George Kennans career in the Foreign Service spanned only a quarter-century, yet his name remains inextricably linked to the creative burst of policy-making during the Truman Administration. In this article Father Miscamble recounts the life and career and accomplishments of this extraordinary diplomat, scholar and man of letters. The article originally appeared in the Foreign Service Journal and is reprinted with that publication's permission. Assoc. Ed.
George F. Kennan must surely be numbered among the most notable members of the Foreign Service of the United States. His reputation and significance derive primarily from his service as Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department from 1947 to 1949. His role there in formulating the so-called containment doctrine led no less an observer than Henry Kissinger to suggest that Kennan "came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history."
Whatever the merits of this assessmentit warrants some examination and revision it certainly is widely shared. Kennan has been variously dubbed "the architect of containment," "the great theorist of containment" and "the founding father of containment." His name remains inextricably linked to the enormously creative burst of policy-making during the Truman administration, that set the main lines of American foreign policy for over a generation.
Few predicted a career as a diplomat for the lonely, awkward and diffident boy who grew up in Milwaukee in the first decade of the twentieth century. Kennans education, first at St. Johns Military Academy and then at Princeton, hardly prepared him for this demanding occupation. He left Princeton in 1925 after four undistinguished years of study without any well-formed sense of his calling. Nonetheless, he decided to try for the newly formed Foreign Service and, somewhat to his surprise, he passed the qualifying examination. Over a quarter-century of service as a diplomat lay ahead.
Few diplomats rise in meteoric fashion and Kennan was not numbered among the chosen few. He had a long road to travel before he would exert real influence over policy. Beginning in the fall of 1926 he studied for seven months at the Foreign Service School in Washington, before setting off to serve in the lowly post of vice consul, first in Geneva and then in Hamburg. He settled reasonably adeptly into the role and persona of the diplomat, writing home to his father that he "welcomed the opportunity to assume a new personality behind which the old introverted one could retire."
In 1928 the young diplomat gained selection for a training program for language specialists that gave him three years of graduate study in Europe while remaining in the Foreign Service. Of course, he chose to study Russian, influenced by the example of his grandfathers cousin and his own namesake, who had explored Siberia and written an acclaimed account of the Czarist prison system in the late 19th century.
Kennan began his study of Russian language, literature, history and culture while serving briefly as vice consul in Tallinn in Estonia and as Third Secretary in Riga, Latvia. From 1929 to 1931 he pursued formal studies at the University of Berlin and then returned as third secretary to the Russian Section of the legation in Riga where the United States, in the absence of formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, kept a wary watch on the activities of Stalin and his associates. From this vantage point Kennan handled reportage on Soviet economic affairs from 1931 to 1933 and, as he later put it with understated precision, "grew to mature interest in Russian affairs."
A Lasting View of the Soviet Union
A decade after his first stint in Moscow, Kennan wrote Dean Acheson that "whoever, peering from the comfortable distance of the bourgeois-liberal world, views Stalin as just another successful political leader pushing his people firmly but roughly along the approved path of history, has failed to grasp the cataclysmic horror of modern totalitarianism." He explained that Stalin had succeeded "in proving that mans degradation can be just as effectively organized as his dignity; that contempt for the human individual can be made an acceptable and practicable basis for government; and that whether or not it is possible to create a Heaven on earth it is definitely possible and even profitable to create a Purgatory and a Hell."
Of course, Kennan held Joseph E. Davies, Bullitts successor as ambassador and a Sovietophile of sorts, in contempt for his efforts to explain away the Great Purge trials and other dastardly aspects of Stalins rule. But Kennans voice carried no weight at this point, and Davies recommended that he be transferred from Moscow for "his health." So 1938 found him back in Washington assigned to the Russian desk in the State Department. This was his first Washington assignment and it did not last long. He soon returned to Europe, taking up a posting in Prague on Sept. 29, 1938 the very day of the Munich Conference.
Kennans reputation in the Foreign Service slowly grew, and his service in Prague enhanced it. He had strong views on the role of the Foreign Service officer and he strove to live up to his own standards. He had contempt for the effete, prissy and overly social dimension of much of what passed for diplomacy in Europe. In a letter to his friend Charles Thayer he set forth a vision for a Foreign Service corps "who will be scholars as well as gentlemen, [and] who will be able to wield the pen as skillfully as the teacup." Kennan reported extensively from Prague, but few read what he wrote. The sense of being ignored gnawed deep into his sensitive personality but it did not dissuade him from offering his views in long memorandums. More would follow and these eventually would be read, but his hour had yet to come.
With the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, Kennan was transferred to the American embassy in Berlin where, now first secretary, he served as administrative officer until the attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war against the United States a few days later. He was taken into custody, along with his embassy staff, and interned for five months. Upon his release Kennan served first, during 1942-1943, in Lisbon as counselor and chargé daffaires and next, during 1943-1944, in London as counselor to the European Advisory Commission. In each position he demonstrated notable initiative and a deepening sense that he, more so than those formally charged with the responsibility, knew the correct course for American diplomacy. He seized with alacrity what few opportunities passed his way but more generally he felt ignored and on the periphery.
Kennans sense of being ignored continued even after his return to Moscow in July 1944 as Ambassador Averell Harrimans deputy chief of mission. The ambassador relied most heavily on his military staff and accorded Kennan no important place. Nonetheless, the new deputy relentlessly offered his views to his chief and through him to Washington officialdom. Through late 1944 and into 1945 he sustained a lonely campaign to convince policy-makers to abandon the chimera of postwar collaboration with the Soviets and to adopt a sphere-of-influence approach to European issues which, he hoped, would limit the outward thrust of Soviet power. The Soviet domination of Eastern and Southeastern Europe should be acknowledged, he argued, while the Western powers established a Western European federation capable of restricting Soviet influence and power. These views had no impact and, much to his annoyance, Kennan observed the Yalta and Potsdam conferences from Moscow.
The Long Telegram
The implications for American policy were obvious. The Long Telegram undoubtedly had an impact on the thinking of senior policy-makers in Washington. Kennans message helped construct the intellectual supports for the already-developing disposition of firmness toward the Soviet Union. Yet the Long Telegram in no sense put an end to the floundering in American policy formulation during 1946. Drift and indecision and, as one historian has put it, "waffling between confrontation and collaboration" still characterized Trumans approach. The Long Telegram, however, had one tangible effect. With the receipt of the message in Washington, Kennans "official loneliness" came to an end. As a consequence of it, he later correctly recorded, his "reputation was made," and his "voice now carried." He was soon recalled to Washington and appointed in mid-April as deputy for foreign affairs in the recently established National War College. There he lectured on geopolitics and strategy to high-ranking military officers, Foreign Service officers, and an occasional cabinet member, particularly Navy Secretary James Forrestal. His time at the War College permitted him to hone his analysis of Soviet foreign policy, of the world situation in general, and of the needed American response. Early in 1947 he outlined his analysis and recommendations regarding the problem of meeting the Kremlin in international affairs. Using the language that long would come to be associated with his name, he argued that the "inherent expansive tendencies [of the Soviet Union] must be firmly contained at all times by counterpressure which makes it constantly evident that attempts to break through this containment would be detrimental to Soviet interests." Here he introduced the word and developed the concept of containment. But notably, his formulation like his recommendations in the Long Telegram failed to highlight his preference for nonmilitary measures and, in fact, implied the use of military force, if need be, to implement the policy.
This is also true of a paper titled "The Psychological Background of Soviet Foreign Policy," which he wrote at the specific request of James Forrestal in late January 1947. Drafted in his northwest corner office of Theodore Roosevelt Hall at the War College, this essay the most famous of all is writings later was published as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs under the authorship of "X." The article informed the readers of that influential quarterly that "the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."
In the Kennan analysis, "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points."
With this article, Kennan was accorded authorship of the containment doctrine and his notoriety established. But it must be made crystal clear that Kennan never had an equivalent of copyright over the notion of containment. Containment, as expressed in the "X" article, re presented no more than a broad approach. It was not a detailed prescription for policy. It did not outline at any length what the United States should do. The temptation to characterize Kennan as a Moses-type figure descending to give the law of containment over to a disoriented group of American policy-makers should be resisted. Others would play a role in defining and enfleshing containment, and the doctrine would come to be understood only in light of these actions. This process had begun before Mr. "X" became known to the readers of Foreign Affairs.
