George Kennan’s ninety-two-year life spans a century with which he has grown progressively uneasy. On the first page of his new and absorbing collection of essays he calls the twentieth century “a tragic one in the history of European (including American) civilization.” Kennan is a historical and cultural pessimist who laments the hierarchy and order destroyed by World War I. To that war he traces the Bolshevik Revolution (“a calamity of epochal dimensions for the peoples upon whom it was imposed”), the rise of Nazism, World War II, the disintegration of Europe’s colonial empires, the introduction of nuclear weapons, and the cold war.

The career of this majestic and brooding figure abounds in contradiction. In 1946 Kennan invented the doctrine calling for the “containment” of the Soviet Union, but he then lost little time in rejecting it. A supreme stylist among foreign affairs writers, he carelessly expressed himself, on several occasions, in language that was grossly misinterpreted. Though acclaimed as a “realist,” he has been contending for fifty years that nuclear weapons—in his new book he extends the argument to all modern weapons—have ceased to be serviceable instruments of national policy. The most brilliant analyst of the Soviet Union ever to have come out of the American Foreign Service, he has been oddly tone-deaf when it came to politics in his own country. Even when wrong, he is usually more interesting than those who are right.

Whatever history’s ultimate view of Kennan—if a final verdict is possible on such an enigmatic man—he is sure to remain one of the dominant figures of the cold war period. His influence endures today. Four decades in the confines of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study have not slaked his appetite for analysis, prescription, and verbal combat. In At a Century’s Ending diverse subjects including the militarization of civil life, human rights, immigration, the nation-state, popular diplomacy, unrestrained freedom, universal democracy, and modernity itself come in for critical discussion in prose that has lost none of its sharpness.

Into his tenth decade, Kennan is still an international force. When Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Henry Kissinger’s strategist on Europe during the Nixon presidency, visited China early this year, he found several Chinese foreign policy experts poring over and annotating Kennan’s early works. They explained that containment had been the basis of American policy toward the Soviet Union; now that the United States was turning containment against China, they wanted to learn how it had started and evolved.


Though Kennan was the author of the containment strategy, after fifty years his views on it are still controversial. His famous “X” article, which unveiled the doctrine publicly in Foreign Affairs in 1947, combined a masterful analysis of hostile Soviet intentions with the recommendation to threaten to use force against Moscow’s expansionist designs. “X” urged “a policy of firm containment, designed 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.”

Kennan soon defected from his own views, an action which he painfully and unconvincingly tries to explain away in his present book. He claims that he never meant to give containment a military component, that he was talking about political containment of a political threat. But his own language gave him away. Paul Nitze, his successor as director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, recently recalled to me that there was no misunderstanding at the time about what containment meant. Kennan himself called for military intervention when North Korea, with Stalin’s blessing, invaded South Korea in 1950.

Kennan’s change of heart—for that is what it surely was—has led him to distrust force as an instrument of policy ever since, a remarkably consistent position for a man who has been in public life as long as he has. The reasons for his reversal are worth pondering. He believed that militarizing Europe’s territory around a superpower confrontation kept the Soviets from withdrawing from positions where they were overextended. He saw America’s over-weening role as corrupting Europe’s self-reliance and spawning a military-industrial complex in this country. He blamed the bipolarity of the cold war for elevating the United States to an arrogant, hegemonic status for which it was unsuited. In At a Century’s Ending he even contends that the cold war actually helped to preserve Moscow’s totalitarian regime.

Kennan’s dovish proclivities drew the scorn of Secretary of State Acheson and were rudely thrust aside as the United States began its four decades of military confrontation with Moscow. Along the way Kennan unsuccessfully opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, the creation of NATO, the rearmament of West Germany and its admission to NATO, the militarization of Central Europe, the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Germany, the doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons, the nuclear arms race throughout its course, the Vietnam War, and Ronald Reagan’s militaristic approach to the Soviet Union. Not the least of the paradoxes about Kennan is that the two primary instruments of containment—the NATO alliance and US nuclear strategy—were to provoke the vigorous and persistent criticism of the man who first made the theoretical case for them.


Kennan was, of course, far more than an advocate of lost causes. He was also the primary architect of the Marshall Plan, which reflected the best elements of his vision of an independent, responsible, and creative Europe. That, in my view, was his finest achievement. He also helped to moderate American occupation policy in Japan, allowing the Japanese more scope for self-government. He was among the first to seize on the opportunities created by Tito’s break with Stalin. And he played a critical part in the rapid and necessary American response to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Still, there is a sense of despondency and even regret in his century’s-end review of his achievements in making and carrying out those policies. He writes as a prophet without much honor, whose hope for a united, nuclear-free Europe, assisted but not dominated by America, was ignored by Truman and Acheson.

Now that the collapse of the Soviet Union has ended the containment stage of history, it is worth asking whether Kennan was right or wrong. What if his advice had been followed in the late 1940s? What if Germany had been reunited and neutralized, if Europe’s security had depended on a unilateral American guarantee rather than a multilateral alliance such as NATO, if the Western nations had not relied on nuclear weapons, if Europe had been left largely on its own to be led (as Kennan hoped) by France, and if America’s “leadership” (to Atlanticists) or “protectorate” (to revisionists) in Europe had never been established?

The policies Kennan opposed have now succeeded spectacularly, notwithstanding their huge costs—including, as he puts it, “enormously bloated military and military industrial establishments.” It thus is easy today to dismiss his counter-arguments, which depended on the conviction that at no time did the Soviets intend to attack Western Europe. The Americans who guided Western policy during the cold war chose not to rely on Kennan’s belief in Soviet restraint. They preferred to assess the USSR’s military capacities rather than its intentions, and they were impressed by the size and pattern of deployment of Soviet conventional and nuclear forces. So we will never really know what an uncoerced Moscow might have done.

My own guess is that Kennan’s approach was wrong. It seems likely that without a credible Western threat, Stalin and his successors would have dragged a weak, united, and neutralized Germany into their sphere of influence, thus stifling its economic and democratic development and fueling German revanchism. Eastern Europe would probably have been tied down even more tightly than it was—no Titoist Yugoslavia would have lasted, and there would have been no Hungarian revolution, Polish October, or Prague Spring. Stalin and, more dangerously, Khrushchev could have been counted on to probe and press at any signs of Western military weakness. Finally, without the American security umbrella and the engine of German growth, it is unlikely that Western Europe could have achieved its postwar economic success and the limited political union it now accepts.

If George Kennan the policy maker had paid more attention to George Kennan the historian and analyst, he might have had more sympathy for the consensus in favor of a military deterrent to the Soviet threat. No historian has written more brilliantly on the malign essence and motives of Soviet communism. His “long telegram,” drafted in 1946 while he was deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Moscow, fell like a meteor on official Washington. Its analysis of Soviet conduct, unmatched before or since, makes it deservedly the most famous diplomatic dispatch in American history. In the telegraphese of the time Kennan described the Soviets as so insecure that “they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.” The cable arrived just ten days before Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri. Together Kennan and Churchill changed the West’s treatment of the Soviets from wartime ally to hostile rival. They were not wrong to do so.

Kennan had no illusions about Stalin. In fact, nobody has described the Soviet dictator more convincingly. Kennan writes in At a Century’s Ending:

Stalin appears to me as a man to whom the application of the term “scoundrel” would be an egregious understatement. Envy, suspicion, a very real tendency to sadism, and a truly unlimited and insane jealousy were, in addition to an equally unlimited ambition, his driving qualities.

As a historian Kennan accurately described Stalin’s rapacity at the outset of World War II. He wrote that the Soviet leader wanted not only to retain the Baltic states and the Eastern European territory seized through his pact with Hitler, but also to take military and political control of Finland, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, to gain influence in the Balkans, “and so on.”


After the war, having dealt professionally with the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, Kennan had no use for the view that the West was primarily, or even equally, responsible for the cold war—a position that separates him from many on the American left who claim him as one of theirs. In the face of an adversary whom Kennan regularly described as paranoid, xenophobic, and inherently aggressive, it is difficult to understand why his unparalleled perception of the Soviet challenge failed to affect his inadequate recommendations for dealing with it.


