'Kennan Diaries' offer look into astute mind of diplomat

THE KENNAN DIARIES. By George F. Kennan (author), Frank Costigliola (editor). Norton. 768 pages. $39.95.

November 7, 1927: "Yesterday was a rainy Sunday. I walked down to the post office, in the morning, and ran into a huge communist demonstration, thousands and thousands of people standing in the drizzling rain before the Dammtor Station, with their red flags and arm bands, listening to soap-box orators, singing the Internationale, marching behind sickly fife and drum organizations, buying propaganda literature, and Sacco-Vanzetti postcards." So wrote 23-year old George F. Kennan in one of the earliest entries in the new collection "The Kennan Diaries." He had recently joined the Foreign Service and was stationed in Hamburg, Germany, just beginning a long and distinguished diplomatic career.

George Kennan is not exactly a household name these days. Yet he was perhaps the most influential diplomat of the last century; he was an ambassador, a presidential adviser, historian, political analyst and writer. Kennan, who died at the age of 101 in 2005, witnessed nearly the entire 20th century. The recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, and numerous other awards and prizes for his diplomatic and historical work, he also was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, twice each.

Kennan is best known for his "long telegram" sent to Truman in 1946 from Moscow where he was the assistant ambassador, and for his subsequent 1947 article in "Foreign Affairs" written under the pseudonym "X" and often referred to as the "X" article. These two writings helped serve as a catalyst for Truman's Cold War policy against the Stalin-led Soviet Union.

The article introduced the concept of containment that became central to Truman's, and then Eisenhower's, Cold War strategies against the USSR. Kennan served as Truman's ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952.

Despite his concern about the Soviet Union's expansionism, Kennan was very critical of Truman's approach to foreign policy and arms buildup. He became persona non grata after disagreements with Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state. Kennan also was disappointed that the Eisenhower administration had little use of his knowledge and expertise of the Soviet Union. He remained critical of the massive buildup of arms under Eisenhower. He found a relatively receptive ear in President Kennedy and became JFK's ambassador to Yugoslavia.

After leaving his post as ambassador in 1963, Kennan devoted much of his time to scholarship, though he remained an influential voice behind the scenes. He was a staunch critic of American involvement in Vietnam and was an early supporter of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy.

The diary is divided into years with a paragraph of narrative from the editor preceding each section. The editor has chosen approximately 680 of more than 8,000 pages of diary entries that Kennan wrote. Unfortunately, there are huge gaps and some major events are never mentioned. From the diary we do not know his feelings on the death of FDR, Germany's surrender to the Allies, or the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - all in 1945. Nor are there any entries related to the assassinations of Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. This leads the reader to believe that Kennan was not a diligent diarist, which seems at odds with the number of pages he authored.

The gaps also prevent anything like a narrative; this does not read like an autobiography. But Kennan is a good writer and a keen observer of foreign policy matters. The diaries act best as a supplement to John Lewis Gaddis' definitive, Pulitzer-Prize winning biography "George F. Kennan: An American Life" (Penguin Press, 2011).

Kennan can seem overly critical at time. Reading the diaries, it can feel as though he has little good to say about anyone or anything, including himself. About life as a diplomat: "The Foreign Service is pure drudgery. Its sole merit is that it pays a cash income. Otherwise it has no significance." Regarding his own place: "I am beginning to believe that Mr. Dulles was quite right to fire me. People don't want such characters as myself in government, and it runs very well without us."

Kennan made many astute observations, and while always a patriot, he didn't pull punches about the government of his own country. The 84-year old wrote, regarding the American government's need for a villain: "The American political establishment conceives of itself as an actor on a stage facing an audience, which is American opinion, and enacting some sort of a passion play. It has cast itself in the role of a knight in shining armor, championing the cause of the innocent virtuous maiden, which is the American people. For this role to achieve plausibility there is require a foil, an Evil Spirit, a wicked sorcerer. ... This is a stage drama, not a reality. It is the appearance of victory they are after, not victory itself."

A few minor annoyances include an inadequate timeline at the beginning of the book; there is a list of major characters, some of whom are barely mentioned; and index entries often list page numbers that are notes, but are not notated as such. There is an 18-page Introduction that provides a bare-bones overview of Kennan's career for those unfamiliar with him.

November 20, 2001 (one of the final entries a 97-year old Kennan, ever the critic, writes of early post-9/11 America): "I will not worry further about the multiple, unnecessary, and grave dangers into which Mr. Bush is now so lightheartedly leading us. I am like someone on a ship crossing a great ocean. I know that the course taken by those on the bridge is dreadfully incorrect, but having been neither consulted nor allowed to feel that my opinion, even if volunteered, would be welcome or respected. ... I can only be inwardly prepared for what is coming, and mumble helplessly, as did the discarded and dying Bismarck, 'Wehe meinen Enkeln.' (God help my grandchildren)."

The last entry in the diary was 10 days before his 100th birthday. He did not write in his last year, but he left behind a legacy and a body of work that will continue to be studied and appreciated.

Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.