George Kennan Biography

Born George Frost Kennan, February 16, 1904, in Milwaukee, WI; died March 17, 2005, in Princeton, NJ. Diplomat and historian. George Kennan was a well-known and highly regarded shaper of American foreign policy in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a State Department official posted to Moscow in the immediate aftermath of World War II, he wrote a lengthy telegram assessing the Soviet leadership, and his warnings and suggestions became the basis for U.S. strategy toward its ideological foe for the next 50 years. Kennan's New York Times obituary described him as "the last of a generation of diplomatic aristocrats in an old world model—products of the 'right' schools, universities and clubs, who took on the enormous challenges of building a new world order and trying to define America's place within it."

Kennan was born in 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and his mother died several weeks later. His father, an attorney, later remarried, and as an eight year old Kennan traveled to Germany with his stepmother in order to learn the language more fluently. He went on to master German was well as several other European tongues, and finished at a military academy in Wisconsin before entering Princeton University. In 1926, a year after earning his degree, he joined the U.S. foreign service and was posted as vice-consul in Geneva, Switzerland. Over the next decade he became fluent in Russian while holding various foreign-service posts in Berlin and some cities in Baltic region. He was part of the first U.S. diplomatic mission to the Soviet Union in 1933. While posted in Berlin once again, he was detained for five months by Nazi authorities when the United States entered World War II in 1941.

Kennan returned to Moscow during a wartime period of good relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, when both sides teamed to defeat Nazi Germany. As a senior official with excellent insight into the tightly controlled world of Soviet communism, he was wary of the U.S.-Soviet alliance and what it might forebode for Europe once the war ended. In February of 1946, Kennan received an inquiry from an official at the Treasury Department wondering why the Soviets were so vehemently against creation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Kennan, left in charge at the U.S. Embassy while the ambassador was on leave, took it upon himself to write an 8,000-word reply.

Forever known as the "Long Telegram," Kennan's critique of Soviet leadership arrived at the State Department and "ranks as perhaps the most influential missive ever sent to Washington by an American diplomat in the field," said Rupert Cornwell in London's Independent. Kennan wrote about Josef Stalin and the circle of hardliners at the Kremlin, and warned they were more than likely planning to expand Soviet-style communism across the large sector of Eastern Europe where Red Army troops were still stationed. This warning would prove entirely correct over the next few years.

Kennan was immediately recalled to Washington, and appointed to serve as director of U.S. foreign policy planning. His views were later published in an article he wrote for Foreign Affairs , "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," under the pseudonym "X." During that same summer of 1947, the U.S. announced a massive foreign-aid plan for Western Europe that followed many of Kennan's ideas. This became known was the Marshall Plan, after U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, and focused on an infusion of financial aid to Western European countries to avert the rise of communist political elements in those countries. Kennan also advocated the creation of a political warfare unit within the Central Intelligence Agency, which later became its covert-operations directorate; it led to the positioning of hundreds of secret agents who worked undercover to destabilize unfriendly regimes and enhance U.S. interests abroad.

Kennan soon fell out of favor in Washington, thanks in part to a disagreement with John Foster Dulles, a conservative Republican foreign policy adviser, over how best to deal with the new threat of communist China in 1949. He was appointed the U.S. ambassador in Moscow by President Harry S Truman, but was ejected by Soviet officials when he complained that the increasingly repressive Stalinist regime severely restricted the movements of Western diplomats in the capital; he likened it to his experience in Nazi detention. He left government service when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president.

Though Kennan's ideas became the basis for U.S. Cold War policy, he was opposed to the arms buildup that occurred, and warned of the dangers of nuclear-weapon proliferation. He spent the remainder of his career at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, though he did serve briefly as ambassador to Yugoslavia during in the early 1960s. He wrote extensively on the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy, and won a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Award for his 1956 tome, Russia Leaves the War. The first of his two volumes of memoirs, published in 1967, won both honors again. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded him with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Regarded as one of his era's most knowledgeable authorities on foreign policy, he was respected at home and abroad. In the mid-1970s, he testified before a U.S. Senate committee and claimed that his suggestion to launch political warfare against the Soviets was "the greatest mistake I ever made," his New York Times obituary quoted him as saying.

Kennan lived much of his life in the Princeton area, with his Norwegian-born wife—whom he met in Berlin and wed in 1931—where they raised a son and three daughters. He died in Princeton on March 17, 2005, at the age of 101, survived by his wife, Annelise Sorensen Kennan, and their four children. Even at the age of 95 he still sat for interviews and voiced strongly critical opinions of U.S. foreign policy. His Washington Post tribute, written by J.Y. Smith, mentioned a New York Review of Books interview he gave in 1999, which found him as contrarian as he was in 1949. "This whole tendency," Kennan scoffed, "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." Sources:, (March 21, 2005); Independent (London), March 19, 2005, p. 44; New York Times, March 18, 2005, p. A1; Washington Post, March 18, 2005, p. A1.

Carol Brennan

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