Exhibition marks centennial of alumnus and noted diplomat
By Ruth Stevens
Princeton NJ -- Like many students who graduate from college, George Kennan wasn't sure what he wanted to do after earning his bachelor's degree in history from Princeton in 1925. He decided to enter the foreign service, attributing his decision primarily to "the feeling that I did not know what else to do."
Kennan went on to pursue a long and distinguished career as a diplomat and historian. He is most renowned as the author of the "Long Telegram," which ranks in the annals of U.S. foreign policy documents with Washington's Farewell Address, the Monroe Doctrine and Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Feb. 22, 1946, message to Secretary of State James Byrnes advocated for a new approach to U.S.-Soviet relations that profoundly influenced the direction of American foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II and helped to define the terms of the Cold War.
An exhibition marking Kennan's 100th birthday will go on display Sunday, Nov. 9, in the Main Exhibition Gallery of Firestone Library. The opening will include a 3 p.m. lecture by Kennan's official biographer and a reception (see related story below).
"The Life and Times of George F. Kennan: A Centennial Exhibition" will run through April 18. On Feb. 20 -- close to Kennan's 100th birthday on Feb. 16 -- the library is planning an academic conference featuring noted experts in foreign relations.
The exhibition will feature the 8,000-word, 17-page telegram, which will be on display -- in an 18-foot case -- for the first time in its entirety. The items on display are drawn primarily from the collections of the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, where Kennan's papers have been housed since 1968. In addition to materials from his papers, the exhibition will include historical photographs, artifacts, posters and political cartoons as well as information about Kennan and his world culled from several other collections in Mudd, including those of former Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and former Secretaries of State Robert Lansing and John Foster Dulles.
While Kennan, who has lived in Princeton for many years, was not actively involved in organizing the exhibition, University archivists did obtain his permission to reveal some items -- including excerpts from his diary -- that previously have not been available to the public. A certain portion of Kennan's papers concerning his early personal life are closed, only to be opened after his death.
The story of U.S.-Soviet relations
"The story of George Kennan's life is in many ways the story of U.S.-Soviet relations," said Dan Linke, University archivist and curator of public policy papers in Mudd Library, who organized the exhibition with Nancy Shader, assistant archivist for public services, and John Weeren, special projects archivist.
Kennan entered the foreign service in 1926, beginning his overseas assignments in Geneva and Hamburg. He was selected for special training in Russian affairs in 1928, and served in Estonia and Latvia. In 1933, he traveled to the newly recognized Soviet Union with Ambassador William Bullitt, remaining there for about four years.
After working at the Russian desk for the State Department back in the United States, Kennan spent a short time in Prague before being transferred to Berlin at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He was interned for five months when Germany declared war on the United States in 1941, living in a former Frankfurt hotel under the watchful eye of the Gestapo.
After a short time in Lisbon and in London, Kennan returned to Moscow in 1944 as minister-counselor of the American embassy. It was during this time when the Soviet Union was expanding its influence in Europe that he dispatched the "Long Telegram."
Kennan, by then an experienced diplomat and Soviet expert, found the efforts of the United States to work collaboratively with the Soviet Union in the wake of Germany's surrender a source of immense frustration.
"He saw little to be gained and much to be lost by cultivating a power whose past and present behavior falsified hopes for a constructive partnership, and he advanced this view repeatedly with little apparent effect," Weeren said. "Then, in response to an inquiry from the Department of the Treasury as to why the Soviet Union would not support the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Kennan resolved to unleash the 'whole truth' as he perceived it."
In this opus, he argued that the Soviet Union constituted a "political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi" but that this challenge was "within our power to solve -- and without recourse to any general military conflict."
Less than two weeks after Kennan dispatched his telegram, Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain Speech" in Fulton, Mo. "The Cold War had begun in earnest, and Kennan, now in the limelight, would help to define its terms," Weeren said. In his memoirs, Kennan said the success of the telegram changed his life.
A year later, in July 1947, Kennan wrote an article incorporating the tenets of the telegram in Foreign Affairs magazine. Because of his position with the State Department, he insisted that "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" be published anonymously -- only the second time in the magazine's 26-year history. Known as the "X article," because the byline was "X," the piece proposed a balance of power approach tempered with "realism" toward America's former wartime ally. It wasn't long before the author's identity became known and the article was widely disseminated, with excerpts published in Life and Readers' Digest.
In his memoirs, Kennan said that he regretted the many interpretations inferred from his writing, stating that he felt like he had "loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witness[ed] its path of destruction in the valley below."
"While he promulgated a subtle and nuanced strategy," Linke said, "the policy was dubbed simply 'containment.' For much of the Cold War, 'containment' would be the foundation of American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, though there were significant departures from Kennan's original understanding of the term."
'Persona non grata'
Kennan left the American embassy in Moscow in 1946 to teach at the National War College and then to serve as an adviser on major foreign policy issues at the State Department. In April 1952, he was appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union.
"Though it should have been the highlight of his diplomatic career," Linke said, "he found the ambassadorship isolating both personally and politically. With little guidance from Washington, Kennan found himself fruitlessly confronting the challenges of Soviet policies and enduring Cold War tactics such as electronic eavesdropping, as well as constant police surveillance that isolated him from the Soviet people.
"In an off-hand remark to a reporter while traveling through Berlin, Kennan described his life in Moscow as only slightly better than his internment under the Nazis a decade earlier. The comment was reported widely throughout Germany, and, infuriated by the remark, the Soviet government declared him 'persona non grata' in October, forcing him to leave his post."
Kennan continued to have a role in shaping foreign policy. In the summer of 1953, he helped the newly elected Eisenhower administration formulate its policy toward the Soviet Union. He joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton on a permanent basis in 1956, served as ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963 and published his "Memoirs: 1925-1950" in 1967. The autobiography was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following year -- the second such award for Kennan, who also was honored with a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for his 1956 work, "Russia Leaves the War."
He continued writing books at a rate of two to four per decade, with many translated into other languages. His most recent volume -- a family history -- was issued in 2000.
Grace and frankness
"George Kennan is an example of how government can work," said Linke, who has been assembling the exhibition since last spring. "He was trained since the 1920s as a Soviet expert and, at a critical point in time, he was able to step up."
Linke said Kennan's papers are notable because of both the grace and the frankness with which they are written. "Reading Mr. Kennan's memoirs, one gets the sense that he's a very dedicated and selfless public servant. His memoirs are written with such grace that they're a pleasure to read. They're also frank and self-critical in a way you don't see in modern memoirs."
"If, then, I was the author in 1947 of a 'doctrine' of containment, it was a doctrine that lost much of its rationale with the death of Stalin and with the development of the Soviet-Chinese conflict," Kennan wrote in his memoirs. "I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance."