Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


George F. Kennan

By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

George Kennan died at his house in Princeton last March. He was born 101 years ago in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, into a middle-class, hardworking, self-sufficient family. He had one notable relation with whom he shared the same name, the same birth date—February 16th—and the same lifelong commitment to Russia. The elder George Kennan was a cousin of young George’s grandfather. His most substantial book was Siberia and the Exile System (1891). He had no children, and young George fancied that he was the son whom the elder George never had. “I feel,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “that I was in some strange way destined to carry forward as best I could the work of my distinguished and respected relative.”

Young George went to a Wisconsin military academy and thence to Princeton. The reason? “The excitement and sense of revelation derived from reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise in my senior year at school,” he commented. When he read the “hauntingly beautiful epilogue” in Gatsby, he “wept unmanly tears.” He felt that he did not make a mark at Princeton; he was, he recalled, “imperfectly visible to the naked eye.” But “literature I love,” and instruction and emulation shaped the graces of his literary style. The elegance and felicity of his writing survived even the banalities of State Department prose and account for his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962.

After Princeton, he entered the Foreign Service. The ghost of George Kennan the elder—he died while young George was at Princeton—pointed George Kennan the younger in the direction of special training in the Russian field. Five and a half years later, with F. D. R.’s recognition of the Soviet Union, George Kennan received his first assignment in Moscow—a country, a language, a people he loved; a government he detested.

In the later 1930s, on the eve of war, he served in Prague and Berlin. During the war he was the U.S. representative in Lisbon. Policy toward Portugal was conflicted, but young Kennan thought he knew the answers. A high-level Pentagon meeting disillusioned him; so much so that in his frustration he gained access through Harry Hopkins to the president. F. D. R. indicated that he backed Kennan, but George wondered whether there was a misunderstanding; people at the Pentagon were following an entirely different course. “Oh, don’t worry,” F. D. R. said with a debonair wave of his cigarette holder, “about all those people over there”—having in mind no less than the Secretary of War and Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff; in short, the entire high command of the American forces. It is easy to understand why, when Tom Brokaw asked George Kennan how he saw F. D. R., Kennan replied with a laugh, “F. D. R.?—that rascal.”

Having set policy on Portugal, he was assigned in the last year of the war again to Moscow to serve as number two for Ambassador Averell Harriman. Harriman and Kennan were alike: hard workers but somewhat impersonal in human relations. The elder George Kennan had published a thorough biography in 1922 of Averell’s father, the railroad magnate E. H. Harriman. I once asked George whether he and Averell had ever discussed the biography. “Never came up” was the answer.

There was no deficit of discussion about the “long telegram”—some 8000 words—that Kennan sent from Moscow in February 1946, followed by the famous “X” article published in Foreign Affairs in July 1947. Kennan described Soviet communism as “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi.” Still, Stalin, unlike Hitler, was cautious in his policies and would withdraw, Kennan observed, “when strong resistance is encountered… The greatest danger that can befall us when coping with Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

If “a firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” is sustained, it would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Containment, with its partner deterrence, in forty years produced both the mellowing and the break-up that Kennan had predicted. Kennan’s formula won us the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the “X” article failed to make clear, in Kennan’s own words, that “what I was talking about when I mentioned containment of Soviet power was not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat.” The father of the containment doctrine, he resigned from the State Department to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for historical scholarship and to resist the militarization of the Cold War. He won two Pulitzer Prizes—in 1957 for his scholarly Russia Leaves the War, in 1968 for his glowing Memoirs.

President Kennedy appointed him ambassador to Yugoslavia. I remember his coming to my White House office during the Berlin crisis of 1961 and declaring passionately:

I am expendable. I have no further official career, and I am going to do everything I can to prevent war… We both know how tenuous a relation there is between man’s intention and the consequences of his acts. There is no presumption more terrifying than that of those who would blow up the world on the basis of their personal judgment of a transient situation… I do not propose to let the future of mankind be settled, or ended, by a group of men operating on the basis of limited perspectives and short-run calculations. I figure that the only thing I have left in life is to do everything I can to stop the war.

In occasional moods, he despaired of the American people. “I sometimes wonder,” he wrote, “whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin.” He was an elitist who played around with the idea of a council of elders, though he agreed that in the 1960s the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the leadership of Senator William Fulbright made far more sense about Vietnam than the executive National Security Council. He was deeply committed to the splendor of American ideals and, if the people held fast to these ideals and rejected the falsities, superficialities, and hypocrisies of mass culture, all would be OK. “The United States,” he said, “need only measure up to its own best traditions.”

He was a very nice man, filled with thoughtfulness and charm—diplomat, historian, moralist, memoirist, sailor—with a sardonic and sometimes rueful humor. Born in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, he died in the presidency of George W. Bush, who had jettisoned the Kennan formula of containment and deterrence as the basis of American foreign policy and replaced it with a policy of preventative war as a matter of presidential choice.

George Kennan’s final injunction to his fellow citizens was opposition to the Iraq War. It must have passed through his mind, Henry Adams’ musing on the presidency of General Grant. “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant,” Henry Adams wrote, “was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”

Where are the George Kennans now that we desperately need them!

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 2005.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters