Kennan, George F(rost) 1904–2005

views updated

KENNAN, George F(rost) 1904–2005

OBITUARY NOTICE—See index for CA sketch: Born February 16, 1904, in Milwaukee, WI; died March 17, 2005, in Princeton, NJ. Historian, diplomat, ambassador, educator, and author. A key figure in the cold war between the United States and the former Soviet Union, Kennan was considered the architect of the so-called "containment" policy that many believed was responsible for ending the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets. He was also a brilliant writer, winning two Pulitzer prizes and several National Book awards. Interested in Russian history from an early age—he was related to another George Kennan, a scholar of czarist Russia—Kennan earned a B.A. from Princeton University in 1925 and then joined the U.S. State Department, where he was trained at the Foreign Service School and learned fluent Russian. When the U.S. government officially recognized the USSR, Kennan was sent to Moscow as part of U.S. ambassador William C. Bullitt's team. Here, Kennan became intimately aware of Soviet leader Josef Stalin's harsh style of government, while also becoming familiar with the inherent strengths and weaknesses of Soviet diplomacy. He left Moscow in 1935 to serve as consul in Vienna, followed by a post as second secretary in Prague. A year in Czechoslovakia was followed, in 1939, with the unenviable assignment of working in Berlin as World War II was heating up. When the United States entered the war in 1941, Kennan and the fellow diplomats were imprisoned by the German government, spending several months in confinement before a prisoner exchange found Kennan in Lisbon, Portugal. After spending a year in London as a counselor, he returned to Moscow, this time as a minister-counselor. It was while serving in this post that Kennan wrote the famous correspondence that would become known as "the Long Telegram." In it, he explained to the U.S. State Department the history and outlook of Soviet policy and how he predicted it would affect American foreign policy. A startling revelation to many was Kennan's assertion that the Soviets would not honor a treaty if they felt it was to their disadvantage; on the other hand, he felt that they would back down from conflict in the face of powerful political and military opposition. Later, in 1947, Kennan elaborated upon his view of Soviet politics in an article published in Foreign Affairs. These two pieces of writing have since been considered the foundation of America's containment policy against the Soviets, in which the United States vigilantly worked to prevent the USSR from expanding its influence into other countries in Europe and Asia. Kennan, however, would later hold that the U.S. government interpreted his ideas too militaristically and generally, erroneously emphasizing military force over political deterrence, and resisting Soviet influence in every case, instead of focusing on important hot spots such as Eastern Europe. After World War II, Kennan continued to work for the U.S. State Department in important positions. He served as director of policy planning in 1947 and as counselor from 1949 to 1950. In 1952 he was named U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, and from 1961 until 1963 he was the ambassador to Yugoslavia. Kennan's later years were spent in academia. He joined Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study in 1956, teaching there, with the exception of his time in Yugoslavia, until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1974. A moderate political thinker, Kennan argued against nuclear proliferation and felt that the United States was becoming too militaristic and that the federal government too often ignored the opinions of the intellectual community. One example of his attempt to be the voice of reason came a few months before the United States invaded Iraq as a reaction to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Kennan deemed this a bad move, predicting that it would likely result in America becoming entangled in that country for years. Honored many times for his work in diplomacy, Kennan received such prestigious honors as the Albert Einstein Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. An active and acclaimed author, he also earned the Pulitzer and National Book Award for Russia Leaves the War (1956), is the first volume of his two-volume Soviet-American Relations, 1917–1920, a second Pulitzer and National Book Award, as well as an Overseas Press Club award, for his Memoirs, 1925–1950, and many other prizes. Among his other publications are American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (1951), The Decline of Bismarck's European Order: Franco-Russian Relations, 1875–1890 (1979), The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War (1984), Sketches from a Life (1989), and At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995 (1996).



Chicago Tribune, March 18, 2005, section 1, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2005, pp. A1, A4-A5.

New York Times, March 19, 2005, p. B11.

Times (London, England), March 19, 2005, p. 80.

Washington Post, March 18, 2005, pp. A1, A11.

About this article

Kennan, George F(rost) 1904–2005

Updated About content Print Article