warfare could not easily be limited; but if the peoples of Europe also seemed less foreign to one another, specifically national characteristics could be sensed even at some remove from their original source. In 1929, during sojourns in Latvia and Estonia, Kennan reflected on the distinctively Russian qualities of churches, railway stations, and landscapes of the states, once part of the czarist empire, which were situated on the borders of the Soviet Union.

As part of his training Kennan completed two years of instruction in Russian studies at the University of Berlin; subsequently, when the United States recognized the Soviet government, in 1933, he accompanied the first American ambassador to Moscow and served there for about three and one half years. Presented here are some excerpts from his diary for 1936 when he traveled about in the countryside. At some points the darker and more authoritarian side of Soviet power could be seen, though briefly and in passing: He observed a convoy of convict laborers, flanked by guards, at work on the Moscow-Volga Canal. The tawdry and self-important manifestations of Soviet political propaganda, on the domestic front, were conspicuous enough, and could be found, for example, in a historical museum set inside what once had been a venerable monastery. During an air flight over southern Russia, however, Kennan pondered features of the landscape writers from the previous century had described. Various sights called back images of past ages, such as the droshky, or horse-drawn carriage that was still used as a means of transportation; on the other hand, modern amenities were not always in working order. This atmosphere, where time- honored customs and habits were readily apparent beyond the outward trappings of Soviet society, almost certainly led him to conclude that, as he expressed it in other works, Russian history and culture had left their impress on Soviet government and diplomacy.

After he had served for about a year in Washington, D.C., at the State Department—and after a brief interlude, discussed in some passages here, when he returned to Wisconsin on a vacation trip—Kennan was assigned to the American legation in Prague. He remained in Czechoslovakia for about a year, during that tragic period which followed the Munich crisis of 1938 and ended with the subjugation of that country by Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. To Kennan the quiet and serene Baroque towers of the Czech capital set against a cloudy and oddly ethereal autumn background furnished sights which seemed sadly misplaced in a setting where new and brutal demands had to be met. A letter to his sister, written from Prague some time after the actual events, set forth Kennan’s description of the day German tanks entered that city, in March, 1939. Kennan referred sadly to the ghosts of more heroic bygone ages while...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)