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Unhappy Warrior

Ivor Roberts
The Kennan Diaries, by George F Kennan and Frank Costigliola, WW Norton, 768 pp, £28, ISBN: 978-0393073270 At a time when there is so much loose talk of a re-emergence of Cold War, it is enlightening to remind ourselves how the original one began, as seen through the eyes of one of its founding fathers. George Kennan is far less well-known on this side of the Atlantic than he deserves to be. One of the most distinguished US public servants in the broadest sense of the twentieth century, he kept a diary for eighty-eight years, starting during the First World War as an eleven-year-old and finishing as a centenarian after the ill-fated Iraq war. He is best known for articulating the policy of containment “designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world”, a policy which was regarded as the lodestone for western policy-makers during the Cold War, the foundation of the Truman doctrine of support both military and economic for any regime facing a communist or Soviet threat. But if all this suggests that he was a twenty-four-carat member of the Cold Warrior club, nothing could be further from the truth. While he was instrumental in launching the Cold War, he believed in containment as a political not a military confrontation, and in a respectful rather than antagonistic relationship with the Russians. He argued from the late nineteen forties onwards that it would have been possible to end the Cold War by withdrawing US and Soviet forces from Europe and reunifying Germany. He was moreover a consistent anti-interventionist, a realist rather than moralist, who decried attempts to export Western-style democracy throughout the world. He retired from the State Department in 1953 at the age of fifty and spent another fifty years writing and lecturing on international affairs. While lionised in many US and foreign capitals, he was constantly frustrated at the way his policy advice, as far as successive US administrations were concerned, fell on stony ground. His largely gloomy diaries, expertly and sensitively marshalled by Frank Costigliola, bear witness to this profound sense of frustration and disappointment, not just with US governments but increasingly with US society, from which he became substantially alienated. Kennan was born into a bookish Milwaukee family: his father was a lawyer: his mother died of peritonitis…



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