George Frost Kennan was an American diplomat and historian. He was known best as an advocate of a policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War on which he later reversed himself. He lectured widely and wrote scholarly histories of the relations between USSR and the United States. He was also one of the group of foreign policy elders known as "The Wise Men".
Kennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Kossuth Kent Kennan, a descendant of dirt-poor Scotch-Irish settlers of 18th-century Connecticut and Massachusetts, who was named after the Hungarian patriot Lajos Kossuth (1802–1894), and Florence James Kennan. Mrs. Kennan died two months later due to peritonitis from a ruptured appendix, though Kennan long believed that she died after giving birth to him. The boy always lamented not having a mother, he was never close to his father or stepmother, however, he was close to his older sisters.
At the age of eight, he went to Germany to stay with his stepmother in order to learn German. He attended St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin, and arrived at Princeton University in the second half of 1921. Unaccustomed to the elite atmosphere of the Ivy League, the shy and introverted Kennan found his undergraduate years difficult and lonely. After receiving his bachelor's degree in History in 1925, Kennan considered applying to law school, but decided it was too expensive and instead opted to apply to the newly formed United States Foreign Service. He passed the qualifying examination and after seven months of study at the Foreign Service School in Washington he gained his first job as a vice consul in Geneva, Switzerland. Within a year he was transferred to a post in Hamburg, Germany. During 1928 Kennan considered quitting the Foreign Service to attend college. Instead, he was selected for a linguist training program that would give him three years of graduate-level study without having to quit the service.
In 1929 Kennan began his program on history, politics, culture, and the Russian language at the University of Berlin's Oriental Institute. In doing so, he would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather's younger cousin, George Kennan (1845–1924), a major 19th century expert on Imperial Russia and author of Siberia and the Exile System, a well-received 1891 account of the Czarist prison system. During the course of his diplomatic career, Kennan would master a number of other languages, including German, French, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, and Norwegian.
In 1931 Kennan was stationed at the legation in Riga, Latvia, where, as third secretary, he worked on Soviet economic affairs. From his job, Kennan "grew to mature interest in Russian affairs". When the U.S. began formal diplomacy with the Soviet government during 1933 after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennan accompanied Ambassador William C. Bullitt to Moscow. By the mid-1930s Kennan was among the professionally trained Russian experts of the staff of the embassy in Moscow, along with Charles E. Bohlen and Loy W. Henderson. These officials had been influenced by the long-time director of the State Department's division of East European Affairs, Robert F. Kelley. They believed that there was little basis for cooperation with the Soviet Union, even against potential adversaries. Meanwhile, Kennan studied Stalin's Great Purge, which would affect his opinion of the internal dynamics of the Soviet regime for the rest of his life.
Kennan found himself in strong disagreement with Joseph E. Davies, Bullitt's successor as ambassador to the Soviet Union, who defended the Great Purge and other aspects of Stalin's rule. Kennan did not have any influence on Davies's decisions, and the latter even suggested that Kennan be transferred out of Moscow for "his health". Kennan again contemplated resigning from the service, but instead decided to accept the Russian desk at the State Department in Washington. By September 1938, Kennan had been reassigned to a job at the legation in Prague. After the occupation of the Czechoslovak Republic by Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II, Kennan was assigned to Berlin. There, he endorsed the United States' Lend-Lease policy, but warned against displaying any notion of American endorsement for the Soviets, whom he considered to be an unfit ally. He was interned in Germany for six months after Germany, followed by the other Axis states, declared war on the United States in December 1941.
In September 1942 Kennan was assigned as a counselor in Lisbon, Portugal, where he begrudgingly performed a job administrating intelligence and base operations. In January 1944 he was sent to London, where he served as counselor of the American delegation to the European Advisory Commission, which worked to prepare Allied policy in Europe. There, Kennan became even more disenchanted with the State Department, which he believed was ignoring his qualifications as a trained specialist. However, within months of beginning the job, he was appointed deputy chief of the mission in Moscow upon request of W. Averell Harriman, the ambassador to the U.S.S.R.
Interned briefly by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II, Kennan was released in 1942 and subsequently filled diplomatic posts in Lisbon and Moscow during the war. It was from Moscow in February 1946 that Kennan sent a cablegram, known as the “Long Telegram,” that enunciated the containment policy. The telegram was widely read in Washington, D.C., and brought Kennan much recognition. Later that year he returned to the United States, and in 1947 he was named director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff.
Kennan’s views on containment were elucidated in a famous and highly influential article, signed “X,” that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine for July 1947, analyzing in detail the structure and psychology of Soviet diplomacy. In the article Kennan, who drew heavily from his Long Telegram, questioned the wisdom of the United States’ attempts to conciliate and appease the Soviet Union. He suggested that the Russians, while still fundamentally opposed to coexistence with the West and bent on worldwide extension of the Soviet system, were acutely sensitive to the logic of military force and would temporize or retreat in the face of skillful and determined Western opposition to their expansion. Kennan then advocated U.S. counterpressure wherever the Soviets threatened to expand and predicted that such counterpressure would lead either to Soviet willingness to cooperate with the United States or perhaps eventually to an internal collapse of the Soviet government. This view subsequently became the core of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
Kennan accepted appointment as counselor to the State Department in 1949, but he resigned the following year to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He returned to Moscow in 1952 as U.S. ambassador but came back to the United States the following year after the Russians declared him persona non grata for remarks he made about Soviet treatment of Western diplomats. In 1956 he became permanent professor of historical studies at the institute in Princeton, a tenure broken only by a stint as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia (1961–63). In the late 1950s Kennan revised his containment views, advocating instead a program of U.S. “disengagement” from areas of conflict with the Soviet Union. He later emphatically denied that containment was relevant to other situations in other parts of the world - e.g., Vietnam.
A prolific and acclaimed author, Kennan won simultaneous Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards for Russia Leaves the War (1956) and Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967). Other autobiographies include Memoirs, 1950–1963 (1972), Sketches from a Life (1989), and At a Century’s Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995 (1996). Kennan, who received numerous honours, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989.
Political realism formed the basis of Kennan's work as a diplomat and historian and remains relevant to the debate over American foreign policy, which since the 19th century has been characterized by a shift from the Founding Fathers' realist school to the idealistic or Wilsonian school of international relations. According to the realist tradition, security is based on the principle of a balance of power, whereas Wilsonianism (considered impractical by realists) relies on morality as the sole determining factor in statecraft. According to the Wilsonians the spread of democracy abroad as a foreign policy is important and morals are valid universally. During the Presidency of Bill Clinton, American diplomacy represented the Wilsonian school to such a degree that those in favor of the realism likened President Clinton's policies to social work. According to Kennan, whose concept of American diplomacy was based on the realist approach, such moralism without regard to the realities of power and the national interest is self-defeating and will result in the decrease of American power.
In his historical writings and memoirs, Kennan laments in great detail the failings of democratic foreign policy makers and those of the United States in particular. According to Kennan, when American policymakers suddenly confronted the Cold War, they had inherited little more than rationale and rhetoric "utopian in expectations, legalistic in concept, moralistic in [the] demand it seemed to place on others, and self-righteous in the degree of high-mindedness and rectitude ... to ourselves". The source of the problem is the force of public opinion, a force that is inevitably unstable, unserious, subjective, emotional, and simplistic. Kennan has insisted that the U.S. public can only be united behind a foreign policy goal on the "primitive level of slogans and jingoistic ideological inspiration".
Containment during 1967, when he published the first volume of his memoirs, involved something other than the use of military "counterforce". He was never pleased that the policy he influenced was associated with the arms build-up of the Cold War. In his memoirs, Kennan argued that containment did not demand a militarized U.S. foreign policy. "Counterforce" implied the political and economic defense of Western Europe against the disruptive effect of the war on European society. Exhausted by war, the Soviet Union posed no serious military threat to the United States or its allies at the beginning of the Cold War but rather an ideological and political rival.
During the 1960s, Kennan criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, arguing that the United States had little vital interest in the region. Kennan believed that the USSR, Britain, Germany, Japan, and North America remained the areas of vital U.S. interests. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was a major critic of the renewed arms race as détente was ended.
In 1989 President George H. W. Bush awarded Kennan the Medal of Freedom, the nation's greatest civilian honor. Yet he remained a realist critic of recent U.S. presidents, urging the U.S. government to "withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights", saying that the "tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable". These ideas were particularly applicable to U.S. relations with China and Russia. Kennan opposed the Clinton administration's war in Kosovo and its expansion of NATO (the establishment of which he had also opposed half a century earlier), expressing fears that both policies would worsen relations with Russia. He described NATO enlargement as a "strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions".