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 on George F. Kennan
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).