Richard Holbrooke: George Kennan, RIP

Richard Holbrooke, in the Wa Po (3-21-05):

George F. Kennan, who died last week at 101, was a unique figure in American history. I greatly admired him but disagreed with him profoundly on many critical issues, and, in the 35 years I knew him, I often reflected on this strange paradox.

His extraordinary memoirs had made the idea of a life in the Foreign Service seem both exciting and intellectually stimulating to me. He had watched Joseph Stalin at close hand, and sent Washington an analysis of Russia that became the most famous telegram in U.S. diplomatic history. This was followed closely by the most influential article ever written on American foreign policy, the "X" article in Foreign Affairs, which offered an easily understood, single-word description for a policy ("containment") that our nation was to pursue for 40 years -- with ultimate success.

To a young, aspiring diplomat, Kennan's career suggested that good writing and the study of history -- both in short supply in the government -- could really matter. No one in government ever wrote better than Kennan, and this was a critical component of his success; the same ideas expressed less cogently by others did not have the same impact. But Kennan was deeply ambivalent about the writings that had catapulted him to world fame. He felt lonely, conflicted and even anguished over his famous works, which, in retrospect, he felt were simplistic and had been misused by people he deplored. Yet his work inspired the hardheaded power politics that shaped the Cold War.

As editor of Foreign Policy, I once edited Kennan, an experience not easily forgotten. On the 25th anniversary of the X article, I asked him for an interview. He refused because of what he felt was the imprecision of the spoken word, but he offered to answer questions in writing. It was a generous gesture toward a tiny, unknown journal then challenging the prestigious quarterly that had made him famous. But editing Kennan was beyond difficult. He agonized over every comma and every adjective and revised regularly as the deadline approached. Having written in his memoirs that his 1946 "Long Telegram" read in retrospect "exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees," and that his X article was riddled with "serious deficiencies" that "inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff," Kennan did not want to be misunderstood -- or misused -- again.

Dean Acheson once told a Yale student named Bob Woodward, who was writing a thesis, that Kennan reminded him of his father's old horse who, when crossing wooden bridges, would make a lot of noise, then stop, alarmed by the racket he had caused. I printed this wonderful description alongside the Kennan interview in Foreign Policy. (Wonder whatever happened to young Woodward.) ...

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