Cultural Revolutions

George Frost Kennan, R.I.P.

George Frost Kennan died on March 17 in his home—one year and one month and one day after his 100th birthday.  I am now 81 years old.  He was the greatest American I have known.

He was (and remains) A Triumph of Character.  His obituaries recorded his many achievements adequately, often with the praise that was his due.  There was a sense of respectful distance in some of them, a sense that George Kennan was part of a now irretrievable past.  That is not untrue, and, yet, he was A Man of All Seasons or, putting it differently, A Party of One—a man of principles rather than of ideas.  An idea, someone once wrote, is like a fixed cannon: It can only fire in one direction.  Whereas a principle is like a cannon fixed on a revolving platform: It can strike error in any direction.

That was why secretaries of state and other diplomats so often felt uneasy with this splendid American exemplar of the once Foreign Service; that was why so many academic historians did not wholly comprehend the unique qualities of his history books; that is why his philosophy was often misunderstood or, rather, mistakenly categorized.  Never mind—his writings will live, as long as there are men and women who read them.  The breadth of his knowledge and the mastery of his style are sufficient for that kind of intellectual appreciation.  But then, those qualities were inseparable from...

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