However much his aversion to force may have undermined his contribution as a policy maker, Kennan has written with great wisdom about the central questions of foreign policy. His most distinguished works, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin and Soviet-American Relations, 1917—1920, are classic descriptions of the conflicting objectives, the confused communications, and the illusions of cooperation between vastly different cultures. Yet from the very beginning Kennan has seen America and Russia as countries which, though never meant to be partners, were not inevitably condemned to be enemies.

These and other books are conspicuously readable because their author combines a spirited story with a novelist’s feel for character. When Kennan and his friend Chip Bohlen arrived in Moscow in 1934 to help open the new American Embassy, Bohlen noticed that the thirty-year-old Kennan was as consumed by Russian literature as by Soviet political affairs. At that time he had a plan—unfortunately unrealized—to write a biography of Chekhov, whose work may have helped him to acquire his keen sense of the nuances of human emotion. Like Chekhov and another model, Gibbon, Kennan writes with such beauty and precision that it is almost impossible to change a word without reducing the quality of the prose.

There is always a didactic element in his historical and analytical writings. Whether he is cataloging the follies of American intervention in Russia in 1918, denouncing US policy in the cold war, or prescribing how to deal with post-Gorbachev Russia, he preaches that the American approach must be cautious about any kind of intervention and carefully adapted to volatile conditions in Russia. His constant plea is for restraint, measure, and balance—not bad advice for any season. He wrote in 1960:

Let us not repeat the mistake of believing that either good or evil is total. Let us beware, in future, of wholly condemning an entire people and wholly exculpating others…. No other people, as a whole, is entirely our enemy. No people at all—not even ourselves—is entirely our friend.

Apart from his reluctance to contemplate the use of force, Kennan has never changed his view on the need for a combination of firmness and flexibility toward the Russians. In 1946 he wrote a set of ten rules for American policy toward the Soviets, the first three of which were: “Don’t act chummy with them; don’t assume a community of aims with them which does not really exist; don’t make fatuous gestures of good will.” Fifty years later, in At a Century’s Ending, he says:

One must never try to humiliate [the Russians] before world opinion or before each other; and one must take pains not to frighten them. One must remember that they are basically insecure people, and can be driven by fear or concern for their prestige to do things that are not in their best interests or in ours.

Those two passages should be pinned over the desk of everybody who negotiates with Moscow.

Kennan’s counsels of prudence are all the more worthwhile today, when Russia is going through a stage combining humiliation and heightened nationalism. In his new book he opposes the expansion of NATO closer to Russian borders, a decision which the Clinton administration has foolishly and prematurely taken. It is a mark of Kennan’s consistency (he never thought much of NATO anyway) that a cogent argument against NATO expansion appears in his last dispatch from Moscow in 1952: “As one moves one’s bases and military facilities towards the Soviet frontiers, there comes a point where they tend to create the very thing they were designed to avoid.” In At a Century’s Ending, he adds: “It never pays…for one great power to take advantage of the momentary weakness or distraction of another great power in order to force upon it concessions it would never have accepted in normal circumstances.”


As a diplomat, Kennan never approached the stature he attained as a historian and policy maker. Among the three great American experts on Russia, he lacked the pragmatism and political savvy of Chip Bohlen and the negotiating talent of Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson, whom he gracefully calls “the best man we’ve ever had in dealing with the Soviet regime.” He was unusually cerebral for a Foreign Service officer, with a fragile ego perhaps too quick to feel a slight. Courtly and unfailingly kind, he was often too distant from members of his staff to score highly in what the Foreign Service now calls “personal skills”—a term he would undoubtedly, and understandably, abhor. Paul Nitze remembers his leadership of the policy planning staff in the late 1940s as a mixture of diversity and rigidity. “Kennan encouraged the most exciting and spirited debates, then he would go off by himself and write the policy recommendation. None of us was ever permitted to change a word.”

Kennan’s stint as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 lasted only four and a half months, during which time he was strictly isolated from unofficial contacts with Russians, then standard treatment of American diplomats. He was declared persona non grata by Stalin’s regime for a comment he made to a reporter at Tempelhof airport in West Berlin. Asked how diplomats lived in Moscow, he compared their treatment to the five-month period of his internment in Hitler’s Germany in 1941 and 1942. Anastas Mikoyan, one of Stalin’s close advisers, told Bohlen later that the Soviet government respected Kennan but could not tolerate such a hostile statement made in the capital of the Third Reich. Kennan, with typical self-criticism, called his remarks in Berlin foolish; they were certainly unprofessional.

