February 21st, 2014
12:14 PM ET

‘The Kennan Diaries’: Fascinating, sometimes disturbing

By Fareed Zakaria

“All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan writes. “If we never knew loss, we would never feel the need to conserve.” That’s why the first and still canonical conservative text is Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” a lamentation on the uprooting of that country’s monarchical order. And that’s why America, as an experiment in modernity, hasn’t had many genuine conservatives in its history.

The so-called conservative founding fathers, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were in fact creators of a new and radical system of government. The 19th-century Whigs — Webster, Clay and Calhoun — sometimes seen as conservatives, were aggressive proponents of capitalist development. Even many Southerners who argued for slavery were advocating an economic system that kept them rich, enthusiastically embracing the trade and modern technology that made slavery so profitable. And contemporary conservatism — which began as a reaction to the progressive era and the New Deal — has always mixed dynamic capitalism with moralism.

Given this background, “The Kennan Diaries” is an illuminating, fascinating and sometimes disturbing book. George F. Kennan was the most celebrated ­diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century, the brilliant author of the strategy of containment that the United States adopted and that won the Cold War. For most of his life he was seen as a strategist and — because he was dovish on most foreign policy issues — a liberal. As these diaries make clear, he spent much of his life thinking about political philosophy. And his instincts and insights were deeply conservative, but in a way that doesn’t really fit into today’s left-right categories.

Read my full review in the New York Times

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Topics: United States

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. chrissy

    Todays Quirky News: Researchers at Yale are gathering "large libraries" of spider venom. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG!

    February 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      George F. Kennan a liberal, chrissy? Now I've heard everything! In fact, it was this same George F. Kennan who help set up our current national priorities which most of us are paying for today, such as a depressed economy, an aggressive foreign policy in which tens of thousands of people are being needlessly slaughtered and rampant corruption in Washington D.C. This man should have been totally ignored!

      February 22, 2014 at 9:59 am |
      • Quinton

        Well said, Joseph. Unfortunately, not very many people are aware of this fact.

        February 22, 2014 at 3:43 pm |
  2. chrissy

    Lol @ Joseph, only on foreign policy. Conservative on everything else.

    February 22, 2014 at 1:28 pm |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Kennan's ideas on Soviet containment were first expressed in the most famous cable in US diplomatic history, his 5,542-word long telegram from his posting at the US Embassy in Moscow in 1946. It explained to policy-makers in Washington that while Soviet power was "impervious to the logic of reason," it was "highly sensitive to the logic of force."

    February 23, 2014 at 12:58 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Appointed ambassador to Moscow in 1952, his mission ended abruptly after 5 months when he was declared "persona non grata" by the Soviets for comparing life in the US Embassy to a Nazi internment camp.

      February 23, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  4. Jerry Okamura

    If liberty and individual freedom is important, should you be a liberal or a conservative? If independence is better than being dependent on government, should you be a liberal or a conservative?

    February 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm |

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