George Kennan, 2 NYT Alums, and Immigration

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on December 12, 2011

On November 28, this blog took note of what I called an "Upper West Side of Manhattan" sensibility about immigration. People with this mindset exhibit views that are both expansive and generous about the value of immigrants, regardless of their numbers and human capital, and narrow and intolerant toward those who want to stop illegal immigration and limit legal immigration.

On Sunday, I had a peculiar encounter with the mindset as I took a long walk while listening to a podcast of Thursday's Diane Rehm show, which originates in Washington D.C.'s public radio station, WAMU.

Guest host Steve Roberts, a former New York Times reporter who has long exhibited an Upper West Side approach to immigration, introduced the show as a discussion of the life and legacy of the late George Kennan, "one of America's greatest diplomats of the twentieth century."

One of his guests, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis and author of a new Kennan biography, talked of Kennan's authorship of the containment policy toward the Soviet Union. Kennan prescribed a middle path between war and appeasement. He wanted to contain Soviet expansionism, confident that Communism was destined to fail.

Kennan's thinking, Gaddis said, was influenced by his reading of Edward Gibbon on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Another guest, Foreign Policy magazine executive editor Susan Glasser, praised Kennan as "prescient" about the internal weaknesses of the Soviet empire that would lead to its fall. The third guest, Todd Purdum (another former New York Times reporter) hailed Kennan as a "fantastic sociologist" of the Soviet Union.

Roberts praised Kennan for his "rich insights" and brilliance on the world scene. But then the evaluation took a sharp turn when Purdum sounded an alarm about Kennan's views about immigration to the United States.

Purdum had studied Kennan for a 4,900-word examination of his work in the January issue of Vanity Fair, in which the word "immigration" does not appear. But Purdum said that on U.S. immigration Kennan was "quiet virulently and somewhat surprisingly, I found, very concerned about immigration and very concerned that the country was becoming something that it had not been. And he was worried about the creeping, sort of two-culture, bilingual culture that was prevalent in so much of Hispanic America. And in some ways it's at times one of the less attractive aspects of his analysis."

Roberts, whose own public statements and writings, including a book about immigration, present an Upper West Side sensibility, made this quick comment about the immigration concerns of the man whose genius he had just been celebrating: "Less attractive and less perceptive."

That was it. Roberts made no room for further discussion of the issue. He quickly took a call from Richard in Haverhill, Mass.

I was struck by how abruptly the topic had been raised and dropped. I wondered: Is it possible that a man who was so prescient about the Soviets could be so unperceptive about his own country? I need to read more. That should provide material for a future blog post or two.