Diplomat Was Architect of U.S. Cold War Policy
George F. Kennan, a leading authority on the Soviet Union who in the midst of the Cold War became a passionate crusader for the control and abolition of nuclear arms, has died. He was 101.
The historian and diplomat, who was best known as the architect of “containment,” which became the cornerstone of U.S. policy in dealing with the Soviet Union for more than 40 years, died at home in Princeton, N.J.
Kennan was an elegant writer, the author of 26 books and numerous articles. He won the Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Award in 1956 for “Russia Leaves the War” and a second Pulitzer in 1967 for “Memoirs: 1925-1950.”
Kennan was also a distinguished scholar and a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. He had been associated with the institute since 1950, much of the time with the title of permanent professor in the School of Historic Studies. Even late in life, Kennan looked the part of the diplomat: tall, slender, erect, balding and with a discreet mustache. He had a slightly ascetic appearance, and that, combined with an element of shyness, frequently caused him to appear aloof and a bit imperious.
Though Kennan was widely admired for his containment theory, it was to his immense annoyance and regret that it was his legacy.
Kennan’s thoughts on the Soviet Union first drew attention in an 8,000-word telegram to the State Department that he prepared while serving as a member of the U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow. Written in February 1946, it became known in diplomatic lore as the Long Telegram.
The cable was broken into five sections, “all neatly divided, like an 18th century Protestant sermon,” Kennan noted in his memoirs. The sections dealt with the basic features of the Soviet postwar outlook, the background of that outlook and its resulting impact on Soviet policy, both official and unofficial. It concluded with the implications of all this on American policy.
Kennan argued that the Soviets dismissed and held in contempt the idea that international agreements must be respected or given the stature of law. Josef Stalin and his negotiators, he believed, would invariably seek to turn all negotiations and treaties to their advantage and were unlikely to honor past agreements if they felt such treaties were not in their best interests.
In Kennan’s view, this approach to foreign affairs had little to do with communism but reflected Russia’s historical role in European politics.
The Long Telegram also warned of the Kremlin’s expansionist ambitions under Stalin and noted that Soviet power “was impervious to the logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to the logic of force.” Equally as important, the telegram noted that the Kremlin was very likely to stand down “when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”
U.S. diplomacy, Kennan concluded, must assume an active position in international politics and take on the role of “Great Power,” both diplomatically and militarily, to counter Soviet expansionism.
Explaining himself in later writings, Kennan said he had been troubled since his wartime days in Moscow by the attitude of some Americans with “fatuous dreams of a happy and chummy collaboration with Moscow.” He said his aim in the telegram and in earlier and later writings was to dispel “naive optimism” among certain quarters in Washington that the U.S.-Soviet alliance of World War II would assure postwar peace.
Kennan’s message arrived at a time when Washington and Western Europe were becoming more receptive to the idea of a Soviet threat. Around the time Kennan’s telegram was landing in Washington, Winston Churchill declared in a speech that a Soviet-inspired “iron curtain” was descending across Eastern Europe.
Details of the Long Telegram were leaked to the media and gained wide public attention. Kennan’s new theories on international relations had an immediate impact. He was brought home from Moscow and installed at the National War College in the highly visible position of an expert on the Cold War. From that position he moved on to become chief of the State Department’s staff for national planning.
It was in the latter role that his stature as a Soviet expert grew with the publication of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in the journal Foreign Affairs in July 1947. In the article, Kennan identified his views on containment. But as head of the State Department’s policy planning branch, he wanted to keep his byline secret, so he used the pseudonym “X.”
The goal of this policy, Kennan wrote, was to keep a peaceful and stable world by confronting the Russians “with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching.”
In affecting the course of postwar policy, the article succeeded beyond his dreams. Containment soon became a major pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Kennan’s authorship also became quickly known and burnished his reputation as a foreign policy strategist.
Three decades later, Henry Kissinger would note that “Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”
But containment, as it was practiced, quickly troubled Kennan. He thought it unrealistic because it placed too much emphasis on military rather than political containment, and it appeared to have no limits anywhere around the globe.
In rejecting the idea of absolute containment, Kennan favored a more selective strategy that emphasized the importance of certain areas of the world to American interests, including Britain, Japan and the Rhineland in a then-divided Germany.
It was also Kennan’s view, which he expressed in parts of the Long Telegram and in subsequent articles, books and lectures, that Soviet leaders were as anxious to avoid war as were their counterparts in the West. Kennan noted that Marxist theology did not require launching wars against capitalist countries and that Western strength could deter military conflicts.
“Those Western alarmists who try to persuade us that a surprise attack against Western Europe is a serious possibility unless we vastly increase our power to deter it are living in a dream world of their own and are talking about a Soviet leadership many of the rest of us have never heard of,” Kennan wrote.
Words of this sort inevitably generated a hostile response. Critics -- of whom there were many -- accused Kennan of being naive about Soviet intentions.
“Kennan is an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling,” said Eugene V. Rostow, former undersecretary of State in the Johnson administration.
Another critic, Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the late Secretary of State Dean Acheson “admired Mr. Kennan’s intellect but
Acheson, whom Kennan served as a top advisor during the Truman administration, said in 1958 that “Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.”
On the other hand, Kennan had a legion of admirers and even worshipers who subscribed to his foreign policy viewpoints, particularly on nuclear arms control. Kennan said that any military policy built around the use of nuclear arms was a mistake. He advocated a “no first use” policy for the United States and opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s deployment of nuclear missiles in Western Europe.
One of his supporters was the late Alan Cranston, then a Democratic senator from California.
“Kennan was a leader in educating Americans on both the promise and the pitfalls of negotiating with the Soviets,” Cranston said. “His commitment to facts over fears, of realism over reaction, gave hope to those who believe that with wisdom and will we can prevent U.S.-Soviet competition from producing a nuclear holocaust.”
Regardless of the validity of his views about Soviet intentions, Kennan probably knew as much about the Soviet Union as any Westerner of his time.
George Frost Kennan was born in Milwaukee on Feb. 16, 1904, the son of Kossuth Kent Kennan, a tax lawyer, and Florence James Kennan. His mother died shortly after his birth.
He was educated at a military academy and would later describe himself as a boy as “an oddball, not eccentric, not ridiculed or disliked, just imperfectly visible to the naked eye.”
He found refuge in literature and history, particularly Russian history. His interest in Russia was fueled by another George Kennan, a distant relative, who was an expert in czarist Russia. The senior Kennan wrote the influential book “Siberia and the Exile System” in 1891. An abridgment of the first edition was published in 1957 with an introduction by George F. Kennan.
He went on to college at Princeton and graduated in 1925. He joined the State Department a year later and entered the newly created Foreign Service School. Kennan was one of the first young Foreign Service officers to be specially trained as a Russia expert in the years before U.S. recognition of the Soviet government.
He was assigned to consulates in the then-independent Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia that served as listening posts on the Soviet border. He also received intensive Russian-language instruction at the University of Berlin.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, Kennan, who was by then fluent in Russian, was chosen to accompany Ambassador William C. Bullitt to help open an embassy in Moscow.
But at the outbreak of World War II in Europe in 1939, Kennan was sent to Berlin, where he became first secretary within a year. When the United States joined the war in December 1941, Kennan was interned by the German government along with more than 125 other Americans.
Kennan’s memoirs describe the period as a difficult time with no communication from Washington. But after seven months, most of the Americans were packed onto a train and sent to Lisbon, where they were exchanged for a similar party of Germans.
Kennan said the State Department did little to help its newly freed staffers and refused to grant them pay for the time they were in German custody on the grounds that they had not actually been working.
Kennan returned to Moscow three more times -- as second secretary in 1935-36 and in 1944 as chief deputy to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. His last posting in Moscow came in 1952 as ambassador.
But Kennan was declared persona non grata less than a year later after, in what he later admitted to be a moment of carelessness, he compared life in the anti-American climate of Stalin’s Moscow to his experience as a prisoner of war in Germany.
Humiliated by his expulsion, Kennan returned to the United States only to be forced to retire from the Foreign Service several months later by President Eisenhower’s incoming secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.
Kennan later served as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the early 1960s for President Kennedy. But that was a brief and difficult experience, not so much with the Belgrade government but again with U.S. policymakers who rejected most-favored-nation status for Yugoslavia, even though the country had split with Moscow.
In his later years, Kennan was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and, at the age of 98, was critical of the George W. Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq. War “has a momentum of its own, and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it,” Kennan told an interviewer in September 2002, six months before the invasion. “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”
Over the years, his writings were praised for their lucidity and erudition.
“For more than half a century, the diplomatic dispatches and political and historic writings of George F. Kennan have enriched the enlivened American public debates and our intellectual and academic scenes,” Don Cook, a late foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in 1989 in the paper’s Book Review section. “It is difficult to name another American writer who has been so intellectually stimulating over such a long period, and who has commanded such constant attention on the great problems of the nuclear age.”
Kennan’s writings also conveyed a skepticism about the American society in which he lived.
In the epilogue to “Sketches From a Life,” one of his later works, he wrote:
“I am startled to note the bleakness of the impressions of my own country.... I view the United States of these last years of the 20th century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources which it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality of which the dominant political forces of the country have little understanding or regard. Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the 19th century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of a nation’s life.”
Writing in the New York Review of Books to mark Kennan’s 100th birthday, Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at USC, compared Kennan to Edward Gibbon, the 18th century historian who wrote “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” “Perhaps Kennan’s greatest distinction, and his greatest contribution, is as a ruefully jaundiced interpreter of the meaning of the American experience, and our dramatic, sometimes tragic confrontation with ourselves,” Steel wrote.
Kennan’s honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Albert Einstein Peace Prize and the Gold Medal in History from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Survivors include his wife, Annelise Sorenson Kennan, whom he married in 1931, and four children, Grace Kennan Warnecke, Joan Kennan, Christopher James Kennan and Wendy Kennan; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.
Funeral services are pending.
Times staff writer John Averill contributed to this report.
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Kennan’s views on the Soviet Union
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.
The Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce... but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.
Here is a nation striving to become in a short period one of the great industrial nations of the world while it still has no highway network worthy of the name and only a relatively primitive network of railways.... And in vast sectors of economic life, it has not been possible to instill into labor anything like that general culture of production and technical self-respect which characterizes the skilled worker of the West.
It is difficult to see how these deficiencies can be corrected at an early date by a tired and dispirited population working largely under the shadow of fear and compulsion.
If, consequently, anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.
Thus the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men in the Kremlin.