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George F. Kennan: An American Life

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After Princeton, Kennan went to work as a Foreign Service officer in the State Department. He traveled widely in Eastern Europe, and in 1929 was ordered to move to Berlin, where he was to commence Russian language and history studies. By 1931, these studies led him to adopt a hard-edged ideology: Communists, he asserted, combined “innate cowardice” and “intellectual insolence.”  He then took aim at American liberals, “who now find the Soviets so pleasant, [but] will be the first ones to be crushed in the clash.” That same year, Kennan met and married Anna Elisabeth “Annalise” Sørensen, who had come to Berlin from Norway “ostensibly to learn German.”

Gaddis attempts to explain, in diction reminiscent of a geometry lecture, how Kennan’s character exuded a “triangular” nature – with its three points comprising “professionalism” (as one of the best young Russian specialists), “cultural pessimism” (a doubt whether Western civilization could survive challenges from external adversaries), and “personal anguish” (how would a man tormented by self-doubt fit into all of this?) Gaddis’s separate contention that Kennan often contradicted himself would seem to bolster this analysis. Kennan managed to chronicle some those self-doubts and other melancholy observations in diary entries that Gaddis meticulously recounts.

During 1933, Kennan was asked to set up the American Embassy Moscow, an experience which cemented a lifelong interest in Russia, where Kennan’s own ancestor, also named George Kennan, had lived and written half a century earlier. His return to the US in 1936 left him with doubts about his country and the merits of capitalism which would remain with him his entire life.

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