George Kennan — Containment and the Cold War
George Frost Kennan was, and still remains, a very controversial and legendary figure in American diplomatic history. As a historian, political scientist, and diplomat, Kennan focused most of his career on Russian culture and history. Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant diplomats of his day, he was collegial with his staff and, despite his acclaim and senior status in the Department, often saw himself as an outsider. Kennan served as Ambassador to Moscow in 1952 and Yugoslavia in 1963, and advocated for a containment policy to counter Soviet expansion that would shape American foreign policy during the Cold War.
After his ambassadorship in Yugoslavia, Kennan spent the rest of his career and later life at Princeton as a professor where he wrote several books on international relations. He won the Pulitzer Price for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Francis Parkman Prize, among many others, for his academic works which focused primarily on Russia and its relations with the West. Kennan passed away in 2005 at age 101 in Princeton.
While posted to Kiev as a minister-counselor in 1946, Kennan drafted the now-famous “Long Telegram” to Washington, in which he advocated the policy of containment at a time when many in the U.S. still had a favorable view of the erstwhile ally. He asserted that the Soviet Union did not see the possibility for long-term peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world; on the other hand, “while Soviet power was impervious to the logic of reason, it was highly sensitive to the logic of force.” He followed this up with his July 1947 “X” article, published anonymously in Foreign Affairs. His writings inspired the Marshall Plan.
However, he lost influence when Dean Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949 and the drafting of NSC-68 , which more formally outlined U.S. policy and called for a large expansion in the military budget, the development of a hydrogen bomb, and increased military aid to allies of the United States. Kennan felt that NSC-68 was too rigid, simplistic, and militaristic; he opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb and the rearmament of Germany, which stemmed from NSC-68.
When he became Ambassador to the USSR in 1952, he became disillusioned by the Soviets’ pervasive surveillance and outward hostility and was frustrated by the lack of flexibility shown by the U.S. After he made a statement comparing his conditions at the Ambassador’s residence at Spaso House to that of when he was interned in Berlin during the first few weeks of the Second World War, unintentionally making a comparison to his Nazi internment, Kennan was declared persona non grata and was not allowed back in the country. His next and last ambassadorship would be at Yugoslavia in the early 1960s.
In the following collection of interviews, spanning from the early 1940s to 1991, Kennan’s life is detailed by those who worked with him. Merrit N. Cootes, interviewed by Lillian Peters Mullin in 1991, talks about the “Jelly Fish” telegram. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Marshall Green in 1988, who was assigned to the Japan desk in the State Department and went with Kennan in 1948 on a trip to see MacArthur to shift the U.S. occupation from reform to economic recovery.
Richard Townsend Davies, interviewed by Peter Jessup in 1979, talks about Kennan’s fear of being manipulated by the Soviet Union’s media, and later, his response to becoming persona non grata in Moscow, including asking for suicide pills from the CIA. Robert Daniels interviewed George Jaeger in 2000, in which Jaeger talked about his impressions of Kennan and meeting with him at FSI before being assigned to Yugoslavia. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Richard Johnson in 1991, and Robert Gerald Livingston in 1998 in which they discuss their first impressions of Kennan, his tumultuous relationship with Josip Tito, and his later academic exile in Princeton. Finally, Jack Perry, interviewed by Henry E. Mattox in 1992, talks about Kennan’s reputation and writing ability. The last section by long-time Soviet and Russia hand Jim Schumaker is taken from his blog.
“That story is mine. You can write all the memos you want, but that story is mine”
Merritt N. Cootes, Political Officer to Lisbon from 1942-1944
COOTES: Lisbon was the keyhole to Europe. Everything went through there. George Kennan was sent over by the State Department to put some order into the intelligence collection effort there, because the Military Attaché wouldn’t speak to the Naval Attaché, and the Naval Attaché wouldn’t speak to his British counterpart. So they sent George Kennan over to Lisbon to put some order into things.
He returned to Washington and was put in charge of Policy Planning. Then he was assigned to Lisbon…. When George Kennan got to Lisbon, I took him down to the Foreign Ministry and did the interpreting for him there.
I called up and asked for an appointment for George Kennan and the Minister at 1:00 a.m. with Prime Minister Salazar. I believe that it was November 7, 1942, or something like that. It wasn’t easy to arrange a meeting at 1:00 a.m. with the head of the government there. Of course, I couldn’t tell him why we wanted the appointment. The purpose of the call was to have the Minister and George Kennan inform Salazar that the U.S. was adhering to the oldest, written treaty of 1397 between Portugal and Great Britain.
The treaty was being modified somewhat to allow the British to control the seas around Portugal against the German U-Boats. That was for the British. But our naval officers wore British uniforms when they were flying their planes from land bases.
Anyhow, George Kennan and the Minister went down and delivered this message. They came back to the Legation and were to send a code word back to the State Department, saying that they had delivered the message. Now, of course, the same message was delivered in Spain to Franco. It was perfectly all right for them to send a message because the message from Madrid read: “SecState Washington: (Then the code word). (Signed) Hayes” [Carleton J. H. Hayes, American Ambassador in Madrid at the time].
However, from Lisbon the telegram went out: “SecState Washington: (Then the code word ‘Jelly’). (Signed) Fish” [for Ambassador Bert Fish]. So the text of the telegram from the Legation in Lisbon read, “SecState Washington: Jelly Fish.”
Later on, at a staff meeting George Kennan told us: “Now, look. That story is mine. You can write all the memos you want, but that story is mine.”
“That trip to Japan was probably the most important thing that he did, after the Marshall Plan”
Marshall Green , Japan desk officer, 1947-50
GREEN: I was assigned to the Japan desk in the State Department. I served there from 1947 to 1950 as a Japan desk officer.…
I was assigned as George Kennan’s only traveling companion to Japan in February 1948. This trip turned out to be extremely important.
What had happened was that when the occupation of Japan was undertaken in 1945, it was our expectation that it would only go on for two or three years, and then there would be a peace treaty.
Meanwhile, to jump ahead a little, John Foster Dulles had been brought aboard in 1950 to try to negotiate the peace treaty with Japan. Until there was a peace treaty, Japan would be under Allied occupation. Since it appeared that the occupation period was going to be extended much longer than had earlier been anticipated, it was strongly felt in the Office of Policy Planning in the State Department, especially by George Kennan, but also by John Davies, Walt Butterworth and Secretary of State George Marshall, that occupations can go sour.
It was felt that, in the case of Japan, we had to be very careful. So George Kennan was sent out to Japan in February 1948 by Secretary of State Marshall to discuss with General [Douglas] MacArthur how the emphasis in the occupation of Japan could be shifted from “reform” to “economic recovery.” The idea was to normalize things as far and fast as one could to stave off growing, nationalistic resentment against the occupation.
At that time we had various mechanisms for dealing with Japan and with the occupation. In Washington there was the Far Eastern Commission, on which all of the countries that had been enemies of Japan had their representatives. We met in the old Japanese Embassy here in Washington about once every two or three weeks. I used to go to those meetings. Another international mechanism was the Allied Council in Japan, on which representatives of the Great Powers sat. It met periodically and discussed the broader issues.
However, neither of those bodies carried any weight with MacArthur. MacArthur ran the show the way he wanted to, and to heck with all these other people. He had a little bit of the same attitude toward the White House. He felt that Japan was his exclusive domain. Of course, we came to learn a lot about that in Korea later on.
Now, when George Kennan was sent out to Japan to talk to MacArthur about changing the emphasis of the occupation, he was treated, on his arrival in Japan, just as though he was a visitor from a not too friendly power. He was almost seen as a spy from the State Department. MacArthur held him at arm’s length. Of course, he couldn’t ignore Kennan. George Kennan had his orders, but MacArthur kept him at arm’s length and wouldn’t meet with him, except socially — for example at a dinner party.
It was interesting to see how Kennan operated. Kennan got through to MacArthur two ways. The State Department already had a representative in Japan in SCAP [Supreme Commander, Allied Powers] headquarters, William Sebald. Bill Sebald was the head of the Diplomatic Section of SCAP. There were 14 Sections in SCAP — including Sebald’s Diplomatic Section answerable to Major General Fox who, in turn, was deputy to General Almond, a four-star general, who was chief of staff of SCAP. So the State Department’s representative, Bill Sebald was “way down the line.”
George Kennan eventually got through to MacArthur by casually observing to Major General Willoughby, head of SCAP Intelligence, that MacArthur should not be too concerned about the views of the Far Eastern Commission in Washington, whose work was now largely complete. MacArthur was in the best position to judge what now needed to be done in Japan, and Kennan could be of help to MacArthur in getting MacArthur’s views across in Washington.
Through Willoughby and through my intervention with General Babcock (an old friend from our service together in the Embassy before the war) it was arranged that Kennan would discuss the origins and current nature of Soviet conduct in the SCAP HQ briefing room where some 100 top brass were present.
I found Kennan’s presentation — and I suspect most others attending would agree — absolutely brilliant. It was as though we were at one with eternity like that old advertisement of the Rosicrucian Society, where an eye is seen, piercing into eternity. Of course, all the clouds rolled in afterwards, but there was a transcending moment of truth.
Now, MacArthur recognized brains when he soon heard about the speech. After that, all doors were open to Kennan. In fact, MacArthur provided us with a railroad carriage of our own to go wherever we wanted to go….
To return to the fundamentals of what Kennan was saying to MacArthur. He said that we have to move as far and fast as possible toward a more normal type of relationship with Japan and toward putting Japan much more on its feet and taking care of itself. We must be aware that if we move too slowly, nationalism will overtake us, and heaven knows what will happen. This was always presented in terms suggesting that MacArthur knew this better than he did. Kennan never lectured MacArthur.
The kinds of things he wanted to end as quickly as possible — and it was carefully targeted — included the reparations and decartelization programs. He called for an end to the “purges” immediately or as soon as possible. He said that the Japanese should have some kind of economic representation abroad. (This last point I was to take on as my own responsibility and work very hard on it.)
Improvements should be made in communications channels. Kennan placed the greatest emphasis on setting up better internal security in Japan. He was appalled to see how the Police Force was all divided up. The Japanese had inadequate means to maintain law and order in the country on a national scale. He made some recommendations on how to strengthen a democratic Police Force and establish a Japanese Coast Guard that could protect Japan against smuggling, illegal entries, and things like that.
