Interview with Lee Congdon, author of
A Writing Life
How did you become interested in George Kennan?
I had been interested since college days, but I became seriously interested during my year as a Visiting Member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, when my wife and I dined with the Kennans.
What attracted you to George Kennan?
His political views but also his writing style.
How would you rate Kennan among Americans of his generation?
He was, in my view, the greatest American of the century now ended. I do not say “the most important” American; greatness is a quality of being, a matter of character. Kennan’s greatness lay not only in his exemplary service to country, but in his character, wisdom, and literary sensibility.
What distinguished Kennan’s writing style?
Its clarity, leisurely pace, and elegance of expression. The latter was particularly important to him because as a literary artist he wanted to bring beauty into the lives of his readers.
Have Kennan’s views any contemporary relevance?
Yes. His warnings concerning the militarization of American foreign policy and concerning America’s “immoderate greatness” (the words are those used by Edward Gibbon, a Kennan favorite, to account for the decline of Rome) possess permanent relevance. And so does his warning concerning America’s internal, moral, decay. In his view, great powers decline because of what they do to themselves, not because of what others do to them.
Did Kennan have any company in the camp of American “realism?”
Yes—Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. To a somewhat lesser degree—Walter Lippmann and Henry Kissinger.
Looking back, have Kennan’s views been vindicated?
They have. He was wrong very rarely. That his country rejected most of his wisdom has cost it dearly.