Thursday, January 19, 2012

Give it up for George Kennan

Posted By on 01.19.12 at 02:00 PM

There was an encounter. You were young, vital, full of ideas and enthusiasms. But you were nobody. He was old and spent, but he was a giant, an architect of the world you were born into. You will never forget the time you spent with him. But did he? In all the fullness of his life, did it mean much of anything to him at all?

Last November, New York Times reviewer Fred Kaplan began his critique of George F. Kennan: An American Life by observing, “This may be the most long-awaited single-volume biography ever.” The author, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, was a “renowned cold war historian.” Kennan, an American diplomat who’d died in 2005 at the age of 101, was “the author of the containment doctrine, which governed American foreign policy for a half-century, arguably prevented World War III and both predicted, and set the stage for, the crumbling of the Soviet empire.”

In two historic documents, Kennan counseled strength and patience. In his “long telegram” to President Truman in 1946 he wrote, “We here are convinced that never since termination of civil war have mass of Russian people been emotionally farther removed from doctrines of Communist Party than they are today. In Russia, party has now become a great and—for the moment—highly successful apparatus of dictatorial administration, but it has ceased to be a source of emotional inspiration." And in Foreign Affairs in 1947 he advised the U.S. to enter “with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm 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.”

But more than force was needed. At the same time America should,

...create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time. To the extent that such an impression can be created and maintained, the aims of Russian Communism must appear sterile and quixotic, the hopes and enthusiasm of Moscow's supporters must wane, and added strain must be imposed on the Kremlin's foreign policies. For the palsied decrepitude of the capitalist world is the keystone of Communist philosophy.

In short,

...the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power…

The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation. Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this.

Kennan did more than merely invoke our best traditions. In the minds of his admirers then and now, his counsel exemplified them.

In December Gaddis received an e-mail from Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin. An actor there named John Kishline had a story to tell.

Mr. Gaddis,

Back in the mid 90's, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist came to us in Theatre X and told us that George Kennan, a native Milwaukeean, was returning to appear at a symposium to be named for him. The hope was that it would be an inaugural event. The Mayor told us that rather than name a bridge or something after Kennan, would we like to adapt Kennan’s book, Sketches of a Life, into a theatre piece and present it at that time? Since we fancied ourselves theatrical anthropologists and had made about 50 plays from scratch by then, we said we'd give it a try.

Being ignorant of Kennan's life and work, we read Sketches and then everything else we could find and were overwhelmed by his intelligence, insight and sensitivity. We wrote him for permission to adapt the book and he later approved our script. We only edited his words, never adding anything except voice and an occasional action. We created a piece where 5 of us, men and women, moved about in a kind of library setting and told his stories, from Riga to Gorbachev. There was a bicycle ride on stage as he crossed Wisconsin and we added a few things like the X paper. All of us wore Cardigans and dark slacks. For some reason, it worked quite well and audiences were large and appreciative.

The Mayor loved it and the next year we wrote to George about trying to arrange a performance for him. He shied away from this idea, of course, but we persisted and finally arranged to take it to the Smithsonian and do it there for State Dept. people and other politicos. A conservative foundation paid the way, which was interesting given our twenty year record of political work across the U.S. and in Europe. Kennan agreed to come down and attend under the strict condition that there would be no recognition of his presence. The Mayor came along and introduced the piece.

There is a section from Sketches where he describes his return to Ripon College in the early 50's to speak. It was soon after his banishment from the State Dept. and Ripon was Joe McCarthy's back yard. After a lackluster lecture, he wrote of finding himself looking out the window of his father's old dorm room, where they had housed him. In a near blizzard, he asks out loud to his father's spirit if he has done right to choose the path that led him to this bleak point in his life. Then he wrote of hearing his father answer in his head to take heed of “the strength and indifference of the snow” and how that allowed him to go on. That phrase is the title of our play, so I had to get it right. It is a haunting and beautiful account and I had edited it and had to speak it from the front of the stage as if I stood at that window. As an actor, to make his words work, I had to get out of their way, to own them and not try to manufacture any false emotion. Another Milwaukee guy, Spencer Tracy, said, "Don't let them catch you acting." It was one of the most daunting performances I've ever had to give in my 40 professional years and 200 plays.

At the end, we bowed and they ended their applause. After a minute or two, down the aisle came George, smiling with tears on his cheeks, telling us what a wonderful play we'd made from his meager tales. We shook his hand and exchanged profound thanks for his great work and the chance to do ours. What a fine man. I am lucky to have been there and I look forward to reading your book.

Gaddis responded.

Dear Mr. Kishline —

Thanks for this. I knew about the dramatization of Sketches, both from what George told me at the time, and from the attached entry in his diary, which I thought you might be interested in seeing. The original is in the Mudd Library at Princeton. You'll see from this how thorough his diaries were, which confronted me with some painful dilemmas as to how much I could include in the biography within the space I had.

Unfortunately, I had to leave out the Theater X production—and much else from his later years. But it obviously evoked complicated emotions in him, as did so much else.

I very much appreciate your getting in touch.

Gaddis—as Kaplan told us in his Times review—had approached Kennan about writing his biography in 1981, when Kennan was 78. Kennan “ turned over mountains of papers, diaries, letters, even dream notebooks.” Eleven years later the life was still being lived, the diaries were still being written. (And Gaddis had promised not to published until after Kennan died, which is what Kaplan meant about "most long-awaited.") Gaddis attached to his e-mail to Kishline a pdf of the diary pages in which Kennan ruminated about Sketches. At the top of the first page were Kennan's two most recent entries, and Kishline observed how brief they were.

Apparently Kennan had little to do but monitor his health and regret that the world had lost so much of its appeal.

Tuesday, September 29, 1992

Health goes up and down: Sunday, poor; yesterday afternoon, surprisingly good. Today— so so.

This is a strange autum. There are moments of emptiness, dreariness, depression—partly the sense of the absence not only of any sort of political leadership but also of any cultural innovation or excitement. The automobile, the television, and the open-ended commercialization of all artisticand intellectual life, have tended to all that. But where, and what, is the answer?

Six days went by before he wrote again. But then he wrote five pages.

Kennan confessed to his diary that he had seen Sketches already, as a “rather dim and scratchy tape of it” had been sent to him at Princeton. The actors struck him as “well-intentioned caricatures of himself,” and he had trouble making out what they were saying, and yet he was so overwhelmed that it was necessary “to abandon the room at times to dry my own tears.”

He’d wrestled with his invitation to the Smithsonian performance. Yes, they were his words. But others had shaped them into drama. “If the performance went off well, I did not want to take, publicly, any of the credit. If it did not, I saw no reason why I . . . should be saddled with any of the opprobrium.”

Yet the company had created the show because they admired him. Could he turn his back? “So I accepted the invitation.”

He takes the train from Princeton to Washington, and after resting goes out into Georgetown for a walk. In his diary he marvels that the neighborhood has withstood the “urban blight” he spotted along Wisconsin Avenue — a blight “produced wherever a certain type of youth, white and black, assembles to admire itself in all its favored costumes, to parade up and down, to trade in drugs and consume them—a mixture, particularly at night, of debasement and of a pathetic thirst for human company and admiration.”

He's reminded of something Goethe wrote in Faust: “Curious one, stride forth in all your finery. How introspection would offend you.”

His memory churns. “I was never properly a member of what was called the Georgetown set,” he tells his diary. “I was for much of the time too poor, and too little urban. . . But it was more than that. While some of these friends knew me quite well, professionally if not personally, they all, I thought, looked at me a little askance.” He names names. Joe Alsop. Chip Bohlen. Dean Acheson. He is passing the houses they lived in. The cold war ended just a few years earlier, and in response to his prescription, yet in these diary pages he draws no comfort from the outcome. When the iron curtain fell all these houses had other tenants.

“Enough of Georgetown,” Kennan writes. He attends the performance. Again there is a problem hearing the words; but although “there were some scenes and passages I thought could well have been omitted” and “it seemed to me that I could have helped with the directing,” when the show was over “there was generous applause.”

But his Jewish “host” whispers something “unpleasantly critical” about passages in the show that refer to the Germans. Kennan is puzzled and troubled. He feels misunderstood—as if, despite the life he lived, simply because he expressed some sympathy for the German people he must have somehow missed the point about the Nazis.

He tells his diary, “I think I had, as an observer of its behavior in Czechoslovakia as in other occupied areas, as a friend of a number of its victims, as the husband of a Norwegian whose father had passed through the hands and prisons of the German occupiers, as one who had himself lived in Berlin through two and a quarter years of the war, and ultimately as a prisoner of the Nazi regime myself—I think that, in all these capacities, I had an exposure greater than that of many others to the terrible side of Nazi rule, and needed instruction from few.” Likewise, he was exposed “to the cruelties and abominations of Stalinist rule in Russia.” With both tyrannies he had tried to come to terms “in my own way, bearing in mind the weaknesses, the blind spots, the helplessness of great masses of people in the hands of totalitarian rulers. . .But if I thought these were things I could never hope to discuss freely with my many Jewish friends—-that this was a sort of getting-of place beyond which communication and understanding was no longer possible—it would be a source of deep discouragement to me.”

Kennan shakes off the mood. He approaches the stage to meet the actors, struggles to tell them of his feelings, and manages to say that although he can recall what his words meant to him when he said them so many decades ago, what matters more is that today they mean something to you. Kennan, a couple of actors, and the mayor of Milwaukee repair to a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it is long past midnight when their night is over.

Kishline read all this. It made him giddy. Delighted to discover that the evening in Washington in 1992 meant as much to Kennan as to himself, he then read the diary entry out loud to his wife and son. “We were laughing with tears in our eyes,” he recalls. “Somehow we’d touched some deep nerves in the man.” Kishline has since written what he calls a coda to the story of his night with Kennan: “On that Washington mall, with a small theatrical troupe from Milwaukee, I understood hope for awhile that night…and twenty years later I learn of some understanding in return. My cockles warm and despair will have to wait until, at least, tomorrow. Right now I’ve got a smile that needs a cold beer.”

Although Gaddis’s biography is almost 800 pages long, there was no room in it for Kennan’s night with Theatre X. Choices must be made, and apparently Kennan revealed nothing about himself in his diary entry that was not better revealed in other entries. Fair enough. Yet the entry Gaddis sent Kishline is, on its own terms, enormously revealing, and its omission makes clear the vast distance between a man and a biography of a man. The only way to do full justice to a life is to live it.

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