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As a diplomat and historian, George Kennan was a master of languages and an expert on European countries. strategy during the Harry S. Truman administration.The early yearsKennan began his education at Saint John`s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, and graduated in 1921. He then went on to Princeton University, and after graduation in 1925, he joined the Foreign Service.He was the vice counsel in Geneva in 1925 and later transferred to Germany.The role that Kennan played in shaping U.S. post-World War II strategy — along with Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, John Paton Davies Jr., Loy Henderson, and George C. Marshall — was significant.The Postwar challengeThe arrival of the atomic age had ended World War II, but it introduced never-before-known challenges to policymakers struggling with the manifold complications of postwar planning and peace.Depressed economic conditions in post-World War II Europe and Asia presented a nearly overwhelming challenge. Populations were decimated and displaced, industries lay in dire straits, and the recently formulated International Monetary Fund and World Bank were just starting to function.In Europe, armies had been mostly demobilized, with the exception of the Soviet armed forces. Communist party membership in western Europe was gaining significant numbers, and they were closing in on political control of France and Italy.A policy emergesBefore World War II, the U.S. maintained a foreign policy of neutrality. Kennan espoused a strategy of long-term "containment" of the Soviet Union, and the re-establishment of a steadfast balance of power by the reconstruction of Japan and western Europe.As the leader of the State Department`s Policy Planning Staff from 1947 to 1950 under Marshall and Acheson, Kennan was charged with the responsibility for long-term planning. He played a key role in both the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Japan, as well as U.S. strategy in its approach to dealing with the Soviet Union.Kennan also played a major role in setting in motion the CIA`s covert operations, which he later regarded as "the greatest mistake I ever made." He didn`t have an opinion about policy toward the Third World, except to say that he thought that the U.S. As for China, he advanced a strategy of restraint.Kennan’s writingsKennan wrote an important essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (July 1947), spelling out his belief in the necessity of "containing" Communist expansion, which became the hallmark of the Cold War.American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, discusses, among other things, the weaknesses of U.S. policy and how it relates to current diplomatic problems.Other consequential writings include Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920, Volumes I and II, Realities of American Foreign Policy, and Russia, the Atom, and the West.
The "X Article" is an article, formally titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", written by George F. Kennan under the pseudonym "X", published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. The article widely introduced the term "containment", advocating for its use against the Soviet Union. The piece expanded on ideas expressed by Kennan in a confidential February 1946 telegram, formally identified by Kennan's State Department number, "511", but informally dubbed the "long telegram" due to its length.
Kennan composed the long telegram to respond to inquiries about the implications of a February 1946 speech by Joseph Stalin. [note 1] Though the speech was in line with previous statements by Stalin, it provoked fear in the American press and public, with Time magazine calling it "the most warlike pronouncement uttered by any top-rank statesman since V-J Day".  The long telegram explained Soviet motivations by pointing to the history of Russian rulers and their ideology of Marxism–Leninism, viewing the rest of the world as hostile in order to justify their continued hold on power despite lacking popular support. Washington bureaucrats quickly read the confidential message, accepting it as the best explanation of Soviet behavior. The reception elevated Kennan's reputation within the State Department as one of the government's foremost Soviet experts.
After hearing him speak about Soviet foreign relations to the Council on Foreign Relations in January 1947, international banker R. Gordon Wasson suggested to Kennan that he write an article in Foreign Affairs expressing his views. Repurposing a piece he had submitted to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in late January 1947, Kennan's role in government precluded him from publishing under his name. After receiving approval from his superiors, he submitted the article under the pseudonym "X". Expressing similar sentiments to that of the long telegram, the piece was strong in its anti-communism, introducing and outlining a basic theory of containment. The article was widely read and, though it does not mention the Truman Doctrine, having mostly been written before Truman's speech, it quickly became seen as an expression of the doctrine's policy. The impact of the article is disputed, having been called "the diplomatic doctrine of the era",  while others write that its impact in shaping governmental policy has been overstated.
Rhya Turovsky - 12/21/2003
Unfortunately, now that Sadam Hussein has been captured which is good but bad for us democrats because the president holds it up as his achievement, it's hard to refute a victory over evil.
I know it's far from over, and we don't know what the outcome will be, but this war has taken on new momentum. Bush can now say: "See this dictator is in our hands and others will most likely follow." I can just see the Saudi Arabian dynasty follow, and they are the prime dictators.
Jim Hassinger - 3/28/2003
I think you simply have to see Kennan as a man of an historical moment. Truman was faced with two extremes: one, continue being allied with the Soviets -- not a viable alternative -- or pre-emptively bomb them into oblivion, as the conservatives of the era, and MacArthur and LeMay had in mind. Containment was a moderate, middle course. We would not be party to any further expansion of this particular slavery, nor would be inflict a nuclear nightmare on the world in order to liberate it.
In many ways, it was much like Lincoln's position on the slave states the underlying idea was to avoid the apocalypse by sitting down to a long siege of communism. Of course, there are those who insist that it would have been better had we followed MacArthur's advice, bombed China and unleashed Chiang-Kai Shek. Thank God for Kennan. We need another man like him to rescue us this time from the madness of the Perles and Wolfowitzes.
What is particularly wince-making in the modern conservative view of Kennan is that this was supposedly a losing, compromising strategy. It was compromise, but it won. In fact, St. Reagan, though he threatened to come up with a new policy, never did.
James Steidle - 3/14/2003
The comments made above don't seem to give Kennan credit. He has had good ideas, and many more of them than simple reading would suggest. Sure his ideas may have been inconsistent over the years, and tinged with utopianism. But is this a charge that one should be ashamed of? And besides, if we all appreciated nuclear weapons for what they are, and that is that they are no better than anthrax, the eradication of the weapons would not seem so utopian. What about kennan's observations of american society and the american city? These are highly relevant today, something he was onto long ago. As for the charge of him being a friend of authoritarianism, well this is just slightly a misstatement. Perhaps he values hierarchy, and the notion that a given set of rules and laws should exist to correct the flaws of humanity and the market, but that he is a friend of authoritarianism disrespects the fact that he abhored the authoritarianism of Stalin and the USSR. The one weakness with Kennan's ideas is that he is too committed to the national entity, when it is a global entity or community that is necessary to solve the worlds problems and rid the world of nuclear weapons.
Alec Lloyd - 9/30/2002
“If we had stopped testing, the greater part of the nuclear weaponry of all the countries who had signed the test ban treaty would have become inoperable in 20 or 30 years.”
Right. But what about the countries that DIDN’T sign the treaty? Or, what about countries that signed the treaty but then violated it? This smells strongly of either pie-in-the-sky utopianism or the old Soviet canard: "unilateral disarmament."
Kennan’s policy prescriptions are erratic at best. He wants us to consult Israel (because they know so much) but downplays the danger of Iraq developing atomic weapons because they’d be aimed at Israel.
Of course, Israel also has its own nukes, which may or may not act as a deterrent. If they did, why would Iraq bust its budget and bankrupt its people to develop a weapon deterrent theorists posit it cannot logically use?
Furthermore, why is it that the same people who carried “no nuke” bumper stickers on their VW busses are now not bothered in the least about a rabid dictator developing nuclear capability? Okay, maybe they are bothered, but not enough to do much more than send inspectors over to play a game of hide-the-pea until Saddam gets bored and kicks them out (again).
Kennan may have had a good idea 50 years ago, but he is sadly irrelevant.
Mark safranski - 9/30/2002
While we are nitpicking, who is " Keenan " ?
Mark safranski - 9/30/2002
Character assassination ? Try reading firsthand for yourself Kennan's memoirs. Or his articles on the Soviets. To say someone who expressed admiration in print for Germany of that time is somewhat of an admirer of authoritarianism is to my mind, rather mild. But then again for modern liberals, it is the party line of the moment that matters, not consistency. If Kennan had come out for the war I'm sure your position on him would be 180 degrees in the other direction.
It should have been " obliterate " - my mistake.
Alec Lloyd - 9/30/2002
Maybe the Soviet body count would have hit the hundred million mark? Maybe the Soviet Union might even still be around? Wouldn’t that be great!
Jerry West - 9/28/2002
The fact remains, it was his ideological support of Truman's violations of President Roosevelt's polcies of frienship with the Soviet Union that has lead to the militarization of our society.
Good point, though not related to the issue of Iraq. To take the point about US/USSR relations further than Keenan we can go all the way back to the Western/Japanese intervention in the USSR against the Red Army circa 1918-1925.
Who knows how history would have progressed had the rest of the world stayed out of their internal affairs instead of attacking them from day one.
Ephraim Schulman - 9/28/2002
September 28, 2002
It is nice to see that Kennan in his later years has shown signs of reasoning. Too bad it was not in evidence during his tenure while serving as an State Department apparatchik. The fact remains, it was his ideological support of Truman's violations of President Roosevelt's polcies of frienship with the Soviet Union that has lead to the militarization of our society. Sincerely,
Gus Moner - 9/27/2002
Well, after the 100 + word character assassination (why is that so imperatively a part of all conservative commentary?) I’ll anyway agree with your conclusion that Mr. Keenan at his advanced age has finally had “One high point of clarity”.
I cannot say more as I cannot locate ‘obliviate’ in any dictionary.
Mark safranski - 9/27/2002
Kennan, as is accurately pointed out in _The Fifty Year Wound_ , was in intellectual retreat from Containment almost from the moment of publication of his X article. One gets the impression,when reviewing his advice in the 1970's regarding the Soviets that he was in awe of the USSR and counseled accomodation to an unstoppable behemoth. Kennan also once very much admired the Prussian hierarchical-militarist values of pre-Nazi Germany. He's not much of a democrat personally nor particularly in tune with American as opposed to European ethos. One high point of clarity does not obliviate decades of bad advice.
George Kennan — Containment and the Cold War
George Frost Kennan was, and still remains, a very controversial and legendary figure in American diplomatic history. As a historian, political scientist, and diplomat, Kennan focused most of his career on Russian culture and history. Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant diplomats of his day, he was collegial with his staff and, despite his acclaim and senior status in the Department, often saw himself as an outsider. Kennan served as Ambassador to Moscow in 1952 and Yugoslavia in 1963, and advocated for a containment policy to counter Soviet expansion that would shape American foreign policy during the Cold War.
After his ambassadorship in Yugoslavia, Kennan spent the rest of his career and later life at Princeton as a professor where he wrote several books on international relations. He won the Pulitzer Price for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize, among many others, for his academic works which focused primarily on Russia and its relations with the West. Kennan passed away in 2005 at age 101 in Princeton.
While posted to Kiev as a minister-counselor in 1946, Kennan drafted the now-famous “Long Telegram” to Washington, in which he advocated the policy of containment at a time when many in the U.S. still had a favorable view of the erstwhile ally. He asserted that the Soviet Union did not see the possibility for long-term peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world on the other hand, “while Soviet power was impervious to the logic of reason, it was highly sensitive to the logic of force.” He followed this up with his July 1947 “X” article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs. His writings inspired the Marshall Plan.
However, he lost influence when Dean Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949 and the drafting of NSC-68 , which more formally outlined U.S. policy and called for a large expansion in the military budget, the development of a hydrogen bomb, and increased military aid to allies of the United States. Kennan felt that NSC-68 was too rigid, simplistic, and militaristic he opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb and the rearmament of Germany, which stemmed from NSC-68.
When he became Ambassador to the USSR in 1952, he became disillusioned by the Soviets’ pervasive surveillance and outward hostility and was frustrated by the lack of flexibility shown by the U.S. After he made a statement comparing his conditions at the Ambassador’s residence at Spaso House to that of when he was interned in Berlin during the first few weeks of the Second World War, unintentionally making a comparison to his Nazi internment, Kennan was declared persona non grata and was not allowed back in the country. His next and last ambassadorship would be at Yugoslavia in the early 1960s.
In the following collection of interviews, spanning from the early 1940s to 1991, Kennan’s life is detailed by those who worked with him. Merrit N. Cootes, interviewed by Lillian Peters Mullin in 1991, talks about the “Jelly Fish” telegram. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Marshall Green in 1988, who was assigned to the Japan desk in the State Department and went with Kennan in 1948 on a trip to see MacArthur to shift the U.S. occupation from reform to economic recovery.
Richard Townsend Davies, interviewed by Peter Jessup in 1979, talks about Kennan’s fear of being manipulated by the Soviet Union’s media, and later, his response to becoming persona non grata in Moscow, including asking for suicide pills from the CIA. Robert Daniels interviewed George Jaeger in 2000, in which Jaeger talked about his impressions of Kennan and meeting with him at FSI before being assigned to Yugoslavia. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Richard Johnson in 1991, and Robert Gerald Livingston in 1998 in which they discuss their first impressions of Kennan, his tumultuous relationship with Josip Tito, and his later academic exile in Princeton. Finally, Jack Perry, interviewed by Henry E. Mattox in 1992, talks about Kennan’s reputation and writing ability. The last section by long-time Soviet and Russia hand Jim Schumaker is taken from his blog.
“That story is mine. You can write all the memos you want, but that story is mine”
Merritt N. Cootes, Political Officer to Lisbon from 1942-1944
COOTES: Lisbon was the keyhole to Europe. Everything went through there. George Kennan was sent over by the State Department to put some order into the intelligence collection effort there, because the Military Attaché wouldn’t speak to the Naval Attaché, and the Naval Attaché wouldn’t speak to his British counterpart. So they sent George Kennan over to Lisbon to put some order into things.
He returned to Washington and was put in charge of Policy Planning. Then he was assigned to Lisbon…. When George Kennan got to Lisbon, I took him down to the Foreign Ministry and did the interpreting for him there.
I called up and asked for an appointment for George Kennan and the Minister at 1:00 a.m. with Prime Minister Salazar. I believe that it was November 7, 1942, or something like that. It wasn’t easy to arrange a meeting at 1:00 a.m. with the head of the government there. Of course, I couldn’t tell him why we wanted the appointment. The purpose of the call was to have the Minister and George Kennan inform Salazar that the U.S. was adhering to the oldest, written treaty of 1397 between Portugal and Great Britain.
The treaty was being modified somewhat to allow the British to control the seas around Portugal against the German U-Boats. That was for the British. But our naval officers wore British uniforms when they were flying their planes from land bases.
Anyhow, George Kennan and the Minister went down and delivered this message. They came back to the Legation and were to send a code word back to the State Department, saying that they had delivered the message. Now, of course, the same message was delivered in Spain to Franco. It was perfectly all right for them to send a message because the message from Madrid read: “SecState Washington: (Then the code word). (Signed) Hayes” [Carleton J. H. Hayes, American Ambassador in Madrid at the time].
However, from Lisbon the telegram went out: “SecState Washington: (Then the code word ‘Jelly’). (Signed) Fish” [for Ambassador Bert Fish]. So the text of the telegram from the Legation in Lisbon read, “SecState Washington: Jelly Fish.”
Later on, at a staff meeting George Kennan told us: “Now, look. That story is mine. You can write all the memos you want, but that story is mine.”
“That trip to Japan was probably the most important thing that he did, after the Marshall Plan”
Marshall Green , Japan desk officer, 1947-50
GREEN: I was assigned to the Japan desk in the State Department. I served there from 1947 to 1950 as a Japan desk officer.…
I was assigned as George Kennan’s only traveling companion to Japan in February 1948. This trip turned out to be extremely important.
What had happened was that when the occupation of Japan was undertaken in 1945, it was our expectation that it would only go on for two or three years, and then there would be a peace treaty.
Meanwhile, to jump ahead a little, John Foster Dulles had been brought aboard in 1950 to try to negotiate the peace treaty with Japan. Until there was a peace treaty, Japan would be under Allied occupation. Since it appeared that the occupation period was going to be extended much longer than had earlier been anticipated, it was strongly felt in the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department, especially by George Kennan, but also by John Davies, Walt Butterworth and Secretary of State George Marshall, that occupations can go sour.
It was felt that, in the case of Japan, we had to be very careful. So George Kennan was sent out to Japan in February 1948 by Secretary of State Marshall to discuss with General [Douglas] MacArthur how the emphasis in the occupation of Japan could be shifted from “reform” to “economic recovery.” The idea was to normalize things as far and fast as one could to stave off growing, nationalistic resentment against the occupation.
At that time we had various mechanisms for dealing with Japan and with the occupation. In Washington there was the Far Eastern Commission, on which all of the countries that had been enemies of Japan had their representatives. We met in the old Japanese Embassy here in Washington about once every two or three weeks. I used to go to those meetings. Another international mechanism was the Allied Council in Japan, on which representatives of the Great Powers sat. It met periodically and discussed the broader issues.
However, neither of those bodies carried any weight with MacArthur. MacArthur ran the show the way he wanted to, and to heck with all these other people. He had a little bit of the same attitude toward the White House. He felt that Japan was his exclusive domain. Of course, we came to learn a lot about that in Korea later on.
Now, when George Kennan was sent out to Japan to talk to MacArthur about changing the emphasis of the occupation, he was treated, on his arrival in Japan, just as though he was a visitor from a not too friendly power. He was almost seen as a spy from the State Department. MacArthur held him at arm’s length. Of course, he couldn’t ignore Kennan. George Kennan had his orders, but MacArthur kept him at arm’s length and wouldn’t meet with him, except socially — for example at a dinner party.
It was interesting to see how Kennan operated. Kennan got through to MacArthur two ways. The State Department already had a representative in Japan in SCAP [Supreme Commander, Allied Powers] headquarters, William Sebald. Bill Sebald was the head of the Diplomatic Section of SCAP. There were 14 Sections in SCAP — including Sebald’s Diplomatic Section answerable to Major General Fox who, in turn, was deputy to General Almond, a four-star general, who was chief of staff of SCAP. So the State Department’s representative, Bill Sebald was “way down the line.”
George Kennan eventually got through to MacArthur by casually observing to Major General Willoughby, head of SCAP Intelligence, that MacArthur should not be too concerned about the views of the Far Eastern Commission in Washington, whose work was now largely complete. MacArthur was in the best position to judge what now needed to be done in Japan, and Kennan could be of help to MacArthur in getting MacArthur’s views across in Washington.
Through Willoughby and through my intervention with General Babcock (an old friend from our service together in the Embassy before the war) it was arranged that Kennan would discuss the origins and current nature of Soviet conduct in the SCAP HQ briefing room where some 100 top brass were present.
I found Kennan’s presentation — and I suspect most others attending would agree — absolutely brilliant. It was as though we were at one with eternity like that old advertisement of the Rosicrucian Society, where an eye is seen, piercing into eternity. Of course, all the clouds rolled in afterwards, but there was a transcending moment of truth.
Now, MacArthur recognized brains when he soon heard about the speech. After that, all doors were open to Kennan. In fact, MacArthur provided us with a railroad carriage of our own to go wherever we wanted to go….
To return to the fundamentals of what Kennan was saying to MacArthur. He said that we have to move as far and fast as possible toward a more normal type of relationship with Japan and toward putting Japan much more on its feet and taking care of itself. We must be aware that if we move too slowly, nationalism will overtake us, and heaven knows what will happen. This was always presented in terms suggesting that MacArthur knew this better than he did. Kennan never lectured MacArthur.
The kinds of things he wanted to end as quickly as possible — and it was carefully targeted — included the reparations and decartelization programs. He called for an end to the “purges” immediately or as soon as possible. He said that the Japanese should have some kind of economic representation abroad. (This last point I was to take on as my own responsibility and work very hard on it.)
Improvements should be made in communications channels. Kennan placed the greatest emphasis on setting up better internal security in Japan. He was appalled to see how the Police Force was all divided up. The Japanese had inadequate means to maintain law and order in the country on a national scale. He made some recommendations on how to strengthen a democratic Police Force and establish a Japanese Coast Guard that could protect Japan against smuggling, illegal entries, and things like that.
There was quite a long list of things that had to be done. All I can say is that our report covered all of these points. So we returned to Washington. Meanwhile, Kennan suffered from a terrible case of ulcers….
“One of my jobs was to ‘look intelligent’”
While I was in Kyoto, writing up the report, I was asked by some Navy friends to come down and see the Osaka docks. They thought I would be shocked by what I saw. And there — stacked all down the docks –was dismantled machinery from Japanese industries. The machinery was being greased, crated, and shipped — at great expense and effort — to North China, as part of a reparations program to China.
Meanwhile, North China was being overrun by the Communists. The whole thing was ridiculous. The American taxpayer was paying for taking machinery out of Japan, which we were meantime supporting, and taking it to China, which was falling into the hands of the Communists. It will not surprise you that Kennan not only spoke extremely effectively but wrote even more effectively. The telegrams which Kennan sent back to Washington were really bristling.
What he was saying was that we want MacArthur to remain in charge, but we wanted to anticipate and head off whatever kinds of forces that might undermine his authority and effectiveness. I think that this appealed to MacArthur, because MacArthur was an intelligent man. Now, where we were running up against problems was with the architects of these policies in SCAP headquarters, for example, the Political Section, which was headed by General [Courtney] Whitney…
His principal deputy was Colonel Kades. These people had been the architects of the “purge program,” for example. They hated to see it dismantled and resisted our efforts to end the purge, even though it was the expressed will of our National Security Council.
The purge involved removing from public office or from top positions of influence, in business or in government, those who were considered to be responsible, in any major way, for the war effort. This meant, basically, anyone in a prominent position was “purged.”
Kennan was opposed to this way of tarring everybody with the same brush, without any kind of examination of the individual’s record. By the way, he had also been opposed to war crimes trials, but they were all over in Japan by the time he got there.
Meanwhile, Walt Butterworth had been replaced by Dean Rusk (pictured) in 1949 as Assistant Secretary for Far East Affairs. So after two months of frustrated efforts by Washington to end the purge, Rusk asked me to draft a personal message for Marshall to MacArthur.
I thought my draft was “pretty hot stuff,” but Rusk said, “Do you think that this will turn the trick, Marshall?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, Mr. Secretary, but this is putting it on the record.” He said, “The object is not to put it on the record. The object is to stop this damned thing.” He added, “I suggest you go back and rewrite this 10-page telegram and make it no longer than a page and a half. Make the point that MacArthur thought originally that the purge should end by this time and that we’d been reluctant as had other governments in the Far Eastern Commission. However, now we’ve come to see the wisdom of his earlier position, he should go ahead and do it.”
So I wrote the telegram accordingly. I gulped pretty hard because I come from New England, where we have strong consciences. I knew that MacArthur had never said this, but we attributed it to him. That did the trick. The purge was ended 48 hours later.
I reminded Dean Rusk about this, many years later. He said, “Marshall, I hope you don’t go around telling people that story. It casts me in such a cynical light.” I said, “Not at all, Mr. Secretary. It casts you in the light of somebody who knows how to get things done through diplomacy.”
I’ve always admired his [Kennan’s] eloquence and his ability to write and speak. His mission to Japan was a great challenge to him. He rose to it, and that’s why he succeeded. Now, you know in his “Memoirs,” he recalls all this. He says that he thinks that that trip to Japan was probably the most important thing that he did, after the Marshall Plan. Then he went on to say, “Perhaps it was even more important than the Marshall Plan, in the long run.” So he attached great importance to this, even in retrospect. It was marvelous to see how he operated.
I mentioned how he “co-opted” people on MacArthur’s staff who paved his way to MacArthur. But there was also the way that he drafted reports and telegrams. It was something to behold. He would sit down and start dictating.
One of my jobs was to “look intelligent.” He would speak to me, while Dorothy Hessman, his secretary, took it all down as a telegram. So he was basically dictating a telegram to Washington while speaking to me. The result was that the telegram had a kind of conversational flow that made it far more effective. When he was through, he didn’t have to change a word of it. Articulation is something I admire in any diplomat.
“Now here is a man who speaks beautiful Russian and who was completely cut off from Soviet society”
Richard Townsend Davies, Junior Officer in Moscow, 1951-53
DAVIES: [Ambassador to Moscow] Alan Kirk was there until the end of 1951, and then…he left shortly thereafter, and George Kennan we were told was coming, and of course that excited all the younger officers in the Embassy a great deal because George Kennan was very much our idol.
He had published his famous Mister X article on the sources of Soviet conduct in the middle of 1947 in Foreign Affairs, and almost immediately thereafter everybody knew who had written it. After his service on the Policy Planning Council in the State Department he had gone up to Princeton.
In fact I think he was at Princeton up until shortly before he was appointed. He had been active in initiating or in proposing the initiation of the Free Europe Committee and the Radio Liberation Committee. But we were terribly excited to hear that he was coming. He was the person on whom most of the younger officers, I think — certainly those in Soviet studies — modeled themselves.…
He gave two interviews [before arriving in Moscow]….He said that…admittedly no individual probably could influence the course of events that much, but nevertheless since Stalin would leave the scene one day, if it should happen that he died or left the Soviet political stage, while Kennan was there this would be very fortuitous because of course Kennan knew the Soviet Union so well and knew the Soviet people so well, and he would be in a position to interpret to the United States the confused situation that ensued upon Stalin’s death….
And then he came to Moscow, and of course he found a Moscow which was very different from the Moscow he obviously remembered and had anticipated, I suppose, returning to, much less tolerant of foreigners than even during the ‘30s, and of course during the war things were relatively free and easy there.
Apparently during the 30s when he was there first — he was a young man in the first place — there used to be very pleasant evenings, and it was possible to know and see a certain number of Soviet citizens, of Russians who obviously were if not under the control of the secret police at any rate had some kind of permission to mingle with foreigners.…
But when he got back there in 1952, the situation was very different. There were no contacts at all of any kind. It was the period that can reasonably be called the Deep Freeze, and he came back into that situation, with his very charming and strong wife, a Norwegian girl by birth — a very fine woman — and he found no contacts at all.
Now here is a man who speaks beautiful Russian, who knows Russian literature and appreciates Russian literature and so forth, and who was completely cut off from Soviet society. Well, one thing he did in order to try to overcome this was to go once a week to the theater, and part of the time he was there — he was there less than a year, around nine months I suppose — Mrs. Kennan was in Norway with her parents, taking care of the older children, having put them in school somewhere, so he was alone a fair amount of time in Moscow, and he would go once a week to the theater, and he would go with a language officer, and if the language officer was married with the language officer’s wife.
“’It’s just as though there is a great hand pressing down on all of us’”
He’d send his car for them and would have them picked up, and then the car would go to [the U.S. Ambassador’s residence] Spaso House to pick him up, and they’d go to the theater, and then come back to Spaso House after the play and have a little midnight supper in his study underneath the famous carved eagle with the microphone in it. (Here shown with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960.)
We didn’t know that there was a microphone in it at that point. It had been there not too long it had been up in the attic, and I think when he got there he went through it and found it. It is a very impressive carved seal of the United States. But I don’t even know whether the microphone was in it up in the attic. I don’t think so. I think it was [put in it] after it was hung down there, because as I say he was alone in the house, and out of the house a fair amount. I think there would have been ample opportunity for somebody to stick the thing in it.
In any case I remember my wife and I went with him, and we went to see The Inspector General of Nikolai Gogol. …So we went to the theater, and of course he had these four goons following — these four secret policemen — and we went in and they had free seats there and they sat down. There were four people sitting in the row right behind, and these people, these characters came up, and they really didn’t have to say anything, they just looked at the people and they said, “You, out, we will sit there.” Which they did — the four of them sat behind us.
They were muscle men, and it made him feel very — well, I was used to this. I had been in Poland. And the anti-American propaganda of course got to him very much. He took it very personally. He walked to work every morning from Spaso to the Embassy, which was on Mokhovaya Street, right next to the National Hotel, across from the Kremlin.
He had no idea that this was going on. He had been at Princeton. Of course we had been reporting all this. The thing that surprised me was that he wasn’t aware of it. He obviously hadn’t been reading. I can only imagine that he hadn’t been reading the Soviet press, because you know the anti-American propaganda was all through the press: you couldn’t pick up any publication, any newspaper, without reading some horrible story about the alleged atrocities committed by American troops in Korea….
Well, as he went to the office he would pass these hoardings of billboards with frightful cartoons against the United States on. Of course we all saw them, but we all sort of understood that this was the game that was being played, and what did one do about it? You could protest about it, and we did protest about some of these things, but it was no good….
These goons were keeping their eyes on the Ambassador, and he was very, very depressed, and finally he sort of looked up and he said, “It’s just as though there is a great hand pressing down on all of us.” I tried to sort of make some joke, but that was no joking matter to him. Well, then we saw the rest of the play, and then went back to Spaso for a midnight supper. But it was a very morbid kind of evening….The whole thing was very depressing. I wouldn’t say that he has a sense of humor. He is dour….
I’ve often been asked how could he, a professional diplomat — at that time he was regarded as the pinnacle of our service — how could he have done what he did in Berlin, and said what he said, which resulted in his being declared persona non grata, comparing the Soviet Union, life in Moscow, with life in a Nazi internment camp in Germany during the war. And my answer is, well, he found himself in what for him was psychologically an intolerable situation….
He had this picture of himself, this self-image, which to a very considerable extent was quite accurate, as the — if not the greatest at least one of the three or four, two or three, maybe two – he and Chip Bohlen, let’s say — most highly qualified Soviet experts we had in every sphere, language, knowing the history, having served there before, knowledge of what happened during the war, the whole thing….
And then when he got there he found on the contrary this… He was never received by Stalin – a point that he makes a great deal of in his memoirs. In his memoirs he tells about the effort he made to break out of that isolation, having the Deputy Chief of Mission, Hugh Cummings, mention to somebody in the Foreign Office his – Kennan’s – desire to have somebody with whom he could speak Russian, to have some contact with somebody….
I should say that morale was not bad before he came. Of course we all felt that we were under attack, and under the circumstances there was a certain esprit de corps and a pulling together, and a recognition that everybody was in the same boat and we had to try to help each other. But morale… I think he had the idea, he projected his depression, his gloom, his discouragement on the rest of us. He thought we were in bad shape. I didn’t feel that way at any rate. …
And he decided that we must organize ourselves in order to combat this. Consequently he started a number of activities, some of them really quite good. I don’t know that ballet classes were possible then, but perhaps they were. But there were a number of kinds of hobby groups: painting, you could join a group and sing Russian folk songs – I think he belonged and helped along there, he was really excellent at that, at playing the guitar and singing, perhaps another side of his Celtic heritage, I don’t know….
No one else could have done more. But he felt that he should have been able to do more, or he felt perhaps that he’d promised somehow that he would do more, and he’d been unable to do more,…He couldn’t go back to President Truman and say, “I have to resign.” That would have been a kind of admission of failure….
“I understand that the CIA has some form of pill that a person could use to kill himself instantly. Is this right?”
He died [in 1978], a career CIA officer, operations officer who wrote I think, really, a very good book – undoubtedly parts of it were regarded as quite indiscreet two years ago when he first wrote it, Sub Rosa: The CIA and the Uses of Intelligence – New York Times Books, New York, 1978 – (in which) Peer de Silva discusses the question of the establishment of a CIA station in Moscow. …
Peer de Silva went to London and saw Ambassador Kennan, who turned down the proposal. But the interesting thing, and the thing I am coming to here, is that he writes, “However, during the conversation I had noticed that the Ambassador was very tense and nervous: he was pale, his hands trembled, and he seemed to have much on his mind. At the end of our talk he said there was something he wanted to ask of the Agency” – that is, of the CIA.
“‘There is something you must do for me,’ he said. ‘I have here a letter.’ And he then handed me a letter, and I noticed that it was addressed to Pope Pius. ‘I have a very pessimistic view of our immediate future with the Soviets, particularly at the diplomatic level. I want you to get this letter to [CIA Director] Allen Dulles, and make sure that it is passed by secure means to the Pope in Rome.” My questioning look brought the following explanation: “‘I fear that there is a good possibility that I will wind up some day before long on the Soviet radio. I may be forced to make statements that will be damaging to American policy. This letter will show the world that I am under duress, and I am not making statements out of my own free will.’”
“The letter to the Pope will let him make public my position and the true situation there.” That is Peer de Silva. “I was astounded at the grimness with which these words were delivered,” de Silva writes, “but I was in no way prepared for the following.” Again Kennan speaking: “I understand that the CIA has some form of pill that a person could use to kill himself instantly. Is this right?”
And so the upshot is that Kennan asked Peer de Silva, according to the latter’s memoir, for these pills, and Peer de Silva says that through the diplomatic pouch two pills were sent to Ambassador Kennan. Well, I am not sure it says “two pills” but at any rate, some pills were sent to him.
“Shortly thereafter he went from Moscow to Germany on an official visit, where he made a speech with strong critical reference to the USSR. This speech resulted in his being declared persona non grata on the spot. He never returned to Moscow from Berlin. Ambassador Kennan finally came back to Washington from Europe. I made an appointment to see him, and asked what had happened to the pills. He told me with a curious smile, “I have already flushed them down the toilet.” At the time and in the years since I have always thought that the actions of Ambassador Kennan were the actions of a very brave man.
During the early 1950s, the CIA was aware that the Soviets were experimenting with drugs and tended to destroy a person’s natural inhibitions and controls. [Peer de Silva wrote,] “In the Cold War atmosphere of the times Kennan saw himself as a likely target for a Soviet effort along this line. Nevertheless he went back to that environment of danger and was prepared to take his own life rather than let himself be used by the Soviets in a manner degrading or shameful to the United States”….
He came back [to the United States]. In the meanwhile, the  election had taken place, and Eisenhower had been elected….According to the Foreign Service Act of 1946, a man who had held the position of ambassador — and there were certain other qualifications — who was not appointed to another position for six months, was automatically retired, and he was the only one – [John Foster] Dulles by that time was Secretary, and he utilized that provision of the Act against him, and again he writes about this in his memoirs, and he is very bitter about it.
Then he went back to Princeton, where he’d been before, and I think really he was a brilliant reporting officer. Some of the things he wrote — copies of them were available in the Embassy when I was there – were just brilliant, beautifully written, great insights, but not an ambassador somehow.
“Kennan was a brilliant seer, advisor on major issues and interpreter of history, but fatally indifferent to the short-term stuff”
George Jaeger , Consular Officer, Yugoslavia, 1961-64
JAEGER: Although [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson admired Kennan, he had grown weary of Kennan’s somewhat moralistic, hyper-intellectual approach. While Kennan’s ‘containment’ policy had won general acceptance, Kennan was uncomfortable, as the Cold War ratcheted up, with Washington’s growing emphasis on military means. As Kennan’s views came to seem more and more unrealistic and out of touch, they created frictions….
George Kennan, about to go out to Belgrade as Kennedy’s new Ambassador, paid us a visit [to Arlington Towers] to meet some of his future staff trying to learn this awful language. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
Kennan, utterly relaxed, slung his leg over a chair and, instead of talking about the Yugoslav situation or his plans as the new Ambassador, launched into a fascinating, historic disquisition about Yugoslavia’s orthodox monasteries and their roles in Balkan mediaeval history, with advice as to which ones were particularly beautiful and must therefore be visited while we were there.
What, I think, he was trying to convey, was that it was through these magnificent monasteries that we might come to some understanding of the essence of this complex region.
I had come to know him slightly when I had dated his daughter Grace for a while, and had had a similar Slavic-mystical experience one evening in Princeton listening to him as he was sitting on the kitchen table in a Russian nightgown playing the balalaika and absently singing deeply moving Russian folk tunes.
But back to our meeting at FSI. After listening to him for some time with respectful attention, I asked the question which I thought was on everybody’s mind: “Mr. Ambassador, we will certainly try to see the Orthodox monasteries. But for now, is there anything you would like us to do before we get to Yugoslavia? Are there any special things you’d like us keep in mind when we get there?”
His reply was unforgettable. “Oh, you mean all that policy stuff? Don’t worry about it I’ll be the one doing all that.” In case we had missed the point he spelled it out: “You know, you are just being given a wonderful opportunity to absorb Slavic culture, and I would hope you would make the very best use of it and spend your two-year tour sopping it up, the way I did when I was a young officer in Russia.” On that note he left us, somewhat bewildered, very charmed, and looking forward to see how this division of labor would actually work in practice….
“I felt at the time that there was an amazing disparity between what I had heard on the trip and what he had written”
I was asked to accompany Kennan on a three-day trip through Croatia and Slovenia.
He arrived a bit earlier [in Zagreb], in March of 1961, and served until July 1963. On this, his only longer visit during my time, he wanted to meet leading government people, journalists, and other movers and shakers in both Croatia and Slovenia.
When we got back to Zagreb after a busy and very pleasant three days, which I had arranged, Kennan surprised me by referring to the trip as “a significant experience!” When I offered to draft a reporting telegram, Kennan surprised me again by saying, “That won’t be necessary, I’ll just sit down in your code room, if I may, and write it up.”
He emerged after a couple hours with a long hand-written draft and asked me to read it over and tell him what I thought. I did, and was absolutely amazed. The people we had met had, with minor exceptions, told us pretty much what the party line then called for. But what Kennan had written was that his trip through this northern region of the country had confirmed his sense of the impending disintegration of Yugoslavia after Tito!
The thrust was that there were great tensions in the country, and that the people he had seen had given him significant indications of this.
Basically Croatia and Slovenia were economically supporting Serbia and the rest, a situation which caused some discontent, but not to the extent Kennan’s telegram described it. I felt at the time that there was an amazing disparity between what I had heard on the trip and what he had written.
In retrospect, it may well be that Kennan’s antennae were finer than mine, or that the inherent logic of the situation had led him to this far-reaching conclusion which he then wanted to document. Even so, he got the timing wrong, because he thought the crisis was clearly more imminent than it actually turned out to be. Still, his was the first explicit warning, as far as I know, of what was to come.
Needless to say, the report was greeted with skepticism, both in the Embassy — which didn’t believe that nationalism was very powerful at the time and usually asked us to tone down our occasional reports of Croatian nationalist behavior — as well as in Washington.
Kennan’s personally written telegrams often reached entirely different conclusions than the Embassy’s routine reporting. As his ‘Memoirs’ make clear, he saw the Embassy diplomatic and USIA [U.S. Information Agency] staff as being “from another generation,” people, he wrote, “who had come up in a different sort of bureaucratic environment: Less human, less personal, vaster, more inscrutable, and less reassuring. Some of them tended initially… to be wary, correct, faithfully pedantic, but withdrawn and in a sense masked. The studied absence of color, in personality and in uttered thought, had become a protective camouflage. But of course they were real people underneath, and in most instances very valuable and intelligent ones….”
Tellingly, not one of them is mentioned in his ‘Memoirs’ by name even though it was a first-rate team….There was a basic, rather sad disconnect between Kennan and the staff. Some of this may have been due to the fact that Kennan saw himself by then as an agent of historic transformation and had come to Belgrade with his own agenda: To restore mutually confident American-Yugoslav relations, implying a larger strategy of wresting it still further away from the USSR.
The symbol and centerpiece of the policy was to be most-favored-nation [MFN] status for Yugoslavia. What this did not adequately take into account was the continuing deep distrust of anything ‘Communist’ in Congress, feelings kept alive by hyper-active Croatian and Serbian émigré groups in the U.S. and the fact that Yugoslav Communist behavior did not always lend itself to benign interpretation from Washington’s perspective.
Tito’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement [NAM], his repressive domestic policies and his refusal to ally himself with the West all contributed to this.
Although Kennan fought hard, his effort foundered on these obstacles, leaving him feeling betrayed by the Department, which, of course, had to deal pragmatically with the political realities as they existed at the time.
Taken together, all this led to important misunderstandings with the Department’s Eastern European people and eventually to his unhappy departure from Belgrade, feeling that he had not been appreciated or understood.
Kennan was a brilliant seer, advisor on major issues and interpreter of history, but, for all that, fatally indifferent to the short-term stuff which makes up the daily fare of government bureaucracy.
As a result he became a tragic figure in American diplomacy, who, although he shaped the post-war world as much as anyone, spent most of his career at odds with the State Department and later in prestigious Princeton exile.
