Bad biographers, of whom there are too many, ferret out a mass of unnecessary detail, draw clumsy or erroneous conclusions from them and never actually get inside the skin of the person whose life they are writing. Good biographers, selective in their material and sensitive in their interpretation, are rare. Rarer still are those biographers who have, one might say, an imaginative affinity with their subject so that they are able to bring him or her truly to life in the mind and imagination of the reader. John Lukacs, a distinguished historian of the modern age, is one such, and this slim volume, a “study” rather than a biography proper, is an excellent introduction to a gifted and complex man.

George Kennan is not a household name; indeed, outside scholars and historians of the period he is not generally known. Yet his was one of the finest minds to emerge in the political/diplomatic field in America during the last century. Born in 1904 and living until 2005, he literally spanned the 20th century, to which he brought a voice of measured wisdom and consistent integrity. Lukacs, a Hungarian refugee who made his home in America after the last War, has an outsider’s observant love of his adopted homeland. Of Kennan he says that he possessed “the best and finest traits of the American character”.

He provides a short and eloquent sketch – itself a model of sympathetic brevity – of his subject’s serious and lonely youth, the death of his mother and his entry to Princeton. Kennan did not shine at university and it was not in his temperament to seek to shine. On graduation he chose to enter government service and join the diplomatic corps. His postings included Geneva, Berlin and Moscow (twice), first as secretary of the embassy in 1933 and later as ambassador in 1952. He became near-perfect in Russian (also in German and French) and, as much as was possible in the Stalinist era, he travelled about, talking to ordinary people, observing their traditions and immersing himself in their history. Like the historian Lukacs, he sought imaginative understanding of a country rather than mere knowledge of it. Unusually for the time, in which the Revolution was thought to have overthrown the old order, he recognised the links between Communism and Russia’s past: her fear of the outside world, of freedom and of human differences.

In the years between 1946 and 1950 Kennan exercised a considerable influence on American foreign policy. General Marshall had great respect for him and installed him in the office next to his own, where Kennan worked on the Marshall Plan. Later he had good relations with Dean Acheson; yet later he had little respect for John Foster Dulles as US Secretary of State. But it was what came to be known as his “Containment” article, published in June 1947 that ensured Kennan’s legacy. As a result of his long experience of Russian politics, he advocated the principle (it was not a doctrine) that “Any further advance of the Soviet Union and Communism in the West must be resisted, principally by political means.” An unfortunate result of this principle was the growth of McCarthyism, with its fanatical, judgmental zeal in hounding those thought to be of “un-American” sympathies. By 1953, Kennan’s concerns as to “the dangerous applications and the popularity of an American anti-Communist ideology… were greater than his erstwhile concerns about the dangers of Communism.”

The second half of Kennan’s long life was devoted to scholarship (with a short interlude as ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1961, at the invitation of President Kennedy.) In 1953 he joined the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and in this congenial atmosphere, far from political pressures, he found his intellectual home. These were enormously productive years of publication, lasting until his 98th year. Aged 85 in 1989 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Gorbachev deliberately sought him out at a diplomatic function in order to shake his hand.

Kennan was above all a writer; as Lukacs says, he had “a writer’s impulsive need to subdue his mental preoccupations by expressing them consciously and clearly”. This, one suspects, is partly why Lukacs is drawn to the scholar-diplomat. In particular he often quotes from Kennan’s Memoirs, which he describes as “inimitable”. For the reader there are only tantalising glimpses of Kennan’s prose style, for Lukacs’s study is of character, not literary gifts. Clearly the writings, political and historical and including articles, lectures, diaries, letters and travel journals, will merit many other studies as they are edited and published.

Lukacs, himself a writer of wide range and of eclectic influences — he cites familiarly Chesterton, Bernanos. Huizinga, Burke and Churchill in these pages — makes many careful distinctions in his estimate of Kennan’s character: he was “more intellectual than worldly”; “he was intellectual rather than being An Intellectual”; “he was solitary rather than lonesome”; he could be “cold” ie, detached, but never “callous”; he was a “patriot”, not a “nationalist”. Lukacs is a Catholic; Kennan, though sympathetic to the Church, remained in his own Christian denomination; yet he always sought for the moral and religious essence of every human proposition. For Lukacs, Kennan was “the conscience of a nation.”

Inevitably in such a compact summation of so rich and varied a life, questions are raised that are not explored: Kennan was a critic of liberal democracy as well as of Communism; he felt that the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I was an “enormous mistake”; he also believed his proposal of a central intelligence agency (which became the CIA) was “the greatest mistake I ever made.”

Yet, as I said at the outset, Kennan lives and breathes in these pages. In his latter years the author got to know him and his wife, with whom he celebrated 70 years of a very happy marriage, in a personal capacity. There is a most moving passage of Lukacs’ last visit when the senior statesman was already 100 years old, frail but still lucid. There was, says Lukacs, “such goodness, such compassion, such charity in his heart”. His study is as much the fruit of love as of respect. It makes this reader wish to know more of both men.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.