BOOK REVIEW / Hankering after a few wise men: 'Around the Cragged Hill' - George F Kennan: W W Norton, 16.50 pounds: Godfrey Hodgson on the personal and political testament of an American prophet

GEORGE KENNAN, a diplomat in the United States embassy in Moscow, in 1946 sent to the State Department what became known as 'the long telegram'. It was 8,000 words long, and it was stark. It warned the American political leadership that the wartime era of cosy relations with the 'gallant Soviet ally' was over, and that, in Stalin's Soviet Union, America was confronted with 'a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with (the) US there can be no permanent modus vivendi'.

Later that same year, under the pseudonym 'X', Kennan repeated the message in plainer language in the usually solemn journal, Foreign Affairs. It boiled down to five words, which he actually used: 'Don't act chummy with them.'

Kennan knew the Soviet Union as well as any American, having studied it since the far-off days, in the late 1920s, when he was one of a handful of Americans who learnt Russian and gathered intelligence from a 'listening post' in the Baltic states. When he, of all people, took this hard line he was hailed as a prophet, and as head of policy planning at the State Department, played an important part in devising the American strategy of 'containment' throughout the Cold War.

He soon began to change his mind, however, and when he wrote his memoirs, more than a quarter of a century ago, he said he re-read the long telegram with 'horrified amusement'. His ideas had become the ruling orthodoxy; but he himself had long abandoned them. As he pleaded for nuclear disarmament and more flexible diplomacy with the Soviet Union, he became something of a hero to American liberals.

Now, at the age of 88, Kennan offers us 'a personal and political philosophy' which shows how far he is from many of his admirers. The first part is the credo of an American conservative, not in the sense the word came to be misused in the Reagan years to mean one who believed in the dismantling of government and the sovereign creative powers of greed. Kennan's creed is that of an American Presbyterian gentleman, descended from English, Scots and Ulster Protestant stock who moved generation by generation from New England as far as Wisconsin.

It is, as the American creed itself is, an 18th century, rather than a 19th century philosophy. Kennan's intellectual world, for better or for worse, is untouched by the intellectual currents of the French Revolution, of socialism, of Marx, Freud, or of modernism in any of its myriad forms. He dismisses the sexual and affective life in terms reminiscent of the 18th century Lord Chesterfield, who warned his son that 'the position was undignified, the pleasure momentary and the expense damnable'.

To read Kennan affords the sort of pleasure one might experience if some magical agency, Mephistopheles, say, or H G Wells, allowed one to take a glass of wine with Thomas Jefferson. He expresses views of civilised rationality, but also of breathtaking archaism, in prose of the soberest elegance. He dislikes the nation, an institution over-endowed with power in his estimation by the French Revolution, an event with which he has no sympathy whatever. He alludes to his 'extreme dislike of all masses of screaming, chanting, flag-waving and fist- shaking people, regardless of the cause', in terms which suggest he has never felt angry enough about the world and its injustices to shake his fist. And he makes that most suspect of disclaimers: 'I have no ideology at all.' When a man says that, he means, 'I have no ideology except my own ideology, which is self-evident'.

Like a true conservative - as opposed to business-booster pseudo-conservatives - Kennan is not happy about what has happened to the US. He speaks of America as 'tragedy', even as 'a pitiable spectacle'. What is it that he finds tragic and pitiable?

He is not happy about the egalitarianism he sees in his country. He hopes that domestic service will be preserved. He believes immigration should be restricted, lest the US suffers the fate of Italian cities on the Dalmatian coast, like Ragusa, which invited Slav peasants to do their dirty work, until they found themselves expelled from their own city.

He opposes the busing of children to schools to achieve racial integration. 'I see no intrinsic virtue in the melting pot as such.' These are all attitudes an elderly person can readily be forgiven for broaching over the dinner table to old friends or over the breakfast table to his wife. They are hardly relevant to a political philosophy for a multinational country that is, to its credit, now deeply committed in principle to pluralism and equality of opportunity, however far it falls short of those ideals in practice.

We may share Kennan's distaste for politicians who are 'pandering to the material comforts of the great masses of the people'. But that is exactly the kind of politicians the American voters, like British voters, keep hoping they will find. We may notice, as he does, 'a certain lack of modesty in the national self-image', but a certain lack of modesty about America is just what Americans liked about leaders as different as Kennedy, Reagan and Bush, and the one thing they never forgave Carter was that they thought he was too modest about the American image.

When it comes to proposals of amendment, Kennan is also out of touch with the strongest currents in contemporary America. He regrets the pervasive effects of an automobile society, and he detests advertising. He is right that the automobile disperses and divides where the railway created communities, smoky and unjust though they were. And he is right that the truth of communications is tainted by their association with advertising of which the best that one can say is that truth is not its first priority. But does Kennan advocate a return to horses, buggies and town criers?

He indulges the pleasant fancy that the US might be divided into a dozen semi- autonomous states, as if oblivious of the elemental social and economic forces that have been working for generations to forge those sub-nations into one culture. And his proposal for a Council of State, with unspecified powers, recruited from men of wise judgement and independence sounds sadly like a hankering after the days when he and men like George Marshall, Dean Acheson and their peers stood at the elbows of President Truman.

Let us honour George Kennan for his intellectual courage and integrity over a career of almost two-thirds of a century in the service of the US. Let us share, if we will, his nostalgia for a simpler, homespun republic guided by the ethics of restraint and the deism of the Scottish Enlightenment. But let us face the fact that time, like an ever-rolling stream, is bearing that Presbyterian republic away into oblivion. We may well regret it. But the age of the Wise Men has gone.

An age of national self-examination, commercial hype, post-industrial technology, suburban culture and Third World immigration has succeeded. This is almost the last time we will hear the civilised - if unmistakeably complacent - accents of the prophet as great American gentleman.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory