Remembering a Giant

By Richardson, Paul E. | Russian Life, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Remembering a Giant


Richardson, Paul E., Russian Life


In March 1952, George F. Kennan reached the pinnacle of his diplomatic career. America's leading authority on Russia, he was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union. But it turned out Kennan hated the job, was disgusted with the name-calling of US-Soviet relations, and felt that his Soviet hosts loathed him.

Nor surprisingly, two months later Kennan made a diplomatic gaffe. When a reporter asked what conditions were like in the USSR, Kennan said the oppressiveness reminded him of when he was interned by the Nazis. Needless to say, the Soviets were loath to be compared to the Nazis in any way; Kennan was declared persona non grata.

George Kennan, who passed away in March at the age of 95, had a knack for stating uncomfortable truths. On the eve of the current war in Iraq, he commented pithily that "War seldom ever leads to good results."

For half a century, Kennan struggled to reverse a reputation that has become his epitaph: that he was the Architect of US Policy in the Cold War.

It began in 1946, when Kennan gave a lucid diagnosis of the pathology of Soviet power. In his famous Long Telegram from Moscow (later edited and published in Foreign Affairs under the "Mister X" byline) he prescribed a policy of containment--instead of either appeasement or aggression--to counter the centuries-old "Russian sense of insecurity," now combined with a "fanatical" Soviet belief that there could be no normal, stable relations with the U.S. Given time, he wrote, a hemmed-in Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its contradictions.

Containment became a central feature of U.S. Foreign Policy, but it took on a militaristic turn that Kennan hated and that he spent a lifetime disavowing.

Russian obituaries in March called Kennan the Architect of the Cold War and NATO. But nothing could be further from the truth. Kennan, who was the architect of the Marshall Plan, opposed the formation of NATO, argued against the infamous NSC 68 policy directive--which militarized containment--and thought we should never have developed the hydrogen bomb.

Kennan was never "soft on communism;" he was vehemently anti-Soviet, yet pro-Russian. …

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