George F. Kennan

By Matlock, Jack F., Jr. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, June 2007 | Go to article overview

George F. Kennan


Matlock, Jack F., Jr., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


16 FEBRUARY 1904 * 17 MARCH 2005

WHEN GEORGE KENNAN DIED, just after his 101st birthday in February 2005, the United States lost one of its most prominent diplomats, historians, and public philosophers. Following his retirement from the American Foreign Service in 1953, he was frequently critical of American foreign policy, but lived to see much of his advice adopted (though without attribution) and one of his most striking-and long ignored-predictions come to pass: the collapse of the Soviet Union as the result of internal tensions and contradictions, not external pressure.

George Kennan was born in 1904 and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a descendant of Scottish and English forebears, in Kennan's words "a straight line of pioneer farmers, digressing occasionally into the other free professions." He came east for the first time to study at Princeton University, where he was, by his own recollection, something of a loner, with few close friends. Upon graduation from Princeton, not desiring to return to his native Wisconsin and the life to be anticipated there, he applied for appointment to the American Foreign Service, the professional diplomatic and consular service established by legislation the year before his graduation. To his surprise, he passed the entry examination. After initial tours of duty in Geneva and Hamburg, now fluent in both German and French, he applied for a program of in-service training in Russian.

Kennan's interest in Russia was sparked in part by the work of a relative, a cousin of his grandfather, also named George Kennan. The younger man had little personal contact with his older namesake, but was attracted by the elder's accounts of his experiences in Russia, especially his two-volume study of the Siberian exile system.

After studying Russian for several years, mainly in Riga and Tallinn-the United States having no diplomatic representation in the Soviet Union at that time-Kennan was sent to Moscow in 1933 to arrange for the opening of an American embassy. He personally selected the buildings to be used as the chancery and the ambassador's residence. He was posted to the American embassy in Moscow during much of the 1930s and returned to Moscow during World War II as Ambassador Averell Harriman's deputy.

The three roles Kennan played in American intellectual and public life, as a diplomat, historian, and public philosopher, of course overlapped. His diplomatic reports were infused with an acute sense of history; his policy recommendations rested on the philosophical principles that gave shape to his perceptions; and his historical research was enriched by his experience in the public arena. Nevertheless, to understand the full scope of Kennan's achievement, his roles may best be considered separately.

THE DIPLOMAT

As a diplomat, Kennan achieved what many of his colleagues dream of but precious few attain: decisive influence on his country's policies in matters critical to the country's security and prosperity, and indeed to its survival. Kennan's "long telegram" from the American embassy in Moscow, dispatched on 22 February 1946, when Ambassador Averell Harriman had left him in temporary charge of the mission, reached Washington decision makers when earlier dreams of U.S.-Soviet collaboration following the war had been undermined by repeated instances of Soviet obstinacy. In blunt prose, Kennan warned not to expect a cooperative Soviet Union in the postwar world: "We have here [in the USSR] a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."1

That did not mean, however, that war between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable. Far from it. Despite Soviet attitudes that made genuine cooperation impossible, the Soviet Union was far weaker than the United States, Stalin was more circumspect than Hitler (in Kennan's words, "more sensitive to the logic of force"), and the Soviet state was beset with a host of internal problems, not the least being a loss of revolutionary élan among the population as a whole. …

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