In the past few weeks there have been two excellent reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life, by Louis Menand and Frank Costigliola. Ta-Nehisi Coates does an interesting riff on these reviews, which gives him a chance to muse about the challenges of self-mastery in a democratic society. Kennan is most famous for his advocacy of a doctrine of containment in 1947.
By coincidence, I watched John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for the first time this weekend, itself a product of the Cold War years (and which previous critics have linked to the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.). It’s a movie that asks, “how do you respond to violence that can’t be contained?” and ponders the nature of the American conquest of the West.
A fun question to ask yourself: “who is the hero of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?” Is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery through education, representative democracy, modernity, and the rule of law, or is it the man who believes in achieving self-mastery by proving himself as physically dominant, but denying himself the fruits of victory? And what does it say about America when the non-violent hero achieves worldly success, not wholly because of the values he’s espoused, but because the populace lionizes him for a violent deed?
The Library of Congress selected the movie (which stars John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Lee Marvin) for the National Film Registry because of its cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance, while Gaddis assesses Kennan’s “American Life.” It’s interesting to ponder both artifacts side by side when thinking about American power and American democracy.