There was quite a long list of things that had to be done. All I can say is that our report covered all of these points. So we returned to Washington. Meanwhile, Kennan suffered from a terrible case of ulcers….
“One of my jobs was to ‘look intelligent’”
While I was in Kyoto, writing up the report, I was asked by some Navy friends to come down and see the Osaka docks. They thought I would be shocked by what I saw. And there — stacked all down the docks –was dismantled machinery from Japanese industries. The machinery was being greased, crated, and shipped — at great expense and effort — to North China, as part of a reparations program to China.
Meanwhile, North China was being overrun by the Communists. The whole thing was ridiculous. The American taxpayer was paying for taking machinery out of Japan, which we were meantime supporting, and taking it to China, which was falling into the hands of the Communists. It will not surprise you that Kennan not only spoke extremely effectively but wrote even more effectively. The telegrams which Kennan sent back to Washington were really bristling.
What he was saying was that we want MacArthur to remain in charge, but we wanted to anticipate and head off whatever kinds of forces that might undermine his authority and effectiveness. I think that this appealed to MacArthur, because MacArthur was an intelligent man. Now, where we were running up against problems was with the architects of these policies in SCAP headquarters, for example, the Political Section, which was headed by General [Courtney] Whitney…
His principal deputy was Colonel Kades. These people had been the architects of the “purge program,” for example. They hated to see it dismantled and resisted our efforts to end the purge, even though it was the expressed will of our National Security Council.
The purge involved removing from public office or from top positions of influence, in business or in government, those who were considered to be responsible, in any major way, for the war effort. This meant, basically, anyone in a prominent position was “purged.”
Kennan was opposed to this way of tarring everybody with the same brush, without any kind of examination of the individual’s record. By the way, he had also been opposed to war crimes trials, but they were all over in Japan by the time he got there.
Meanwhile, Walt Butterworth had been replaced by Dean Rusk (pictured) in 1949 as Assistant Secretary for Far East Affairs. So after two months of frustrated efforts by Washington to end the purge, Rusk asked me to draft a personal message for Marshall to MacArthur.
I thought my draft was “pretty hot stuff,” but Rusk said, “Do you think that this will turn the trick, Marshall?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, Mr. Secretary, but this is putting it on the record.” He said, “The object is not to put it on the record. The object is to stop this damned thing.” He added, “I suggest you go back and rewrite this 10-page telegram and make it no longer than a page and a half. Make the point that MacArthur thought originally that the purge should end by this time and that we’d been reluctant as had other governments in the Far Eastern Commission. However, now we’ve come to see the wisdom of his earlier position, he should go ahead and do it.”
So I wrote the telegram accordingly. I gulped pretty hard because I come from New England, where we have strong consciences. I knew that MacArthur had never said this, but we attributed it to him. That did the trick. The purge was ended 48 hours later.
I reminded Dean Rusk about this, many years later. He said, “Marshall, I hope you don’t go around telling people that story. It casts me in such a cynical light.” I said, “Not at all, Mr. Secretary. It casts you in the light of somebody who knows how to get things done through diplomacy.”
I’ve always admired his [Kennan’s] eloquence and his ability to write and speak. His mission to Japan was a great challenge to him. He rose to it, and that’s why he succeeded. Now, you know in his “Memoirs,” he recalls all this. He says that he thinks that that trip to Japan was probably the most important thing that he did, after the Marshall Plan. Then he went on to say, “Perhaps it was even more important than the Marshall Plan, in the long run.” So he attached great importance to this, even in retrospect. It was marvelous to see how he operated.
I mentioned how he “co-opted” people on MacArthur’s staff who paved his way to MacArthur. But there was also the way that he drafted reports and telegrams. It was something to behold. He would sit down and start dictating.
One of my jobs was to “look intelligent.” He would speak to me, while Dorothy Hessman, his secretary, took it all down as a telegram. So he was basically dictating a telegram to Washington while speaking to me. The result was that the telegram had a kind of conversational flow that made it far more effective. When he was through, he didn’t have to change a word of it. Articulation is something I admire in any diplomat.
“Now here is a man who speaks beautiful Russian and who was completely cut off from Soviet society”
Richard Townsend Davies, Junior Officer in Moscow, 1951-53
DAVIES: [Ambassador to Moscow] Alan Kirk was there until the end of 1951, and then…he left shortly thereafter, and George Kennan we were told was coming, and of course that excited all the younger officers in the Embassy a great deal because George Kennan was very much our idol.
He had published his famous Mister X article on the sources of Soviet conduct in the middle of 1947 in Foreign Affairs, and almost immediately thereafter everybody knew who had written it. After his service on the Policy Planning Council in the State Department he had gone up to Princeton.
In fact I think he was at Princeton up until shortly before he was appointed. He had been active in initiating or in proposing the initiation of the Free Europe Committee and the Radio Liberation Committee. But we were terribly excited to hear that he was coming. He was the person on whom most of the younger officers, I think — certainly those in Soviet studies — modeled themselves.…
He gave two interviews [before arriving in Moscow]….He said that…admittedly no individual probably could influence the course of events that much, but nevertheless since Stalin would leave the scene one day, if it should happen that he died or left the Soviet political stage, while Kennan was there this would be very fortuitous because of course Kennan knew the Soviet Union so well and knew the Soviet people so well, and he would be in a position to interpret to the United States the confused situation that ensued upon Stalin’s death….
