George F. Kennan, (1904-2005)

“All of us who aspired to careers in the Foreign Service still look to Kennan as a role model.�? Former Ambassador Richard Gardner

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1904, George Kennan completed his undergraduate work at Princeton University in 1925. Kennan entered the Foreign Service after graduation due to financial problems that prevented him from attending law school. During World War II, the State Department stationed Kennan in Germany, where he was interned by the German government for several months. Upon release, after World War II, Kennan was appointed as a key advisor to the U.S. ambassador in the Russian Embassy. In 1946, Kennan wrote “The Long Telegram,�? where he articulated the necessity of a strategy of patient, long-term “containment�? of the Soviet Union. The Telegram read: “The USSR still lives in antagonistic 'capitalist encirclement' with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence…we have a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that 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.�? In April 1947 Kennan returned to Washington where he became first chairman of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. It is there that he anonymously wrote a polished version of his policy of containment in an article for Foreign Affairs, predicting the inevitable collapse of Soviet communism decades later. While he later would look back at the Telegram in dismay, at the time it was widely circulated throughout Washington and seen by many as a driving force behind the political push for the containment of the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, Kennan argued that the Soviet Union was primarily a political threat, and that the build-up of nuclear arms was counter-productive and would not be effective and countering the true economic and ideological threats posed by the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he argued against the “Truman Doctrine,�? as well as the establishment of the NATO alliance, and the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Kennan maintained that the Soviet Union was exhausted from World War II and presented no immediate military threat to the United States or Europe. Moreover, Kennan vocally argued against the Korean War and intervention in Vietnam, saying: “it is not our business.�? He was also one of the principle architects of the Marshall plan that was responsible for sending a substantial amount of economic aid to help rebuild nations that had been devastated during the war.

Although he was greatly involved in the foreign policy decisions of the U.S. after World War II, Kennan was also involved in U.S. domestic policies. He played a significant role in launching the political and technical capacity the CIA’s covert operations, which he later admitted was “the greatest mistake [he] ever made.�? Gradually, Kennan became pessimistic about the U.S.’s ability to follow a discriminating, realistic, and sensitive foreign policy. He left the State Department in the early 1950s and joined the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, wanting to educate U.S. policymakers and public about the history of U.S.- Soviet relations. In 1956 Kennan won the Pulitzer Prize for history and a National Book Award for Russia Leaves the War, and another in 1967 for Memoirs, 1925-1950. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989, Albert Einstein Peace Prize in 1981, the German Book Trade Peace Prize in 1982, and the Gold Medal in History from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1984.

After the end of the Cold War, Kennan argued that the U.S. should limit its foreign policy to maintaining alliances with Japan and Western Europe. He also maintained that the U.S. ought to focus on addressing its pressing domestic problems. He died in 2005 at the age of 101.

Books and Articles

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

  • Lectures given by Kennan in 1951 discussing U.S. foreign policy from 1900-1950

Realities of American Foreign Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin. London: Hutchinson, 1961.

The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

An American Family: The Kennans- The First Three Generations. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

“Memorandum for the Minister.�? August 19, 1932.

  • Early analysis of the Soviet Union from Riga.

“The Long Telegram.�? February 22, 1946.

  • Explains the Soviet view of the world after WWII.

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct.�? Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

  • Also known as the “X�? article. Kennan published this article under the name X.

“America and the Russian Future.�? Foreign Affairs, April 1951.

“The Soviet Union and the Atlantic Pact.�? Foreign Service Dispatch 116 of September 8, 1952.

Further Reading

Barton D. Gellman. Contending with Kennan: Towards a Philosophy of American Power. New York: Praeger, 1984.

John Lewis Gaddis. We Now Know: Rethinking the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Laurel F. Franklin. George F. Kennan: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.

Richard L. Russell. George F. Kennan's Strategic Thought: The Making of an American Political Realist. Westport: Praeger, 1999.

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