One of 20th-century America’s most significant diplomats offers a window into his inner life and private concerns, fears and dreams.
With an eye to posterity, Kennan (1904–2005) assiduously kept a diary for nearly 90 years, compiling thousands of pages on everything from his impressions of Soviet leaders to notes on wave patterns in the North Atlantic. Costigliola (History/Univ. of Connecticut; Roosevelt's Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, 2011, etc.) has selected the most representative and revealing passages for this dauntingly thick but eminently readable volume. In this age of ubiquitous social networking and oversharing, it seems remarkable that Kennan could write so much, about so many topics, without being dull or self-absorbed, but nearly every entry contains a perspicacious observation or insight. His dry wit is evident from the earliest years: At Princeton, he complained of an assigned book, “[i]t is really a great aid in the allopathic treatment I am taking this spring to cure my imaginative tendency, because it takes real assiduous mental concentration to dope a sentence out of it.” Displaying a tendency toward self-doubt that he hid in his confident public pronouncements and publications, Kennan’s diary entries evince an enduring belief that he could never quite live up to the goals he had set for himself. As early as 1959, he fretted that “[t]he Western world, at least, must today be populated in very great party [sic] by people like myself who have outlived their own intellectual and emotional environment.” Inexorably drawn again to Russia and endowed with an aesthetic and humanist imagination much broader than the State Department could contain, Kennan’s life’s work was, more than any political squabble, a searching for the “answer to the universal question of this wistful, waiting Russian countryside.”
Students of modern history will take great interest in this work, which ably straddles the frontiers of the personal, political and philosophical.