Kennan, George F.

views updated May 23 2018

George F. Kennan

Born February 16, 1904
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

U.S. diplomat, historian, and author

G eorge F. Kennan is considered one of the greatest diplomats and statesmen of the United States. Kennan played a major role in formulating U.S. foreign policy, especially on the issue of Soviet-U.S. relations during the early stages of the Cold War. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. After World War II (1939–45), Kennan was the person who first suggested the policy of containment to control Soviet expansion. Kennan continued to have an important impact on foreign policy into the 1980s. His ideas frequently spurred considerable public debate. A historian, he authored many books of exceptional scholarly standards.

Princeton grad

George Frost Kennan was born into an affluent family on the east side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was a prosperous lawyer of Scotch-Irish descent, and his mother's heritage was German. George's mother died shortly after his birth, and his relationship with his father was not close. George, a quiet and bookish child, was enrolled in St. John's Military Academy in 1916 at the age of twelve; he graduated in 1921. He entered Princeton University that same year and chose to major in history, specializing in modern European diplomacy and international relations. He graduated in 1925 with a bachelor of arts degree.

Foreign service

Young Kennan had been a mediocre student at Princeton, but in 1926 he managed to score high marks on the newly instituted exams for entrance into the Foreign Service diplomatic corps, which was part of the U.S. State Department. Thrilled at being selected by the Foreign Service, Kennan drew his first posting in Geneva, Switzerland. This posting began a career that would span decades of American diplomacy. Between 1927 and 1953, and again from 1961 to 1963, Kennan served in many European nations. By the fall of 1927, he was off to Hamburg, Germany; next, he went to Tallinn, Estonia; and in early 1929, he left for Riga, Latvia. At the time, the United States had no official foreign ministry in the Soviet Union, but the proximity of Latvia to Russia allowed the United States to be involved with diplomatic efforts with the Soviet Union.

Kennan already had a special interest in Russia through his grandfather's cousin, also named George Kennan (1845–1924). The earlier George Kennan first experienced the Russian culture in 1865 as a member of the Russian-American Telegraph Expedition, which was sponsored by Western Union, an American communication company. The goal of the expedition was to establish telegraph service between the United States and Russia. This cousin made numerous visits to Russia through 1901 and wrote about his experiences. He became the foremost American expert on Russian life before the Russian Revolution of 1917. To honor this man, the later George Kennan helped establish the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in 1974. The institute is located in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Hoping for a future assignment in the Soviet Union, young George Kennan seized the opportunity to learn the Russian language at Berlin Seminary for Oriental Languages in Germany. He received his diploma in 1930. In Berlin, he met and married Annelise Sorenson, and they returned to Riga in 1931.

To Moscow

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) decided shortly after taking office that the United States needed to formally recognize the government of the Soviet Union; he soon announced that a U.S. embassy would be established in Moscow. The United States had gone sixteen years with no representation in the Soviet Union because the United States had refused to extend diplomatic relations to the new Soviet government following the communist takeover in 1918. Roosevelt appointed William C. Bullitt (1891–1967) as America's first ambassador to Moscow, and Bullitt chose Kennan to serve on the embassy staff.

Kennan's three-year stay in Moscow allowed him to assess the character of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) and observe the terror tactics Stalin used against the Soviet people. Kennan expanded his knowledge of Russian language, history, and culture, all of which helped him communicate with and understand Soviet leadership. In an interview in 1996 for the CNN "Cold War" series, Kennan described the Stalin he witnessed in the 1930s as a man with several faces: "Stalin was an excellent actor, and when he did meet with leading people at these various conferences, he was magnificent: quiet, affable, reasonable. He sent them all away thinking, 'This really is a great leader.' And yes, but behind that there lay something entirely different." Kennan related that when Stalin was displeased with the actions of his assistants, "he turned on them and then the yellow eyes lit up—you suddenly realized what sort of animal you had by the tail there." Kennan realized that Stalin was doing away with, or purging, many of his own people in government positions. Describing a 1937 Soviet purge trial that he attended, Kennan related, "I could see [purge trial defendants] there, and their pale faces, their twitching lips, their evasive eyes. These were the faces of men who had been, if not tortured, then terrified in many ways, and often by threats to take it out on their families if they didn't confess."

Because he had an up-close understanding of the Stalin regime, Kennan urged President Roosevelt's administration to be tough and firm with the Soviet leader. He was dismayed when Ambassador Bullitt was replaced in 1937 by Joseph Davies (1876–1958), who had been instructed to develop goodwill with Stalin. U.S. leaders thought this was the safest strategy in case they needed Soviet support in future alliances. (As it turned out, the Soviet Union did join the United States and the rest of the Allies in fighting Germany during World War II.) Unwilling to support this strategy, Kennan resigned and was sent to a post in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In the 1996 CNN interview, Kennan remarked, "I don't think FDR [President Roosevelt] was capable of conceiving of a man of such profound iniquity [wickedness], coupled with enormous strategic cleverness, as Stalin. He [Roosevelt] had never met such a creature."

World War II

In 1939, World War II began in Europe. Kennan was transferred to the U.S. wartime embassy in Berlin, the capital of Germany. The United States did not enter the war until December 1941; at that point, Germany and the United States formally became enemies. Kennan briefly found himself a detainee and was unable to leave Germany until May 1942. After a short posting to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1943, Kennan joined the European Advisory Commission in London; this group was in charge of creating a plan to deal with postwar Germany. In 1944, Kennan was reassigned to Moscow as an aide to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman (1891–1986; see entry). Kennan urged the United States not to form too close an alliance with the Soviet Union. He was dismayed as he watched the United States make concession after concession to the Soviet government for wartime reasons. Kennan fretted that his country was entirely too eager to please Stalin.

After the war, when the Soviets occupied Eastern European countries with the apparent intention of staying there indefinitely, Kennan pushed for the United States to cut off all economic aid to the Soviets to force them to withdraw. Almost no other U.S. official agreed with Kennan—but then none of them understood Stalin as Kennan did.

The "Long Telegram"

In February 1946, Stalin made a speech the night before elections of the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet legislative body. The speech denounced capitalism, the economic system of the United States and Western Europe. Capitalism is based on private ownership of property. Prices—and individual profits—are determined by competition in a free market, with relatively little government intervention. In contrast, the Soviets had a communist economy and government. Private ownership of property was not allowed. Instead the government controlled all economic production, ensuring that goods and profits would be divided equally among all Soviet citizens. Stalin's pronouncements strongly suggested that a war between communist and capitalist countries was inevitable.

Confused American officials turned to their embassy in Moscow, hoping someone there could explain what the Soviets were thinking. The task fell to Kennan. He sent his response, an eight-thousand-word telegram, to Washington, D.C., on February 22, 1946. In the now famous "Long Telegram," Kennan took U.S. leaders back to step one in understanding the Soviets. He spoke of Moscow's traditional "neurotic view of world affairs" and "instinctive Russian sense of insecurity." He asserted that Stalin intended to occupy countries surrounding the Russian homeland to provide a security buffer between Russia and its traditional enemies, the capitalist Western European nations. Then, according to Kennan, the Soviet communists hoped to overthrow those Western European nations. This would eventually leave the United States politically and economically isolated.

In the telegram, Kennan went on to state that for the Soviet Union it was "desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our [U.S.] society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken." This, Keegan said, was the only way the Soviet Union would ever feel secure. Kennan noted that the Soviet Union was in a weakened state, but he also remarked that the resolve and strength of the Western world would determine the fate of capitalism. Kennan stressed that the United States must abandon any isolationist attitudes (policies of avoiding official agreements with other nations in order to remain neutral) and take a strong, active position on the international political stage.

The telegram was quickly circulated throughout the State Department and all the important political circles of Washington, D.C. The press caught hold of it, and the telegram was widely distributed. Although it was both criticized and praised, the message was clearly one that rang true to government officials, U.S. foreign policy makers, and everyday Americans. Lost amid urgent discussions of the telegram was at least one important point: Kennan's position on atomic weapons. In the telegram, he urged President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) not to relentlessly pursue development of such weapons, because, as Kennan saw it, atomic bomb development was a dangerous and unnecessary path to take.

The Long Telegram became a cornerstone of President Truman's foreign policy; the U.S. position regarding the Soviet Union immediately became much tougher. Introducing the Truman Doctrine, the president promised U.S. aid to all countries that were engaged in resisting communist influence or invasion. This announcement created more animosity between the United States and the Soviet Union. Though it was never declared or officially launched, the Cold War had begun.

Containment policy

In the fall of 1946, Kennan accepted a lecturer's position at the Naval War College, but in the spring of 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry) made Kennan director of the new Policy Planning Staff (PPS), a group whose chief focus was U.S. diplomacy. In the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs an article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" appeared; it was written by "X." "X" was Kennan; he did not want to reveal his identity, because he was part of the State Department and what he had written did not conform with U.S foreign policy on the Soviet Union. At the time, officially, the U.S. policy was not anti-Soviet. Nevertheless, Kennan's article expanded on ideas in the "Long Telegram" and developed the idea of "containing" Soviet expansion. The policy of containment involved drawing geographic lines to establish a boundary beyond which Soviet influence would not be tolerated but rather confronted.

Containment misunderstood

Kennan soon realized that his containment ideas had been misunderstood by U.S. government officials and military leaders. As he later explained in a PBS interview with David Gergen, editor-at-large for the magazine U.S. News and World Report, it was Kennan's fault that containment was misunderstood. "It all came down to one sentence in the 'X' article where I said that wherever these people, meaning the Soviet leadership, confronted us with dangerous hostility anywhere in the world, we should do everything possible to contain it and not let them expand any further. I should have explained that I didn't suspect them of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn't think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it." In the interview, Kennan stressed that he had meant political containment, not military containment. He knew the Soviets would use political subversion to try to shift other countries to communism, but he never thought they would use military action. Stalin and his communist loyalists were a crafty and dangerous group, but they did not have the military strength after World War II to fight new wars.

Kennan believed that the United States could contain the Soviets with tough diplomacy. He knew that Stalin tended to back down when confronted with firm warnings. However, Kennan also predicted that a major U.S. atomic weapons development program and weapons buildup would cause extreme insecurity in the Soviet Union and probably lead to an arms race. Historians look back at Kennan's 1947 assessments and note that events proceeded much as Kennan warned: Because the United States continued to pursue atomic weapons, the Soviets felt they had to do the same. Because the United States maintained a military force in Japan, the Soviets wanted a communist presence in Korea. As the Cold War continued, this competition and military maneuvering overshadowed Kennan's original idea of containment.

Ambassador to the Soviet Union

Kennan left the Policy Planning Staff in June 1950, and that fall he moved to Princeton, New Jersey, to join the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967; see entry), the U.S. atomic physicist who successfully coordinated the development of the U.S. atomic bomb,

headed this new research organization. By this time, Oppenheimer had come to believe that atomic energy should only be used for peaceful purposes.

In December 1951, not long after Kennan joined the IAS, Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson (1893–1971; see entry) appointed him as ambassador to the Soviet Union. He took this position at a time when anticommunist hysteria consumed the United States, and in the Soviet Union, an aging Stalin became ever more paranoid. Kennan was restricted to the Moscow area. He protested to Soviet officials, and he criticized the internal politics of Stalin. By October 1952, Kennan was forced to leave Moscow.

Writer, lecturer, commentator

Kennan retired from government service at the end of 1952 and returned to the IAS, which would remain his home base for decades to come. He was made the Permanent Professor in the School of Historical Studies. There, he found a supportive environment and resources in which to write and develop lectures and commentary on global issues. He opposed the nuclear arms buildup during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry). Kennan advocated mutual disengagement of U.S. and Soviet forces in Europe and the abolishment of nuclear weapons by both powers. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, he staunchly criticized nuclear weapons stockpiling as immoral and counterproductive to diplomacy.

Kennan returned to government one last time in 1961. When John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) became president in January 1961, he appointed Kennan as ambassador to Yugoslavia. There, Kennan developed a political relationship with Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980; see entry), a communist who had successfully broken away from Soviet domination. Disregarding Tito's relatively independent communist position, the U.S. Congress passed legislation denying Yugoslavia most-favored-nation trade status. (Most-favored-nation trade status lowers taxes on goods exported to the United States, making it much easier for a foreign country to sell goods to American consumers and U.S. businesses.) In disgust, Kennan resigned in 1963 and returned to the IAS. He also spent time at his Pennsylvania farm. He concentrated on traveling and writing numerous books and articles.

Throughout the 1960s, Kennan was an outspoken opponent of America's involvement in Vietnam. He argued that participating in the Vietnam War (1954–75) was causing a greater rift between the United States, the Soviet Union, and communist China and that European diplomacy was being ignored. However, when Soviet communist forces suppressed a political reform movement in communist Czechoslovakia in 1968, he favored sending additional U.S. troops to West Germany, so that soldiers would be as near the Soviet communist forces in Eastern Europe as possible to perturb and distract the Soviets. Some officials charged Kennan with focusing on Europe to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

Between 1965 and 1969, Kennan served as a university fellow at Harvard. During the 1970s and 1980s, he continued to lecture and write, always emphasizing U.S.-Soviet relations. From 1974 to 1975, Kennan was a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Also in 1974, he became a professor emeritus at the IAS. In 1981, he was awarded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize of $50,000 for his work in U.S.-Soviet relations.

In the 1980s, Kennan strongly criticized the policies of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry) toward the Soviet Union; Kennan thought the policies were extreme and not based on the reality of the situation inside the Soviet Union. However, in retrospect, Kennan said that the two individuals who contributed most to the end of the Cold War were Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry). In his PBS interview, Kennan stated, "I would put first of all Gorbachev … but also Ronald Reagan, who was, in his own inimitable [incapable of being copied] way, probably not even quite aware of what he was really doing! He did what few other people would have been able to do in breaking this logjam [in U.S.-Soviet relations].

Celebration of stature

As Kennan grew older, his stature as a former statesman continued to grow. Gorbachev greeted Kennan warmly at their only meeting, which occurred in Washington, D.C., in 1987. Gorbachev expressed his admiration for Kennan, saying that Kennan understood that it was possible to embrace other peoples and still remain a devoted American. Honor and recognition culminated in 1989, when President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93; see entry) awarded Kennan the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the late 1990s, Kennan, by then in his nineties, continued to write and comment on U.S. history. He is widely recognized as one of America's great statesmen.

For More Information


Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohlen, Kennan, Harriman, Lovett, McCloy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Kennan, George F., and John Lukacs. George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944–1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Mayers, David A. George Kennan and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Miscamble, Wilson D. George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Web Sites

CNN Cold War. (accessed on September 5, 2003).

"George Kennan." Public Broadcasting Service: Essays and Dialogues. (accessed on September 5, 2003).

Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. (accessed on September 5, 2003).

The Writings of George Kennan

George Frost Kennan was a prolific writer on U.S. history. Two of his books received the Pulitzer Prize:

Soviet-American Relations, 1917–1920. Vol. 1. Russia Leaves the War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Memoirs, 1925–1950. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.

Some of Kennan's other articles and books include the following:

"Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 566–82 (written under the name "X").

