Kennan: A Life between Worlds by Frank Costigliola

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

What an odd fellow George Kennan must have been!  Costigliola’s book, Kennan: a Life Between Worlds is one of the few books to treat him with limited sympathy. At the centre of much discussion about this statesman is what Costigliola calls Keenan’s ‘tragedy’, a reference to Keenan’s treatment by arms of government. Considered to be the foremost Cold War authority, Keenan was judged by his peers and superiors as not entirely reliable and trustworthy in his political judgment, analysis and behaviour.

Colleagues who read Kennan’s diaries, once they became available through Costigliola’s expert editorial efforts, began to see the diplomat as endlessly self-pitying, self-absorbed, bigoted, arrogant, misanthropic, and anti-democratic-elitist. Kennan has been criticized for his relentless positioning, self-justification and one-upmanship, while demonstrating that he understood neither the Third Reich nor the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Costigliola’s portrait of Kennan is nuanced, balanced, and empathetic. He depicts “the flawed genius”  as “a tortured, talented, and ultimately tragic individual who helped instigate the Cold War and then worked unceasingly to end it”,  who offered a much needed “old-fashioned sense of limits about America’s role in the world, faith in diplomacy, prescience about the future, and appreciation of Moscow’s dilemmas”. He had a deeply felt concern about nuclear weapons, the environment, and overreliance on machines, speaking to our current time, in spite of his difficult personality and prejudices.

This is one interpretation of George Kennan.  He could release a fit of anger “like a searing white heat that scorched everything in its path” turning him “into a petulant, irrational man with whom one could not argue”. A deeper problem than personality was Kennan’s much vaunted ‘intuition’. Too often it was a case of mistaken identity, of projection. He often showed himself neither particularly prescient nor perceptive, but his mind was clouded by his own feelings, prejudices, and preferences.

Costigliola’s magnificent study of George Kennan is massive, taking up the best part of more than 640 pages,  all of which, while sometimes leaning towards Kennan, is high quality work. The book takes the form of a biography, although the form is not immediately obvious. There are acknowledgements and a preface before the introduction.

Chapter 1 introduces the Kennan family. The chapter heading reads ‘Not very happy people’ and the text discloses that George suffered from depression or sometime discouragement. In the next chapter it is revealed why he rose so rapidly in the State Department. Part of the reason was his fierce intelligence and work ethic. He studied Russian language, History and Culture at the University of Berlin and this gave him opportunity to mix with senior personnel.

It was all too intense, and he found that he could neither live in Russia nor live outside it. The exhaustive behaviour required by his position and the immoral actions of those above him soon took its effect on his health. This chapter is fittingly called ‘The madness of 34’. The depression he suffered led to a breakdown which elicited little sympathy from his family. Costigliola reveals that Kenman’s physical and mental collapse was the most severe of his 101-year life.

The next section of the text is devoted to Stalin’s terror and Kennan’s trauma. These years 1935-1937 are familiar to most people and will not be investigated again. Within this part of the book is an anecdote which may or may not be true, but it appears to have triggered a negative attitude towards women on the part of Kennan.

The rest of the book is of the same high standard as the earlier part and reveals how Kennan had written a letter to the President of the United States which culminated in the Cold War. He claimed it was difficult to undertake a calm and dispassionate analysis of the existing situation which when spread around ended up crucifying his reputation among senior officials.

There are many instances of negative encounters between him and other officials. They refused to follow his advice and at the same time criticised him for his habit of ‘changing history’. Nevertheless the writing in the book is of very high quality and demonstrates the sharpness of mind of an accomplished author.

Kennan: a Life between Worlds


by Frank Costigliola

Princeton University Press

ISBN:978 069116 540 0

$USD39.99; 648pp


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