George Kennan

Diplomat whose advice shaped American Cold War policy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

George Frost Kennan, diplomat and political scholar: born Milwaukee, Wisconsin 16 February 1904; US ambassador to the Soviet Union 1952-53; Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1953-56, Professor 1956-74 (Emeritus); US ambassador to Yugoslavia 1961-63; married 1931 Annelise Sorensen (one son, three daughters); died Princeton, New Jersey 17 March 2005.

George Kennan achieved the diplomat's dream. Not for him merely the journeyman's task of executing the orders of his government. A diplomat also advises his government - although as often as not his wisdom will go unheeded. But the advice Kennan gave was, to put it mildly, taken. For more than 40 years, it formed the basis of US policy towards the Soviet Union, and in the end his recommendations would be borne out by events.

The document which contained his advice, the legendary "Long Telegram" of early 1946, ranks as perhaps the most influential missive ever sent to Washington by an American diplomat in the field. It ensured Kennan's place in that select group of American policy-makers, among them Paul Nitze, Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Clark Clifford and of course Harry Truman himself, who were in Acheson's famous phrase "present at the creation" - when America took the decisions which largely shaped the post-war world.

The telegram ran to 8,000 words. In it, Kennan, acting head of mission at the Moscow embassy in the absence of the ambassador, Averill Harriman, argued that the Soviet Union was an adversary, an expanding power, driven by that age-old and peculiarly Russian combination of insecurity and a desire to dominate, and that only a resolute US response would frustrate its ambitions. The document, delivered at about the same time Churchill was delivering his Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, had a colossal impact. It cemented the shift in America's perception of the Soviet Union from wartime ally to ideological and strategic rival.

In 1947, in an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, signed only as "X", Kennan set out his ideas even more robustly, using the word with which his name would be for ever linked. The doctrine of "containment" had been born. It would be the guiding star of American policy through the Cold War. No matter that, to the dismay of many colleagues, the man who devised it would within 10 years disown it utterly and in his 1967 memoirs would admit to re-reading the Long Telegram with "horrified amusement". But George Kennan, visionary and realist, mystic and nostalgic conservative rolled into one, was never afraid to change his mind.

He was born to a distinguished old Presbyterian family of Scots-Irish extraction, who had resettled from New England to Wisconsin and which had Russia in its blood. An uncle, George Kennan, was a leading American expert on the Tsarist regime, and in 1891 had published a treatise on the system of exile in Siberia. For his nephew, the object of fascination would be the new Communist state. Kennan was one of the first US "Sovietologists". After studying History at Princeton, Kennan entered the diplomatic service in 1926. Between 1928 and 1929 he served in Riga, Tallinn and Kaunas, capitals of the three newly independent Baltic states, and vital listening posts for the Soviet Union, with whom the US did not re-open diplomatic relations until 1933.

As soon as it did, however, Kennan was sent to Moscow, alongside the new ambassador William C. Bullitt. A string of postings in central and eastern Europe followed: Vienna, back to Moscow again, then Prague and Berlin, then Lisbon and London, before he returned once more to the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1946. His valedictory telegram, warning of the dangerous intentions of Stalin and his heirs, made him a sensation inside the US government. Outside, too, he quickly became one, as George Krock, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, unmasked Kennan as the mysterious "X".

Within a year George Marshall, the Secretary of State, named him Head of Policy Planning, and in May 1952 Marshall's successor, Dean Acheson, sent him back to Moscow, this time as ambassador. The posting lasted only until the following October, when Stalin ordered his expulsion, ostensibly for criticism by Kennan of Soviet treatment of Western diplomats. A few months later, he was victim of a spring cleaning by John Foster Dulles, the incoming Republican Secretary of State.

Apart from a two-year recall by the Kennedy administration to serve as ambassador to Yugoslavia, the short and sad second stint in Moscow was Kennan's swansong as a diplomat. Thereafter his life was bound up with Princeton and its Institute for Advanced Study, where from 1953 he served as Member, Professor and then Professor Emeritus until the end of his life. Free of state's confines, however, his diplomatic views resonated louder than ever - not least because they had been transformed.

In six Reith lectures on the BBC in 1957, later to become a book, Russia, the Atom and the West (1958), Kennan showed that the founding Cold War hawk had turned into a dove. Containment was out, "disengagement" was in. Kennan advocated the withdrawal of both US and Soviet troops from Europe, and a reunified, neutral Germany. He queried the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence, and asserted that Russia did not want a general conflict; Moscow, he had decided, was now a political rather than a military threat.

Within days, Acheson himself declared Kennan's views were not those of the Democratic party, saying in so many words that their author was a dreamy eccentric who had parted company with reality. But discussion of them reverberated for months, and with the passage of the years, and the publication of a stream of books, Kennan grew into a Grand Old Man of global affairs, consulted by presidents and revered by almost all.

Among the score of books he wrote were a series on Russian-American relations, the first of which, Russia Leaves the War (1956), won several literary awards including the 1957 Pulitzer prize. There followed other works, most of them dealing with Russia and its role in European power politics in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as two wonderful volumes of memoirs (published in 1967 and 1973), and the mesmerising Sketches from a Life (1989). All were notable for their fine scholarship and handsome language.

Academic honours too were showered upon him. He received honorary doctorates from a score of universities in the US, Britain and Europe, as well as peace prizes in America and Europe and, in 1989, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But Kennan the theorist of international affairs was losing faith in his own rapidly changing country. His final memoirs, Around the Cragged Hill (1993), reveal a bemused and deeply conservative man who loathed the fast-food, money- and celebrity-driven culture of the late-20th-century United States. This George Kennan was irredeemably élitist, scornful and despairing of the profanum vulgus, wishing only that the clock could be put back to some vanished utopia, where America's affairs would be in the hands of enlightened individuals like himself. His thoughts were a sad irrelevance, but fortunately only the tiniest postscript on the career of perhaps the most influential American foreign policy thinker of his age.

Rupert Cornwell