And then he came to Moscow, and of course he found a Moscow which was very different from the Moscow he obviously remembered and had anticipated, I suppose, returning to, much less tolerant of foreigners than even during the ‘30s, and of course during the war things were relatively free and easy there.
Apparently during the 30s when he was there first — he was a young man in the first place — there used to be very pleasant evenings, and it was possible to know and see a certain number of Soviet citizens, of Russians who obviously were if not under the control of the secret police at any rate had some kind of permission to mingle with foreigners.…
But when he got back there in 1952, the situation was very different. There were no contacts at all of any kind. It was the period that can reasonably be called the Deep Freeze, and he came back into that situation, with his very charming and strong wife, a Norwegian girl by birth — a very fine woman — and he found no contacts at all.
Now here is a man who speaks beautiful Russian, who knows Russian literature and appreciates Russian literature and so forth, and who was completely cut off from Soviet society. Well, one thing he did in order to try to overcome this was to go once a week to the theater, and part of the time he was there — he was there less than a year, around nine months I suppose — Mrs. Kennan was in Norway with her parents, taking care of the older children, having put them in school somewhere, so he was alone a fair amount of time in Moscow, and he would go once a week to the theater, and he would go with a language officer, and if the language officer was married with the language officer’s wife.
“’It’s just as though there is a great hand pressing down on all of us’”
He’d send his car for them and would have them picked up, and then the car would go to [the U.S. Ambassador’s residence] Spaso House to pick him up, and they’d go to the theater, and then come back to Spaso House after the play and have a little midnight supper in his study underneath the famous carved eagle with the microphone in it. (Here shown with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960.)
We didn’t know that there was a microphone in it at that point. It had been there not too long; it had been up in the attic, and I think when he got there he went through it and found it. It is a very impressive carved seal of the United States. But I don’t even know whether the microphone was in it up in the attic. I don’t think so. I think it was [put in it] after it was hung down there, because as I say he was alone in the house, and out of the house a fair amount. I think there would have been ample opportunity for somebody to stick the thing in it.
In any case I remember my wife and I went with him, and we went to see The Inspector General of Nikolai Gogol. …So we went to the theater, and of course he had these four goons following — these four secret policemen — and we went in and they had free seats there and they sat down. There were four people sitting in the row right behind, and these people, these characters came up, and they really didn’t have to say anything, they just looked at the people and they said, “You, out, we will sit there.” Which they did — the four of them sat behind us.
They were muscle men, and it made him feel very — well, I was used to this. I had been in Poland. And the anti-American propaganda of course got to him very much. He took it very personally. He walked to work every morning from Spaso to the Embassy, which was on Mokhovaya Street, right next to the National Hotel, across from the Kremlin.
He had no idea that this was going on. He had been at Princeton. Of course we had been reporting all this. The thing that surprised me was that he wasn’t aware of it. He obviously hadn’t been reading. I can only imagine that he hadn’t been reading the Soviet press, because you know the anti-American propaganda was all through the press: you couldn’t pick up any publication, any newspaper, without reading some horrible story about the alleged atrocities committed by American troops in Korea….
Well, as he went to the office he would pass these hoardings of billboards with frightful cartoons against the United States on. Of course we all saw them, but we all sort of understood that this was the game that was being played, and what did one do about it? You could protest about it, and we did protest about some of these things, but it was no good….
These goons were keeping their eyes on the Ambassador, and he was very, very depressed, and finally he sort of looked up and he said, “It’s just as though there is a great hand pressing down on all of us.” I tried to sort of make some joke, but that was no joking matter to him. Well, then we saw the rest of the play, and then went back to Spaso for a midnight supper. But it was a very morbid kind of evening….The whole thing was very depressing. I wouldn’t say that he has a sense of humor. He is dour….
I’ve often been asked how could he, a professional diplomat — at that time he was regarded as the pinnacle of our service — how could he have done what he did in Berlin, and said what he said, which resulted in his being declared persona non grata, comparing the Soviet Union, life in Moscow, with life in a Nazi internment camp in Germany during the war. And my answer is, well, he found himself in what for him was psychologically an intolerable situation….
He had this picture of himself, this self-image, which to a very considerable extent was quite accurate, as the — if not the greatest at least one of the three or four, two or three, maybe two – he and Chip Bohlen, let’s say — most highly qualified Soviet experts we had in every sphere, language, knowing the history, having served there before, knowledge of what happened during the war, the whole thing….
And then when he got there he found on the contrary this… He was never received by Stalin – a point that he makes a great deal of in his memoirs. In his memoirs he tells about the effort he made to break out of that isolation, having the Deputy Chief of Mission, Hugh Cummings, mention to somebody in the Foreign Office his – Kennan’s – desire to have somebody with whom he could speak Russian, to have some contact with somebody….
I should say that morale was not bad before he came. Of course we all felt that we were under attack, and under the circumstances there was a certain esprit de corps and a pulling together, and a recognition that everybody was in the same boat and we had to try to help each other. But morale… I think he had the idea, he projected his depression, his gloom, his discouragement on the rest of us. He thought we were in bad shape. I didn’t feel that way at any rate. …
And he decided that we must organize ourselves in order to combat this. Consequently he started a number of activities, some of them really quite good. I don’t know that ballet classes were possible then, but perhaps they were. But there were a number of kinds of hobby groups: painting, you could join a group and sing Russian folk songs – I think he belonged and helped along there, he was really excellent at that, at playing the guitar and singing, perhaps another side of his Celtic heritage, I don’t know….
No one else could have done more. But he felt that he should have been able to do more, or he felt perhaps that he’d promised somehow that he would do more, and he’d been unable to do more,…He couldn’t go back to President Truman and say, “I have to resign.” That would have been a kind of admission of failure….
“I understand that the CIA has some form of pill that a person could use to kill himself instantly. Is this right?”
Now Peer de Silva…
He died [in 1978], a career CIA officer, operations officer who wrote I think, really, a very good book – undoubtedly parts of it were regarded as quite indiscreet two years ago when he first wrote it, Sub Rosa: The CIA and the Uses of Intelligence – New York Times Books, New York, 1978 – (in which) Peer de Silva discusses the question of the establishment of a CIA station in Moscow. …
Peer de Silva went to London and saw Ambassador Kennan, who turned down the proposal. But the interesting thing, and the thing I am coming to here, is that he writes, “However, during the conversation I had noticed that the Ambassador was very tense and nervous: he was pale, his hands trembled, and he seemed to have much on his mind. At the end of our talk he said there was something he wanted to ask of the Agency” – that is, of the CIA.
“‘There is something you must do for me,’ he said. ‘I have here a letter.’ And he then handed me a letter, and I noticed that it was addressed to Pope Pius. ‘I have a very pessimistic view of our immediate future with the Soviets, particularly at the diplomatic level. I want you to get this letter to [CIA Director] Allen Dulles, and make sure that it is passed by secure means to the Pope in Rome.” My questioning look brought the following explanation: “‘I fear that there is a good possibility that I will wind up some day before long on the Soviet radio. I may be forced to make statements that will be damaging to American policy. This letter will show the world that I am under duress, and I am not making statements out of my own free will.’”
“The letter to the Pope will let him make public my position and the true situation there.” That is Peer de Silva. “I was astounded at the grimness with which these words were delivered,” de Silva writes, “but I was in no way prepared for the following.” Again Kennan speaking: “I understand that the CIA has some form of pill that a person could use to kill himself instantly. Is this right?”
And so the upshot is that Kennan asked Peer de Silva, according to the latter’s memoir, for these pills, and Peer de Silva says that through the diplomatic pouch two pills were sent to Ambassador Kennan. Well, I am not sure it says “two pills” but at any rate, some pills were sent to him.
“Shortly thereafter he went from Moscow to Germany on an official visit, where he made a speech with strong critical reference to the USSR. This speech resulted in his being declared persona non grata on the spot. He never returned to Moscow from Berlin. Ambassador Kennan finally came back to Washington from Europe. I made an appointment to see him, and asked what had happened to the pills. He told me with a curious smile, “I have already flushed them down the toilet.” At the time and in the years since I have always thought that the actions of Ambassador Kennan were the actions of a very brave man.
During the early 1950s, the CIA was aware that the Soviets were experimenting with drugs and tended to destroy a person’s natural inhibitions and controls. [Peer de Silva wrote,] “In the Cold War atmosphere of the times Kennan saw himself as a likely target for a Soviet effort along this line. Nevertheless he went back to that environment of danger and was prepared to take his own life rather than let himself be used by the Soviets in a manner degrading or shameful to the United States”….
He came back [to the United States]. In the meanwhile, the  election had taken place, and Eisenhower had been elected….According to the Foreign Service Act of 1946, a man who had held the position of ambassador — and there were certain other qualifications — who was not appointed to another position for six months, was automatically retired, and he was the only one – [John Foster] Dulles by that time was Secretary, and he utilized that provision of the Act against him, and again he writes about this in his memoirs, and he is very bitter about it.
Then he went back to Princeton, where he’d been before, and I think really he was a brilliant reporting officer. Some of the things he wrote — copies of them were available in the Embassy when I was there – were just brilliant, beautifully written, great insights, but not an ambassador somehow.
“Kennan was a brilliant seer, advisor on major issues and interpreter of history, but fatally indifferent to the short-term stuff”
George Jaeger , Consular Officer, Yugoslavia, 1961-64
JAEGER: Although [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson admired Kennan, he had grown weary of Kennan’s somewhat moralistic, hyper-intellectual approach. While Kennan’s ‘containment’ policy had won general acceptance, Kennan was uncomfortable, as the Cold War ratcheted up, with Washington’s growing emphasis on military means. As Kennan’s views came to seem more and more unrealistic and out of touch, they created frictions….