American Diplomacy, 1900–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Soviet-American Relations, 1917–1920. Vol. 2. The Decision to Intervene. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

Memoirs, 1950–1963. New York: Pantheon, 1973.

The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Sketches from a Life. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Kennan, George F.

views updated May 29 2018

George F. Kennan

Excerpt from the "Long Telegram"

Reprinted from Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) 1946,
Volume VI Eastern Europe; "The Soviet Union,"
published in 1969

"In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."

O n February 3, 1946, U.S. newspaper reports stunned the American people. They revealed that a Soviet spy ring had been sending secrets from the U.S. atomic bomb project, "The Manhattan Project," to Moscow. Furthermore, on February 9, the evening before elections to the Supreme Soviet (the Soviet legislative body), Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) delivered his threatening "Two Camps" speech. The speech reflected traditional Marxist thought that the Soviet Union would inevitably have to wage war on capitalism. Stalin contended that capitalism and communism were incompatible. Alarmed and taken aback, U.S. State Department officials turned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. They wanted clarification of the speech and an explanation of why Stalin would have made it. George F. Kennan (1904–), the Soviet expert in the embassy, responded with an eight-thousand-word telegram. Kennan's official position was Chargé d'Affaires, that of a diplomat who is literally "in charge of affairs."

Kennan first apologized for the length of the document but stated an "analysis of our international environment" can hardly be expressed "in a single, brief message."

To do so, Kennan explained, would be "oversimplification"; so he asked his readers to bear with him in the lengthy telegram (hence the name the "Long Telegram"). Step by step, Kennan led his readers through a "post-war Soviet out-look"; a history of Soviet thought and why it evolved as it did, embracing the teachings of communism by Karl Marx (1818–1883); and his practical predictions of where Soviet policy in regard to the United States was going next.

The first two excerpted paragraphs show Kennan taking readers back to the start of communism, or Marxism, in Russia. He explained why its teachings were so believable to the Russians, a "peaceful agricultural people" constantly buffeted through history by various invaders.

After Kennan's insightful comments on Russian thought, the excerpt skips to the last part of the telegram, "Practical Deductions from Standpoint of U.S. Policy." Kennan used some of his most startling language, saying the Soviets will not feel secure until "our [the United States] traditional way of life [is] destroyed." He recognized that they were a very powerful nation despite their war losses; however, if the United States and Western European powers stood firm, he believed the Russians would back down. Strongly stressing education of the American public as to understanding the "Russian situation," Kennan stated "there is nothing as dangerous or as terrifying as the unknown." He also emphasized practical help for war-torn Europe to rebuild their countries and their lives because if the United States did not the Russians surely would.

Things to remember while reading "The Long Telegram":

  • During the 1920s and 1930s, neither the capitalist United States nor the communist Soviet Union was a world power. They emerged as world powers only after World War II (1939–45).
  • The United States and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II, joined in their common effort to defeat Nazi Germany. The Soviets suffered mightily at the hands of the Nazis but ultimately prevailed. The Red Army and Stalin were praised in Europe and the United States. After the war, most Americans, and even many U.S. officials, thought of Russians as a brave, suffering people and certainly had not considered warring against them.
  • Kennan understood Stalin and the Soviets probably better than any other American. In the telegram, he urgently tried to impart this understanding to U.S. officials.

Excerpt from the "Long Telegram"


Moscow, February 22, 1946—9p.m.

[Received February 22—3:52 p.m.]

At bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area.…

It was no coincidence that Marxism, which had smoldered ineffectively for half a century in Western Europe, caught hold and blazed for first time in Russia. Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers either internal or international, could a doctrine thrive which viewed economic conflicts of society as insoluble by peaceful means.…

Part 5: [Practical Deductions from Standpoint of US Policy]

In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure. This political force has complete power of disposition over energies of one of world's greatest peoples and resources of world's richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism. In addition, it has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history.… This is admittedly not a pleasant picture. Problem of how to cope with this force in [is] undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face.… It should be approached with same thoroughness and care as solution of major strategic problem in war, and if necessary, with no smaller outlay in planning effort. I cannot attempt to suggest all answers here. But I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve—and that without recourse to any general military conflict. And in support of this conviction there are certain observations of a more encouraging nature I should like to make:

(1) Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw—and usually does—when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns.

(2) Gauged against Western World as a whole, Soviets are still by far the weaker force. Thus, their success will really depend on degree of cohesion, firmness and vigor which Western World can muster. And this is factor which it is within our power to influence.…

For these reasons I think we may approach calmly and with good heart problem of how to deal with Russia.…

(1) Our first step must be to apprehend, and recognize for what it is, the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity, and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual.

(2) We must see that our public is educated to realities of Russian situation. I cannot over-emphasize importance of this. Press cannot do this alone. It must be done mainly by Government, which is necessarily more experienced and better informed on practical problems involved. In this we need not be deterred by [ugliness?] of picture. I am convinced that there would be far less hysterical anti Sovietism in our country today if realities of this situation were better understood by our people. There is nothing as dangerous or as terrifying as the unknown.…

(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.…

(4) We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own. Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened byexperiences of past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security. They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities. We should be better able than Russians to give them this. And unless we do, Russians certainly will.

(5) Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, thegreatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.


What happened next …

As soon as the senior officials of the State Department read the telegram, its importance was obvious. It was distributed through many government offices in Washington and reported in the press. The transmission confirmed the worries of some U.S. officials that the Soviets could not be trusted as friends: U.S. foreign policy would have to change immediately.

The first evidence of change came in a situation with Iran. Since 1941, both British and Soviet forces occupied Iran in the Middle East, keeping an eye on its vast oil reserves. Both had agreed to withdraw all troops by March 1946. The British troops left, but seemingly confirming Kennan's predictions, the Soviets decided to stay. Secretary of State James Byrnes (1879–1972) condemned Soviet actions and on February 28 made a speech confirming the new tough stance and confrontational approach of the United States in its foreign policy. The speech is considered by many historians as a declaration of the Cold War. He sent the USS Missouri, the world's most powerful warship, into position by Turkey as a warning and demanded Moscow pull back its troops from Iran. After only a few weeks, the Iranian crisis was over. Just as Kennan had predicted, when the Soviets were faced with force, they pulled back.

On March 5, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) delivered his famous "Iron Curtain Speech" (see next excerpt) in the state of Missouri with U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) at his side. Churchill warned the still-disbelieving Americans that indeed the Soviets were occupying large territories in Eastern Europe with no intention of leaving. Americans still wondered if Kennan and

Churchill could indeed be correct, and their fear of spreading communism increased greatly.

In July 1947, Kennan authored "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which became known as the "X" article (see box). The "X" article restated some points of the "Long Telegram" and expanded others. The term "confrontational" that Secretary Byrnes had spoken of in 1946 turned with the "X" article's publication into a "policy of containment," or not allowing communism to spread and take over any more countries. The policy of containment essentially remained the basis of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

Did you know …

  • During the 1930s and World War II, Kennan saw the United States appease the Soviets, making concession after concession to the Soviet government as the two countries cooperated to defeat Germany's Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Nazi army. Kennan was dismayed at his nation's lack of firmness with the Soviets and its eagerness to please Joseph Stalin.
  • According to Kennan, his policy of containment had been misunderstood from the start. He had meant political or diplomatic containment, not military containment. In his view, the misunderstanding led to an unnecessary nuclear arms race.
  • The Iran flare-up and resolution foreshadowed just how accurate Kennan's overall assessment of the Soviet viewpoint in the "Long Telegram" was. The Soviets would constantly test and push the United States until it stopped short, stood firm, and generally threatened military action. At that point, the Soviets would back down. In reality, neither the Soviets nor the United States wanted to start a superpower war. This pattern continued through much of the Cold War.

Consider the following …

  • Explain what Kennan meant by "there is nothing as dangerous or as terrifying as the unknown." In reality, few Americans studied or came to understand the Soviets as Kennan had hoped. Research and report on the resulting "Red Scare" that swept America between 1947 and 1954.
  • Consider the first two paragraphs of the Kennan excerpt. If you had lived in an agricultural society that through history had been invaded by aggressive groups, where would your security level be? Do you think the Russian insecurities that directed their Cold War policies were justified? Why, for how long, and to what extent? If you do not think they were justified, why not?

For More Information


Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) 1946, Volume VI, Eastern Europe; "The Soviet Union." Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohlen, Kennan, Harriman, Lovett, McCloy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Kennan, George F., and John Lukacs. George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944–1946: The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Miscamble, Wilson D. George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Web Sites

"A CNN Perspectives Series. Episode 4: Berlin." CNN Interactive. (accessed on September 10, 2003).

Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. (accessed on September 10, 2003).

Contrasting Viewpoints: United States Versus the Soviet Union

The "X" article, originally titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," was published in the quarterly journal Foreign Affairs in July 1947. The author was George F. Kennan. Since Kennan was still a member of the U.S. State Department, and at the time the department did not wish to display an overt, or open, anti-Soviet policy, the article's author was simply noted as "X." However, readers soon figured out that the author was Kennan, and so it became known as his "X" article or "Article X."

In Article X, Kennan repeated and expanded parts of the "Long Telegram." He used the term "containment"—not allowing communism to spread further—several times when speaking of how to deal with the Soviet Union, who by that time seemed intent on spreading communism throughout Europe and perhaps the whole world. Kennan wrote:

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.… Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit [skillful] and vigilant application of Counter-force.… Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own potential. This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.

With the "X" article, the policy of containment was firmly established. In many interviews with Kennan through the following decades, he constantly said this policy was completely misinterpreted by U.S. officials and in his estimation led to the unnecessary buildup of nuclear arms. He explained this misunderstanding was his fault but said he intended a diplomatic containment only. Kennan explained that the support of Western European nations through the Marshall Plan was the kind of policy he had in mind to help contain the spread of communism. (The Marshall Plan was a massive U.S. plan to promote Europe's economic recovery from the war; it was made available to all nations, though communist countries rejected it.)

In 1946 and 1947, the Soviets were in a greatly weakened postwar state. Kennan knew they had no desire to enter into more military conflicts and could be stopped by firm diplomacy. He never dreamed he had to say this—he thought that was obvious to all. Unfortunately, his containment policy was viewed as calling for military counterforce. Kennan was never able to change that viewpoint.

"Report on the International Situation to the Cominform"

On September 22, 1947, Andrei Zhdanov (1896–1948) issued a report to counteract the "X" article. Zhdanov, a member of the Politburo, the key policy-making body in the Soviet Communist Party, gave the report to the first gathering of Cominform. Cominform had been established by the Soviet Union to promote communism internationally, and members included communist leaders from Soviet-dominated Eastern European countries.

Zhdanov stated that the Soviet Union had "always honored … [its] obligations." The United States believed it clearly had not: since its forces still occupied the countries of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union had imposed communist rule and not allowed free elections. Nevertheless. the world was in two distinct camps and set for the Cold War, as explained by Zhdanov:

A new alignment of political forces has arisen. The more the war recedes into the past, the more distinct becomes two major friends in postwar international policy, corresponding to the division of the political forces operating on the international arena into two major camps: the imperialist … on the one hand, and the anti-imperialist … on the other.…

Zhdanov defined the imperialist countries as the United States, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Turkey, Greece, China, and "Near Eastern" and "South American" countries. Imperialism refers to one nation extending its rule over another, often by force.

Zhdanov continued:

The cardinal purpose of the imperialist camp is to strengthen imperialism, to hatch a new imperialist war, to combat [communism] … and to support reactionary … regimes and movements everywhere.… Soviet foreign policy proceeds from the fact of the coexistence for a long period of the two systems—capitalism and socialism [communism]. From this it follows that cooperation between the U.S.S.R. [Soviet Union] and countries with other systems is possible, provided that the principle of reciprocity [a mutual exchange] is observed and that obligations once assumed are honored. Everyone knows that the U.S.S.R. has always honored the obligations it has assumed. The Soviet Union has demonstrated its will and desire for cooperation.

Obviously, from the radically differing viewpoints of "Article X" and the report to the Cominform, the United States and the Soviet Union sat in opposing camps.

Kennan, George Frost

views updated May 23 2018

Kennan, George Frost

(b. 16 February 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 17 March 2005 in Princeton, New Jersey), diplomat, historian, and foreign policy critic who was deemed the author of the containment doctrine.

Kennan was born in Milwaukee in 1904, one of four children of Kossuth Kent Kennan, a lawyer descended from Scotch-Irish settlers of colonial America, and Florence James Kennan, who died just two months after his birth. His childhood was not happy and secure in the conventional sense. He was distant from his father and developed into a shy and diffident boy. Kennan was educated at Saint John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, and then attended Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, from where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1925 after four undistinguished years.

Upon his graduation Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service. Beginning in the fall of 1926 he studied for seven months at the Foreign Service School in Washington, D.C., and then set off to serve as vice consul, first in Geneva, Switzerland, and then in Hamburg, Germany. He settled reasonably adeptly into the role and persona of the diplomat. In 1928 he was selected for a training program for language specialists. He began his long engagement with Russian language, history, and literature while still serving as vice consul in Tallinn, Estonia, and as third secretary in Riga, Latvia. From 1929 to 1931 he pursued formal studies at the University of Berlin. He then returned as third secretary to the Russian section of the legation in Riga, where the United States, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, kept a wary watch on the activities of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his associates. While Kennan was in Berlin, he met Annelise Sorenson, a Norwegian, and they were married in 1931. Their marriage lasted until his death in 2005, and it formed the bedrock of his personal life. The couple had four children.

When the United States recognized the Soviet Union late in 1933, Kennan joined the first ambassador, William Bullitt, to establish the American embassy there. He served in Moscow until the summer of 1937 and formed lasting views of the Soviets and their system. The young diplomat had no inclination to disguise Soviet tyranny and barbarism. Kennan held Joseph E. Davies, Bullitt’s successor as ambassador, in contempt for his efforts to explain away the Great Purge, campaigns of political persecution in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, and for other horrific aspects of Stalin’s rule. Davies had Kennan transferred in 1938 to the Russian desk in the State Department. This was his first Washington assignment, but he soon returned to Europe and arrived to take up a posting in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on 29 September 1938, the very day of the Munich Conference, at which the French and English agreed to cede the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia to Germany.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, Kennan was transferred to the American embassy in Berlin, where he served as administrative officer until the German declaration of war against the United States. On 14 December 1941 he was taken into custody, along with other members of the embassy staff, and interned for five months. Upon his release Kennan served first in Lisbon as counselor and chargé d’affaires (1942–1943) and then in London as counselor to the European Advisory Commission (1943–1944). He seized with alacrity what few opportunities passed his way, but generally he felt ignored and left on the periphery.

Kennan’s sense of being ignored continued even after his return to Moscow in July 1944 as Ambassador Averell Harriman’s deputy head of mission. His obscurity came to an end only in February 1946, with the dispatch from Moscow of his “Long Telegram,” which traced the basic features and prospects of Soviet foreign policy. Kennan explained that Soviet power was “neither schematic nor adventuristic” and was adverse to unnecessary risks. “Impervious to the logic of reason,” he famously noted, “it is highly sensitive to the logic of force.”

With the receipt of the message in Washington, Kennan’s “official loneliness” came to an end. He was soon recalled to Washington and appointed in mid-April as deputy for foreign affairs in the recently established National War College. Kennan’s time at the War College permitted him to hone his analysis of Soviet foreign policy and of the needed American response. He developed the concept of containment, although his formulation of it notably failed to highlight his preference for nonmilitary measures to implement it. This failure was also evident in his essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs under the authorship of “X.” The article, which contains the essence of the “Long Telegram” and is the most famous of all his writings, held 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.” With this article Kennan was accorded authorship of the containment doctrine and his reputation established. Containment as expressed in this article, however, represented no more than a broad approach. It was not a detailed prescription for policy.

In late April 1947 Secretary of State George C. Marshall instructed Kennan to return to the State Department immediately to establish a new planning unit, the Policy Planning Staff, to address major problems confronting U.S. foreign policy. He relished the challenge, and during his three years of service as director he participated in debates over most of the key issues in American foreign policy. Kennan first displayed his skill as a hands-on policy maker with his work on the European Recovery Program. For Kennan, the program, popularly known as the Marshall Plan, was the decisive first step in establishing a political balance of power in Western Europe. The political and economic nature of the European Recovery Program represented the kind of containment he favored. He was much less enthusiastic about the more military expressions of containment, and he explicitly opposed the development of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. He preferred continued efforts to prevent the permanent division of Germany into two states and saw the development of a separate West German state in 1949 as wrong-headed. He feared that such policies “would amount to a final militarization of the present dividing-line through Europe.” Obviously he lost out in the arguments on these initiatives.

Kennan had a salient impact on the formulation of American policy toward Northeast Asia. He helped establish the quite basic premise of Japan’s greater strategic importance relative to China in the region. He also influenced specific policy toward both countries. On China, Kennan took a leading part in developing the policy of limited assistance without deep involvement, which led to the China Aid Act of 1948. On Japan, Kennan helped promote the “reverse course,” which redirected occupation policies toward economic recovery and away from political reform measures. The extent of Kennan’s influence on American policies in Asia suggests that his impact there may well have exceeded his influence on American policy in Europe.

Kennan’s defeats during 1949–1950 on such policy issues as the division of Germany and the decision to proceed with hydrogen-bomb research combined to leave this sensitive man feeling frustrated and pessimistic. His opposition to nuclear weapons, which was passionately expressed, could not persuade Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson, who rejected his proposals for international control of atomic energy. Kennan’s disillusionment mounted. He resigned as planning staff director on 31 December 1949 and was replaced by his deputy, Paul H. Nitze. He planned to stay on as counselor in the State Department until June 1950 and then to take a year of sabbatical leave, but his departure was delayed briefly by the outbreak of the Korean War. Kennan unsuccessfully sought to establish as formal American policy the goal of simply repelling the North Koreans from the South and restoring the status quo ante at the thirty-eighth parallel.

In the fall of 1950 Kennan made his way to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he held the appointment of visiting fellow. During his leave year he also accepted the University of Chicago’s invitation to deliver the Walgreen Foundation lectures. His incisive lectures quickly established him as a major spokesperson for the realist school in American foreign relations, with its emphasis on national interest and the priority of power realities over idealistic principles. Published as American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (1951), they tellingly critiqued “the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems.” Late in 1951 Kennan accepted appointment as ambassador to Moscow. He arrived there in May 1952 at a time when U.S.-Soviet relations had reached their nadir. Kennan’s frustration at the diplomatic isolation he met prompted an outburst in which he compared the experience of living in Moscow to his experience as an internee in Nazi Germany. The Soviet government protested his comments, declared him persona non grata, and demanded his recall. Acheson was forced to comply.

When the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower took office in 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles determined that Kennan was too tainted by his association with containment and essentially forced him to retire from the Foreign Service. Later in 1953 Kennan returned to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where the director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, made him welcome as a visiting scholar. He joined the permanent faculty of the Institute’s School of Historical Studies in 1956 and remained associated with the institute until his death, although he held visiting appointments at Oxford (1957–1958) and Harvard (1965–1969). At the institute he pursued a distinguished career as a diplomatic historian. He received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his Russia Leaves the War (1956), the first volume of his two-volume work Soviet American Relations 1917–1920. The life of a pure academic failed to satisfy him fully, however. He continued to write and speak on contemporary foreign policy issues, as he did in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Reith Lectures in 1957, which sparked a celebrated dispute between him and Acheson over the issue of German reunification.

When John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Kennan hoped for a significant appointment. This was not forthcoming, although the new president assigned him as ambassador to Yugoslavia. His service in Belgrade provided him with little professional fulfillment, and he resigned in 1963 and returned to Princeton. After his service in Yugoslavia, he sensed that his chance to participate directly in the making of his nation’s foreign policy had ended, and he was right.

Kennan continued to engage in commentary on foreign policy matters from that time right through to the century’s end. Indeed, his public prominence remained high as a stream of additional books and articles flowed from his eloquent pen. He again won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his beautifully written Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967). His role, however, was limited to that of a sage trying to influence elite and public opinion. In this role he dissented thoughtfully on the painfully divisive question of American participation in the Vietnam conflict; he offered constructively critical support to the policy of détente of President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, with its prospects for improved U.S.-Soviet relations; and he passionately opposed the nuclear arms race that characterized the late administration of Jimmy Carter and the early years of the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Kennan turned his attention to a wide array of other issues—the student movement of the 1960s, civil rights, the environment, immigration to the United States, and the social fabric of America. He outlined his socially conservative political philosophy in Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (1993).

In the final third of his long life, Kennan received numerous honors and awards, including the Albert Einstein Peace Prize (1981), the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation Freedom from Fear Medal (1987), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1989), and the Distinguished Service Award from the Department of State (1994). He received twenty-nine honorary degrees and served a term as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 he helped found the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, a division of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C.

This remarkable diplomat, policy analyst, and scholar retained his intellectual acuity and his willingness to engage in public debate throughout his nineties. He lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war and characteristically aimed to influence the role that the United States should play in the new world circumstances. He objected to plans for North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion and to what he saw as exploitation of Russian weakness. In his ninety-eighth year a still intellectually vigorous Kennan criticized the national security doctrine of the administration of George W. Bush and objected to American military action against Iraq in 2003. He died of natural causes at age 101 on 17 March 2005 and was buried in Princeton Cemetery after private services. A public memorial service was conducted at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on 6 April 2005.

Kennan was a determined and principled official and a man of estimable character. He must be numbered among the most notable members of the Foreign Service of the United States. His reputation and significance derive primarily from his service as director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department in 1947–1949. His role there in formulating the so-called containment doctrine led an observer no less than Henry Kissinger to suggest that Kennan “came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.” Whatever the merits of this assessment—and it warrants some revision—it certainly is widely shared. His name remains inextricably linked to the enormously creative burst of policy making during the presidency of Harry S Truman, which set the main lines of American foreign policy for over a generation.

Kennan’s papers are housed in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University. Kennan wrote about his ancestors in An American Family: The Kennans, the First Three Generations (2000). He also provided an eloquent account of his own public involvements in his Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967) and Memoirs, 1950–1963 (1972). Autobiographical details are included in his Sketches from a Life (1989) and At a Century’s Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995 (1996). His public career and impact on American foreign policy are examined in David Allan Mayers, George Kennan and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy (1988); Anders Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (1989); Walter L. Hixson, George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast (1989); and Wilson D. Miscamble, George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950 (1992). See also Foreign Service Journal (Feb. 2004) for a special issue containing several articles about Kennan in honor of his 100th birthday. An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Mar. 2005).

Wilson D. Miscamble

George F. Kennan

views updated May 18 2018

George F. Kennan

Combining the talents of the diplomat with the wisdom of the scholar, George F. Kennan (born 1904) left a powerful impression on his age. Author of the famed "Doctrine of Containment," he helped to define the issues and values dividing America and Russia at the onset of the Cold War.

Until he won White House and State Department recognition as a creative and farsighted thinker by his "Long Telegram" of 1946, George Frost Kennan was one of many first-rate Foreign Service officers representing American interests abroad. After the telegram brought him to the attention of his superiors and his Foreign Affairs article in 1947 earned him a national following, George F. Kennan was assured his place in history.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 16, 1904, he came from" … a straight line of pioneer farmers …" of 18th-century English-Scottish-Ulster stock. After graduation from a secondary school military academy, he entered Princeton, graduating in 1925. College was more an ordeal than a career for him, as he recounted in his Pulitzer prize winning Memoirs 1925-1950. He described himself with simple severity as" … an oddball, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye." History impressed him most, although he also loved literature.

Becoming an Expert on Russia

He entered the newly-created Foreign Service School in 1926 after passing a stiff competitive examination. Brief assignments in Geneva and Hamburg sharpened his language skills and exposed him to minor diplomatic tasks, but left him convinced of the need for more education. He was on the point of resigning when an in-service program opened up offering three years of study in Europe. As his field, he selected Russian and Russia.

Kennan's choice of Russia reflected a family link dating to the previous century. An elder cousin of the same name had carved a career out of studying Russian tsardom, producing a landmark work entitled Siberia and the Exile System. In his Memoirs, the younger Kennan expressed the feeling " … that I was in some strange way destined to carry forward as best I could the work of my distinguished and respected namesake."

The next few years were spent on the periphery of Bolshevism, in then independent Estonia and Latvia, in travels to Finland; but always on the outside, looking in. He progressed well as a student, translating Russian into German and vice versa, deepening his knowledge of Russian history, and preparing for what almost seems a preordained future.

In 1931 he married a Norwegian woman named Annelise Soerensen. Four children were born to them.

Posted to Moscow

Two years later, diplomatic relations were restored between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kennan's linguistic ability and his familiarity with economic conditions in Russia made him a logical choice to accompany William C. Bullitt, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's nominee as ambassador, on the initial trip to Moscow. He had found his niche; those early years were " … a wonderful and exciting time." Even the " … Moscow winter was healthy and exhilarating" to a Milwaukean entering his thirties.

He gained invaluable experience during the 1930s in Vienna, Moscow, Prague, and Berlin. Stationed in the latter city when the Nazis declared war on the United States in 1941, he spent six months in an internment camp until repatriated in 1942 and reassigned to Lisbon.

He returned to Moscow in the spring of 1944 and remained there for two crucial years. His career to this point had been an enviable one which would reflect credit on any diplomat, but he had not yet made that breakthrough which would take him from competence to greatness. His opportunity came at the age of 42. By 1946 he was convinced that few Americans in leadership positions understood Russia, Stalin, or Communism and, further, that his efforts to remedy this were largely ignored. But a query from the Treasury Department seeking information on economic and financial matters gave him the forum he needed. The result was an 8,000 word cable (the "Long Telegram") describing the world from the Soviet perspective.

He defined Soviet premises as based on beliefs that capitalism would generate debilitating international competition and divisive internal conflict. Capitalist countries harboring socialist and social democratic movements were especially suspect, since their tenets were masks hiding bourgeois values. From these premises, Kennan predicted certain Soviet actions would flow. Russia and its allies must grow stronger to take advantage of capitalism's weaknesses, for example, and left wing leaders and groups must be firmly dealt with.

War between the United States and Russia was not inevitable, Kennan argued, and coexistence between their differing social and economic systems was entirely possible. The best way to compete with Communism was by educating the public to a true understanding of Russia and its people. In a powerful conclusion, he observed that " … every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society … is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and communiques." This is so because " … Communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue."

Winning Respect for His Views

Notwithstanding the stilted telegraphic style, Kennan's power to articulate the main outlines of American-Soviet relations made him an overnight sensation in Washington's highest circles. From President Truman down through the top few thousand members of America's governing officials Kennan became required reading. "My voice now carried," he observed tersely in later years.

Returning to Washington shortly after sending the cable, he was sent around the country by the State Department to address diverse groups in the Mid-and Far-West. He was also named to a key position in the newly created National War College.

His growing influence within and outside the government gave him the opportunity for critical input into the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan developments. In 1947 Secretary of State George C. Marshall selected him to head the Policy Planning Staff, a key agency for formulating national policy. Cutting back on his other activities, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the task of organizing and staffing an effective advisory body.

The next step in Kennan's path to fame was taken with the publication in July 1947 of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the prestigious journal of the Council of Foreign Relations. Publication of this article gave a name to President Truman's developing policy toward Communism—"The Doctrine of Containment."

"The Doctrine of Containment"

A more succinct or complete exposition of the Russian roots of Soviet behavior would be difficult to find. Everything is in this article: the fanatical characters of Lenin and Stalin, their sense of total infallibility, their intransigeant contempt for capitalism, and the chilling conviction that they were incapable of defeat in the long run. Only a very stable society, sure of its own " … spiritual vitality …, and possessed of … a policy of firm containment," could cope with such a monolithic threat. Whether Americans were up to this " … duel of infinite duration" only time could tell, but it was clear to Kennan that containing Communism was not essentially a military matter. The patience and strength and other virtues he referred to were part of the national character, not the nation's arsenal.

But to his dismay, his readers in the Truman administration transformed the "Doctrine of Containment" into a military strategy hinging on international alliances. Central to this was an arms build-up based on stockpiling atomic weapons and the decision to develop the hydrogen bomb, a decision Kennan would at least have deferred until the issue of whether we would ever use this weapon on a first strike basis had been resolved.

This issue and the concurrent loss of influence of the Policy Planning Staff under newly appointed Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson built sufficient frustration in Kennan to cause him to secure a temporary leave of absence. He joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

During the next four decades Kennan became one of America's greatest scholars, capturing two Pulitzer prizes, a Bancroft, a Parkman, and many other honors. Only twice did he venture out of academe. He served for six months as ambassador to the Soviet Union at Secretary Acheson's request in 1952 but was ousted by the Russians for what they took to be criticism of their regime. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Yugoslavia, a post he held for two years.

A Legacy of First-Class Histories

His writings are models of literary elegance and relentlessly exact scholarship. American Diplomacy, his first effort, appeared in 1950, sketching the development of a national foreign policy from 1898 to the early days of the Cold War. Volume after volume followed, sometimes on contemporary issues, such as Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954), Russia, the Atom and the West (1958), or The Nuclear Delusion (1976). These were usually built out of lectures he had given and were invariably and uniformly instructive.

But his writings on Russian history took the prizes for their pith and insight. Russia Leaves the War (1956), The Decision To Intervene (1958), and Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (1961) established him as the nation's foremost kremlinologist. To these must be added The Marquis de Custine and His Russia in 1839 (1971) and The Decline of Bismarck's European Order (1979), the latter a study of Franco-Russian relations before World War I.

His Memoirs 1925-1950 are in a class by themselves, revealing a gentle man whose fiercely held convictions never overruled his basic civility and integrity. They also show that Kennan was often decades ahead of others in his thinking. He understood Communist paranoia before most Americans were aware of the Russian menace. And he became convinced that nuclear war was unthinkable almost before it was possible.

He owned a 235-acre farm in Pennsylvania on which the family worked on weekends in what was an apparent effort to continue the "Pioneer farmer" line for one more generation. Into his nineties he continued to write forcefully and innovatively. A Foreign Affairs article published in 1986 under the title "Morality and Foreign Policy" drew together his interest in Russia, his horror of nuclear war, and his attachment to the soil. The twin "apocalyptic dangers" of our time, he wrote, are war among nuclear-armed industrial nations and man's disturbing habit of fouling his environment. He published two books in the 1990s. The first, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (1993), discusses both U.S. foreign and domestic policies and Kennan shares thoughts on each. He also comments on various aspects of society, including computers and automobiles and their relative merits and evils. The second, At A Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995 (1996), is a collection of his essays and speeches from those years.

Further Reading

Memoirs 1925-1950 by Kennan; "The Great Foreign Policy Fight," by Gregg Herken, American Heritage (April, May 1986) offers great insight into Kennan's ideas and details his career well; also Barton Gellman's Contending with Kennan (1984); Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas included Kennan as one of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986) in this study of the years immediately after World War II.

Kennan's own works include Around the Cragged Hill; A Personal And Political Philosophy (1993); and At A Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995 (1996). □

Kennan, George Frost

views updated May 14 2018

KENNAN, George Frost

(b. 16 February 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), Foreign Service officer, historian, and political commentator who mapped out the U.S. cold war "containment" strategy and was ambassador to Yugoslavia under President John F. Kennedy (1961–1963).

Kennan was the son of Kossuth "Kent" Kennan, a prosperous lawyer of Scotch-Irish descent, and his German-American wife, Florence James, who died two months after Kennan's birth. He had three older sisters. He attended Saint John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, and Princeton University, graduating in 1925 with a B.A. degree. In 1926 Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service, undergoing intensive specialized Russian training at Berlin University and in Riga, Latvia. In 1931 he married the Norwegian Annelise Sorensen, with whom he had four children.

After the United States resumed diplomatic relations with Russia in 1933, Kennan spent five years in the U.S. embassy in Moscow (1933–1937), returning in 1944 as minister-counselor. His influential February 1946 "Long Telegram," sent from Moscow to the State Department in response to a request for elucidation of the reasons for the rapid postwar deterioration of Soviet relations with the West, argued that the internal dynamics of Russian communism made genuine Soviet-Western understanding unattainable. From 1947 to 1950 Kennan headed the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, exercising his greatest immediate impact upon U.S. foreign policy by enunciating the "containment" doctrine, which stated that the United States and other Western powers must firmly and resolutely oppose any further expansion of Soviet influence or territorial domination. This doctrine became the basis of U.S. cold war strategy toward the Soviet Union. In 1952 Kennan was briefly ambassador to the Soviet Union, but his out-spoken criticism of Stalin's regime quickly brought his expulsion. His opposition to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and support for German reunification and neutralization led Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1953 to dispense with his services, whereupon Kennan began a lengthy career as a historian and influential political commentator. Eager to return to public life, in 1960 Kennan advised and supported John F. Kennedy, the Democratic presidential candidate, lobbying discreetly for a diplomatic position. Keen to encourage polycentrism, the development of rival groupings within the communist world, Kennan welcomed his appointment as ambassador to Yugoslavia, where he remained until his resignation in 1963. Kennan enjoyed a good relationship with Yugoslavia's leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, and loved the country's spectacular and historic scenery, but Tito's support for the Soviet Union during the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) disappointed him. Kennan resigned when, retaliating against human-rights offenses, the U.S. Congress temporarily rescinded Yugoslavia's most-favored-nation trading status. He resumed academic writing and lecturing, based at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

While in Yugoslavia, Kennan had shown little interest in Vietnam. In 1950 he had urged U.S. attempts to encourage non-Communist, nationalist "third forces" in Indochina, but by 1955 he had grown pessimistic that such endeavors would succeed. Despite some misgivings, he endorsed President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Johnson's subsequent escalation of the war convinced Kennan that the United States was too heavily involved militarily in a country of relatively slight strategic significance to its fundamental interests. He did not recommend immediate withdrawal, but underestimating North Vietnamese resolve, he suggested from 1965 to 1967 that the United States restrict itself to fortifying and defending strategic enclaves such as Saigon and supporting the South Vietnamese government; such policies would, he hoped, force North Vietnam into negotiating. During widely publicized congressional hearings in 1967, Kennan further argued that employing the force levels needed to ensure victory would likely trigger Chinese intervention and a full-scale, probably nuclear, Sino-American war. Tall, bald, elegantly dressed, and imposing, Kennan had considerable personal presence. In 1968 he endorsed the presidential candidacy of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who sought a negotiated settlement to the war in Vietnam. In November 1969 he finally publicly advocated unilateral U.S. military withdrawal, notwithstanding the probability that Communists would then take over South Vietnam. Paradoxically, as he stated in Democracy and the Student Left (1968), Kennan was frequently repelled by radical critics of the war, particularly student protesters whose often violent tactics, intolerance, and lack of civility he deplored, regarding them as symptoms of a broader malaise afflicting U.S. society. He ascribed this malaise to an overdependence on technology and a consequent rampant materialism, industrialism, and consumerism, and he consequently questioned the capability and moral authority of the United States to conduct an activist foreign policy. This may have been one reason why Kennan later suggested, in The Cloud of Danger (1977), that the United States eliminate its overseas commitments to Greece, Turkey, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Africa, retaining only those to Western Europe, Japan, and Israel. Far from convinced of the value of one-man, one-vote democratic systems, Kennan also regretted the civil rights movement, thinking segregation more desirable, and he tended to oppose black majority rule in Africa.

Kennan applauded the manner in which President Kennedy and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handled the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and then negotiated a limited test-ban treaty, and he greatly regretted the subsequent disappearance of both men from the political scene. A long-term supporter of negotiations with the Soviet Union, Kennan believed that the Vietnam War distracted U.S. officials from pursuing détente, which he felt should have been a far higher priority. He applauded the initiatives of French president Charles de Gaulle in this direction and called for the Western recognition of East Germany. Outraged by the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kennan initially demanded massive U.S. troop reinforcements in Western Europe but soon overcame his anger and endorsed West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik (the "Eastern Policy" taken in 1969 to ease diplomatic tension with East Germany).

Kennan opposed the 1969 congressional Mansfield Amendment, which would have withdrawn U.S. forces from Europe, but he welcomed President Richard M. Nixon's efforts to promote disarmament and cooperation with the Soviet Union, even though he felt these were too modest. In the early 1970s Kennan nonetheless minimized the potential impact of resuming Sino-American relations, warning against overly optimistic expectations of the likely consequences for Soviet-American policy. Kennan published two volumes of best-selling confessional memoirs, Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967), and Memoirs, 1950–1963 (1972). He continued to write prolifically well into his nineties, producing several magisterial historical tomes, further autobiographical works, and numerous articles on current political issues. He frequently warned against the tendency of the United States to intervene in nations and issues of little direct interest to U.S. citizens, suggesting that wider concerns, particularly the environment, resources, population growth, and arms control, were of far more crucial significance, both to the United States and to other countries. In 1982, alarmed by the Reagan administration's infatuation with nuclear weapons, Kennan campaigned for a U.S. "no first use" nuclear policy with three other former officials, McGeorge Bundy, Robert S. McNamara, and Gerard Smith.

Kennan was always an intellectual maverick. Except as ambassador to Yugoslavia, after 1950 he exercised little direct influence upon policy. His reputation, buttressed by the rather intimidating breadth of learning that characterized all his writings and the elegant prose style he consciously cultivated, nonetheless greatly enhanced the ability of his prolific writings to win a broader general audience, and assured his views wide currency and publicity and a respectful hearing.

