George F. Kennan, the diplomat and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, died March
17, 2005, at the age of 101.
Kennan was the most influential diplomat of the 20th century. Henry Kissinger
said he came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era
as any diplomat in our history.
Kennan was a man committed to the realities, as he called them,
of foreign policy. But it was his ideas that impacted the lives of millions
of people around the globe. Kennans so-called long telegram from Moscow,
together with his 1947 article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct,
better known as the X article, shaped nearly 50 years of U.S.
containment policy toward the Soviet Union. Kennan also had a hand in designing
the Marshall Plan, the initial focus of the CIA, Radio Free Europe, and the
United States post-World War II policies toward the Middle East and Southeast
After graduating from Princeton University, Kennan began his Foreign Service
career in Europe in 1926. He spoke seven languages and his assignments included
posts in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland,
and Russia, where he began a long professional and personal fascination with
Soviet affairs. The Soviet Union was impervious to the logic of reason,
Kennan wrote in 1946, but highly sensitive to the logic of force.
The influence of those words eventually dismayed Kennan. He believed they were
misinterpreted as encouraging military war. The best form of force, Kennan believed,
Kennan was uncomfortable with Washington politics, but he remained a major
influence in international affairs after his departure from the Foreign Service
in 1953. He criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, saying the lesson learned
was not to mess into other peoples civil wars where there is no
substantial American strategic interest at stake. In a 1974 article for
FOREIGN POLICY, he criticized Western Europe for its inability
to pull itself together and to impose, in peacetime, any serious discipline
upon its populations for military defense. He considered the
enlargement of NATO a fateful error.
Nuclear disarmament and other issues occupied Kennans mind in his later
years. The last survivor of the Wise Men who shaped U.S. foreign
policy after World War II, he often thought his insights fell on deaf ears,
but that history would vindicate them. John Lewis Gaddis, Kennans biographer,
asked Kennan in a 1995 interview to write his own obituary. Kennan admitted
having certain insights, from time to time, which are good and which
are philosophically useful. He added they could have been more
useful than they have been. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that
Colin Powell has called Kennan our best tutor in facing the dangers
of the 21st century.