Remembering George F. Kennan
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 Asia.
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, was diplomacy.
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.