The Human Kennan

A giant of the 20th century died on Thursday, March 17. George F. Kennan lived for 101 years. Many things will be said of Kennan this week: He was a leading thinker of our time, the founding father of containment, one of the so-called “wise men,” an adviser to presidents, an architect of the Cold War. He was Mr. X. It was Eric Sevareid who called him “America’s most professional diplomat and our foremost scholar of Russia.”

On the other hand, his ambiguities frustrated both defenders and detractors: By the 1980s, Mr. X had seemingly transformed himself into a Mr. Y, or Mr. Z., or Mr. Mystery. The one-time Cold Warrior now seemed to be naively soft on the Soviets.

Yet, these descriptions deal with Kennan professionally—strictly professionally. I suspect that the human side of Kennan will not be told in the days ahead; it never has been. It is typical for Kennan biographers to begin his story with his first job in the Career Service, skipping his intriguing early life. From there, they continue the blunder, focusing exclusively on his career and foreign policy thoughts, mainly regarding Russia. Underneath lay the real Kennan we never knew.

To be fair, it is almost impossible to separate Kennan from Russia. He was born on February 16, 1904 in Milwaukee. Coincidentally, that day his hometown Milwaukee Sentinel carried five front-page articles on Russia. Russia also took up headlines that day in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and London Times. The latter two featured a report about an important Russian telegram warning about Japanese patrol boats operating in the Russo-Japanese War. This was hardly the first time an important telegram from Russia would be related to Kennan’s life.

In short, on the day the century’s top Russia expert was born, Russia dominated the news. George F. Kennan was born with Russia. The connection began on day one.

Still, the human Kennan, divorced from Russia, remains long neglected. There are many interesting stories from his personal life. I’ll offer the following, which seems especially appropriate in light of his demise:

Nearly 50 years ago, on a warm summer day, July 16, 1955, a 51-year old Kennan—by then famous throughout the world—paid a visit to his parents’ gravesite amid Wisconsin’s rolling greens. His mother had been struck down by death two months after his birth. He never knew her. He left for the graves in midmorning, crawling through dense after-church traffic. He arrived at the Forest Home Cemetery. He called it a “day of dreams.” He said that he wandered aimlessly among the hills and curving, crisscrossing paths. He had no idea where the graves were. “Father, Father, where are you?” he cried out. He could sense his parents’ nearness.

Eventually, George found his mom and dad. He gazed wistfully at his mother’s grave: “Here, buried and helpless, lay all the love that could not be expended—all the tenderness that could not be bestowed.” He longed: “Dear Mother, it must have been hard and bitter for you to leave your little children. We have all held you, in retrospect, in a sort of awed adoration—our ever-young, dead mother, beautiful, unworldly, full only of love and grace for us, like a saint. In imagination, we have received all you would have given us. Pity, only, that we with our youth could not have borne some of your frailty – could not have breathed back into you some of the strength you once gave us. May our love, somehow or other, reach you.”

George had, after so long, come physically close to his mother. Of all the thousands of words he wrote in his lengthy life, these are perhaps the most powerful, trumping all those historic foreign-policy tracts. Here was not Kennan the dispassionate policy analyst, but Kennan the desolate boy.

He was beckoned back a year later in August 1956. As the diplomat sat at the foot of his parents’ graves, he said it seemed like they called out to him: “[G]o your way as best as you can; do not ask too many questions; it will not be long before you join us.” In an eternal calendar, it may not have been long. By earthly count, however, it would be quite some time—a half-century to go. This week, George joined his mom and dad.

This was the Kennan that eluded us. In always reaching for a foreign-policy lens to view him, we missed a lot. In thinking of him in death, we should not repeat our narrow mistakes on him in life.

Indeed, Kennan the historian persistently issued warnings about getting history right. He emphasized the need for a more complete picture in knowing the Soviets. He didn’t speak merely of borders and leaders and troops. He wrote of language, of poets, of Dostoyevsky, of Prokofiev, of the nature of Bolshevism. We, too, should at last strive for a more complete picture in knowing the real George F. Kennan—especially this week.