Kennan, George F(rost)
born Feb. 16, 1904, Milwaukee, Wis., U.S.
American diplomat and historian best known for his successful advocacy of a "containment policy" to oppose Soviet expansionism following World War II.
Upon graduation from Princeton in 1925, Kennan entered the foreign service. He was sent overseas immediately and spent several years in Geneva, Berlin, Tallinn, Riga, and other "listening posts" around the Soviet Union, with which the United States had no diplomatic relations at the time.
Anticipating the establishment of such relations, the State Department sent Kennan to the University of Berlin in 1929 to immerse himself in the study of Russian thought, language, and culture. He completed his studies in 1931 and in 1933 accompanied U.S. ambassador William C. Bullitt to Moscow following U.S. recognition of the Soviet government. Two years later he was assigned to Vienna, and he finished the decade with posts in Prague and Berlin.
Interned briefly by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War II, Kennan was released in 1942 and subsequently filled diplomatic posts in Lisbon and Moscow during the war. It was from Moscow in February 1946 that Kennan sent a cablegram enunciating the containment policy. Later that year he returned to the United States, and in 1947 he was named director of the State Department's policy-planning staff.
Kennan's views on containment were elucidated in a famous and highly influential article, signed "X," that appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine for July 1947 and that analyzed in detail the structure and psychology of Soviet diplomacy. In the article Kennan questioned the wisdom of the United States' attempts to conciliate and appease the Soviet Union. He suggested that the Russians, while still fundamentally opposed to coexistence with the West and bent on worldwide extension of the Soviet system, were acutely sensitive to the logic of military force and would temporize or retreat in the face of skillful and determined Western opposition to their expansion. Kennan then advocated U.S. counterpressure wherever the Soviets threatened to expand and predicted that such counterpressure would lead either to Soviet willingness to cooperate with the United States or perhaps eventually to an internal collapse of the Soviet government. This view subsequently became the core of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
Kennan accepted appointment as counselor to the State Department in 1949, but he resigned the following year to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He returned to Moscow in 1952 as U.S. ambassador but came back to the United States the following year after the Russians declared him persona non grata for remarks he made about Soviet treatment of Western diplomats. In 1956 he became permanent professor of historical studies at the institute in Princeton, a tenure broken only by a stint as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia (1961–63). In the late 1950s Kennan revised his containment views, advocating instead a program of U.S. "disengagement" from areas of conflict with the Soviet Union. He later emphatically denied that containment was relevant to other situations in other parts of the world—e.g., Vietnam.
A prolific and acclaimed author, Kennan won simultaneous Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards for Russia Leaves the War (1956) and Memoirs, 1925–1950 (1967).
Copyright © 1994-2002 Encyclopadia Britannica, Inc.
The coming of the Cold War , 1945–57
The symbolic first meeting of American and Soviet soldiers occurred at Torgau, Ger., on April 25, 1945. Their handshakes and toasts in beer and vodka celebrated their common victory over Nazi Germany and marked the collapse of old Europe altogether; but their inarticulate grunts and exaggerated smiles presaged the lack of communication in their relationship to come.
George Kennan predicted in his famous "Long Telegram" of 1946 and "X" article of 1947 that the Soviets would ultimately fail to digest the empire they had swallowed and would have to disgorge it. In the meantime, the West had to contain Soviet influence, neither retreating into isolationism nor overreacting militarily, and above all remaining confident about its basic human values. He was right. The most fundamental, long-range reason for the end of the Cold War was that Communism was based on profound contradictions and a misreading of human nature. So long as other nations refused to surrender to their fear, the Soviet system could never prevail. Perhaps the exhortations and policies of Reagan and Thatcher did determine the timing of the Soviet collapse, but the collapse was bound to come sooner or later.