Perspective

Contending with Kennan, personally: A writer encounters the famous diplomat at Mudd Library

By Todd S. Purdum ’82
Published in the February 8, 2012, issue


George F. Kennan ’25 in 1957.
Bettmann/Corbis
George F. Kennan ’25 in 1957.

Todd S. Purdum ’82, a former chairman of PAW’s advisory board, is national editor at Vanity Fair. His article about George F. Kennan ’25 is available at www.vanityfair.com/politics/2012/01/Todd-Purdum-on-National-Security.

It would be nerdy hyperbole to say that the afternoons I spent researching my senior thesis in Mudd Library 30 years ago this spring were among my happiest times at Prince­ton. I’m sure there were other moments — singing with the Katzenjammers, clowning in Triangle, or talking far into the night with roommates — that made my heart leap higher. But it is no exaggeration to say that the hours I spent rummaging through the Dulles and Eisenhower papers for my thesis on the McCarthy-era State Department’s loyalty-security program helped me appreciate the art of long-form storytelling, and gave me the notion that I might have a future as a writer, even if I didn’t completely believe it at the time.

The cool hush of the Mudd reading room, with its sturdy light-oak tables, rolling carts laden with archival treasures, and quietly friendly staff, was an oasis of calm in the onrushing storm of a Princeton senior year. Poring over documents that were then just 30 years old — some of which had been opened only recently for review — gave me a thrilling sense of the immediacy of historic events, proof of Faulkner’s maxim that “the past is never dead — it’s not even past.” There was no such thing as a laptop then — at least not in my life — so it didn’t seem a particular sacrifice to have to take notes in pencil on paper, and I don’t know whether I’m chagrined or chuffed that all these years later, those notes are still in my basement, safe in a plastic storage box along with the copy of the manuscript that I typed on a self-correcting IBM Selectric rented from an office supply store on Route 1. (My second reader, professor — later dean of the college — Nancy Weiss Malkiel, gave me a generous grade but was moved to comment, “There are rather a lot of typographical errors.”)

I had occasion to ponder these pleasant memories when I returned to Princeton — and to Mudd — last fall for a ­couple of days to do research in the voluminous papers of George F. Kennan ’25, for an assignment from my employer, Vanity Fair, about the dangerous durability over the past 50 years of the American military-industrial complex. While I am always eager for any excuse to return to Old Nassau, I was wary of making this particular foray. For me, Kennan, who was very much alive and working at the Institute for Advanced Study during my undergraduate years, was a towering figure, an intimidating Olympian presence as diplomat, scholar, writer, and thinker. He was the father of the doctrine of “containment” of the Soviet Union and one of the principal architects of the Cold War. Tackling the huge range of his intellectual output as it concerned America’s role in the world, and our enduring shortcomings both at home and abroad, was the work of better, brighter men than I, I felt sure.

After all, it was my classmate and friend Bart Gellman ’82 who, as a mere undergraduate, had undertaken a comprehensive critical analysis of the Tao of Kennan. He won that year’s thesis publication prize, and the insights in Contending with Kennan: Toward a Philosophy of American Power, the book that resulted, drew the admiration of the great man himself, as Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale notes in his sparkling new authorized biography of Kennan. “I don’t in the least mind the critical reflections,” Kennan wrote Bart. “I am grateful to you for having put forward such a brilliant effort to make sense out of my scattered and so often cryptic utterances, and congratulate you most heartily on the success of that formidable effort.”

So who was I, all these years later, to paddle around in the waters where my old friend Bart, by now a Pulitzer Prize-winner, long ago had made such a splash? But when, with the help of University Archivist Dan Linke, I finally waded in to the contents of the 330 boxes in the Kennan files (after reading extensively in his shelf-full of published works), I made a surprising and heartening discovery: Kennan was not always a figure ready-made for the Hall of Fame. He was once a lonely and comparatively impoverished Princeton freshman, a motherless son from Milwaukee who endured some miserable times in the Jazz Age Ivy League in which he suddenly found himself. He was a compulsive, and often quite depressed, diarist who confided his darkest innermost thoughts to ordinary ­stationery-store datebooks in lieu of ­therapy, only to buck himself up at the end of most entries as if to say, “Come, now, let’s get on with life!” He lasted so long, dying at 101 in 2005, that he found himself apologizing to Gaddis, who had signed on to write his biography in 1981 but promised to publish it only after his death, for continuing to live.

Kennan spent much of the last half of his life regretting the uses (and abuses) to which his notion of containing the Russians politically had been put in American military enterprises from Korea through Vietnam, and on to Iraq and Afghanistan. He also could be plain wrong — a refreshing thing to learn about a legend — as when he wrote on a flight to California in the 1950s, “My only thought, as we approach it, is: throughout the length and breadth of it not one single thing of any importance is being said or done, not one thing that gives hope for the discovery of the paths to a better and firmer and more promising human life; not one thing that would have validity beyond the immediate context of time and place in which all of it occurs.” Two guys on the ground named Hewlett and Packard who were doing some pretty important things might have begged to differ, just for starters.

But Kennan also loved poetry, sailing, Russian literature, and the guitar; enjoyed the life of a gentleman farmer near the improbably named town of East Berlin, Pa.; and forged an enduring marriage and a gratifying, if sometimes complicated, family life. And, of course, he spent fully half a century living in Princeton, the scene and source of such youthful ambivalence, so something about the place must have comforted him, after all. In sum, it would be hard to imagine a more human figure.

It could be argued that Kennan was, by virtue of his long life alone, something like the essential Princetonian of the 20th century. His firsthand acquaintance with Russian leaders ranged from Stalin to Gorbachev, and his huge correspondence files are a who’s who of the great and merely fascinating figures of his age. Could anyone have known all this when he arrived at Princeton? I doubt it.

In the 30 years since my own graduation, I never have stopped being grateful for my Princeton education. I sometimes have wished I could do it all over again, because I can’t shake the feeling I somehow would appreciate it more, or have a better idea of the courses to take. I certainly often think that I might well have accomplished more, given the huge advantages I’ve received. 

But part of contending with Kennan, for me, has been the realization that even the greatest of men are not all great, all the time, and that there remains hope for any of us who keep an inquiring mind, and a right spirit. 

Todd S. Purdum ’82, a former chairman of PAW’s advisory board, is national editor at Vanity Fair. His article about George F. Kennan ’25 is available at www.vanityfair. com/politics/2012/01/Todd-Purdum-on-National-Security. 

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