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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 280

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This is the grave of George Kennan.

Born in 1904 in Milwaukee to a tax lawyer and his wife who died two months after her baby was born, Kennan was groomed from an early start for a successful career. His father remarried and when he was 8, he was sent to Germany with his stepmother to learn the language. He gradated from Princeton in 1925 and then went into the Foreign Service, which had just opened its doors as an agency. An expert in German and Russian, he spent much of his career in central and eastern Europe. He would also learn Polish, French, Czech, Portuguese, and Norwegian. He became particularly interested in the Soviet Union while assigned to Latvia. He moved to the embassy in Moscow when the U.S. normalized relations with the Soviet Union in 1933. But he was highly skeptical of the ability of the two nations to cooperate and as someone on the ground during Stalin’s purges, his pessimism grew even stronger. He had a terrible relationship with Joseph Davies, the ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 30s and who handwaved away the purges. Davies wanted Kennan gone and Kennan considered resigning. He ended up back in Washington at the State Department’s Russian desk. He remained pretty unhappy with his career to the end of World War II. He believed he wasn’t taken seriously and that his talents were being wasted.

But then Averill Harriman brought him back to Moscow as his deputy chief. It was there, believing Harry Truman and other American policymakers did not understand the threat of the Soviets, that he composed his Long Telegram. The impetus for this was the State Department trying to understand why the USSR was not cooperating with ideas such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Kennan’s 5,500 word response to Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes laid out the policy of containment, claiming Stalin needed to see the world as a set of conspiratorial enemies and the only way to handle this was to contain him where he had power. The telegram was pretty racist–blaming the characteristics of the “Orientals” to explain some of this. In fact, Kennan was pretty racist overall and toward the end of his life began complaining that Mexican migration was destroying the nation. But in the overall scheme, Kennan wasn’t wrong in diagnosing Stalin’s mentality.

The attention caught the attention of James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense and a strong hawk concerning the USSR. Forrestal brought Kennan back to the U.S. and pushed him to publish a revised version of the telegram in Foreign Affairs in 1947. It was published anonymously, but it did not take long for Kennan’s name to be associated with it. It was quite controversial with many detractors who still saw hope in the war alliance being extended into the peace. Kennan was now a powerful player, which he had always wanted for himself. He long claimed his early statements were misunderstood, that he saw the Soviets as more nuanced and that the Soviets were never likely to attack the U.S. But this was not clear in the article and given the lack of nuance that would define American policy toward global communism in the aftermath, maybe he couldn’t have made a difference on this even if he had tried.

Anyway, Kennan’s peak influence was in the late 40s. George Marshall made him a close advisor when he was Secretary of State. Kennan was a big supporter of the Marshall Plan and of covert funding to non-communist leftist groups in Europe. He also was a major advocate for normalizing relations with Franco’s Spain as an anti-communist bulwark. This political anti-communism would lead the U.S. into a moral morass through the Cold War, as now giving money to fascists and holding military exercises with his army was supposedly in the nation’s interests. However, when Dean Acheson replaced Marshall in 1949, Kennan’s influence declined as Acheson believed a military response rather than a political one was necessary to contain communism. Kennan, a very touchy and insecure man, was furious. He opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb, opposed NSC 68, opposed the rearmament of Germany. Finally, Truman named him ambassador to the Soviet Union. But he hated it there now because he was constantly followed by the secret police and couldn’t interact with Soviet citizens. He was kicked out of the Soviet Union when he compared his conditions there to the time he was in Germany in 1941 and was interned there for a few months before he and other foreign staff were returned to the U.S. Given that nothing insulted the Russians more than a comparison to the Nazis, who they always saw as the real enemy as opposed to the United States and global capitalism, his time there was over immediately.

Kennan returned to Washington and had some influence in the Eisenhower administration, despite a bad relationship with John Foster Dulles. He became somewhat close to Kennedy during the 1960 administration and received a choice of being the ambassador to Poland or Yugoslavia, choosing the latter. Kennan wanted to improve relations with Tito as a somewhat independent communist but the Bay of Pigs pretty much killed that dead because the Yugoslavs already believed that the CIA was the real power player in American foreign policy and thus the U.S. government couldn’t be trusted. He lobbied Congress to improve relations with Yugoslavia but instead more restrictions were put in place. Disgusted, Kennan resigned in 1963.

Kennan spent the rest of his working life in academia, where he was always more comfortable than in diplomacy and politics. He became a faculty member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1956 and while there, wrote a mere 17 books, many of them prizewinning, including Russia Leaves the War and his autobiography. He often criticized American foreign policy, especially the Vietnam War for being completely irrelevant to American interests. He also criticized the arms race of the Reagan era. At the end of his very long life, his body was beginning to give out but his brain was not. Kennan laid into the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a series of lies and called the Bush’s administration’s attempts to connect Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda, “pathetically unsupportive and unreliable.”

George Kennan died in 2005. He is buried in Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey, along with his wife of 73 years.

If you would like this series to visit other critical figures of the early Cold War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jimmy Byrnes is buried in Columbia, South Carolina, for instance. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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