George F. Kennan. George Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, testifying in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Feb. 10 1966. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ds-07025).


 

Kennan, George F. (16 Feb. 1904-17 Mar. 2005), diplomat and historian, was born George Frost Kennan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Florence James and Kossuth Kent Kennan, a tax attorney who was fifty-two years old at the time. Tragically his mother died of a burst appendix two months after his birth, and he was team-raised by his father, several aunts, and a stepmother who displayed little affection for him. George attended the Fourth Street School in Milwaukee, where swift progress allowed him to skip eighth grade. His father then moved him to St John's Military School, which was a difficult experience for the quiet and introverted boy. He enrolled at Princeton University in 1921 and graduated in 1925. Kennan later said that "Princeton had prepared my mind for further growth. It had not stimulated in that mind any great latitude of curiosity" (Memoirs, 1925-1950, p. 16).

Although Princeton proved a disappointment to Kennan, he read widely in history and literature, developing a deep admiration for Spengler, Gibbon, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Instead of pursuing a career in law or academia, Kennan concluded that he could best be satisfied by a career in the Foreign Service. He excelled in his written and oral examinations and was accepted to the service along with just seventeen other exceptional prospects. After seven months of intensive study at the Foreign Service School in Washington, D.C., he took his first job, as a temporary vice-consul in Geneva, in the spring of 1927. Kennan moved next to Hamburg, and then on to Germany's capital in 1929, where the State Department funded Kennan to study Russian at the University of Berlin's Seminar für Orientalische Sprachen, an institution founded during the Chancellorship of Otto von Bismarck to prepare diplomats for entry to the German Foreign Service. Kennan spent two years in Berlin and was tutored primarily by Russian émigré tutors, all of whom were hostile toward the Marxist-Leninist experiment. Over the course of his studies, Kennan became fluent in German and Russian. In September 1931 he married Annelise Sørenson, a Norwegian whom he met in Berlin--where she was learning German--through a fortuitous lunch arranged by her cousin, who had hoped to rent George an apartment in the city. The couple had four children, and they remained married until George's death, seventy-three years later.

Swiftly identified as a Russian specialist of promise, Kennan was posted to Riga, Latvia--America's principal observation post for the Soviet Union while no formal relations existed--soon after he married in 1931. He and his family returned to the United States in the fall of 1932, but the vacation was brief. William C. Bullitt, whom President-elect Franklin Roosevelt had appointed as the nation's first ambassador to the Soviet Union, asked Kennan to accompany him to Moscow to serve as his translator. On 13 December, with Kennan by his side, Bullitt presented his credentials to the Soviet Union's nominal president, Mikhail Kalinin. The trip lasted ten days in total--involving trips to the ballet with the family of Maxim Litvinov and to the theater to see Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard--an experience Kennan later described as "kaleidoscopic" (Gaddis, p. 74). So began a lifelong fascination with Russia.

Kennan was posted to the Moscow embassy from 1934 to 1937, with some interruptions for ill health; to Prague in 1938; and to Berlin in 1939. After Germany declared war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Kennan, along with 135 other Americans living in Germany at that time, was interned at a resort hotel in Bad Nauheim, a spa town north of Frankfurt. The internment ended in May 1942, and later that year Kennan took a position as counselor at the American legation in Lisbon, Portugal, where he remained for two years before returning to Moscow in July 1945. He was a diligent and highly regarded member of the Foreign Service, although these appointments were not at the top tier.

It was from Moscow in February 1946 that Kennan first exerted genuine influence in Washington, D.C. Frustrated by the Truman administration's inability to discern the magnitude of the threat posed by Stalin's Soviet Union, Kennan cabled Washington his view that Stalin was determined to expand his nation's power at the expense of American interests and that it was essential to resist Soviet adventurism that was fueled by nationalism, deep-set fears of external attack, and Marxist-Leninist ideology. This nearly six-thousand-word "long telegram" became perhaps the most famous communication in the history of the State Department, and its impact in Washington was significant. Before Kennan's telegram nobody in the employ of the US government had articulated a cohesive American strategy toward Moscow in the postwar world. As President Truman's aide, George Elsey, remarked: "Kennan tied everything together, wrapped it in a neat package, and put a red bow around it" (Thompson, p. 60). Kennan's gift to American grand strategy was championed by Ambassador Averell Harriman, who was in Washington at the time. Circulated quickly and widely, it was read by the secretaries of war and the navy, and later by President Truman himself. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was utterly persuaded by its force of argument. He had the telegram copied and sent to other members of the cabinet, as well as insisting that it become required reading for senior members of the armed forces. The telegram was also cabled to America's embassies and missions abroad.

