Biography and History

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was a diplomat and a historian, noted especially for his influence on United States policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and for his scholarly expertise in the areas of Russian history and foreign policy. While with the Foreign Service, Kennan advocated a policy of "containment" that influenced United States relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and served in various positions in European embassies, as well as ambassador to the Soviet Union. His career as a historian was spent at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he continued to analyze the history of Russia, Soviet Union and United States foreign policies, and foreign affairs.

Kennan was educated at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin and earned his B.A. degree at Princeton University in 1925, where he studied history with an emphasis on modern European diplomacy. Following graduation, he entered the Foreign Service. His first post was as vice consul in Geneva, and in the next year he was transferred to Hamburg, Germany. In 1928, Kennan entered a training program though the Foreign Service, studying Russian language, history and culture at Berlin University. The United States did not yet have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and so Kennan was assigned to "listening posts" around the U.S.S.R. in Tallinn, Estonia (1927) and in Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania (1931-1933).

His first assignment in Moscow came in 1933 under William C. Bullitt, the first United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, aiding in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and the Kremlin for the first time since 1917. He held positions as third secretary from 1933 to 1934, second secretary from 1935 to 1936, and from 1944 to 1946, minister-counselor (the second highest rank at the embassy), first under W. Averell Harriman and then under General Walter Bedell Smith. During this period, he was also appointed to positions in Vienna (1935), Prague (1938), Berlin (1939), Lisbon (1942), and London (1944). Kennan was detained in Berlin for five months after United States' entry into World War II.

Kennan rose to prominence in February 1946 when he wrote what became known as the "Long Telegram." Written in response to an inquiry from the U.S. Treasury regarding Moscow's refusal to support the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the telegram outlined Kennan's assessment of the psychology of the leaders of the Soviet Union and provided principles on which the United States should base policies towards the Soviet Union. Kennan wrote that Stalin was "impervious to the logic of reason but highly sensitive to the logic of force," by which he meant primarily diplomatic and economic force more so than military. The telegram resonated in Washington, D.C.--although the interpretation of the Soviet threat became predominantly described as a military one--and Kennan became an influential figure in the State Department on Soviet affairs. Kennan further developed his views in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" published under the pseudonym X in Foreign Affairs in July 1947. In this article, he used the term "containment" to describe his philosophy for dealing with the spread of Soviet power and influence. Again, this was interpreted by others in Washington as a military strategy, although Kennan intended it to be primarily achieved through diplomacy, economic sanctions, and covert action--anything short of war. Containment became one of the primary rationales for United States' Cold War policies, including the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1949, the commitment of American forces in Southeast Asia in 1965, and the Reagan administration arms buildup during the 1980s.

In April 1946, Kennan returned to Washington, D.C., where he taught at the National War College, and in 1947, he was appointed director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. In this capacity, he was a principle architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of aid to help rebuild Western Europe following World War II. When Dean Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949, Kennan remained in the State Department as one of his principal advisors. However, during this period Kennan became increasingly critical of United States policy, especially the military interpretation of containment and the entry of UN troops into North Korea, and so in 1950 Kennan took a leave of absence to devote himself to research and scholarship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Kennan returned to the State Department in March 1952 when President Harry S. Truman appointed him Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. The assignment was short-lived, however. Kept under heavy surveillance by the Soviets, in October 1952 he compared conditions to those he suffered under his Nazi internment during World War II, and the Soviet government declared him persona non grata, which forced his return to the United States. Because of policy differences between Kennan and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (who found containment too passive), Dulles employed a technicality to force Kennan's retirement from the State Department in 1953.

He returned to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became a professor in the School of Historical Studies in 1956. Kennan became a prolific and respected diplomatic historian, studying modern European and Russian history, international relations, and American foreign policy and diplomacy. He also remained an important, often critical, voice in the ongoing debate about American foreign policy, advocating the use of diplomacy rather than military force and for foreign policy that was "very modest and restrained." Kennan was critical of the buildup of conventional and nuclear weapons during the arms race, which many argued for in the name of containment. He also advocated against military involvement in Vietnam, indicating that it was not an area of the world critical to American security. Later in his career, Kennan became a supporter of Russian and Soviet studies in the United States, identifying scholarship as a productive means to establish favorable relations with Moscow.

Over the course of his career, Kennan wrote numerous influential and critically acclaimed books, including American Diplomacy 1900-1950 (1951), Russia Leaves the War (1956), Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (1961), two volumes of memoirs (1967, 1972), The Decline of Bismarck's European Order (1979), The Nuclear Delusion (1982), and Around the Cragged Hill (1993). He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for Russia Leaves the War and the other for the first volume of his memoirs. Though he remained at the Institute for Advanced Study until his retirement in 1974, Kennan did return to government service briefly on two occasions, as ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 until 1963 for President John F. Kennedy and traveling to Switzerland in 1967 as a representative for the State Department to help convince Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Josef Stalin, to immigrate to the United States.

George Frost Kennan was born on February 16, 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Kossuth Kent Kennan, a lawyer, and Florence (James) Kennan. He met Annelise Sorensen of Norway while studying in Berlin and they married in 1931. The Kennans had four children: Grace Kennan Warnecke, Joan Kennan, Wendy Kennan, and Christopher J. Kennan. Through the course of his career, Kennan was the recipient of many honors for his work in the field of international affairs, including the Albert Einstein Peace Prize (1981), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1982), the Gold Medal in History of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984), the FDR Freedom from Fear Award (1987), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1989, the highest civilian honor in the United States). George Kennan died on March 17, 2005 in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 101.

Source: From the finding aid for MC076

  • Cyril E. Black Papers. 1932-1989 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0676

    Consists of papers of Cyril E. Black, a Princeton University professor of history.

  • George F. Kennan Papers. 1871-2005 (inclusive), 1950-2000 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC076

    George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was a diplomat and a historian, noted especially for his influence on United States policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and for his scholarly expertise in the areas of Russian history and foreign policy. Kennan's papers document his career as a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study and his time in the Foreign Service, and include his correspondence files, published and unpublished writings, and personal files.

  • George F. Kennan Papers. 1871-2005 (inclusive), 1950-2000 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC076

    George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was a diplomat and a historian, noted especially for his influence on United States policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and for his scholarly expertise in the areas of Russian history and foreign policy. Kennan's papers document his career as a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study and his time in the Foreign Service, and include his correspondence files, published and unpublished writings, and personal files.

  • John Lewis Gaddis Papers on George F. Kennan. 1982-1989 (inclusive).

    Call Number: MC256

    John Lewis Gaddis (1941- ) is a diplomatic historian noted for his analysis of the Cold War. The John Lewis Gaddis Papers on George F. Kennan contain interviews conducted by Gaddis for his authorized biography of noted diplomat and historian George F. Kennan and include transcripts and recordings of the interviews.