Well before "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" appeared in print, containment as most people eventually came to understand it received notable application, first in Iran in 1946 and then in Greece and Turkey early in 1947. In the latter instance, Kennan played a tangential role and unsuccessfully objected to the sweeping language of the message drafted for President Truman to deliver to Congress on March 12, 1947, as well as to some of the specific actions it proposed. In The Fifteen Weeks, a standard account of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, Joseph Jones wryly noted the irony of Kennan, considered "the mastermind of the policy of containment," objecting to what appeared to be a major manifestation of that approach.
A New Planning Unit
George Kennan relished the challenge that his move to the center of policy-making presented. He approached his new work gravely: one senses that he felt that fate had laid hands upon him and ordained him to formulate a proper American response to the Soviet challenge. Self-confident and independent in his judgments, he could argue them persuasively both orally and on paper. He quickly assembled a small team, obtained some office space next to Sec. Marshalls suite and got down to business. Then followed three years when he participated in the debates over most of the key issues in American foreign policy. His service coincided with an enormously formative period in American diplomacy as the United States worked to restore and secure Western Europe and to pursue stability in East Asia.
During this period the policies that gave form and meaning to the containment doctrine emerged. Kennan contributed significantly to some of them while finding himself quite opposed to others. He did not play the role of a dominant, powerful architect whose planning provided instructions for building the whole structure of foreign policy. Rather, he served as one of a number of on-site builders who contributed in important ways to the structure that eventually emerged. These buildersthe policy-making core of the State Departmentoperated, in essence, without agreed architectural plans. They debated and then determined the nature and shape of the structure as they went along.
This said, Kennans accomplishments in the actual making of foreign policy are striking. There is no second-level State Department official in the 20th century who could match the breadth of his contributions. Kennan first displayed his skill as a hands-on policymaker with his work on the European Recovery Program, and he deserves an honored place among the team of midwives who successfully delivered the Marshall Plan. Kennan played a particularly crucial role in coordinating the various ideas current in the State Department into a coherent proposal, and he was most responsible for the initial American strategy of encouraging the Europeans, acting jointly, to formulate a recovery proposal for American consideration.
Kennans work on the ERP won him Marshalls respect and regard. Not one to dispense praise liberally, Marshall wrote Kennan in light of his efforts during 1947 that, "I just want you to know in a rather formal manner how much I appreciate the splendid work you have been doing here in the department. Your calm and analytical approach to our problems is most comforting and your judgment is a source of great confidence to me." Such appreciation was pure balm for Kennan, who held his chief in the highest regard. He left no stone unturned in his efforts to serve him and considered his work with Marshall as "the greatest of privileges" of his government career.
A Decisive First Step
Obviously he lost out in the arguments on these initiatives, which essentially defined postwar Europe, to departmental colleagues like John D. Hickerson, Theodore Achilles and Robert Murphy. The negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty represented a clear rejection of his strategic vision, which had focused on encouraging the Europeans to stand on their own feet. More fundamentally, Secretary of State Dean Achesons decision in 1949 to eschew the Kennan-sponsored efforts for German reunification, to press ahead with the formal partition of Germany and to accept the requisite division of Europe revealed the planning chiefs failure to secure the adoption of his broad plan.
Kennans endeavors in Europe foundered ultimately because he could not persuade his superiors and colleagues that the Soviet threat was limited and essentially political. Kennan based his analysis on an assessment of Soviet intentions rather than capabilities. His fellow policy-makers found it unpersuasive, especially after the Soviets exploded an atomic weapon in 1949. They were not prepared to run the risk of being wrong and would not ignore the Soviet threat. This reality guaranteed Kennans defeat not only on the North Atlantic Treaty and German questions but also on other military-related issues, such as the Japanese security treaty and the development of the hydrogen bomb, which he also opposed. The adoption of NSC 68, crafted by Kennans successor Paul Nitze in 1950, served to formalize the firm rejection of the Kennan strategy.
