George F. Kennan’s "Sad Appreciations"

There is a remarkable little book that has been kicking around for many years called American Diplomacy 1900-1950 by George F. Kennan. I see it all the time at tag sales and flea markets, so it’s probably taught in a lot of history classes. I finally decided to pick it up and read it and I found it full of very perceptive insights to which no one in public office, as far as I can tell, has ever paid the slightest attention.

George Kennan, of course, was the one who said in the New Yorker before the war that an overthrow of the Iraqi regime would prove problematic because it would upset the balance of sectarian powers in the region.

American Diplomacy is a difficult read but utterly and completely worthwhile. I think the reason for this is that this was 1951 and Kennan was saying bad things about America. To avoid being branded a traitor by Senator Joe McCarthy and his ilk, Kennan adopted the simple expedient of speaking in a way that only intelligent people could understand.

His message is so compelling that I plan to do a number of entries about him (Be warned!) but let me begin by letting him speak for himself. Here he is talking about the horrific slaughter of World War I:

“If there was anything special about the first World War, it was only that the thing went on in the same way and in the same places for an awfully long time; there was not much movement, not much adventure, not much hope that anything could happen that would change the whole fortunes of war at any early date. The losses were terrific on both sides. You could practically calculate when your time would come. And it was all so unutterably futile.

“Now it would be pleasant, and would ease our task, if we could say that, as a war so sickening ran its course, people and governments on both sides sobered and became thoughtful, became aware of the increasing emptiness of victory, aware that no political objectives could be worth this price, amenable to any reasonable suggestion for a compromise peace that would put an end to the slaughter.

“Unfortunately, we cannot say this. There are certain sad appreciations we have to come to about human nature on the basis of the experience of these recent wars. One of them is that suffering does not always make men better. Another is that people are not always more reasonable than governments; that public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics.

“It may be true, and I suspect it is, that the mass of people everywhere are peace-loving and would accept many restraints and sacrifices in preference to the monstrous calamities of war.

“But I also suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular governments is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts: people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like a fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent.

“These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of understanding any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse.

“The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain.

“And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt on over the validity of democratic institutions.

“And until peoples learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.”

Do you have a “truth reaction”? A physical sensation that you get when you hear or read or see something that strikes you as profound truth? I get a tingle up my spine and into the back of my shoulders. The first time that I can remember feeling this tingle was when I was 14 years old in the chapel of The Groton School listening to The Reverend Charles Sheerin preach.

I get that tingle every time I pick up this book.