March 18, 2005


Architect of US cold war policy dies (Mark Tran and agencies, March 18, 2005, Guardian Unlimited)

George Kennan, a revered figure of the US foreign-policy establishment, died yesterday at his Princeton home, at the age of 101.

Kennan, one of the godfathers of the containment policy against the Soviet Union - although he later complained that his original thinking had been misunderstood - was the last survivor of a group of distinguished diplomats that included Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, W Averell Harriman and Paul Nitze, who shaped US foreign policy at the opening of the cold war.

Kennan laid the seeds for containment while working as the No 2 at the US embassy in Moscow. In February 1946 and sick from flu and a toothache, he answered Washington's queries about Stalin by dictating a 5,542-word memo.

Considered the most influential cable in US diplomatic history, what became known as the Long Telegram set out a strategy for dealing with Stalin. Alarmed by what he saw as US concessions to Stalin, he described the Soviets as "committed fanatically" to undermining US authority and said Soviet power was "impervious to logic of reason" but "highly sensitive to logic of force".

He followed up the memo the next year with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, signed "X", that recommended a policy of "long-term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment" to "confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world".

The article also predicted the collapse of Soviet communism decades later.

But already in his 1947 article, Kennan voiced misgivings about the policy he had helped create. He was especially uneasy at the emphasis on the military aspect of containment in the "Truman doctrine". That policy, announced three months before the publication of Kennan's article, committed US aid in support of "free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure".

Kennan thought an exhausted Soviet Union posed no military threat to the US or its allies, but was a strong ideological and political rival. He said he felt "like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster".

Unfortunately, only Eisenhower and Reagan grasped what Mr. Kennan said, including himself, and by then it was too late to avoid the disastrous Cold War. The tragedy of containment is that it was an unnecessary half-measure--we should have either fought them to the finish or walked away and let them crumble from within. Prolonged confrontation only propped up the regime and damaged us at home.

GEORGE F. KENNAN | 1904-2005: Diplomat Was Architect of U.S. Cold War Policy (Jon Thurber, March 18, 2005, LA Times)

George F. Kennan, a leading authority on the Soviet Union who in the midst of the Cold War became a passionate crusader for the control and abolition of nuclear arms, has died. He was 101.

The historian and diplomat, who was best known as the architect of "containment," which became the cornerstone of U.S. policy in dealing with the Soviet Union for more than 40 years, died at home in Princeton, N.J.

Kennan was an elegant writer, the author of 26 books and numerous articles. He won the Pulitzer Prize for history and the National Book Award in 1956 for "Russia Leaves the War" and a second Pulitzer in 1967 for "Memoirs: 1925-1950."

Kennan was also a distinguished scholar and a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. He had been associated with the institute since 1950, much of the time with the title of permanent professor in the School of Historic Studies. Even late in life, Kennan looked the part of the diplomat: tall, slender, erect, balding and with a discreet mustache. He had a slightly ascetic appearance, and that, combined with an element of shyness, frequently caused him to appear aloof and a bit imperious.

Though Kennan was widely admired for his containment theory, it was to his immense annoyance and regret that it was his legacy. [...]

"Those Western alarmists who try to persuade us that a surprise attack against Western Europe is a serious possibility unless we vastly increase our power to deter it are living in a dream world of their own and are talking about a Soviet leadership many of the rest of us have never heard of," Kennan wrote.

Words of this sort inevitably generated a hostile response. Critics — of whom there were many — accused Kennan of being naive about Soviet intentions.

"Kennan is an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling," said Eugene V. Rostow, former undersecretary of State in the Johnson administration.

Another critic, Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the late Secretary of State Dean Acheson "admired Mr. Kennan's intellect but … also distrusted his judgment."

Acheson, whom Kennan served as a top advisor during the Truman administration, said in 1958 that "Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them."

On the other hand, Kennan had a legion of admirers and even worshipers who subscribed to his foreign policy viewpoints, particularly on nuclear arms control. Kennan said that any military policy built around the use of nuclear arms was a mistake. He advocated a "no first use" policy for the United States and opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's deployment of nuclear missiles in Western Europe.

One of his supporters was the late Alan Cranston, then a Democratic senator from California.

"Kennan was a leader in educating Americans on both the promise and the pitfalls of negotiating with the Soviets," Cranston said. "His commitment to facts over fears, of realism over reaction, gave hope to those who believe that with wisdom and will we can prevent U.S.-Soviet competition from producing a nuclear holocaust."

Regardless of the validity of his views about Soviet intentions, Kennan probably knew as much about the Soviet Union as any Westerner of his time.

He could never let go of mere containment and so opposed winning the Cold War he'd created.
Outsider Forged Cold War Strategy (J.Y. Smith, March 18, 2005, The Washington Post)
His confidence in his own intellect was such that he sometimes declined to explain himself to politicians. For example, he refused to lobby for the Marshall Plan, the aid program that revived the economy of Western Europe after World War II. He was a diplomat, he said, not a salesman.

W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow when Mr. Kennan was minister-counselor of the U.S. Embassy, remarked that Mr. Kennan was "a man who understood Russia but not the United States."

Believing as he did in a limitless human capacity for error, Mr. Kennan was an unabashed elitist who distrusted democratic processes. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas reported in their book "The Wise Men" that he suggested in an unpublished work that women, blacks and immigrants be disenfranchised. He deplored the automobile, computers, commercialism, environmental degradation and other manifestations of modern life. He loathed popular American culture. In his memoirs, he described himself as a "guest of one's time and not a member of its household."

A touchstone of his worldview was the conviction that the United States cannot reshape other countries in its own image and that, with a few exceptions, its efforts to police the world are neither in its interests nor within the scope of its resources.

"This whole tendency 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," he said in an interview with the New York Review of Books in 1999.

"I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders."

These ideas were particularly applicable, he said, to U.S. relations with China and Russia.

In the late 1940s, when he was a lecturer at the National War College and head of the State Department's policy-planning staff, he took an increasingly critical view of U.S. policy. His concern was that containment had been turned on its head, that an undue emphasis on military pressure rather than diplomacy was increasing the danger of war with the Soviet Union rather than reducing it.

He predicted that schisms would appear in the communist camp that could be exploited by the United States. Indeed, Yugoslavia declared its independence of Moscow in 1948. Mr. Kennan wrote that a similar rift would develop between the Soviet Union and China. It occurred in the 1950s.

At the same time, he warned against such involvements as the one the United States undertook in Vietnam: "To oppose efforts of indigenous communist elements within foreign countries must generally be considered a risky and profitless undertaking, apt to do more harm than good."

In the early days of the Korean War, when the invasion of South Korea had been repulsed, he urged that United Nations forces be kept out of North Korea and that negotiations begin. His advice was ignored. When the north was invaded, 300,000 communist Chinese "volunteers" entered the conflict and drove U.N. forces back below the 38th parallel, the boundary between north and south. In 1951 Mr. Kennan's contacts with the Soviet delegation at the United Nations started the process that led to a truce in 1953.

Mr. Kennan was the first analyst to say that nuclear weapons could serve as a deterrent but could never be used in war. He was so outspoken in his opposition to developing a hydrogen bomb that Secretary of State Dean Acheson said, "If that is your view, you ought to resign from the Foreign Service and go out and preach your Quaker gospel, but don't do it within the department."

-George Kennan dies at 101; devised Cold War policy (Mark Feeney, March 18, 2005, Boston Globe)
Through his books, his disenchantment with US policy toward the Soviet Union became apparent. Containment, he later wrote, ''lost much of its rationale with the death of Stalin and development of the Soviet-Chinese conflict." In 1957, while serving as visiting professor at Oxford University, he argued in a series of BBC lectures for the withdrawal of both US and Soviet troops from Europe and for the reunification and neutralization of Germany.

Instead of negotiating with the Soviets, he later observed, the United States insisted upon complete, unconditional surrender. The result, he said, was four more decades of tensions and proxy wars, billions misspent on burgeoning and useless arsenals, and a politically and economically bankrupt Eastern Europe. [...]

One of the most unusual tributes Mr. Kennan received came in 1987 at a reception held at the Soviet embassy during the Washington summit meeting between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan.

Recognizing the architect of containment, Gorbachev embraced him and declared, ''Mr. Kennan, we in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you."

George F. Kennan Dies at 101; Leading Strategist of Cold War (TIM WEINER and BARBARA CROSSETTE , 3/18/05, NY Times)
Called back into government service in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Kennan was named ambassador to Yugoslavia and became embroiled in arguments over the proper role of Congress in foreign affairs. He sought unsuccessfully to dissuade Mr. Kennedy from proclaiming Captive Nations Week in 1961 - as required by a Congressional resolution of 1959 - on the ground that the United States had no reason to make the resolution, which in effect called for the overthrow of all the governments of Eastern Europe, a part of public policy. The next year Congress voted to bar aid and trade concessions to the Yugoslavs, so Mr. Kennan felt he could no longer serve usefully in Belgrade.

Containment, by accepting that captivity, was immoral.
-The Gift of the Wise Man: George F. Kennan's Clear-Eyed Worldview (Barton Gellman, Washington Post, March 19, 2005)

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2005 8:20 AM

i am with bart on this one; how many genuinely innocent people died because kennan was so wet about the soviets ? yet many would say "he meant well"; well results matter and this guy caused untold misery for 50 years.

Posted by: cjm at March 18, 2005 10:52 AM


He was right about the Soviets, wrong about what his insight meant.

Posted by: oj at March 18, 2005 10:57 AM

His comments about Reagan's actions during the 1980s being "the unfailing characteristics of a march toward war," showed someone who preferred maintaining a permanent policy of containment, as well as maintaining his position in good standing among State Department alums. I suppose in the 1940s environment, containment was better than what some of the others at State were expousing, but holding that belief 40 years down the line revealed at best a lack of confidence by Kennan that the U.S. had any hope of winning the Cold War.

Posted by: John at March 18, 2005 11:45 AM

Contrarians' Corner. Every village need one.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 18, 2005 11:59 AM

The conservative sociologist Paul Hollander has a great essay on Kennan in this book. Basically, Kennan's thinking devolved to the point where he thought American pornography and crime made us just as bad as the Soviets, and that our emphasis on "political rights" was balanced by the Soviet emphasis on "economic rights." He also defended Soviet leaders because the problems of their society forced them to make truly hard choices; Hollander noted that Kennan would never make excuses like that for, say, South African leaders.

Kennan, at least at first, knew the Soviets were a problem. But, like most liberals, he couldn't stir up the gumption to do anything about it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at March 18, 2005 10:59 PM

Kennan was a representative of a certain class and ethnic group in America who were left behind in the great economic expansion of the first quarter of the 20th century. As such he,like many of this American version of the Cliveden Set, always bore a powerful antipathy to those who proved more adept at climbing the greasy pole. This 'status anxiety' was and is a powerful force in the culture of much of the American civil service, particularly the State Department, where family and breeding still matter.

Kennan and his ilk hated what they perceived America had become even more than they hated the Soviet Union, let alone Nazi Germany which was admirable to many of these sorts.

Posted by: bart at March 19, 2005 6:22 AM