The rejection of Kennans more political-economic approach to containment in Europe did not mean that he lost out in all the policy debates indeed, far from it. Kennan played the key role in forging American policy in response to Titos break with Stalin in 1948. He helped chart a cautious middle path for the United States between an overly eager embrace of the communist leader who rejected Stalins control and a cold rejection which might damage prospects for the "Titoism" he wanted to encourage throughout the Soviet satellite area. Eager to contest Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Kennan played a significant role in devising new and controversial weapons for the American diplomatic arsenal. He helped in developing the covert capabilities of the CIAs Office of Policy Coordination under Frank Wisner. Along with his close aide and friend Robert Joyce, he even contributed to the planning of certain of the OPC operations undertaken behind the Iron Curtain. He also played an important role in developing instruments of propaganda, among which Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe were the most significant.
Additionally, Kennan had a most salient impact on the formulation of American policy toward Northeast Asia. He helped establish the quite basic premise of Japans greater strategic importance relative to China in the region, and e n s u red that the United States government operated from that premise. He also influenced policytoward both Japan and China. On China, Kennan, with the notable assistance of John Paton Davies, took a leading part in developing the policy of limited assistance without deep involvement which led to the China Aid Act of 1948. He constantly and successfully opposed efforts to involve the United States m ore deeply on the side of the Nationalist Chinese. In terms of policy toward Japan, both as implemented and as formally enunciated, Kennans contribution was decisive. He stood at the center of those who executed the "reverse course," which re directed occupation policies toward economic recovery and away from political reform measures. The extent of Kennans influence on American policies in Asia suggests that his impact there may well have exceeded his influence on American policy in Europe.
Kennans defeats in 1949 on such policy issues as the division of Germany and the decision to proceed with H-bomb research, however, combined to leave this sensitive and emotional man feeling frustrated and pessimistic. His opposition to nuclear weapons was deeply felt and passionately expressed, but, he could not convince Acheson, who rejected his proposals for international control of atomic energy. The Secretary of State later claimed that he told Kennan that, "if that was his view he ought to resign from the Foreign Service and go out and preach his Quaker gospel but not push it within the department." However, as with much Acheson later claimed to have said to and about Kennan, there is not the slightest evidence to support his recollection.
Nonetheless, the planning chief increasingly sensed a real change in the importance given his counsel after Acheson replaced Marshall. He suspected that Acheson valued him more as an in-house dissenter and intellectual gadfly, but he did not possess the temperament to play these roles on a permanent basis. He wanted to influence policy and his growing inability to do so troubled him both professionally, because he believed the wrong course was being charted, and personally, because he was denied the rich satisfaction of having his advice accepted and implemented. He once explained to Joseph Alsop that "the policy recommendations of an official like himself, with long expert training, should be treated like the diagnosis and prescriptions of a doctor." And Kennan preferred patients, so to speak, who did not seek second opinions. He simply found it difficult to accept that his Planning Staff would not function "as the ideological inspirer and coordinator of policy." His disillusionment mounted as he realized that Acheson considered him just another policy adviser, albeit an important one.
Kennan decided to resign but Acheson persuaded him not to leave government service entirely, offering him the alternative of a "leave of absence without pay" after which he would return to the department . Kennan accepted the offer and it was arranged that he would resign as Planning Staff director on Dec. 31, 1949, and stay on as counselor in the department until June 1950, whereupon he would take a one-year leave. Both Acheson and Kennan accepted that his leave would be temporary and began to refer to it as a sabbatical.
Kennans departure was delayed by the outbreak of the Korean War. He stayed to assist as best he could and worked to establish as formal American policy the goal of simply repelling the North Koreans from the South and restoring the status quo ante. But the weight of military realities and mounting domestic political pressures led to the rejection of this position and to the decision to cross the 38th parallel once Gen. Douglas MacArthur routed the North Koreans after his Inchon invasion.
A Painful Reality
Despite the disastrous end to his brief and unhappy assignment in Moscow, Kennan made no plans to retire from the Foreign Service. He wanted to stay on at least until he could retire on a pension, and he indicated his willingness to serve "wherever the government wishes me to serve." Acheson made no decision on the matter before the years end and consigned Kennans future into the hands of John Foster Dulles, who succeeded him as Secretary of State when the Eisenhower administration took office in January 1953. When Kennan finally got through in March to see the new Secretary, he learned that there was no "niche" for him in the department. Dulles explained that Kennan was tainted by his association with containment. He needed to serve out the required three months and retire from the Foreign Service. For all intents and purposes Dulles fired him. Allen Dulles tried to recruit the man his brother had dismissed for the CIA, which he now directed, but Kennan turned him down. Instead, he waited out the three months and on a pleasant June day in 1953 quietly left the State Department and drove off to his farm in Pennsylvania.
The life of a pure academic failed to satisfy him fully. His various external involvements and commitments prevented him simply withdrawing completely into some mythical ivory tower. Significantly, he behaved more honorably and courageously than most of his contemporaries as he attempted to blunt the ravages of the McCarthyite scourge upon the State Department , although his forthright efforts in support of John Paton Davies failed to produce their desired result. The Republican exploitation of McCarthys actions developed in Kennan a partisan edge. He gave advice on foreign policy matters to Adlai Stevenson, whom he found an attractive figure. He continued to write and speak on contemporary foreign policy issues as he did in the BBCs Reith Lectures in 1957, which sparked a celebrated dispute between him and Acheson over the issue of German reunification, a matter which they had first debated a decade earlier.
When John F. Kennedy was elected, Kennan hoped for a significant appointment. This was not forthcoming, although the new president offered him a choice between the ambassadorships to Poland and Yugoslavia. Kennan selected the latter. His service in Belgrade provided him with some satisfaction in a personal sense, but little professional fulfillment. Within seven months of his arrival in Belgrade he wrote home to Robert Oppenheimer that he felt "no very stirring sense of usefulness at this point." Ultimately, he proved unable merely to represent policy formulated by others, and decided to resign in 1963. Although he possessed long training in the Foreign Service, he could not content himself with a diplomats role. His experience from 1947 to 1950 had cast an indelible stamp upon him. He had hoped once again to play an important role as a policy-maker, but as he returned to Princeton after his service in Yugoslavia, he sensed that his chance to participate directly in the making of his nations foreign policy had ended. And he was right.
Kennan continued to engage in commentary on foreign policy matters from that time right through to the centurys end. Indeed, his public prominence remained high as a stream of additional books and articles flowed from his eloquent pen. His role, however, was limited to that of a sage trying to influence elite and public opinion and thereby to exercise some indirect impact upon policy. In this role he dissented thoughtfully on the painfully divisive question of American participation in the Vietnam conflict; he offered constructively critical support to the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente with its prospects for improved U.S.-Soviet relations; and he passionately opposed the nuclear arms race that characterized the late Carter and early Reagan presidencies. Additionally, Kennan turned his attention to a wide array of other issues: the student movement of the Sixties, civil rights, the environment, immigration policy, and other threads of social fabric of America. His views were occasionally outrageous, usually insightful, and invariably interesting.
This remarkable diplomat, scholar and man of letters retained his intellectual acuity and his willingness to engage in public debate throughout his nineties. He lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and characteristically aimed to influence the role the United States should play in the new world circumstances. He objected to plans for NATO expansion and to what he saw as exploitation of Russian weakness. He expressed serious reservations about U.S. interventions in places like Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, regardless of their humanitarian purpose. And in his 98th year, a still intellectually vigorous Kennan criticized the Bush administrations national security doctrine, objecting to American military action against Iraq. His long-expressed reservations regarding American overextension and excessive reliance on military force proved remarkably consistent whatever the changed geopolitical circumstances of the new century.
When Kennan left the directorship of the Policy Planning Staff at the end of 1949, Joseph Alsop described him aptly as a "brilliant, disinterested and courageous public servant in action." This assessment stands the test of time. A determined and principled official, Kennan is a man of estimable character. One can only hope that present and future makers of foreign policy might share something of his integrity and intelligence.