“That’s something that struck me, even then about Kennan, that he took these things personally”
Richard Johnson, Political Officer in Belgrade Yugoslavia, 1962-63
JOHNSON: The thing that made that tour [in Belgrade] interesting and exciting was that George Kennan was our ambassador.
Well, of course I was tremendously impressed with him before I went, with what reading I’d done. And as a boss I just can’t imagine a more exciting person to work with….
But Kennan was the sort of a person who liked to rap with his junior officers…, He developed this project of publishing a history of Yugoslavia, and each of us was assigned a chapter, then he would ask us to come up on Sundays and sit around the fire and discuss various aspects of developments that were going on.
He is such a tremendously articulate and deeply intelligent person that these were really fascinating Sunday afternoons. Also, he would invite us in when he came back from a meeting with Tito, and he would tell us how the meeting went and analyze it in very perceptive terms.
Robert Gerald Livingston, Economic Officer, Belgrade Yugoslavia, 1961-64
LIVINGSTON: You know, Kennan was a bad ambassador, I thought. He was lovely so was his wife. I wouldn’t say he took a shine to me, but he had this project of getting officers to write up little studies, and I think I was one of the few that took it seriously….
Kennan was marvelous, but he was emotional, very emotional. Even I could tell that. This is partly gossip form the people in the political section including Jim Lowenstein who was there then. But he reacted very personally and he felt almost betrayed by Tito personally when the Soviets violated the Test Ban stop and Tito didn’t condemn them….(Pictured: Tito with Kennan)
Kennan took it personally. That’s something that struck me, even then about Kennan, that he took these things personally.
And I remember something happened he was personally insulted. It was maybe Adlai Stevenson and Mrs. Katherine Graham [Washington Post publisher] came on a yacht. Katherine Graham’s husband must have been alive then. They visited Tito on Brioni and Kennan wasn’t invited — was either invited later or something… I don’t remember the details, but he took it very, very personally….
My recollection had to do with Most Favored Nation treatment of Yugoslavia. Kennan, before he left Washington, Kennedy had said to him as he had to some other ambassadors, “You be in touch with me anytime you have something. It doesn’t have to be just your country.”
And I remember Kennan at the time the Berlin Wall was built, which was August of 1961, sent stuff in commenting on the German situation. It wasn’t paid any attention to, and we knew that it wasn’t paid any attention to, you know. He, I think, was wounded by that. This must have been ’62 or something like that when Most Favored Nation thing came up.
Memories are faulty, but he put in a call to Kennedy on the open line to the White House. Kennedy took the call from him and Kennan said “You’ve got to do something about this MFN thing.” And Kennedy said, “Well, George, I’ll have this call transferred to Wilbur Mills.” He didn’t say anything but, “I’ll have this call transferred to Wilbur Mills.” And he switched to Wilbur Mills, [the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee].
Kennan deliberately talked on the open line to show the Yugoslavs how much influence he had, you know, talking to the President and getting things done. Of course, he showed he had no influence. And then, not only did that happen, but he convened a staff meeting, in which I was at sitting in the very back row, I think and he told us about this, in his office….
Jack R. Perry, Personnel and Political Officer, Moscow, Soviet Union, 1962-64
PERRY: The thing is, George Kennan could write better than most of the rest of us put together. He was and is a marvelous master of the English language and people always said that when Kennan wrote a telegram to Washington, no matter what he was arguing, you’d be persuaded because the English was just so overwhelming.
I don’t think that was true of Chip Bohlen, for example, although he wrote beautifully, but he was not the persuasive master that Kennan was. Some people felt — and I don’t like to criticize Kennan because he’s one of my heroes in many ways — but as a diplomat, some people said that he had a certain messianic complex that he really felt that he was called to be the one that knew everything and did everything.
I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it certainly may have entered into the way he departed Moscow, because he was declared persona non grata and so forth.
Q: One reason I raise the question is because I just read the book George Kennan,
Q: One reason I raise the question is because I just read the book George Kennan,Cold War Iconoclast, by Walter L. Hixson, who takes a fairly negative view of Kennan, granting him that he writes beautifully and that he was a great raconteur and he was a bona fide Soviet expert and so on and so forth, but Hixson apparently doesn’t like him and says words to the effect that he’s a prima donna and that he changed his mind every time the wind blew in different directions.
PERRY: I’ve heard some of that, but I must say, if you look at his writings, particularly right after the war — the Long Telegram and the X article and so on — what diplomat do we know that could compare with the effect he had on history? Now you might go back and say, was he always right? I’m sure he wasn’t. I was a bit of a dove. I mean, I was a detentenik I believed in better relations with the Russians. (Photo: Corbis)
Now that the Cold War is over, you might go back and look at people like me and say, were they right or were they wrong? Towards the end, in Washington, I remained friends with Bohlen. He would come by the Soviet desk, where I was then serving, and talk about what was going on in Russia. And I remember we had some differences, because I felt that he was somewhat too ideological in his view of the Soviets, feeling that they were ideologically motivated, which I always doubted, frankly.
But, on balance, as far as Bohlen is concerned, he was called a Cold Warrior, but I think most of all he and Kennan both were people that knew the Russians, as a culture, as a civilization, as a people, and that’s what gave them their great strength.
Meeting George Kennan, Moscow, 1977
I had long been an admirer of Kennan for his prescient Long Telegram of February 22, 1946, his “X” article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs on the “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and of course for his elegant writing style. I also agreed with his oft-expressed view that Russia can have only two kinds of neighbors, vassals or enemies. I had read a couple of his books on U.S.-Soviet relations when I was at St. Louis Country Day School and it was one of the things that had initially attracted me to a Foreign Service career.
Kennan spoke articulately and brilliantly, but for all that, I can’t remember much of what he actually said during our hour-long meeting. It was just a pleasure to listen to him. Kennan was in his mid-seventies at the time, and I recall thinking that he looked quite frail. One of my friends remarked afterward, “We were lucky we met him now — he’s so old he can’t last much longer.” I agreed, but Kennan fooled us all by hanging on until 2005, living to the ripe old age of 101 and writing all the while.
I’m especially sorry that I never had another opportunity to meet with Kennan, because years later I finally read his memoirs, and realized that we shared many common experiences. In fact, when he discussed his tours not just in Moscow, but throughout his career, it was almost like I was reading my own memoirs and not his. It was a great opportunity lost. In addition, I would have wanted to question him more closely about his views on the Soviet Union, with which I often disagreed.
Kennan’s thinking was profound and multi-layered. He was particularly good at descriptive writing, and he outlined the situation prevailing in the Soviet Union in compelling terms. There were certain areas where I agreed with him completely, such as his harsh criticism of Ambassador Joseph Davies’ disastrous tenure in Moscow, and the Roosevelt Administration’s role in perpetuating, for political reasons, a sentimental enthusiasm about Stalin’s Soviet Union.
I also found convincing his searing portrayal of the dysfunctional Washington bureaucracy of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in which the random actions of minor bureaucrats and failures of communication often trumped all efforts to construct a rational and realistic foreign policy. I especially admired what Kennan himself called his greatest achievement: his role in the creation of the Marshall Plan for the economic revival of Western Europe. Kennan also took a very dim view of the United Nations, and thought it would be more of a negative than positive influence in world affairs, a view with which I agree in part.
On other issues, however, I found fault with Kennan’s views. For example, I did not agree with many of his prescriptions for dealing with the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Kennan’s general approach seemed to be to take no steps that might be construed as approving of or legitimizing the Soviet regime, while refraining from direct opposition or action except in the most extreme circumstances.
This was the line he took with regard to the creation of NATO and the separate Peace Treaty with Japan, despite the provocative actions that dictated these prudent defensive steps, i.e., the communization of Eastern Europe and China. His opposition to doing anything that might cause an aggressive Soviet reaction ignored the fact that such a passive policy might actually tempt the Soviets to reach still further, in the belief that they could continue to push the West without fear of consequences.
This might seem to be a strange criticism of the person generally credited as the author of America’s containment policy, but, as Kennan himself repeatedly pointed out, his “X” article was completely misunderstood, and the containment policy adopted by U.S. policymakers was not the one he advocated.