Kennan's personal papers are in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library of Princeton University. Some of his official papers are included in the records of the Department of State in National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, and the holdings of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, for which Kennan also recorded an oral history. Some of his dispatches from Yugoslavia are included in the series Foreign Relations of the United States. Kennan wrote several autobiographical volumes, including Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967); Memoirs, 1950–1963 (1972); Sketches from a Life (1989); Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (1993); and At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995 (1996). The fullest biography is Walter L. Hixson, George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast (1989). Valuable personal insights are included in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, Kennan, Lovett, McCloy (1986). Among the most significant studies of Kennan's thinking on foreign policy are David Mayers, George Kennan and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy (1988); Anders Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (1989); and Richard L. Russell, George F. Kennan's Strategic Thought: The Making of an American Political Realist (1999).

Priscilla Roberts

Kennan, George

views updated May 23 2018

George Kennan

Born George Frost Kennan, February 16, 1904, in Milwaukee, WI; died March 17, 2005, in Princeton, NJ. Diplomat and historian. George Kennan was a well-known and highly regarded shaper of American foreign policy in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a State Department official posted to Moscow in the immediate aftermath of World War II, he wrote a lengthy telegram assessing the Soviet leadership, and his warnings and suggestions became the basis for U.S. strategy toward its ideological foe for the next 50 years. Kennan's New York Times obituary described him as "the last of a generation of diplomatic aristocrats in an old world model—products of the 'right' schools, universities and clubs, who took on the enormous challenges of building a new world order and trying to define America's place within it."

Kennan was born in 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and his mother died several weeks later. His father, an attorney, later remarried, and as an eight year old Kennan traveled to Germany with his stepmother in order to learn the language more fluently. He went on to master German was well as several other European tongues, and finished at a military academy in Wisconsin before entering Princeton University. In 1926, a year after earning his degree, he joined the U.S. foreign service and was posted as vice-consul in Geneva, Switzerland. Over the next decade he became fluent in Russian while holding various foreign-service posts in Berlin and some cities in Baltic region. He was part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union in 1933. While posted in Berlin once again, he was detained for five months by Nazi authorities when the United States entered World War II in 1941.

Kennan returned to Moscow during a wartime period of good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, when both sides teamed to defeat Nazi Germany. As a senior official with excellent insight into the tightly controlled world of Soviet communism, he was wary of the U.S.-Soviet alliance and what it might forebode for Europe once the war ended. In February of 1946, Kennan received an inquiry from an official at the Treasury Department wondering why the Soviets were so vehemently against creation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Kennan, left in charge at the U.S. Embassy while the ambassador was on leave, took it upon himself to write an 8,000-word reply.

Forever known as the "Long Telegram," Kennan's critique of Soviet leadership arrived at the State Department and "ranks as perhaps the most influential missive ever sent to Washington by an American diplomat in the field," said Rupert Cornwell in London's Independent. Kennan wrote about Josef Stalin and the circle of hardliners at the Kremlin, and warned they were more than likely planning to expand Soviet-style communism across the large sector of Eastern Europe where Red Army troops were still stationed. This warning would prove entirely correct over the next few years.

Kennan was immediately recalled to Washington, and appointed to serve as director of U.S. foreign policy planning. His views were later published in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," under the pseudonym "X." During that same summer of 1947, the U.S. announced a massive foreign-aid plan for Western Europe that followed many of Kennan's ideas. This became known was the Marshall Plan, after U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, and focused on an infusion of financial aid to Western European countries to avert the rise of communist political elements in those countries. Kennan also advocated the creation of a political warfare unit within the Central Intelligence Agency, which later became its covert-operations directorate; it led to the positioning of hundreds of secret agents who worked undercover to destabilize unfriendly regimes and enhance U.S. interests abroad.

Kennan soon fell out of favor in Washington, thanks in part to a disagreement with John Foster Dulles, a conservative Republican foreign policy adviser, over how best to deal with the new threat of communist China in 1949. He was appointed the U.S. ambassador in Moscow by President Harry S Truman, but was ejected by Soviet officials when he complained that the increasingly repressive Stalinist regime severely restricted the movements of Western diplomats in the capital; he likened it to his experience in Nazi detention. He left government service when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president.

Though Kennan's ideas became the basis for U.S. Cold War policy, he was opposed to the arms buildup that occurred, and warned of the dangers of nuclear-weapon proliferation. He spent the remainder of his career at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, though he did serve briefly as ambassador to Yugoslavia during in the early 1960s. He wrote extensively on the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy, and won a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Award for his 1956 tome, Russia Leaves the War. The first of his two volumes of memoirs, published in 1967, won both honors again. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded him with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Regarded as one of his era's most knowledgeable authorities on foreign policy, he was respected at home and abroad. In the mid-1970s, he testified before a U.S. Senate committee and claimed that his suggestion to launch political warfare against the Soviets was "the greatest mistake I ever made," his New York Times obituary quoted him as saying.

Kennan lived much of his life in the Princeton area, with his Norwegian-born wife—whom he met in Berlin and wed in 1931—where they raised a son and three daughters. He died in Princeton on March 17, 2005, at the age of 101, survived by his wife, Annelise Sorensen Kennan, and their four children. Even at the age of 95 he still sat for interviews and voiced strongly critical opinions of U.S. foreign policy. His Washington Post tribute, written by J.Y. Smith, mentioned a New York Review of Booksinterview he gave in 1999, which found him as contrarian as he was in 1949. "This whole tendency," Kennan scoffed, "to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable." Sources:, (March 21, 2005); Independent (London), March 19, 2005, p. 44; New York Times, March 18, 2005, p. A1; Washington Post, March 18, 2005, p. A1.


Kennan, George F.

views updated May 11 2018

Kennan, George F. (1904–2005), diplomat, historian, foreign policy critic.Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1904, Kennan attended Princeton University and joined the foreign service in 1926. Over the next two decades he labored as a diplomat in relative obscurity at postings in Riga, Moscow, Vienna, Prague, and Berlin, and earned some reputation for expertise on the Soviet Union. His obscurity ended with the dispatch from Moscow of his Long Telegram in February 1946 and especially with the publication of his 1947 article, The Source of Soviet Conduct, in Foreign Affairs. He was accorded authorship of “containment” doctrine and deemed a principal architect of America's Cold War strategy.

As director of Policy Planning Staff in the State Department from 1947 to 1950 Kennan principally advocated political and economic measures, such as the Marshall Plan, to implement containment. He objected to what he considered the overmilitarization of containment as evidenced by NATO, the hydrogen bomb, and NSC 68. Although he supported U.S. entry into the Korean War, he unsuccessfully opposed crossing the 38th parallel there. Kennan left the State Department in 1950 in dissent from the expansive national security strategy favored by Dean Acheson. His direct influence on U.S. foreign policy ended then.

While pursuing a distinguished career as a historian at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Kennan also engaged in commentary on foreign policy matters. He contributed significantly to the realist approach to international relations characterized by a fundamental concern to root foreign policy in calculations of national interest. In the 1950s, he argued for the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of American troops from Europe. Later, he opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, offered constructively critical support to the Nixon‐Kissinger policy of detente with the Soviet Union, and passionately opposed the resumed nuclear arms race that characterized the late Carter and early Reagan presidencies. With the end of the Cold War, Kennan continued to emphasize the limits of American power and the need for restraint in the exercise of it.
[See also Cold War: External Course; Cold War: Domestic Course; Cold War: Changing Interpretations.]


David Mayers , George Kennan and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy, 1988.
Wilson D. Miscamble , George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950, 1992.

Wilson D. Miscamble

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