Regular readers of this column know that I am not a paid-up member of the New York Times Book Review fan club. Quite the contrary. But, every now and then, that once-mighty organ manages to hit one out of the park, and “The Age of Kennan,” the long, exquisitely thoughtful review of John Gaddis’s new biography of George Kennan by Henry Kissinger is a case in point. Secretary Kissinger’s essay is more more than a review, it is a masterpiece of intellectual and historical compression, illuminating in a few thousand words, the complex and sometimes contradictory edifice that was George Kennan’s strategic thought.
Kissinger brings a rare suppleness of mind, to say nothing of a unique fund of high-level diplomatic experience, to the task of exploring Kennan’s importance in the history of post-War American diplomacy. Kennan’s signal place in defining the strategic concept of Containment, fraught as it was with second thoughts, paralyzing qualifications, and revisionist byways, stands as a masterpiece of strategic thinking. “The debate in America between idealism and realism, ” Kissinger notes, “which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.” As Kissinger notes later in his essay, “The irony of Kennan’s thought was that his influence in government arose from his advocacy of what today’s debate would define as realism, while his admirers outside government were on the whole motivated by what they took to be his idealistic objections to the prevalent, essentially realistic policy. His vision of peace involved a balance of power of a very special American type, an equilibrium that was not to be measured by military force alone. It arose as well from the culture and historical evolution of a society whose ultimate power would be measured by its vigor and its people’s commitment to a better world.”
This is one of those reviews whose analytical power and historical pertinence combine to lift it out of the purlieus of the ephemeral medium in which it was born and, rather like Kennan’s famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947, catapult it into the realm of the must read. Congratulations to the Times on a superb piece.