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
Saturday 17 April 1993
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.
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