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GEORGE F. KENNAN | 1904-2005

Diplomat Was Architect of U.S. Cold War Policy

His 1946 cable led to the 'containment' approach to the Soviets. He later backed arms control.

March 18, 2005|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

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.

Kennan's thoughts on the Soviet Union first drew attention in an 8,000-word telegram to the State Department that he prepared while serving as a member of the U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow. Written in February 1946, it became known in diplomatic lore as the Long Telegram.

The cable was broken into five sections, "all neatly divided, like an 18th century Protestant sermon," Kennan noted in his memoirs. The sections dealt with the basic features of the Soviet postwar outlook, the background of that outlook and its resulting impact on Soviet policy, both official and unofficial. It concluded with the implications of all this on American policy.

Kennan argued that the Soviets dismissed and held in contempt the idea that international agreements must be respected or given the stature of law. Josef Stalin and his negotiators, he believed, would invariably seek to turn all negotiations and treaties to their advantage and were unlikely to honor past agreements if they felt such treaties were not in their best interests.

In Kennan's view, this approach to foreign affairs had little to do with communism but reflected Russia's historical role in European politics.

The Long Telegram also warned of the Kremlin's expansionist ambitions under Stalin and noted that Soviet power "was impervious to the logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to the logic of force." Equally as important, the telegram noted that the Kremlin was very likely to stand down "when strong resistance is encountered at any point."

U.S. diplomacy, Kennan concluded, must assume an active position in international politics and take on the role of "Great Power," both diplomatically and militarily, to counter Soviet expansionism.

Explaining himself in later writings, Kennan said he had been troubled since his wartime days in Moscow by the attitude of some Americans with "fatuous dreams of a happy and chummy collaboration with Moscow." He said his aim in the telegram and in earlier and later writings was to dispel "naive optimism" among certain quarters in Washington that the U.S.-Soviet alliance of World War II would assure postwar peace.

Kennan's message arrived at a time when Washington and Western Europe were becoming more receptive to the idea of a Soviet threat. Around the time Kennan's telegram was landing in Washington, Winston Churchill declared in a speech that a Soviet-inspired "iron curtain" was descending across Eastern Europe.

Details of the Long Telegram were leaked to the media and gained wide public attention. Kennan's new theories on international relations had an immediate impact. He was brought home from Moscow and installed at the National War College in the highly visible position of an expert on the Cold War. From that position he moved on to become chief of the State Department's staff for national planning.

It was in the latter role that his stature as a Soviet expert grew with the publication of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published in the journal Foreign Affairs in July 1947. In the article, Kennan identified his views on containment. But as head of the State Department's policy planning branch, he wanted to keep his byline secret, so he used the pseudonym "X."

The goal of this policy, Kennan wrote, was to keep a peaceful and stable world by confronting the Russians "with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching."

In affecting the course of postwar policy, the article succeeded beyond his dreams. Containment soon became a major pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Kennan's authorship also became quickly known and burnished his reputation as a foreign policy strategist.

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