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George F Kennan

November 18, 2011

Poet, player and cold war diplomat

Good stuff in the new biography by John Gaddis.   Kennan was the long serving diplomat who first articulated the US “containment” policy towards Russia, which, some say, led to the Vietnam war.  He worked for every president from Roosevelt to Kennedy, and his New York Times obituary described him as “the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war”.

I’m more interested in revelations about his private life.  Publicly he was very traditional, stayed married to his Norwegian wife Annelise Sorensen from 1931 until his death in 2005 at age 101, and had four children.   In 1941 when the American Berlin delegation was interned in Bad Nauheim, with Kennan as the senior diplomat, he was so unimpressed by his fellow Americans comfort-seeking behaviour that he wrote this sarcastic poem.

From you, embattled comrades in abstention,
Compatriots to this or that degree,
Who’ve shared with me the hardships of detention
In Jeschke’s Grand and guarded hostelry—

From you, my doughty champions of the larder,
Who’ve fought with such persistency and skill,
Such mighty hearts, such overwhelming ardor,
The uninspiring battle of the swill—

From you, my friends, from your aggrieved digestions,
From all the pangs of which you love to tell,
Your dwindling flesh and your enraged intestines:
Permit me now to take a fond farewell.

For five long months you’ve slept and nursed your bellies,
Or strolled along the Usa’s quiet shores,
Eaten your rolls and failed to eat your jellies,
While others toiled and tramped and fought the wars.

The world might choke in food-restricting measures;
Chinese might starve; and Poles might waste away;
But God forbid that you—my tender treasures—
Should face the horrors of a meatless day.

In later life he stuck to his view that the West in general and Americans in particular were decadent, lazy, and sex obsessed.  Coming across a pop festival in Denmark  in the 1960s, with its free love and drugs he mused that a company of Russian infantry would soon sort them out.

All a bit rich when we learn about his own many affairs – one at the very moment he was grumbling about his colleagues in Bad Neuheim.  Gaddis even speculates that the one important misstep of his career, some ill-chosen words which led Stalin to expel him as ambassador, may have been intentional.   Being thrown out for a slip of the tongue was less serious than being expelled for falling into a Russian honey trap.  Annelise appeared to both know about, and tolerate his infidelities.

Here’s a story from his letters.   Late one dark night soon after the war started he met a Hamburg prostitute in the street.   He claims he “wasn’t interested” in sex but wanted to talk.

“A few moments dickering resulted in a compromise whereby I agreed to pay the fee for the usual service and she to honor me with her company in a public ‘Lokal.’ We settled down, I over a bad highball, she over a ‘half-and-half’ and a new box of cigarettes. … She was still a young woman with a good figure and a fresh, firm face. Her clothes were in such good taste that one might have almost have been deceived about her profession.”

He questioned her about the rounding up of street girls to send to Nazi labour camps, and fretted about her safety. She told him about her fiancée. “He’s a flyer now. He’s in Poland. When he comes back, he’ll marry me— perhaps.”   The conversation became intimate – about how her fiancée was only interested in sex, had another lover on the side, and how at the start of her relationship she used to play at being a prostitute for him.

Eventually Kennan paid the bill, and walked her to her nearby apartment.   They kissed and he left.

I wonder.

Jim Thornton

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