American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

April 2005

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In addition to our Editor's commentary elsewhere in this journal on the life and works of George Kennan, "The Passing of a Legend", we offer this reminiscence by a retired Foreign Service officer.— Assoc. Ed.

George F. Kennan: A personal appreciation

When Ambassador Kennan passed away recently at his home in Princeton, NJ, at the age of 101, memories of my personal associations with this giant of American diplomacy and statecraft came flooding back. His long and amazingly productive life touched a great many other lives and seminally influenced the history of our times. I had the pleasure and great good fortune of serving under him at my first Foreign Service post as a young diplomat and then studying under him in a graduate seminar at Princeton University.

It is not my intention here to even begin to cover his enormous impact on our history, his wide-ranging intellectual conclusions, or beliefs; at least six books and numerous articles have been written about him, not to mention his own prolific works and the extensive obituaries around the world after his death. My exposure to this last of a generation of diplomatic aristocrats began with my undergraduate studies in international relations, while reading his American Diplomacy 1900-1950 published in 1951. As fate would have it, my first Foreign Service assignment after joining the Foreign Service was to the U.S. Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1962. This veritable giant of diplomacy had been lured away to Belgrade by Pres. Kennedy the year before.  It is customary for newly arriving officers to call on the Ambassador as soon as possible and I found myself at his secretary’s desk in that summer of 1962.  “The Ambassador is on the phone with the President, but go right in.” With some trepidation, I did as I was told and Ambassador Kennan waved me into a chair.  I remember being surprised that his dog was breathing noisily under his desk in his top floor Embassy office. In his conversation with President Kennedy, he seemed to be trying to persuade our young President about the importance of strong U.S. backing for Yugoslavia as a renegade communist state. When he concluded, he continued explaining to me the case for U.S. aid and Most Favored Nation treatment for Tito’s government which had broken with the Soviet bloc in 1948. Ironically, I first met Tito and served him Scotch whiskey and Turkish coffee when he called on the Embassy the next year (1963) following the assassination of President Kennedy, but that is another story for another day. From the vantage point of a young officer in the mission, Ambassador Kennan seemed to focus on the big picture of geopolitics and leave the day-to-day management to others. My boss at the time, Counselor for Public Affairs, Walter Roberts, himself a PhD with a book to his credit, had an excellent meeting of the minds with the Ambassador and described the Country team meetings as a graduate seminar in foreign affairs. He had the habit of gathering us following those meetings and passing along much of the substance to his own staff.  I confess that I was entranced and listened intently, trying to learn as much as possible about that fascinating part of the world and time in history. Ambassador and Mrs. Kennan were of the old school and presided over our American community in Belgrade with grace, warmth, and dignity. I remember one occasion at the Embassy Club, it may have been the annual Marine Corps Ball, when Mrs. Kennan let down her hair and allowed me to teach her to dance “the twist.”

One of the main ways we entertained in those days was by showing movies to guests at our homes. We in USIS had surplus 16mm movie projectors and the military attaches provided a steady flow of American movies in that format for representational and morale purposes, a nicely symbiotic relationship.One evening I was riding down in the elevator with the Ambassador and he asked what the large container I was carrying was. I said, “Why, it’s a movie, Mr. Ambassador.” He said he didn’t know that we had movies to my great surprise. His management style was obviously not “hands-on” and that seemed right for the situation and the times. My colleagues among the younger staff at that time were star-crossed, with many who later became ambassadors themselves and one, Larry Eagleburger, who became the only career officer ever to become secretary of state.When Congress denied Most Favored Nation status to Yugoslavia for not abandoning Communism, George Kennan resigned from direct government service for the last time feeling that he was unable to achieve his mission while in office.

In 1966, our paths crossed again when I was selected for a mid-career fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. There I had the pleasure of studying under Ambassador Kennan in a graduate seminar he was teaching on foreign policy at that time.  He seemed vastly amused that I was the first person who had served under him at an embassy and was now his student. He immediately invited my wife and me to a dinner he and Mrs. Kennan were having at their home in Princeton.  The other guests that evening included Lester Brown, then head of the Agriculture Dept. international agricultural development program, later founder of Worldwatch, and his brother. 

George and Annelise Kennan  were, as ever, warmly gracious as hosts, putting everyone at ease.  After dinner, the Ambassador played the guitar and sang old Russian songs to entertain us. Despite his loathing of communism, George Kennan truly loved the Russian people and their culture.

The highlight of being his student was that we habitually took our coffee breaks together in the middle of the seminar. We talked about Yugoslavia, of course, and many other international issues. He was mildly contemptuous of the State Department, once telling me that it was, “like a pillow. Push it here or there and it just gives.”  I  remember the other students crowding around to shamelessly eavesdrop, such was his reputation. I think that he was secretly pleased that many students put small recorders on the stage in the  amphitheater to record his lectures, by the way. While a most modest and gentle man, in every respect, I don’t think he was above enjoying his fame. Someone once rather unkindly described his voice as “weak and high-pitched,” but the clarity of his thought and diction kept everyone’s rapt attention.  Personally, I found his habit of asking me what I thought about an issue I had raised rather disarming.What did the great George Kennan care about what I thought?  But he did and he listened carefully. I found in one obituary an almost identical thought that put it perfectly. Blair Butterworth, the son of one of Kennan’s classmates at Princeton in 1925, also a Foreign Service officer, was looked after by the Kennans in Princeton while he was a schoolboy with parents abroad. He said, “He was one of the kindest men I have known. But his special magic was that he wanted to hear what others had to say...

It is self-evident that his vastly influential, prize-winning written work was his greatest strength.  His writing was the force that made him “the nearest thing to a legend that this country’s diplomatic service has ever produced,” in the words of historian Ronald Steel. His lucidity of thought and purity of language flowed through his fountain pen onto the pages. His secretary in Belgrade, Dorothy Hessman, who, I believe, went with him to the Institute for Advanced Studies in 1963, marveled at his dictation which never required editing after the fact, but went directly out as a telegram or into print. “No one in government ever wrote better than Kennan,” according to Richard Holbrooke, former Ambassador to the UN. Morton Halperin, chief of policy planning during the Clinton administration, said Mr. Kennan “set a standard that all his successors have sought to follow.” Fortunately, he continued to share his thoughts with us to the end of a most productive life. I didn’t always agree with him, but he would always ask your opinion and consider it carefully, unlike many academics who only want to hear their own voices and share their pearls of wisdom. Henry Kissinger has said, Mr. Kennan came “as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”  Clear-thinking to the end, he was a serious man and his counsel was always worth heeding.

America and we who knew him will miss George Kennan. He was one of the kindest and gentlest people I have known in a long lifetime and we are not likely to see his like again soon. Mrs. Kennan and the Kennan family have my deepest condolences at the passing of this great American and good man.

Milton L. Iossi, a retired Foreign Service Officer, spent much of his later career in the Islamic world.  He lives on the Carolina coast and is a very active Rotarian, notably chairing the Diplomatic Protocol Committee of Rotary International.

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