boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

George Kennan dies at 101; devised Cold War policy

George F. Kennan, the diplomat who helped forge US foreign policy in the Cold War era and then became one of that policy's chief critics, died last night at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 101. His son-in-law, Kevin Delany, announced his death in Washington, D.C.

As architect of the policy of containment, which sought to prevent Soviet expansion after World War II without resorting to military conflict, Mr. Kennan effectively defined the basic goal of US diplomacy for four decades.

''George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history," former secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said.

Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, during periods of confrontation as well as detente, the guiding principle of US relations with the Soviet Union remained, as Mr. Kennan once described it, ''a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

By itself, that achievement would have made him a notable figure in 20th-century history. Yet in addition to being a seminal practitioner of statecraft, Mr. Kennan was one of its foremost scholars, publishing more than 20 books on diplomatic history and foreign relations that earned him high regard as a man of letters. From 1967 to 1971, he served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

George Frost Kennan was born on Feb. 14, 1904, in Milwaukee. After attending a Wisconsin military academy, he entered Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1925. Fifteen months later, he entered the US Foreign Service.

Almost from the beginning, Mr. Kennan's focus was on the Soviet Union. A distant relation, also named George Kennan, had written of Russia in the 1890s. Partly for that reason, but also in anticipation of eventual US diplomatic recognition of the Soviet regime, Mr. Kennan chose to study Russian and embarked on a path that would make him a pivotal figure in the history of the Cold War.

After a series of brief diplomatic postings elsewhere in Europe, Mr. Kennan served on the staff of the new US embassy in Moscow when formal relations were established in 1933. During the remainder of the decade, the State Department posted him to Vienna, Moscow again, Prague, and Berlin.

When Germany declared war on the United States in December 1941, Mr. Kennan was interned for six months. He returned to the Soviet Union in 1944 after service in Lisbon and London. The conclusions he drew from what he saw during his two years in Moscow would alter the history of the Cold War.

Increasingly disturbed by the nature and ambitions of the Stalin regime, Mr. Kennan found himself equally disturbed by Washington's complaisance. In February 1946, he saw his opportunity to sound an alarm. The Treasury Department had queried the embassy as to why the Kremlin had turned down membership in the recently formed World Bank and International Monetary Fund. His response ranks with the ''Zimmerman Telegram," an intercepted telegram that helped persuade Americans that the nation needed to confront Germany in World War I, as one of the two most momentous cables in US history.

The 5,540 words of what almost immediately became known as the ''Long Telegram" created a sensation in official circles. ''Six months earlier this message probably would have been received," he recalled 20 years later, ''with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later, it would have sounded redundant."

At that moment, its warnings about Soviet expansionism had an enormous impact, and for the next three years Mr. Kennan would be at the center of State Department decision-making: first as director of the department's Policy Planning Staff under Secretary George C. Marshall, in which capacity he played a key role in drafting the Marshall Plan, offering economic assistance to Western Europe; and then as counselor to Marshall's successor, Dean Acheson.

Further enhancing Mr. Kennan's influence was an article published in the summer 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. Called ''The Sources of Soviet Conduct," it is remembered to history as ''the X article" in honor of the pseudonym used to designate its author. In it, Mr. Kennan elaborated on the views of the Long Telegram. The article attracted widespread public attention and came to be seen as summarizing US foreign policy doctrine.

By 1950, Mr. Kennan's views on the Soviet Union -- once considered alarmist -- had been so superseded as to seem conciliatory. ''I didn't mean to push people so far over to the right as I did," he recalled in a 2000 Boston Globe interview.

Mr. Kennan took a sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., only to return to the world stage in 1952, when President Truman named him ambassador to the Soviet Union. After fewer than five months, however, the Soviet Union declared him persona non grata because of remarks critical of the Soviet Union he made to reporters.

Mr. Kennan left the Foreign Service in 1953 and, returning to the Institute for Advanced Study, became a prolific author. His best-known titles include ''American Diplomacy, 1900-1950," ''Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920" (the first of its two volumes won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Pulitzer prizes and a National Book Award), ''Memoirs" (the first of its two volumes won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award), ''The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age," ''The Fateful Alliance: France, Russia and the Coming of the First World War," and ''Sketches from a Life."

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.

According to the Washington Post, 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 his boss, 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."

Years later, Mr. Kennan implored world leaders to stop using nuclear arms as a diplomatic poker chip. ''For the love of God, for the love of your children and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness," he wrote. ''You are mortal men. You are capable of error. You have no right to hold in your hands -- there is no one wise enough and strong enough to hold in his hands -- destructive power sufficient to put an end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet."

He would also criticize US involvement in Indochina, saying manipulation of the 1940s containment policy to justify opposing indigenous communist uprisings was misguided and harmful.

From 1961 to 1963, Mr. Kennan returned to diplomacy to serve as US ambassador to Yugoslavia. It was an experience that confirmed his beliefs, as expressed in his ''Memoirs," about how US foreign policy should be practiced. Instead of ''that mixture of arid legalism and semantic pretentiousness that so often passes, in the halls of our domestic-political life, for statesmanship," Mr. Kennan advocated pragmatism and flexibility, the avoidance of dogma and rhetoric, and, above all, limiting the effect of domestic political considerations on the execution of foreign policy. Mr. Kennan once described ''the function of career diplomacy" as being ''a pure one: a matter of duty, dedication, reason and integrity," words that might be read as implicit autobiography.

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."

According to the Washington Post, survivors include his wife, Annelise Sorenson Kennan, whom he married in 1931, and four children, Grace Kennan Warnecke of New York, Joan Kennan of Washington, Christopher James Kennan of Pine Plains, N.Y., and Wendy Kennan of Penzance, England; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives