Sunday, August 22, 2010

John Lukacs on George Kennan

I just posted a three-way celebration of Kennan, Lukacs, and Jacques Barzun; however, I want to devote a bit more to Lukac's George Kennan: A Study in Character (2004, 277 p.). Lukacs's admiration of Kennan (although not entirely uncritical) is manifest. While this is not a full-fledged biography of Kennan (one remains to be written; apparently John Lewis Gaddis has received "official biographer designation), Lukacs's work covers all 101 years of Kennan's life.

Rather than go on further with details from the book, let me offer some quotes that will provide a better insight into Kennan and give us some reason to consider in light of some present issues before our nation:

Lukacs quotes from a speech that Kennan delivered at the University of Notre Dame in 1953:

    There are forces at large in our society today. . . . The all march, in one way or another, under the banner of an alarmed and exercised anti-communism. . . . I have the deepest misgivings about the direction and effects of their efforts. . . . They impel us—in the name of our salvation from the dangers of communism—to many of the habits of the thought and action [of our Soviet adversaries]. . . . I tremble when I see this attempt to make a semi-religious cult our of emotional-political currents of the moment . . . designed to appeal only to men's capacity for hatred and fear, never to their capacity for forgiveness and charity and understanding. . . . Remember that the ultimate judgments of the good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.

p. 130 (Lukacs appends the entire speech at the end of the book).

This quote, still important to consider today, should give you a good sense of the man and his sensibilities.

Joshua Lerner & Richard Thaler on Leadership Characteristics

Joshua Lerner published this intriguing article recently in the Wall Street Journal that suggested that leaders change once they assume the highest rungs of power. Someone scholar ought to check out whether the social scientists' tests (of undergraduates?) mesh with political history. It seems plausible that this is the course of event most often—the hubris of power. An interesting article in the NYT by Richard Thaler, "The Overconfidence Problem in Forecasting" tells of business leaders who vastly overestimate their ability to make successful economics forecasts, and this serves as a stark reminder about the foibles of prediction. More interestingly, it tacks with Lerner's article on leadership hubris. Thaler concludes with an apropos quote from Mark Twain: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Oh, and one other thing, this overconfidence factor isn't limited to leaders—it applies to all of us. Think the Lake Wobegon effect.

Three Wise Men: Kennan, Barzun, & Lukacs

I just re-read John Lukacs's George Kennan: A Study in Character. More about this particular work in a later post. In re-reading this book, I reflected on these two men, who were friends and correspondents for over fifty years, and how they both intrigue me. I add to them the person of Jacques Barzun to complete a trio for my pantheon. What do they share and why do I find them so worthy of attention and admiration?

The three men share some surface attributes. Each is (or was) long-lived: Kennan, who died in 2003, lived to 101 years of age; Barzun is now 102, and Lukacs, the kid among the three, is now 86, and still writing. Kennan remained an active writer and traveler up to his 100th year. Barzun published a tome on Western Civ well into his nineties. (I don't know about his current state of health). Lukacs, in the mean time, is still actively publishing; in fact, I just learned that he's published his correspondence with Kennan (Through the History of the Cold War: The Correspondence of George F. Kennan and John Lukacs (2010) (this moved up immediately to the top of my buy list). In addition, each of these individuals is an American; however, Kennan is the only native-born American, having grown up in Wisconsin and having gone to college at Princeton. Barzun and Lukacs, on the other hand, grew-up in France and Hungary, respectively, and emigrated to the U.S. as young men. So while all three are Americans, they are also quite cosmopolitan (and multi-lingual). All three are historians; Barzun and Lukacs as academics, while Kennan became a historian after a distinguished career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Each brings a wide-ranging and very literate sensibility to history. Barzun, in addition to writing on cultural history, also published on the topics of mysteries, baseball, musicology, writing style, research, and education, and he worked with Lionel Trilling on literary projects. Lukacs describes himself as a "writer" as much as a historian. His vignettes in A Thread of Years show the eye and ear of a novelist, while his style in almost all of his writings carries a distinctive mastery of his adopted tongue. Kennan, meanwhile, gained his fame as the author of the Long Telegram of 1946 and his Foreign Policy article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947) signed as "X" (an attempt to shield his identity given his State Department rank). After leaving the Foreign Service, Kennan moved the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton where he published histories of diplomacy and foreign relations, as well as commentary on current events. How well did he write? Lukacs praises his writing, which I consider an extremely high compliment.

The final attribute that I would attribute to the three wise men arises from the difficulty one would have attempting to pigeonhole any of them politically. Kennan receives credit for launching the Cold War strategy of containment, but he came to resist the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, over reliance on nuclear weapons, the U.S. war in Viet Nam, among other positions that could alienate partisans in American politics. Lukacs and Barzun, while not writing much on contemporary U.S. politics, certainly provide historical and cultural perspectives that challenge facile distinctions of liberals and conservatives. Lukacs, especially, emphasizes the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

The more I read by and about these three individuals, the more I appreciate them. Flawless? No, of course not, but in the face of difficult issues and popular sentiments, these men stake out positions that demand our consideration and respect, and quite often, our emulation. Finally, for individuals who are growing older (like me), they represent a model of engaged and engaging thinkers who refused to go gently into that goodnight.