Diaries of a Cold War Diplomat

As Russia moved to begin annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this month, history professor Frank Costigliola assigned his students three readings for a discussion of the recent events.

The assignment, part of his “Rise of U.S. Global Power” class, included commentaries by Jack Matlock Jr., who was President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, and political columnist Charles Krauthammer, who coined the phrase “Reagan Doctrine” to describe Reagan’s opposition to the global influence of the Soviets during the end of the Cold War era.

The third reading was Costigliola’s own commentary from The New York Times, in which he provided insight about the history of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union through the eyes of longtime diplomat George F. Kennan, a former ambassador to Moscow and Yugoslavia who was a key figure in establishing the containment policy toward the Soviets during the Cold War. Costigliola edited the recently published book, The Kennan Diaries (Norton 2014), which is praised by Kennan’s biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, and two former Secretaries of State, Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Schultz.

Costigliola described the classroom discussion as “a golden moment,” a rare confluence of current events intersecting with history that allowed his students to gain perspectives far beyond their classroom text.

“It was helpful and enlightening for my students for me to bring the personal element of how Kennan was recommending one thing in 1946-47 and taking a different direction in later years,” Costigliola says.

A prolific writer and authority on the Cold War era, Costigliola served as a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 2009, when access to Kennan’s papers was expanded. After leaving the diplomatic corps, Kennan spent 50 years at Princeton, his alma mater, writing about foreign policy and diplomatic history. He died in 2005 at the age of 101.

During his fellowship at Princeton, Costigliola became fascinated by the material contained in the 8,100 pages of handwritten diaries that began when the diplomat was a child.

“I’ve never edited something like that before. The biggest challenge was getting to within a respectable, feasible length,” says the historian. “Kennan wrote beautifully, almost like calligraphy. There’s a lot of words on each page. I went through it four times, each time cutting it down more and more. I wanted all the aspects of his personality to come through: the political stuff, the elegance of his writing, and representative sections of the various periods of his life.”

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