Review: 'Kennan Diaries' track diplomat's sweeping career, concerns

THE KENNAN DIARIES. By George F. Kennan. Edited by Frank Costigliola. Norton. 712 pages. $39.95.

George F. Kennan, America's consummate diplomat and a renowned Russia expert, entered the world of diplomacy when it was a practiced art, when ambassadors and consuls were fluent in the language of their assigned country and strove to understand its cultural background.

His diaries, begun when he was just 11 years old and continuing throughout his long life of 101 years, take us through a long sweep of history: two world wars, the Cold War, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan plus many other conflicts.

Editor and historian Frank Costigliola took on the remarkable task of sorting through a mountain of material in order to give us this close look at Kennan's life.

Kennan's life began in 1904, in Milwaukee, and it took him far and wide, though he remained a man of his time and place, a self-confessed WASP making remarks that would be construed as racist and snobbish today.

He graduated from Princeton in 1925 and joined the Foreign Service, He was stationed in several East European locations, including Berlin and Moscow, during the tumultuous years of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

It was June 1944 when Kennan finally won his most coveted assignment, serving under U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, W. Averell Harriman. This was where Kennan felt he belonged. He was fluent in Russian language and history, and felt a real affinity for the Russian people. (He was instrumental in aiding Stalin's daughter Svetlana in defecting to the U.S. in 1967.)

"We are allowing misunderstanding to grow up with the Russians, but simply through failure to take into account their psychology," he wrote.

As World War II was winding down, he became concerned about the restoration of Europe and the problems that could ensue if the project was not handled wisely.

"The French know exactly what they want and are quite unreasonable about it. We are the soul of reasonableness and have only the dimmest idea of what we are after," he wrote.

Politics, he complained, too often interfered with foreign policy, which ought to be handled "only by specialists and professionals."

"We persist in placing foreign affairs in the hands of amateurs," he wrote.

Kennan often was called a Cassandra because of the extraordinary prescience of many of his predictions. For example, in 1948 he despaired of Palestine and Israel ever coming to any "satisfactory" arrangement. In the same year, he wrote: "(We) Americans must realize that we cannot be the keepers and moral guardians of all the peoples in this world. We must become more modest, and recognize the necessary limits to the responsibility we can assume."

He might have been talking about some of today's problems. In 1931, he stated: "To the communists (Russian) compromise is ... repugnant. They acknowledge 'temporary retreats' but never compromises."

The diaries are not only about world problems. Costigliola has shown that Kennan delved deeply in the human condition, despaired of the possibility of nuclear war and contemplated his own depression, despondency and regrets, despite the awards - two Pulitzers, an Einstein Peace Prize, National Book Awards - that decorated his legacy.

In the end, Kennan felt that his advice was rarely taken.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer based in Charleston