[George] Kennan was right to think he had an artist’s temperament at war with a foreign service officer’s ambition. He was twenty-six years in the service of the United States in Riga, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, and Moscow, where he set up the first US embassy when US–Soviet diplomatic relations were established in 1933. He was in Moscow throughout the darkest periods of Stalin’s terror, but rarely saw the Kremlin butcher himself, catching sight of him once staring grimly from the armored interior of a vast Cadillac. While fellow-traveling American visitors and journalists from Lincoln Steffens to Walter Duranty visited Moscow and returned home proclaiming their faith in the Soviet experiment, Kennan never wavered. He saw it for the soul-crushing tyranny that it was.
He spent nearly as many years in Hitler’s Germany as in Stalin’s Russia and was interned by the Nazis from December 1941 until April 1942, but he never saw Nazism’s moral character as clearly. In 1988, William Shawn of The New Yorker reproached him for having done less than he might have done to awaken Roosevelt’s Washington to the danger of Hitler. This produced an explosion in Kennan’s diary:
Why should it be thought that I should have burst out in prose, expressing my horror of the Nazis? I was not a reporting officer, but an administrative one. To whom should I have addressed such outpourings? To the government?… They knew what the Nazis were as well as I did.
This was an evasive reply for someone who saw himself not as an administrator but as a moral visionary, someone who should have understood that the Roosevelt administration, far from knowing what the Nazis were, allowed itself to drift in willful blindness till 1941.
—Michael Ignatieff. I don’t know if it is fair to say that the Roosevelt administration “allowed itself to drift in willful blindness” when it came to the Nazis; President Roosevelt certainly seemed to have a good idea of what kind of gangsters populated Berlin. But that didn’t lessen Kennan’s obligation to speak out, and his failure to do so makes me think less of an otherwise supremely consequential figure in American foreign policy. (And yes, I want to read this book, which Ignatieff reviews.)