Kennan was recalled to Washington in May 1946 as deputy commandant for foreign affairs at the National War College, a position he was glad to accept, as he was keen to spend more time in an academic setting. Ten months later, writing anonymously under the letter "X," Kennan published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" that elaborated on the long telegram's diagnoses and recommendations, comparing the Soviet Union to a wind-up toy that would move relentlessly in a particular direction unless a barrier was placed in its way. Kennan began the article by re-creating Stalin's warped perspective on diplomacy: that there could be no meaningful collaboration between the Soviet Union and "powers which are regarded as capitalist." "This means," Kennan wrote, "that we are going to continue to find for a long time the Russians difficult to deal with." It is impossible to engage meaningfully with a totalitarian regime because "truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves." Russian history, additionally, provides ample evidence that communist "precepts are fortified by. . . centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast fortified plain." Assaulted in various eras by Mongol hordes from the east, and Napoleon's and Hitler's formidable land armies from the west, Russia had experienced death and destruction on a scale experienced by no other nation on earth. In these circumstances the coupling of Russian history and Marxism-Leninism had a real and dangerous chemistry.

To ensure that Moscow was restrained in the extent of the abuse it could mete out, Kennan crafted a seminal strategic concept: "In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." As Kennan's biographer John Lewis Gaddis observed in Strategies of Containment, the eight presidents who followed Truman would all subscribe to variations on this policy. But it is important to note that Kennan primarily intended "containment" to safeguard Western Europe and Japan from communism with recourse to non-military means: economic aid, propaganda, the imposition of political pressure. On the way in which subsequent presidents misapplied and militarized containment in Vietnam and elsewhere, Kennan observed that he felt "like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster" (Thompson, p. 78).

The X-article attracted a strong critique from Walter Lippmann, America's most influential print journalist. In a series of articles that were subsequently published as a book titled The Cold War, Lippmann attacked Kennan's "containment" as a "strategic monstrosity" that would imperil the United States through the accumulation of unsustainable obligations in areas of questionable importance. Kennan was initially stung by Lippmann's assault, but he subsequently came to agree with most of what he wrote. Kennan believed that a wise foreign policy requires flexibility and intuition, but instead he bequeathed an ambiguous document, almost a blueprint, ripe for misinterpretation.

Nonetheless the period from 1946 to 1948 represented the high point of Kennan's policy influence. In the spring of 1947 he played a significant role, alongside his State Department colleagues Will Clayton and Chip Bohlem, in designing the Marshall Plan, through which the United States disbursed approximately $13 billion in aid to Western Europe to facilitate its economic rehabilitation. On 7 May the State Department announced the creation of a Policy Planning Staff--a deliberative body designed to provide independent analysis and strategic advice to the secretary of state--with Kennan as its director. The X-article was taken by most to be an official statement of how the Truman administration viewed the Soviet Union and the world.

Through 1948 and 1949, however, Kennan and the administration he served began to diverge in outlook. He believed President Truman to be gravely in error in recognizing the new state of Israel in May 1948--a move both he and Secretary of State George Marshall believed would damage US interests in the Middle East. In the autumn of 1949, in response to the discovery that the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb, Kennan argued strongly against the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of vastly greater destructive potential. Dean Acheson, who replaced George Marshall as secretary of state in January 1949, began to view Kennan's recommendations warily, warming more to the man who would succeed Kennan as director of policy planning in 1950, Paul Nitze. Kennan departed to take a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he remained for much of the remainder of his life.

Kennan returned to the diplomatic service in May 1952, when Truman appointed him as the US ambassador to Moscow. The appointment proved short-lived, however, when Kennan in September made some unguarded remarks to journalists at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin on the "icy-cold" atmosphere of isolation in which he worked--worse, in many ways, to that which he experienced during internment in Nazi Germany. Pravda, the newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, denounced Kennan on 26 September, and Stalin declared him persona non grata on 3 October, forcing him to leave his post and return to the United States. The remainder of the 1950s were barren for Kennan in terms of influence, because the Eisenhower administration declined to seek his counsel.

President John F. Kennedy appointed Kennan to his final position in the State Department, US ambassador to Yugoslavia, in May 1961. He resigned two years later, largely because congressional hostility toward Belgrade--reflected in the denial of foreign aid assistance and "Most Favored Nation" status to Yugoslavia--made his job untenable.

Kennan was a consistent critic of ill-informed and shortsighted congressional meddling in the nation's diplomacy. His principal contribution to foreign policy debate in the remainder of the 1960s was to argue forcefully and cogently against the Americanization of the Vietnam War, to President Lyndon Johnson's great dismay.

Aside from his two-year stint in Belgrade, Kennan spent most of his life from 1950 on either in Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study, or at his farm in East Berlin, Pennsylvania. His works of history were garlanded with praise and won many accolades. Russia Leaves the War, published in 1956, won the Bancroft Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award for non-fiction, and the Francis Parkman Prize. Kennan, who was a wonderful stylist as well as a diligent research scholar, also won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for the first volume of his memoirs, published in 1967. Yet while he enjoyed significant recognition as a writer and scholar, it was policy influence and access that Kennan desired the most. His failure to acquire either through most of his life was a constant source of disappointment. Faced with a succession of secretaries of state and presidents whose foreign policies Kennan found to be unnuanced and bellicose--John Foster Dulles, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan particularly roused his ire--Kennan remained at a far remove from the mainstream. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher informed Kennan in 1994 that the Clinton administration was engaged in a quest to identify a new foreign policy akin to "containment" for the post-Cold War world (what they informally called the "Kennan Sweepstakes"), Kennan advised Christopher not to waste his time.

Kennan's keen historical perspective, remarkable linguistic ability, skill at relating to different national identities, and ability to draw insight from multiple epochs, made him stand out from his contemporaries as someone who combined formidable erudition with keen diplomatic and strategic insights. As a shaper of US foreign policy Kennan was constantly frustrated, with the exception of the period 1946-1948, when his views and those of his political masters briefly converged. As an analyst of US foreign policy and of the foibles of politicians, however, history will likely view Kennan's post-1950 record as a public intellectual as farsighted on a great many counts. He was a principal author of the central strategy that the United States pursued through the Cold War--containment--and one of the most powerful dissenters from decisions made in its name. His was a career of remarkable acuity and longevity, and the full measure of his achievements were formally recognized in 1989, when President George H. W. Bush awarded Kennan the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. As he approached his hundredth birthday, echoing his farsighted opposition to the Vietnam War, Kennan expressed strong doubts about the logic of George W. Bush administration's move to war against Iraq in 2003. George Kennan died in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 101.

 



Bibliography

George Kennan's papers are housed at the Seeley-Mudd Library at Princeton. He was the author of many books, including American Diplomacy, 1900-1950 (1951); Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954); Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin (1960); Dealing with the Communist World (1964); Democracy and the Student Left (1968); and The Cloud of Danger: Current Realties of American Foreign Policy (1972). In addition to his two autobiographical volumes, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (1967) and Memoirs, 1950-1963 (1972), he also wrote Sketches from a Life (1989), and An American Family: The Kennans (2000) Also see Frank Costigliola (ed.), The Kennan Diaries (2014). John Lewis Gaddis's authorized biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011), is comprehensive and elegantly written. Other fine studies of Kennan include David Mayers, George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy (1988); Anders Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (1989); and Barton Gellman, Contending with Kennan: Toward a Philosophy of American Power (1984). See also Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (2009). An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 18 Mar. 2005.



David Milne




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