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March 2005

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The Passing of a Legend

On March 17, at Princeton, New Jersey, U. S. Ambassador George Frost Kennan died at the age of 101.

Kennan was born in February 1904 in the upper Midwest of the United States, the son of a lawyer and a distant relative of a noted Russian scholar, his namesake. He studied at Princeton College; inspired by his famed relative, he took the entrance examination and in 1925 joined the recently created Foreign Service of the United States. Subsequently, as a Russian specialist he followed a career path that led, some two decades after entry into diplomacy, to a peak of prestige and, for a time, influence.

The fabled “Long Telegram” sent by Kennan, then chargé at the Moscow embassy, in response to a query from Washington, formed the basis of his fame as the architect of the nation’s “Containment” policy following World War II. In it, and in the equally famed X-Article published in Foreign Affairs in 1946, he brought attention to the implacable opposition the United States could expect from the U.S.S.R. And he set forth the outlines of American actions that led, some four decades later, to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and world communism. Indicative of Kennan’s complex thinking, however, he came to disavow many of the precepts he had set forth, or at least to deny that Washington was following a course of action that fit properly with those recommendations. In particular, Kennan came to downgrade the importance of military might in meeting the Soviet threat, stressing instead the need for accommodation and multilateral cooperation.

Ambassador Kennan was indeed a many-faceted public figure. Not only a high-level diplomat and foreign policy advisor, he also wrote more than a dozen intellectually rich, well-received books on U. S. diplomatic and Russian history. Long a fixture at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, he retained to the end a clarity of mind that led often to his testifying before Congressional committees and addressing the public on American diplomacy.

Ironically, both of Kennan’s two brief ambassadorial appointments, positions for which he was well qualified, to say the least, ended without distinction. In 1952, the Soviet government declared him persona non grata for overly candid remarks to the press and in 1963, he resigned as ambassador to Tito’s Yugoslavia after Congress took action directly counter to his recommendations.

Nonetheless, George Kennan was a legendary figure in the Foreign Service. Lucky was the diplomat of recent decades who was fortunate enough to hear him speak or, better still, have the opportunity to converse with him. His passing means the loss of an almost mythic figure on the American diplomatic and historical scene.

Henry E. Mattox, Editor

Note: Two readily available brief sources of information on the ambassador’s life and accomplishments follow:
David Mayers’ entry on him in Notable U. S. Ambassadors Since 1775, ed. Nolan (1997); and Walter L. Hixson’s article in Vol. 3 of Encyclopedia of U.S. Foreign Relations, sr. eds. Jentleson & Paterson (1997).

American Diplomacy
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Dr. Mattox is the editor of American Diplomacy.

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