The Poetic, Impractical Conservatism of a Cold War Strategist

By Zakaria, Fareed | International New York Times, February 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Poetic, Impractical Conservatism of a Cold War Strategist


Zakaria, Fareed, International New York Times


"The Kennan Diaries" illuminates the life and career of George F. Kennan, the most celebrated diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century and brilliant author of the strategy of containment that won the Cold War.

The Kennan Diaries.By George F. Kennan. Edited by Frank Costigliola.Illustrated. 712 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $39.95.

"All conservatism begins with loss," Andrew Sullivan writes. "If we never knew loss, we would never feel the need to conserve." That's why the first and still canonical conservative text is Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," a lamentation on the uprooting of that country's monarchical order. And that's why America, as an experiment in modernity, hasn't had many genuine conservatives in its history.

The so-called conservative founding fathers, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were in fact creators of a new and radical system of government. The 19th-century Whigs -- Webster, Clay and Calhoun -- sometimes seen as conservatives, were aggressive proponents of capitalist development. Even many Southerners who argued for slavery were advocating an economic system that kept them rich, enthusiastically embracing the trade and modern technology that made slavery so profitable. And contemporary conservatism -- which began as a reaction to the progressive era and the New Deal -- has always mixed dynamic capitalism with moralism.

Given this background, "The Kennan Diaries" is an illuminating, fascinating and sometimes disturbing book. George F. Kennan was the most celebrated diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century, the brilliant author of the strategy of containment that the United States adopted and that won the Cold War. For most of his life he was seen as a strategist and -- because he was dovish on most foreign policy issues -- a liberal. As these diaries make clear, he spent much of his life thinking about political philosophy. And his instincts and insights were deeply conservative, but in a way that doesn't really fit into today's left-right categories.

"I cannot help but regret that I did not live 50 or 100 years sooner," he wrote in one of his entries. "Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them ... too many friends to have any real friendships, too many books to know any of them well, and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception, gone before we have time to consider them."

It's a vivid expression of a deep, instinctual conservatism, especially when you consider that it was written in December 1927.

In keeping with a long tradition of conservatism, Mr. Kennan mourned the loss of small communities with their sense of common purpose. In 1938, while working at the State Department, he took a brief leave and bicycled through rural Wisconsin, the state he grew up in, and recalled how the small villages he moved through had often rallied together, in the wake of floods, hurricanes and war, and how modern life, with its emphasis on individualism, was eroding that sense of solidarity. Seventeen years later, he surveyed his country -- the booming, urbanizing America of the 1950s -- with disgust: "I could leave it without a pang: the endless streams of cars, the bored, set faces behind the windshield, the chrome, the asphalt, the advertising, the television sets, the filling stations, the hot-dog stands, the barren business centers, the suburban brick boxes, the country clubs, the bars and grills, the empty activity."

He saw a dark side in almost all the advances of modern life, especially cars and airplanes. On the former: "The best thing is travel by turnpike -- at night, a wholly useless exercise, to be sure -- hours of death subtracted from the hours of life, but better than seeing anything." "Flying (but particularly the airports) puts me into the nearest thing to a wholly psychotic depression," he explained. …

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