George Kennan, about to go out to Belgrade as Kennedy’s new Ambassador, paid us a visit [to Arlington Towers] to meet some of his future staff trying to learn this awful language. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
Kennan, utterly relaxed, slung his leg over a chair and, instead of talking about the Yugoslav situation or his plans as the new Ambassador, launched into a fascinating, historic disquisition about Yugoslavia’s orthodox monasteries and their roles in Balkan mediaeval history, with advice as to which ones were particularly beautiful and must therefore be visited while we were there.
What, I think, he was trying to convey, was that it was through these magnificent monasteries that we might come to some understanding of the essence of this complex region.
I had come to know him slightly when I had dated his daughter Grace for a while, and had had a similar Slavic-mystical experience one evening in Princeton listening to him as he was sitting on the kitchen table in a Russian nightgown playing the balalaika and absently singing deeply moving Russian folk tunes.
But back to our meeting at FSI. After listening to him for some time with respectful attention, I asked the question which I thought was on everybody’s mind: “Mr. Ambassador, we will certainly try to see the Orthodox monasteries. But for now, is there anything you would like us to do before we get to Yugoslavia? Are there any special things you’d like us keep in mind when we get there?”
His reply was unforgettable. “Oh, you mean all that policy stuff? Don’t worry about it; I’ll be the one doing all that.” In case we had missed the point he spelled it out: “You know, you are just being given a wonderful opportunity to absorb Slavic culture, and I would hope you would make the very best use of it and spend your two-year tour sopping it up, the way I did when I was a young officer in Russia.” On that note he left us, somewhat bewildered, very charmed, and looking forward to see how this division of labor would actually work in practice….
“I felt at the time that there was an amazing disparity between what I had heard on the trip and what he had written”
I was asked to accompany Kennan on a three-day trip through Croatia and Slovenia.
He arrived a bit earlier [in Zagreb], in March of 1961, and served until July 1963. On this, his only longer visit during my time, he wanted to meet leading government people, journalists, and other movers and shakers in both Croatia and Slovenia.
When we got back to Zagreb after a busy and very pleasant three days, which I had arranged, Kennan surprised me by referring to the trip as “a significant experience!” When I offered to draft a reporting telegram, Kennan surprised me again by saying, “That won’t be necessary, I’ll just sit down in your code room, if I may, and write it up.”
He emerged after a couple hours with a long hand-written draft and asked me to read it over and tell him what I thought. I did, and was absolutely amazed. The people we had met had, with minor exceptions, told us pretty much what the party line then called for. But what Kennan had written was that his trip through this northern region of the country had confirmed his sense of the impending disintegration of Yugoslavia after Tito!
The thrust was that there were great tensions in the country, and that the people he had seen had given him significant indications of this.
Basically Croatia and Slovenia were economically supporting Serbia and the rest, a situation which caused some discontent, but not to the extent Kennan’s telegram described it. I felt at the time that there was an amazing disparity between what I had heard on the trip and what he had written.
In retrospect, it may well be that Kennan’s antennae were finer than mine, or that the inherent logic of the situation had led him to this far-reaching conclusion which he then wanted to document. Even so, he got the timing wrong, because he thought the crisis was clearly more imminent than it actually turned out to be. Still, his was the first explicit warning, as far as I know, of what was to come.
Needless to say, the report was greeted with skepticism, both in the Embassy — which didn’t believe that nationalism was very powerful at the time and usually asked us to tone down our occasional reports of Croatian nationalist behavior — as well as in Washington.
Kennan’s personally written telegrams often reached entirely different conclusions than the Embassy’s routine reporting. As his ‘Memoirs’ make clear, he saw the Embassy diplomatic and USIA [U.S. Information Agency] staff as being “from another generation,” people, he wrote, “who had come up in a different sort of bureaucratic environment: Less human, less personal, vaster, more inscrutable, and less reassuring. Some of them tended initially… to be wary, correct, faithfully pedantic, but withdrawn and in a sense masked. The studied absence of color, in personality and in uttered thought, had become a protective camouflage. But of course they were real people underneath, and in most instances very valuable and intelligent ones….”
Tellingly, not one of them is mentioned in his ‘Memoirs’ by name even though it was a first-rate team….There was a basic, rather sad disconnect between Kennan and the staff. Some of this may have been due to the fact that Kennan saw himself by then as an agent of historic transformation and had come to Belgrade with his own agenda: To restore mutually confident American-Yugoslav relations, implying a larger strategy of wresting it still further away from the USSR.
The symbol and centerpiece of the policy was to be most-favored-nation [MFN] status for Yugoslavia. What this did not adequately take into account was the continuing deep distrust of anything ‘Communist’ in Congress, feelings kept alive by hyper-active Croatian and Serbian émigré groups in the U.S.; and the fact that Yugoslav Communist behavior did not always lend itself to benign interpretation from Washington’s perspective.
Tito’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement [NAM], his repressive domestic policies and his refusal to ally himself with the West all contributed to this.
Although Kennan fought hard, his effort foundered on these obstacles, leaving him feeling betrayed by the Department, which, of course, had to deal pragmatically with the political realities as they existed at the time.
Taken together, all this led to important misunderstandings with the Department’s Eastern European people and eventually to his unhappy departure from Belgrade, feeling that he had not been appreciated or understood.
Kennan was a brilliant seer, advisor on major issues and interpreter of history, but, for all that, fatally indifferent to the short-term stuff which makes up the daily fare of government bureaucracy.
As a result he became a tragic figure in American diplomacy, who, although he shaped the post-war world as much as anyone, spent most of his career at odds with the State Department and later in prestigious Princeton exile.
“That’s something that struck me, even then about Kennan, that he took these things personally”
Richard Johnson, Political Officer in Belgrade Yugoslavia, 1962-63
JOHNSON: The thing that made that tour [in Belgrade] interesting and exciting was that George Kennan was our ambassador.
Well, of course I was tremendously impressed with him before I went, with what reading I’d done. And as a boss I just can’t imagine a more exciting person to work with….
But Kennan was the sort of a person who liked to rap with his junior officers…, He developed this project of publishing a history of Yugoslavia, and each of us was assigned a chapter, then he would ask us to come up on Sundays and sit around the fire and discuss various aspects of developments that were going on.
He is such a tremendously articulate and deeply intelligent person that these were really fascinating Sunday afternoons. Also, he would invite us in when he came back from a meeting with Tito, and he would tell us how the meeting went and analyze it in very perceptive terms.
Robert Gerald Livingston, Economic Officer, Belgrade Yugoslavia, 1961-64
LIVINGSTON: You know, Kennan was a bad ambassador, I thought. He was lovely; so was his wife. I wouldn’t say he took a shine to me, but he had this project of getting officers to write up little studies, and I think I was one of the few that took it seriously….
Kennan was marvelous, but he was emotional, very emotional. Even I could tell that. This is partly gossip form the people in the political section including Jim Lowenstein who was there then. But he reacted very personally and he felt almost betrayed by Tito personally when the Soviets violated the Test Ban stop and Tito didn’t condemn them….(Pictured: Tito with Kennan)
Kennan took it personally. That’s something that struck me, even then about Kennan, that he took these things personally.
And I remember something happened; he was personally insulted. It was maybe Adlai Stevenson and Mrs. Katherine Graham [Washington Post publisher] came on a yacht. Katherine Graham’s husband must have been alive then. They visited Tito on Brioni and Kennan wasn’t invited — was either invited later or something… I don’t remember the details, but he took it very, very personally….
My recollection had to do with Most Favored Nation treatment of Yugoslavia. Kennan, before he left Washington, Kennedy had said to him as he had to some other ambassadors, “You be in touch with me anytime you have something. It doesn’t have to be just your country.”
And I remember Kennan at the time the Berlin Wall was built, which was August of 1961, sent stuff in commenting on the German situation. It wasn’t paid any attention to, and we knew that it wasn’t paid any attention to, you know. He, I think, was wounded by that. This must have been ’62 or something like that when Most Favored Nation thing came up.
Memories are faulty, but he put in a call to Kennedy on the open line to the White House. Kennedy took the call from him and Kennan said “You’ve got to do something about this MFN thing.” And Kennedy said, “Well, George, I’ll have this call transferred to Wilbur Mills.” He didn’t say anything but, “I’ll have this call transferred to Wilbur Mills.” And he switched to Wilbur Mills, [the powerful Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee].
Kennan deliberately talked on the open line to show the Yugoslavs how much influence he had, you know, talking to the President and getting things done. Of course, he showed he had no influence. And then, not only did that happen, but he convened a staff meeting, in which I was at sitting in the very back row, I think; and he told us about this, in his office….
Jack R. Perry, Personnel and Political Officer, Moscow, Soviet Union, 1962-64
PERRY: The thing is, George Kennan could write better than most of the rest of us put together. He was and is a marvelous master of the English language and people always said that when Kennan wrote a telegram to Washington, no matter what he was arguing, you’d be persuaded because the English was just so overwhelming.
I don’t think that was true of Chip Bohlen, for example, although he wrote beautifully, but he was not the persuasive master that Kennan was. Some people felt — and I don’t like to criticize Kennan because he’s one of my heroes in many ways — but as a diplomat, some people said that he had a certain messianic complex that he really felt that he was called to be the one that knew everything and did everything.
I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it certainly may have entered into the way he departed Moscow, because he was declared persona non grata and so forth.
Q: One reason I raise the question is because I just read the book George Kennan, Cold War Iconoclast, by Walter L. Hixson, who takes a fairly negative view of Kennan, granting him that he writes beautifully and that he was a great raconteur and he was a bona fide Soviet expert and so on and so forth, but Hixson apparently doesn’t like him and says words to the effect that he’s a prima donna and that he changed his mind every time the wind blew in different directions.
PERRY: I’ve heard some of that, but I must say, if you look at his writings, particularly right after the war — the Long Telegram and the X article and so on — what diplomat do we know that could compare with the effect he had on history? Now you might go back and say, was he always right? I’m sure he wasn’t. I was a bit of a dove. I mean, I was a detentenik; I believed in better relations with the Russians. (Photo: Corbis)
Now that the Cold War is over, you might go back and look at people like me and say, were they right or were they wrong? Towards the end, in Washington, I remained friends with Bohlen. He would come by the Soviet desk, where I was then serving, and talk about what was going on in Russia. And I remember we had some differences, because I felt that he was somewhat too ideological in his view of the Soviets, feeling that they were ideologically motivated, which I always doubted, frankly.
