When, late in his absurdly long life, George Kennan took to reading his own diaries, he found them wanting: too much about his own boring self, too little about other people and altogether too querulous. He was right. In The Kennan Diaries, edited by Frank Costigliola, he talks incessantly about himself. He has little of interest to say about others, nor indeed about a good number of the important events, places and movements he either witnessed or lived through; and he complains a lot, not least about himself as an abject failure. The preferred diary entry is an extended, atmospheric description of a scene, a landscape or a setting, perhaps featuring people, but with no individuals and not much ‘system’. Living in Berlin in 1929–31 and again in 1938–41, Kennan says virtually nothing about the Nazis in any shape or form, except a brief allusion to a ‘nightmare’. We get no extended discussions of Stalin, Tito, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Salazar, Brandt, Schmidt, to name but a few of the more obvious luminaries Kennan dealt with, although he knew Salazar, Tito and Brandt fairly well. Even ‘ordinary’ friends and acquaintances are rarely pursued: Anna Freud pops by, when the Kennans are vacationing in London, in 1939; nothing much said about her, either.

Kennan is a unique figure in the history of us foreign relations and public life but, presidents aside, he is also one of the best documented; only his friend Henry Kissinger is in the same league. Kennan could not keep from writing, and writing in a writerly way, for the public. No one can be left in doubt as to his views, freely and amply expressed. Then there are his two volumes of memoirs—the first is an American classic in the genre—the many biographies and treatises, as well as an endless number of articles. After almost 700 pages more here, and not so many enlightening surprises, one is bound to ask: what’s the use of these Diaries? There is of course the aspect of historical completion—how can we not have the Kennan Diaries, if they exist? The same logic will presumably apply to his enormous collection of letters, by nature less egocentric and in substance more interesting. Kennan matters, if nothing else, because he has remained—coupled, invariably, with Cold War ‘containment’—a fundamental reference point for every policymaker in us foreign relations from the late 1940s until today. Sociology aside, these Diaries are also quite revealing if read symptomatically, above all when it comes to the dead-end street of Kennan’s politics. That very ‘failure’, regularly expressed here with great anguish, is reason to pay attention. Because he never really ‘fits’, he provides a way of figuring out why the fitting looks like it does.

Costigliola’s edition is a judicious selection from a vast textual material: some 8,000 pages of diary entries all told, held with the rest of the Kennan Papers at Princeton’s Mudd Library. The commentary, necessarily brief, is largely confined to chronology. Costigliola rightly favours the political passages, but he is also interested in Kennan’s interior reflections. A prominent diplomatic historian of critical bent, Costigliola himself has in recent years been particularly concerned with the place and effect of ‘emotions’ in the making of policy. Kennan provides good copy here: highly strung, almost obsessively introspective, with an oedipal idealization of his mother, whom he strongly resembled and for whose death when he was an infant he felt wrongly guilty; a forbidding and stand-offish step-mother; a lifelong disposition to seek the company of women—indeed, intense interest in women, erotic and otherwise. There is also his moment of Freudian analysis by the Hungarian-Jewish doctor Frieda Por, when he was laid up with stomach ulcers in Vienna in 1935. ‘You see, doctor’, he explained, ‘I have no foundation for a normal, healthy spiritual life. And the only way I can overcome this deficiency is by subjecting myself to constant external discipline.’ A sustained psychological biography remains to be written; and Costigliola himself has written authoritatively about Kennan in this vein. Overall, however, it is a little too handy to work as an explanatory device proper.

As Kennan had at least six overlapping but distinct ‘careers’ and different ways of being toward the world, it is worthwhile to rehearse his basic biography. Born in 1904, under the first Theodore Roosevelt Administration, he died in 2005 under the second Administration of George W. Bush; and he remained sharp almost to the end—sharp enough in any case publicly to castigate Congress, and especially the Democrats, in 2002 for their weak-kneed response to the invasion of Iraq. Happenstance brought him from a modest, middle-class family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Princeton and then into the Foreign Service. The earliest sustained entries here describe a rollicking student trip around Europe with some fellow Princetonians in the summer of 1924. Kennan entered the Foreign Service at the age of twenty-two, and was posted first to Geneva, then to Hamburg, in 1927, where he encountered his first Communist demonstration—‘thousands and thousands of people standing in the drizzling rain before the Dammtor Station, with their red flags and arm-bands, listening to soap-box orators, singing the Internationale’:

I had a strange desire to cry, when I first saw those people marching along the street: ill-dressed, slouching brutalized people. It was the first time in my life that I have ever caught a hint of the real truth upon which the little group of spiteful parasites in Moscow feeds, of the truth that these stupid, ignorant, unpleasant people were after all human beings, that they were, after centuries of mute despair, for the first time attempting to express and assert themselves.

In 1928 he was selected for specialist training in Soviet affairs—a novelty in the generalist Foreign Service—to take place in Berlin. ‘Politics are bankrupt’, he reported the following year. ‘The economic crisis rules. Books by Remarque and Renn, visible in every bookstore, paint the extreme horror of the last war, but no one has any idea how the next one can be avoided.’ In March 1931 he met a twenty-year-old Norwegian student there, Annelise Sørensen; they were married six months later, an event that leaves little trace in Kennan’s diary. With American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, Kennan became part of the first us embassy in Moscow. ‘Russia is a filthy sordid country, full of vermin, mud, stench and disease’, yet teeming with energy, for only the fittest could survive: ‘It is this tremendous health, this earthy vitality, which attracts the over-civilized, neurotic foreigner.’ After the enforced rest in Vienna during 1934–35, he was back in the Soviet Union for 1936–37, touring the Caucasus—‘hot sunshine, dust, overcrowding, intense street life, poverty, disease and deceit’, compared to which ‘turbulent, semi-barbaric Moscow’ appeared a ‘welcome haven of culture, civilization and progress’. In 1938 he was transferred back to Washington, then Prague and Berlin. Along with the rest of the us Embassy staff, Kennan was interned in the Grand Hotel of Bad Nauheim after Hitler declared war on the us in December 1941.

Released in 1942, he was sent to the Lisbon Embassy, then London, before returning in 1944—via Cairo, Baghdad and Tehran, all vividly described—to Moscow. Here he became an unhappy second-in-command to Averell Harriman, as he opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alliance approach to the Soviet Union. ‘We persist’, he complained, ‘in placing foreign affairs in the hands of amateurs.’ In 1946, when the chill was on, his moment had arrived: the soon-famous ‘Long Telegram’ of February 1946, warning of the irreducible hostility of the Soviet Union, made him a prominent figure inside the Truman Administration. It is disappointing that Kennan more or less abandons his diaries just as he is ‘in power’ in 1946–48, the moment when he was central, if not always decisive, in the articulation of the whole Cold War project. Without that moment, Kennan would not be ‘Kennan’. The idea of ‘containing Russia’, after all, has shown a longevity after Kennan that might well match its pedigree before him.