The Allure of Kennan Exceptionalism

Milne High Res

David Milne is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Note: this is the second piece in a four-part round table on Frank Costigliola’s openly-available March 2016 JAH article “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan, 1933–1958.” The first part, from Costigliola, is available here.

Frank Costigliola has written a fascinating, erudite, and richly documented article on the “frustrated emotions of George F. Kennan.” I learned much from reading the piece and I’m sure it will become a vital point of reference in the field. But rather than merely praise, I’ve been asked to pose questions and raise critical points, which I’m pleased to do in the spirit of constructive exchange—and, at times, in the guise of the devil’s advocate.

Near the beginning of the article, Costigliola quotes Isaiah Berlin’s observation that Kennan’s “ideas, actions, feelings” stemmed “from his inner personality… That’s why he needs a psychological approach, not just political or historical analysis.” My initial comments pertain primarily to the assumption undergirding Berlin’s logic; that Kennan is simply more complex than his contemporaries and hence requires a different kind of methodology to comprehend him. Dig deep into the psyche of John Foster Dulles and little will be revealed that we don’t already know. Scratch Kennan’s surface and behold an emotional kaleidoscope. One can see why Berlin might perceive Kennan in this way. Intellectuals tend to respond well to other intellectuals, locating a kindred spirit, and Kennan—the keeper of a dream diary, a foiled biographer of Anton Chekhov, an avid reader of great and challenging literature, a gifted linguist—stands out among his contemporaries in terms of the breadth and richness of his intellectual interests. “A man like Kennan?” Dean Acheson once exclaimed when considering the ideal type to fill a staff vacancy, “There’s nobody like Kennan!”

There was certainly nobody like Kennan when it came to writing a diary that lavished so much attention on the inner life. And here lies a problem that limits the broader explanatory potential of the emotions as deployed here. Put simply, it would be difficult to apply Costigliola’s methodology to other foreign policymakers because McGeorge Bundy, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Brent Scowcroft, Madeleine Albright and Paul Wolfowitz—to name a few—did not keep a dream diary, or indeed any form of diary as revealing as Kennan’s. This does not mean that their emotions did not influence their policy recommendations, and some of this is revealed in memoir and journalistic form. But it does make it difficult to establish this connection with the authority that Costigliola achieves in regard to Kennan. Immersing himself in Kennan’s diaries—a series that he edited with great skill and sensitivity—has possibly led Costigliola to overemphasize the merits of an explanatory category that is difficult to apply authoritatively elsewhere.[1] Sigmund Freud and William Bullitt tried and failed to achieve this with their co-authored study of Woodrow Wilson. But if Freud had access to Wilson’s diary—let alone a dream diary!—he would almost certainly have written a more persuasive book.

To provide another example, Costigliola’s own Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances is a powerful and insightful book, particularly in its examination of the transition from FDR to Truman.[2] But it is not nearly as persuasive as this article in establishing a nexus between emotions and action—his source base does not sustain the thesis as authoritatively as it does with Kennan. Barbara Keys’ work on Henry Kissinger as an “emotional statesman” skillfully interrogates transcripts of Kissinger telephone conversations to draw out his emotionality and how it affected his interactions—particularly those with Anatoly Dobrynin.[3] But the “emotional” statesman revealed by Keys is not that dissimilar to the one presented by Walter Isaacson in his biography.[4]

Costigliola implores diplomatic historians to take the emotions more seriously in the following terms:

While avoiding emotional determinism or a reinscription of the emotion versus reason, body versus mind polarity, historians might examine how culturally inflected emotional reactions—such as insecure pride, craving for respect, anxiety about change, and fear of appearing fearful—aggravated cultural differences and complicated political relations. How did emotions figure in foreign policy crises?

I agree in respect to the work of professional historians. But it seems to me that journalists, like Walter Isaacson on Kissinger, writing on foreign policy have been unconsciously attentive to these issues all along—albeit, not with the same focus as Costigliola applies to his study of Kennan. David Halberstam’s The Best in the Brightest might best be categorized as “cultural history,” and the way in which the emotions interact with the vaulting self-belief of the central protagonists is a source of the book’s enduring power.[5] Recent books by James Mann, Jane Mayer, Bob Woodward, and many others all indirectly reveal how emotions shape decision-making.[6] The authors of these types of insightful, fine-grained “first drafts of history” do not necessarily foreground the methodology Costigliola privileges above. But all are attentive to “culturally inflected emotional reactions” and all demonstrate how “emotions figure in foreign policy crises.” It’s merely that the authors—and their editors and literary agents—would describe the emotional drama they skillfully weave into their books as “color.” It is the human quality that allows these authors to attract a larger audience.


[1] Frank Costigliola, ed., The Kennan Diaries (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014).

[2] Frank Costigliola, Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[3] Barbara Keys, “Henry Kissinger: The Emotional Statesman,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 5, Issue, 4 (September 2011).

[4] Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

[5] David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (New York: Random House, 1972).

[6] James Mann, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Penguin Books, 2004); James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (New York: Penguin Books, 2013); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), and many others.


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