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More Than a Feeling: Kennan, Emotion, and Power

Laura A. Belmonte is Department Head and Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. She is author of Selling the American Way: U.S. Propaganda and the Cold War and editor of Speaking of America: Readings in U.S. History. She has co-authored Global Americans: A Transnational U.S. History (Cengage, 2017) and is working concurrently on books on U.S. global policy on HIV/AIDS and the international LGBT rights movement (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

This is the third installment of 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.” The first part, from Costigliola, is available hereA response from David Milne is available here. A final response from Costigliola will be posted tomorrow.

Over the past two decades, Frank Costigliola has amassed a wide-ranging and brilliantly argued body of scholarship using George F. Kennan as a prism to sharpen our understanding of the intersections of gender, sexuality, culture, and policymaking. In the 1990s, an era of existential crisis among diplomatic historians (we still called ourselves that at the time), he pushed his colleagues to be attuned to nuances of language and public officials’ interior lives.[1] The reception was nothing if not spirited. But Costigliola, Emily S. Rosenberg, and other pathbreakers inspired a new generation of scholars to meld social and cultural history with the history of foreign relations and the resulting (and ongoing) work irrevocably reshaped the field.

Precisely because of the richness of this scholarship, I find “‘I React Intensely to Everything'” somewhat disconnected from a larger historical and historiographical context. While I think Costigliola’s analysis of Kennan’s emotions and decisionmaking is fascinating, well-documented, and ultimately convincing, the article also presupposes familiarity with other work detailing how Kennan’s views on gender, race, and class affected his worldview. If one were to read this article in isolation, one would gain little sense of Kennan’s education, daily activities as a diplomat, and interactions with his professional peers. In fairness, Costigliola makes no pretense at providing such an all-encompassing portrait of Kennan, but one does wonder whether this information is essential to a general reader reaching the same broad conclusions about the analysis of Kennan’s emotions providing “a radically new account of the origins and development of the Cold War.”

Like David Milne, I also question how widely we can apply an emotional assessment to other diplomats. Not only was Kennan singularly prolific, but he was also a meticulous steward of his personal and professional documents. Most of today’s policymakers eschew the type of unguarded diary-keeping Kennan took to a high art for fear of being subjected to a subpoena. Although the 251,287 cables disclosed by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks contain countless examples of U.S. diplomats’ emotional responses to specific events, nations, and foreign counterparts, it would be difficult to discern how and why an individual official’s emotional worldview arose and affected policy outcomes.[2] Nor do we yet have a firm grasp of how the explosion of digital communications is shaping the role of emotion in decision making. Does the immediacy of email make an emotionally fraught response more or less likely? Are fears of hacking or intense media scrutiny inspiring policymakers to avoid written communications of all sorts? Will the challenges of retaining, organizing, declassifying, and accessing a truly astounding amount of government documentation overwhelm even the most circumspect scholars such as Costigliola who seek to illuminate the darkest corners of how individual psyches, feelings, and egos inform the ostensibly rational realm of high policy?

These quibbles notwithstanding, Costigliola’s article is fascinating and thought-provoking. In an election season driven largely by anger that is triggering pointed questions about the temperament of possible presidential candidates, it is hard not to lament the decline of public officials like Kennan who had the inclination, time, and self-awareness to examine their emotional lives.


[1] The early days of H-DIPLO were rife with heated debates over how the fild should grapple with postmodernism, the cultural turn, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of international history. To demonstrate the vibrancy and diversity of approaches within a field often unfairly assailed as hidebound and elitist, Thomas G. Paterson and Michael J. Hogan invited several scholars to contribute to a Journal of American History roundtable that later became an enduring, essential anthology. See Thomas G. Paterson and Michael J. Hogan, eds. Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). The text was published in a second, expanded edition in 2004.

[2] Scott Shane and Andrew W. Lehren, “Leaked Cables Offer Raw View of U.S. Diplomacy,” New York Times (November 28, 2010).