George F. Kennan: The Official Lie

This authorized biography of American statesman George Kennan has been 30 years in the writing, its publication being deferred until after Kennan’s death in 2004.  The writer was the first to be given full access to Kennan’s voluminous unpublished diaries.  Thus, the book devotes many pages to an exploration of Kennan’s inner life, at the expense of an explication of his ideas and influence.  These are better summarized in the much shorter recent appreciations by John Lukacs and Lee Congdon.  Like H.L. Mencken, Kennan is victimized by his own record-keeping.  His diaries were written in times of depression, as a means of self-confrontation and in fulfillment of Kennan’s view that “There is only responsibility and self-sacrifice; all else is meaningless; all else is vanity.”  A transcription of the secrets of the confessional may be titillating, but it does not convey an accurate impression of anyone’s life, and without these diversions into psychohistory, this book would have been half its published length.

The printed excerpts from Mencken’s journals caricature as a bigot a man who was the first critic to take black writers seriously, and almost all of whose close friends were Jews.  Gaddis’s use of private materials makes Kennan seem mercurial and morbidly pessimistic, as well as sex-obsessed.  But it...

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