Whereas Kennan believed in the containment of Soviet ambitions by political means, and only when our vital interests were threatened, the widely-accepted interpretation of containment policy at the time was to oppose the Soviets both militarily and politically, wherever their ambitions manifested themselves around the world. My own views stand somewhere between these two extremes, although in the end I am more comfortable with the containment policy that was eventually adopted than I am with Kennan’s version, which, in my estimation, would have led inevitably to disaster.
I was also a little bit surprised to find that Kennan’s discussion of his tenure as our Ambassador in Moscow was unusually naïve, particularly his ruminations on why the Soviet leadership gave him the back of its hand (he imputed some deeper political motives to the Kremlin, when in actuality Soviet leaders treated all American ambassadors badly, unless they were thought to have a direct line to the White House). I also disagreed with his criticism of our military attachés in Moscow, whose activities he found provocative.
In reading his memoirs, I found myself a little disapproving of Kennan’s personal manner. Kennan was a classic elitist, an attitude that clearly came across in his characterizations of those of his fellow Americans who were not as schooled in foreign policy as he (his discussion of his interactions with St. Louisans, whom he obviously considered to be hicks, was very revealing in this regard). Kennan, who had very fluent Russian and nearly bilingual German, seemed academic and remote to many of his Foreign Service colleagues, and often seemed more comfortable with foreigners than his own countrymen.
In addition, Kennan’s writing style, while eloquent, was at times so fussy and equivocating. At one point in his chapter on his Moscow ambassadorship, Kennan noted that he had been a reluctant diplomat, and was much happier in the world of Russian literature and culture than “the world of politics and diplomacy into which Fate had thrust me.” I would certainly agree with that assessment, and, on reflection, it is no wonder that he and Ambassador Toon did not get along: ideologically, they were poles apart.
As for me, I find Kennan and his thinking to be endlessly fascinating. I might disagree with many of his conclusions, but I would never fault his g ift for description or his intellectual brilliance.
Part 3: Projection of Soviet Outlook in Practical Policy on Official Level
We have now seen nature and background of Soviet program. What may we expect by way of its practical implementation? . . .
(a) Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state: intensive military-industrialization maximum development of armed forces great displays to impress outsiders continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weaknesses and to keep opponents in dark.
(b) Wherever it is considered timely and promising, efforts will be made to advance official limits of Soviet power. For the moment, these efforts are restricted to certain neighboring points conceived of here as being of immediate strategic necessity, such as Northern Iran, Turkey . . .
(e) Russians will strive energetically to develop Soviet representation in, and official ties with, countries in which they sense strong possibilities of opposition to Western centers of power. This applies to such widely separated points as Germany, Argentina, Middle Eastern countries, etc. . . .
World War II
In 1939, World War II began in Europe. Kennan was transferred to the U.S. wartime embassy in Berlin, the capital of Germany. The United States did not enter the war until December 1941 at that point, Germany and the United States formally became enemies. Kennan briefly found himself a detainee and was unable to leave Germany until May 1942. After a short posting to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1943, Kennan joined the European Advisory Commission in London this group was in charge of creating a plan to deal with postwar Germany. In 1944, Kennan was reassigned to Moscow as an aide to Ambassador W. Averell Harriman (1891–1986 see entry). Kennan urged the United States not to form too close an alliance with the Soviet Union. He was dismayed as he watched the United States make concession after concession to the Soviet government for wartime reasons. Kennan fretted that his country was entirely too eager to please Stalin.
After the war, when the Soviets occupied Eastern European countries with the apparent intention of staying there indefinitely, Kennan pushed for the United States to cut off all economic aid to the Soviets to force them to withdraw. Almost no other U.S. official agreed with Kennan—but then none of them understood Stalin as Kennan did.
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AMLO mural in Mexico City, 2007 (Randal Sheppard / Flickr)
MORENA supporters at a rally in Itzapalapa, Mexico City, April 2015 (Eneas De Troya / Flickr)
Audience members waiting for the program to begin at a MORENA rally, March 2016 (Eneas De Troya / Flickr)
MORENA supporter leafletting against energy reforms, 2013 (Eneas De Troya / Flickr)
Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the campaign trail during his previous presidential run, May 2012 (Arturo Alfaro Galán)
Courtesy of Robert Greene
At a protest against the alleged Pizzagate conspiracy, Washington, D.C., March 25, 2017 (Blink O’fanaye / Flickr)
[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it&rsquos very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, &ldquoRojava vs. the World,&rdquo February 2015
The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi&rsquoite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.
Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.
Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the &ldquomountain Turks&rdquo—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.
Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad&rsquos allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.
75 years ago, George Kennan, an American diplomat living in Moscow, sent an 8,000-word telegram to President Truman’s State Department. Today, “The Long Telegram” is regarded as a foundational U.S. document, right up there with the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address. As a sign of its enduring significance, the telegram’s 75th anniversary appears on top-ten lists of historic moments to note in 2021.
In his telegram to Washington, Kennan provided U.S. policy recommendations based on his analysis of the cultural and historical forces that shaped the motives of Soviet leaders and influenced Soviet conduct around the globe. Kennan asserted that the “problem of how to cope with [the Soviet] force in [is] undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face. It should be point of departure from which our political general staff work at present juncture should proceed.” He was correct. Kennan’s Long Telegram spurred intellectual policy debate that formed the basis of American policy towards the Soviet Union for the next 25 years, including the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan.
Kennan’s original February 22, 1946 telegram is part of the historic holdings at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
George Kennan’s Love of Russia Inspired His Legendary “Containment” Strategy
The enduring irony of George F. Kennan’s life was just how much the architect of America’s Cold War “containment” strategy—aimed at stopping Soviet expansionism—loved Russia.
Kennan arguably played a larger role in shaping the U.S.’s view of a major foreign power, and thus our relations with that power, than any other American in modern history. That the power in question was the Soviet Union, and the time in question the crucial period after World War II, made his outsized influence all the more remarkable.
He brought an authoritative blend of scholarship and experience to posts as diplomat, ambassador, State Department policy adviser, and Princeton-based professor—exerting his influence on American strategy from both inside and outside the government. For an entire generation of U.S. officials who guided the nation’s foreign policy in the Cold War, Kennan became the preeminent guide of all things Russia. His main legacy: Advising Americans how best to restrain the Soviet threat.
Yet despite the key role he played on the U.S. side of the adversarial relationship, Kennan was deeply enamoured with Russia. In diplomatic postings across Europe in the 1920s and s, he mastered the language – “No American spoke Russian the way George did,” according to one colleague. Over the course of his long life (Kennan died in 2005, aged 101), he read and re-read the great works of 19th-century Russian literature and travelled the country as frequently and extensively as he could. While in London in May 1958, he went to see a performance of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and recorded a powerful reaction in his diary:
Seeing The Cherry Orchard stirred all the rusty, untuned strings of the past and of my own youth: Riga, and the Russian landscape, and the staggering, unexpected familiarity and convincingness of the Chekhovian world—it stirred up, in other words, my Russian self, which is entirely a Chekhovian one and much more genuine than the American one—and having all this prodded to the surface in me, I sat there blubbering like a child and trying desperately to keep the rest of the company from noticing it.
His Russian self and American self would make for uneasy Cold War companions. And although Kennan profoundly admired the nation, his heart ached for how Lenin and Stalin had so brutally altered its path.
Kennan’s warm feelings toward Russia were even known by Mikhail Gorbachev, who met Kennan in 1987 in Washington, D.C. and told him, “We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own and that is the way we view you.” This recognition by an adversary made for a moment of profound personal satisfaction for the former diplomat.
Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy
Worldmaking is a compelling new take on the history of American diplomacy. Rather than retelling the story of realism versus idealism, David Milne suggests that U.S. foreign policy has also been crucially divided between those who view statecraft as an art and those who believe it can aspire to the certainty of science.
Kennan was best known to most Americans as the Cold War’s Paul Revere who sounded the alarm in 1946 that the Soviets were coming (into Central and Western Europe). Frustrated by the Truman administration’s inability to appreciate the magnitude of the threat posed by Stalin’s Soviet Union, the then American charge d’affaires in Moscow cabled Washington in what was to become the most famous communication in the history of the State Department. In his nearly 6,000-word “long telegram,” the diplomat emphasized that the Soviet Union saw no path to permanent peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world. Stalin—fuelled by nationalism, deep-set fears of external attack, and Marxist-Leninist ideology—was determined to expand his nation’s power. But, Kennan explained, the Soviets were weak, and if the Western World made it clear they would put up a strong resistance at any incursion, the opportunistic menace could be contained.
The telegram’s impact was profound. Circulated quickly and widely, it was read by the secretaries of War and the Navy, and later by President Truman himself. It became required reading for senior members of the armed forces and was also cabled to America’s embassies and missions abroad. The sheer force of the argument persuaded many in power in part, as one Truman aide remarked, because “Kennan tied everything together, wrapped it in a neat package, and put a red bow around it.”
Kennan was recalled to Washington in May 1946 and made Deputy Commandant for Foreign Affairs at the National War College. Ten months later, writing anonymously under the letter “X,” Kennan published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” that elaborated on his long telegram’s diagnoses and recommendations, this time for a public audience. Mr. X, as the author became known, compared the Soviet Union to a wind-up toy that would move relentlessly in a particular direction unless a barrier was placed in its way. He pulled from his extensive knowledge of Russian history to create a psychological profile of a totalitarian regime where truth was fluid and worldviews were informed by “centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast fortified plain” and assaults over the centuries from Mongol hordes from the East and Napoleon’s and Hitler’s formidable armies from the West. These memories of death and destruction melded with an expansionist communist worldview. The result was a state determined, no matter how long it took, to amass a powerful empire that would protect the motherland from any enemy. In other words, there was to be no meaningful engagement with this Russia for a long time to come.
To restrain Moscow, Kennan advised that “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.” This sentence was to become his policy legacy. Finally, here was a compromise between an all-out war of superpowers and a passive peace strategy that would invite opportunistic Soviet aggression. Be patient. Show strength. Wait for the inevitable fall. In addition to then President Truman, who put this strategy into full force as the Cold War began, eight more presidents would go on to subscribe to variations of this seminal policy.
Although he continues to be best known for his advocacy of containment, it is important to note that Kennan largely intended it to keep communist incursions out of Western Europe and Japan via non-military means: economic aid, propaganda, political warfare. This vision was played out in policies such as the Marshall Plan, which he played a key role in designing as the first-ever head of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning. His narrowly tailored vision of containment, as we now know, didn’t last. From the end of the Korean War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kennan consistently criticized the ways in which his policy was hijacked—from justifying militarized containment of low-stakes countries like Vietnam to defending the anti-Russian flames fanned by demagogic McCarthyites to being used to rabble-rouse ordinary Americans into supporting the nuclear arms build-up under Reagan. Though he continued to weigh in on major foreign policy debates from posts as U.S. ambassador and as a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study, he lost most of these battles.
Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kennan continued bemoaning what he considered the misappropriation of his views. In an op-ed for The New York Times in 1997, for example, Kennan prophetically warned that Bill Clinton’s eastward expansion of NATO would be a fateful error. The move to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in the Cold War-era military alliance, he wrote, would only serve “to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion.”
What Would George Kennan Say About Ukraine?
An expert on Soviet and Russian military and foreign policy, Professor Geoffrey Roberts is Head of the School of History at University College Cork, Ireland. The author of "Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov" (Random House 2012), which won the Society of Military History’s Distinguished Book Award for Biography, his latest book is a new English edition of Zhukov’s memoirs: "Marshal of Victory: The Autobiography of General Georgy Zhukov" (Pen & Sword 2014). Earlier this year Professor Roberts was a visiting scholar at the Mudd Library, Princeton University, the repository of George Kennan’s private papers.
“We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs” (George F. Kennan)
The spectre of Russian expansion is once again haunting Europe. The longer the Ukrainian crisis rumbles on, the louder become the voices in favour of reviving the cold war policy of containment. Putin may be an authoritarian nationalist rather than a totalitarian communist, but those voices contend that -- like his Soviet predecessors -- the Russian President is intent on creating a sphere of influence to challenge western values and political systems.
Putin has even been compared to Hitler and his critics ask: after Russia’s absorption of the Crimea, what next?
The original architect of containment was George F. Kennan, a hitherto obscure diplomat in the US embassy in Moscow who captured the public imagination when, in 1947, he published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” His article was published anonymously but the author’s identity soon became known and Kennan became a celebrity commentator on Soviet affairs.
Kennan’s analysis captured the mood of the moment. He explained why efforts to negotiate a postwar peace settlement had failed in the face of Soviet expansionism in central and eastern Europe. Power was the only language the Kremlin understood, argued Kennan. The only way to stop the Soviets and their communist allies was through deploying countervailing power.
Less well noted was Kennan’s comment in the same article that containment was not a moral posture and “had nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures towards toughness.” It was a policy tool to protect vital American interests. The Soviet Union was an ideological state committed to spreading communism, he noted, but it was also a great power with its own interests and sensibilities. Soviet leaders were not beyond considerations of prestige and, as with leaders of other great nations, they should be given ways to save face.
Kennan saw containment as fundamentally a political strategy. Military power should be reserved for protection not projection. The Soviet foe would be vanquished in a contest of values and ideas. In the late 1940s Kennan was disturbed by what he saw as the militarisation of his concept of containment – the establishment of NATO, the division of Germany and the ever-deepening cold war divide in Europe.
Kennan opposed the 1950s version of today’s regime-change policy, the so-called liberation strategy of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Kennan argued the communist bloc would change as a result of internal processes not through the force of external threats or intrigues. Liberationist rhetoric would only entrench Soviet hardliners. “We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs,” urged Kennan in his lectures on The Realities of American Foreign Policy at Princeton University in 1954.
Kennan was particularly irked by the western failure to understand Soviet anxiety about NATO and the rearming of West Germany in the 1950s – it was, after all, less than a decade since the end of a war in which millions of Soviet citizens had been massacred by the Germans. While Soviet perceptions of a western military threat were exaggerated, their underlying fears were genuine. Western leaders seemed unable to grasp how their own fears were being mirrored by those of the Soviets.
When Kennan was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 he recorded in his diary that he felt “we were expecting to gain our objectives without making any concessions whatsoever to the views and interests of our adversaries. Our position seemed to me to be comparable to the policy of unconditional surrender.” From Moscow he cabled the State Department that “if one were able to strip away…propagandistic distortion and maligning of foreign intentions, one would find that there remained a certain hard core of genuine belief in the sinisterness of western intentions.”
Kennan’s vision of containment included a degree of US military disengagement from Europe so as to open an American-Soviet dialogue based on an acceptance of differences in perspectives and interests. The United States need not fear that it would be subverted or weakened by such a dialogue. America only had to be true to itself to win the cold war, Kennan believed. In his Reith Lectures in 1957 Kennan advocated Soviet and Western withdrawal from West and East Germany and the reunification of the country as a neutral state – an act which he believed would in time help loosen the Kremlin’s grip on the communist bloc.
As a realist rather than an idealist Kennan was fond of quoting John Quincy Adams that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” While the United States “was the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all”, it was through example rather than force that America should lead the world. If it pursued force the United States would undermine its own values and beliefs.
The cold war ended much in the way Kennan envisaged – through a process of internal change within the Soviet bloc led by Mikhail Gorbachev. In the 1990s Kennan opposed taking too much advantage of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. He believed NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders was “the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold War period.”
Kennan died in 2005 but his likely advice on the Ukraine crisis would be threefold.
First, understand Putin’s point of view about the vital Russian interests he believes to be at stake in Ukraine – a country in Russia’s backyard, not America’s.
Second, defend America’s vital interests but pursue broader, transformational goals through a process of constructive engagement with Russia.
Third, learn the negative as well as the positive lessons of cold war history. Do not allow containment to become an instrument for the isolation of Russia that may turn a potential ally in world affairs into a dedicated foe. A new cold war is certainly not in the interests of the people of Ukraine, who need not the mutual enmity of Russia and the United States but rather to benefit from aid and collaboration with them both.