Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

The Legend of George F. Kennan

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

The Legend of George F. Kennan

Article excerpt

Alone warrior, recently returned from his post in war-torn Moscow, sat reflectively at his solid oak desk in the northwest corner of Roosevelt Hall, set quill to parchment, and, with great deliberation, wrote concerning the "The Soviet Way of Thought and Its Effect on Foreign Policy." Drawing on years of operational experience tempered by service as Deputy Commandant of the National War College, he explained the expansionist threat of the Soviet Union and suggested military-political measures to contain it. Over the next hour, he crafted a 5,000-word draft, which would undergo at least 2 revisions. The date was January 24, 1947, and the essay was one of 17 works that prolific writer composed during a 7-month period at the National War College.

A later version of that treatise was published in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs, attributed to an anonymous Mr. X. That article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," propelled its author, the warrior and statesman George F. Kennan, to the center of the debate among policymakers concerning the Nation's strategic course during the early Cold War. By then, Kennan had departed the National War College to rejoin the policymaking arena as the head of the new Office of Policy Planning at the Department of State, an assignment to be sought by future graduates of the college. For the next six decades, Kennan would remain intellectually engaged in the art and science of grand strategy, filling senior positions in government and academia with great dedication, and steadfastly setting a noble course for future strategists.

The Next Mr. X

Since 1946, National War College student warriors have indeed pursued Kennan's strategic trail, offering variations on the policies of ways to win the peace. Their essays have addressed such issues of the day as nationbuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian missions, multiple uses of the military, and ways to design interagency decisionmaking entities of the first order. If students have needed inspiration, a bronze plaque on the hallowed wall summarizes in short shrift the deeds of George F. Kennan. New students note it in passing and wonder if there really is anything new in their universe about which they can write as they consider the challenge of becoming the next Mr. X.

Sixty years of strategic thinking in peace and war is a long time in the life of a national security institution such as the National War College. Kennan was around for 59 of those years and remained influential until his death in 2005 at age 101. Because of his contributions to the strategic thinking of his time--to the concept of containment and the Truman Doctrine--Kennan will always have a presence at the War College. He was there at the commencement of academics, helped design a relevant curriculum, and unilaterally set the standard for intellectual contribution. Writing in his 1967 memoirs, he described the original mission in 1946, when he and his colleagues prepared the curriculum for senior-level students of national policy: "We could, through our activities, contribute in a way that no previous institution could do to the thinking about problems of national policy that was going on all over Washington in that winter of transition and uncertainty." (1)

The work of those founders could have missed the mark in the open market of national security ideas following World War II, but it was a seminal moment in the history of the National War College, and Kennan envisioned a substantive role for the school in the national debate over strategy:

A strategic-political doctrine would have to be devised for this country which gave promise not simply of expanding the material and military power of a single nation but of making the strength of that nation a force for peace and stability in international affairs and helping, in particular, to avoid the catastrophe of atomic war. (2)

Kennan immediately sought to bring the appropriate measure of gravity to building a national security institute and was pleased with the progress, noting that "the program of that first experimental year moved forward . …

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