But, on balance, as far as Bohlen is concerned, he was called a Cold Warrior, but I think most of all he and Kennan both were people that knew the Russians, as a culture, as a civilization, as a people, and that’s what gave them their great strength.
Meeting George Kennan, Moscow, 1977
I had long been an admirer of Kennan for his prescient Long Telegram of February 22, 1946, his “X” article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs on the “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” and of course for his elegant writing style. I also agreed with his oft-expressed view that Russia can have only two kinds of neighbors, vassals or enemies. I had read a couple of his books on U.S.-Soviet relations when I was at St. Louis Country Day School and it was one of the things that had initially attracted me to a Foreign Service career.
Kennan spoke articulately and brilliantly, but for all that, I can’t remember much of what he actually said during our hour-long meeting. It was just a pleasure to listen to him. Kennan was in his mid-seventies at the time, and I recall thinking that he looked quite frail. One of my friends remarked afterward, “We were lucky we met him now — he’s so old he can’t last much longer.” I agreed, but Kennan fooled us all by hanging on until 2005, living to the ripe old age of 101 and writing all the while.
I’m especially sorry that I never had another opportunity to meet with Kennan, because years later I finally read his memoirs, and realized that we shared many common experiences. In fact, when he discussed his tours not just in Moscow, but throughout his career, it was almost like I was reading my own memoirs and not his. It was a great opportunity lost. In addition, I would have wanted to question him more closely about his views on the Soviet Union, with which I often disagreed.
Kennan’s thinking was profound and multi-layered. He was particularly good at descriptive writing, and he outlined the situation prevailing in the Soviet Union in compelling terms. There were certain areas where I agreed with him completely, such as his harsh criticism of Ambassador Joseph Davies’ disastrous tenure in Moscow, and the Roosevelt Administration’s role in perpetuating, for political reasons, a sentimental enthusiasm about Stalin’s Soviet Union.
I also found convincing his searing portrayal of the dysfunctional Washington bureaucracy of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s in which the random actions of minor bureaucrats and failures of communication often trumped all efforts to construct a rational and realistic foreign policy. I especially admired what Kennan himself called his greatest achievement: his role in the creation of the Marshall Plan for the economic revival of Western Europe. Kennan also took a very dim view of the United Nations, and thought it would be more of a negative than positive influence in world affairs, a view with which I agree in part.
On other issues, however, I found fault with Kennan’s views. For example, I did not agree with many of his prescriptions for dealing with the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Kennan’s general approach seemed to be to take no steps that might be construed as approving of or legitimizing the Soviet regime, while refraining from direct opposition or action except in the most extreme circumstances.
This was the line he took with regard to the creation of NATO and the separate Peace Treaty with Japan, despite the provocative actions that dictated these prudent defensive steps, i.e., the communization of Eastern Europe and China. His opposition to doing anything that might cause an aggressive Soviet reaction ignored the fact that such a passive policy might actually tempt the Soviets to reach still further, in the belief that they could continue to push the West without fear of consequences.
This might seem to be a strange criticism of the person generally credited as the author of America’s containment policy, but, as Kennan himself repeatedly pointed out, his “X” article was completely misunderstood, and the containment policy adopted by U.S. policymakers was not the one he advocated.
Whereas Kennan believed in the containment of Soviet ambitions by political means, and only when our vital interests were threatened, the widely-accepted interpretation of containment policy at the time was to oppose the Soviets both militarily and politically, wherever their ambitions manifested themselves around the world. My own views stand somewhere between these two extremes, although in the end I am more comfortable with the containment policy that was eventually adopted than I am with Kennan’s version, which, in my estimation, would have led inevitably to disaster.
I was also a little bit surprised to find that Kennan’s discussion of his tenure as our Ambassador in Moscow was unusually naïve, particularly his ruminations on why the Soviet leadership gave him the back of its hand (he imputed some deeper political motives to the Kremlin, when in actuality Soviet leaders treated all American ambassadors badly, unless they were thought to have a direct line to the White House). I also disagreed with his criticism of our military attachés in Moscow, whose activities he found provocative.
In reading his memoirs, I found myself a little disapproving of Kennan’s personal manner. Kennan was a classic elitist, an attitude that clearly came across in his characterizations of those of his fellow Americans who were not as schooled in foreign policy as he (his discussion of his interactions with St. Louisans, whom he obviously considered to be hicks, was very revealing in this regard). Kennan, who had very fluent Russian and nearly bilingual German, seemed academic and remote to many of his Foreign Service colleagues, and often seemed more comfortable with foreigners than his own countrymen.
In addition, Kennan’s writing style, while eloquent, was at times so fussy and equivocating. At one point in his chapter on his Moscow ambassadorship, Kennan noted that he had been a reluctant diplomat, and was much happier in the world of Russian literature and culture than “the world of politics and diplomacy into which Fate had thrust me.” I would certainly agree with that assessment, and, on reflection, it is no wonder that he and Ambassador Toon did not get along: ideologically, they were poles apart.
As for me, I find Kennan and his thinking to be endlessly fascinating. I might disagree with many of his conclusions, but I would never fault his gift for description or his intellectual brilliance.