In Belgrade, where he served as ambassador under Kennedy, he established a productive personal relationship with Tito, whom, he had persuaded Washington to rescue after Stalin’s expulsion of the Yugoslav leader from the Communist movement. In this case personal diplomacy caused problems, as it often does. When Tito expressed “understanding” for Khrushchev’s unexpected and unilateral detonation of a multimegaton nuclear bomb during the Belgrade conference of non-aligned countries in 1961, the ambassador told his staff that he felt personally undercut. And when the US Congress ignored his objections and voted to curtail most-favored-nation status for Yugoslavia—a decision which no ambassador would have been in a position to affect—he decided to resign.

Kennan never lost his interest in the complexities of Yugoslavia; in fact he had a kind of clairvoyance about the country. As a new ambassador to Belgrade, I sought his views in September 1989, long before violence had broken out. He told me with complete assurance that the country would fracture and the United States would be dragged in, a comment that showed the degree to which Kennan’s mind worked at a different and deeper level from the minds of the rest of us. He once reflected to a young Foreign Service officer in Belgrade that scholarship and diplomacy were very different; scholars did one thing for a long time, while diplomats had to cover many things for a short time. Though better fitted for scholarship, Kennan as a diplomat was serious, awesomely well-informed, at times inspiring, and always honorable.


George Kennan was one of the favored few who made possible a creative decade of American foreign policy. From the long telegram and the Marshall Plan in the mid-Forties to Tommy Thompson’s skillful negotiation of Austria’s neutrality in 1955, American diplomats helped to build a stable postwar world and a confident West. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event which Kennan foresaw back in 1947, the 1990s have become another such hinge period. It began auspiciously with the greatest diplomatic achievement in Europe since the 1940s—the peaceful reunification of Germany on terms much better than Kennan had proposed or even dreamed of in the 1950s. But will our own age produce people with the breadth of vision of Truman, Marshall, Acheson, Nitze, Bohlen, Thompson, or Kennan? It seems doubtful.

Looking at Kennan’s entire career, one sees a certain symmetry and balance. He began, and has remained, a man of the north. A native of Wisconsin he started his Foreign Service career in Hamburg, Berlin, Tallinn, and Riga. The countries he studied most deeply were Russia and Germany, and he still summers in Norway with his wife Annelise. His northern predilections may be a factor in his intellectual austerity, his elitism, his aversion to universal values, his sometimes disquieting susceptibility to authoritarian political structures (as with his sympathy for Portuguese strongman Salazar), his ascetic criticism of modern life, his scrupulous honesty, and his dislike of excess in both policy and politics. If so, the world to which Kennan has been particularly drawn may be coming into a new prominence, for the reunification of Germany, the liberation of Eastern Europe, the entry of the Scandinavian nations into the European Union, and the transformation of Russia have moved Europe’s center to the north and east. The intellectual and cultural forces that shaped him so long ago may again be in the ascendant.

As an advocate of the nineteenth-century balance-of-power school and a critic of Wilsonian internationalism, Kennan may seem old-fashioned today. At a Century’s Ending shows, however, that he is no more old-fashioned in 1996 than he was in 1946. Perhaps less so—in his new book he argues against ecological deterioration even more eloquently than he did in 1960. Much of Kennan’s writing seems, in fact, unbounded by time. He has tutored three generations of foreign affairs professionals in the essential features of a country which presented the principal foreign problem for Americans who have now reached the age of six, and his insights into Russian culture and sensibilities now seem as pertinent as ever.

For a man who hates moralism and scorns human rights policies, Kennan at his best has always had an implicit sense of the moral fitness of things. His appeals for balance, humility, and honesty reflect his view of what America ought to be like. There is nothing old-fashioned about his retrospective view of American foreign policy: “The success of our diplomacy has always depended, and will continue to depend, on its inherent honesty and openness of purpose and on the forthrightness with which it is carried out.” The clarity and decency of such thoughts will extend the reach of this extraordinary American beyond the century he deplores but on which he has had a lasting and invigorating effect.

This Issue

August 8, 1996