Diplomacy: George F. Kennan

Jon Kofas writes:  George F. Kennan, the great American diplomat and foreign policy scholar, died today at the age of 101. In the early 1980s when I was conducting research in Washington and the Truman Library for a book on the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, I came across some of his correspondence with various officials. To his credit, Kennan understood the significance of pursuing a policy of containment of Stalin's USSR by emphasizing the economic and political options rather than the military option which many Cold Warriors seeking to build their careers advocated. Kennan expressed reservations about military and counter-insurgency operations in Greece during the Civil War (1946-1949), while he was an enthusiastic supporter and one of the architects of the Marshall Plan, which he believed is the best way to combat the spread of Communism and at the same time strengthen the U.S. politically and economically. By the end of the Vietnam War, Kennan had changed some of his earlier views regarding U.S.-USSR relations, stressing a policy of engagement to prevent not just a possible superpower conflict, but to resolve conflicts between the satellites of the U.S. and USSR.

Unlike many who viewed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as an offensive move coinciding with the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions, Kennan saw it from a defensive perspective, arguing that the Soviets often acted out of fear and anxienty, rather than a desire to acquire more spheres of influence so that they could antagonize the West. Nor was he encouraged that the U.S. resorted to counter-insurgency operations in Central America, especially when the revelations came out in 1986 about the illegal deals to funds the contras in Nicaragua by selling weapons to Iran, among other such short-sighted and reckless foreign policy adventures. Like McNamara, whose views also evolved since he was defense secretary, Kennan dropped the ideological rhetoric of the early Cold War, and became more pragmatic about U.S. foreign policy, earning respect among centrists and even leftists.  An advocate of constructive co-existence with the Communist bloc, Kennan was a reflective man with astute instincts about U.S. foreign policy which he viewed as an expression of the country's history, institutions, domestic and global interests, and always from a pragmatic perspective that earned him respect around the world. Kennan leaves a rich legacy with his many books, articles, interviews, having influenced countless scholars, journalists, and politicians since the 1930s. It is unfortunate that people of his towering intellect and sense of realism are absent from leadership positions in the State Department today.

RH: This eulogy of Kennan is fully justified. He was that old combination, a gentleman and a scholar. He spent some time at Stanford, and I had a long talk with him. His change from strong advocate of containment of the Soviet Union to promoter of accommodation with it was attributed to the influence of his Norwegian wife.

David Crow writes: Thanks to Harry Papasotiriou for his sketch of a truly fascinating figure in U.S. history.  It bears mention that Kennan became a staunch opponent of nuclear proliferation in the 1980's.  He was a hard man to categorize.  For the left, he was the quintessential Cold Warrior.  But he also became an implacable critic of the conservative foreign policy establishment, including his statement in a New York Times editorial before the 1992 presidential election that "[t]he claim heard in campaign rhetoric that the United States under Republican Party leadership 'won the cold war' is intrinsically silly."  

Maybe it was his midwestern sensibleness and morality that lead him to avoid dogmatism and steer a pragmatic middle course.  Here is a comprehensive bibliography of his writings on the Web, including some full-text articles:


From Greece, Harry Papasotiriou writes: George Kennan was undoubtedly the greatest career diplomat in American history.  In the early post-war years, when Western Europe lay ruined after World War II and was potentially susceptible to the false sirens of communism, which Stalin was poised to exploit, Kennan elaborated the containment strategy that supported Western Europe via the Marshall Plan and successfully checked Soviet expansionism. Kennan subsequently resisted the globalization and excessive militarization of the containment strategy, which eventually led to the disastrous US entanglement in Vietnam.  He insisted on geopolitical priorities: Europe was vital in the global balance against the Soviet threat, while remote regions like Indochina were not. 

Kennan also faresaw the end of the Cold War.  In his famous "X" article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs in mid-1947, Kennan assessed the Soviet objective of world revolution as very long term, concluding that the Soviet Union would not risk its recent gains in Eastern Europe in a Hitler-style war of aggression.  “Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal.  Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power.  But if it finds unassailable barriers to its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.”  Having resorted to the fluid metaphor to describe the nature of Soviet expansionism, Kennan then proposed “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”  Then he foretold the end of the story, stating that if “anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.” 


Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 12, 2005