ALUMNI DAY PRINCIPALS: Posed in the Raycroft Library before the luncheon are L. to R. Ambassador George F. Kennan ’25, President Dodds, Pyne Prize winner William Ruddick ’53, and W.H. Jackson ’24, chairman of the President’s committee on psychological warfare, who introduced Kennan.
Alan W. Richards.

The text printed here represents about three-fourths of Mr. Kennan’s address at the Alumni Day Luncheon.

No one can complain today of the volume of time and effort devoted in American colleges and universities to instruction about foreign affairs. I am sure that there is not a liberal arts curriculum in the country which does not include courses or activities in this field, and many of the technical institutions are now also beginning to include such courses.

The reasons behind this expansion of international studies are plainly ones with which no one can quarrel. The development surely reflects, in the main, a realization of the importance of our participation in world affairs and of the extent to which understanding of world affairs has been recognized as a part of constructive citizenship in our country.

There are people, I am sure, who would feel that the high volume of instruction in this field is in itself the guaranty of a fairly respectable measure of achievement. These people would argue that some international affairs instruction is obviously better than none at all, and that therefore this impressive volume of activity must be by and large productive of useful results, regardless of the content of the courses.

About this I have my doubts. I am not at all sure that there is any virtue in teaching people about international affairs, aside from such virtue as may reside in the tenor of the teaching itself. Since the relevant factual material is infinite, embracing in the last analysis practically everything there is to know about the human family, this is a field in which the pursuit of knowledge without understanding is peculiarly pointless and useless. This being the case, mere volume of instruction does not guarantee anything at all in the way of results. If instruction does not proceed from a realistic understanding of the subject it can be worse than useless. I think anyone who has lectured extensively about foreign affairs will have had the same experience I have had – of noting that the questions asked by simple and relatively uneducated people are often more sensible and penetrating than those asked by people who have had a good deal of teaching on these subjects, but have been taught the wrong way…

It is important to remember that international affairs is a subject, not a discipline, and accordingly should not be taught at the price of the neglect of its own component parts. When I say it is a subject, not a discipline, what I mean is that it is a mistake to think of international affairs as anything outside the regular context of life – as anything, that is, which a man could hope to understand without having to understand things much more basic.

There is no such thing as foreign affairs in the abstract. The relations between states are part of the whole great problem of politics – of the behavior of man as a political animal They are inseparably connected with all of the other aspects of the fundamental human problem of power that lies at the heart of all politics: the problems of how the freedom of choice of the individual, or of the organized society, is to be limited in order to repress chaos and insure the good order necessary to the continuation of civilization.

We Americans have a strange, and to me disturbing, attitude toward this subject of power. We don’t like the word. We don’t like the concept. We are suspicious of people who talk about it. We like to feel that the adjustment of conflicting interests is something that can be taken care of by juridical norms and institutional devices, voluntarily accepted and therefore not involving violence to the feelings or interests of anyone. We like to feel that this is the way our own life is arranged. We like to feel that if this principle were to be understood and observed by others as it is by us, this would put an end to many of these ghastly misunderstandings and conflicts that have marked our time.

But we ignore the fact that this things called power – whether or not we like the name – underlies our own society as it underlies every other order of human affairs distinguishable from chaos. Such things as order and civilization are not self-engendering. They do not flow just form themselves or even from any universal and enlightened understanding of political institutions in the abstract…

We must [recognize] the fact that such a thing as power does exist and must exist and is, in fact, not a regrettable departure from the norm of social decorum, but a necessity of civilization, flowing form certain facts about human nature, certain imperfections if you will, that are quite basic, that have been there since the beginning of time, and that are not going to be corrected by any manmade device, whether institutional or educational. It is these things I conceive the Church to have in mind when it speaks of “original sin.” They are things that provide one of the main keys to the understanding of history, insofar as we are capable of understanding it at all. They lie at the heart of our problem of living together as human beings within the borders of this land. And they also lie at the heart – and this is the burden of my song – of our problem of living side by side with other human societies within the broader framework of this planet.

Whoever would understand foreign affairs, therefore, cannot and will not do it by understanding merely the intricacies of tariffs or the various classifications of treaties or the ways in which the United Nations Charter differs from the Covenant of the League of Nations or the techniques of sampling mass opinion – at least not by understanding these things alone. International affairs are primarily a matter of the behavior of governments. But the behavior of governments is in turn a matter of the behavior of individual man in the political context, and of the workings of all those basic impulses – national feeling, charity, ambition, fear, jealousy, egotism, and group attachment – which are the stuff of his behavior in the community of other men. Whoever does not understand what is taking place in the inter-relationships of nations. And he will not learn these things from any courses that purport to deal with international affairs alone. He will learn them only from those things which have been recognized for thousands of years as the essentials of humanistic study: from history itself, and from all those more subtle and revealing expressions of man’s nature that go by the name of art and literature.

I would say, therefore: let the international affairs course stand as an addendum to basic instruction in the humanities. Let it stand as an exercise in which the student is told to take those things that he has already learned about the characteristics of the human animal and to note in what curious and marvelous ways they find their ultimate expression in the behavior of governments. Let foreign relations be viewed as one area, an extremely important one, in which these laws of nature work themselves out. But let the teaching of the subject not be permitted to obscure its basic components. Let no one be permitted to think that he is learned in something called a “science” of international relations unless he is learned in the essentials of the political process from the grass roots up and has been taught to look soberly and unsparingly, but also with charity and sympathy, at his fellow human beings. International affairs are not a science. And there is no understanding of international affairs that does not embrace understanding of the human individual.

If these principles are observed – and only, in my opinion, if they are observed – will we be able to free ourselves from the enervating strain of utopianism that has been present in the teaching of international affairs in our country in recent decades. By this I mean teaching that portrays incorrectly the nature of our world environment and our relation to it and encourages students to disregard and the urgent real requirements of international life in favor of the cultivation of artificial and impractical visions of world betterment….

It is my conviction that the short-comings in the teaching of international affairs, and primarily the leanings toward shallow and utopian interpretations, represent, in their ultimate effect, a most important ceiling on our ability to handle ourselves effectively in world affairs. They find their reflection very markedly in the great commercial mass media, with all their enormous secondary educational responsibility; and through them, and through other channels as well, they place their stamp on the ability of men in government to understand the nature of their problems and to react to those problems intelligently. This is admittedly largely a question of general educational level, and not just of the philosophical tenor of courses on foreign affairs; but that is precisely my point. Until we can achieve a deeper and more realistic understanding generally among the influential strata of this country, as to what is really involved in the process of international relations, I fear we will not succeed in reducing appreciably the number of bewildering and painful surprises our people derive from the unfolding of international events, or the instance of recrimination and bitterness on the domestic plane to which such surprises often give rise.

If the young men of this day are to be trained to look clearly and intelligently on America’s foreign relations, I would say that the teaching to which they are subjected must be stern and uncompromising. It must be founded in humility and renunciation of easy effects. It must exclude all that is Pollyannish and superficial. It must reject utopianism and every form of idealism not founded in an honest and unsparing recognition of the nature of man. It must free itself from the tyranny of slogans, of fashionable words, and of semantic taboos. It must proceed from a recognition that the understanding of this subject can never be more simply acquired than the understanding of its basic component, which is man himself.

So much for the teaching of the understanding of international affairs. Now a word about the teaching of the practice of it. There are a number of institutions in the country engaged, either entirely or partly, in this sort of teaching. I think they have done fine work, our own Woodrow Wilson School in particular. I think that they deserve every support. What I am about to say is not in criticism of them but rather by way of defense of them against the pressures to which I know they must from time to time be subjected.

The participation of individual Americans in international activity takes a great variety of forms. That is true even within the framework of government work alone. This variety is so great that no institution could hope to give what could be called complete vocational training, in the strict sense of the word, for work in the international field. A man who enters the Foreign Service of the United States or goes abroad in the employ of any great American concern, commercial or philanthropic, is apt to find himself dealing with the most amazing diversity of problems. This lies in the nature of international life itself, and of necessity – whatever the man’s function – of reconciling conflicting national outlooks and customs.

As far as I can see, the only qualities that bind together the ability of people to measure up to these various sorts of functions are the general qualities of understanding, adaptability, tact, and common sense. Certainly that is true of the Foreign Service of the United States.

But it has been borne in upon me with great force on many occasions in the course of a Foreign Service career that these qualities I have been talking about are more ones of character than of intellect. Both things are involved here, of course; and I am not sure that there is any full and valid distinction between them. The man of real character is usually not lacking in a certain sort of wisdom; and the really wise man is never without character; for understanding in the deepest sense, involved knowledge of self; and knowledge of one’s self requires an effort of the will as well as of the intellect and something of the struggle with conscience which is the very essence of man’s moral growth. But I do not wish to get lost in terminology. Let me put it this way. In order that a man may be useful in the tasks of service in the international field, he requires dignity both of the intellect and of character. The two are linked together in curious ways, and what I am talking about here may be a matter of emphasis. But as between the two, it is character which in my opinion is unquestionably the more important and upon which the emphasis of the training should like.

As one who has been in charge of Foreign Service establishments at one time or another, I can say without hesitation that I would like my subordinates to be well-disciplined both in mind and in character; but if I had to choose, I would take any day the man on whose character I could depends, even though I had to nurse him along in his thinking, rather than the man whose mind might have been trained but whose character was unformed or undependable. The qualities of honor, loyalty, generosity, consideration for others, and sense of obligation to others, have been the guts of usefulness and effectiveness in the Foreign Service, as I have known it. They may be that in other walks of life, too, for all I know; but I am speaking here only of work in the foreign field, which I know.

This was true even in the more distant days, when government was easier to be a part of, when the relationship of the individual officer to his superiors rested on rather old-fashioned assumptions that made things rather simple and uncomplicated for both parties and permitted the officer to concentrate his attention almost entirely on the external aspects of his work. But how much truer it is today, when so much more is asked of the individual and so little help is given him. In our present controversial age, when the growing awareness of the responsibilities of citizenship and the sudden impact of the hideous problem of human disloyalty are whipping our established institutions about like trees in a storm, the position of the professional civil servant can become the center of some of the most severe strains and tensions our society knows. In this day of bigness and impersonality, of security clearances and loyalty investigations, of swollen staffs and managerial specialists – in this day, in short, of the fading vitality of the individual relationship in government – it requires a special manliness and fortitude for the civil servant to stride confidently along the path of his duties, to retain his serenity of mind and confidence in the future, to find the deeper roots of understanding of his own country and the deeper sources of faith in the utility of what he is doing.

In all these things the official will not be much helped by memorized facts or by acquired techniques. He will not be much helped by erudition, as distinct from understanding. He will be helped primarily by those qualities of courage and resolution that make it possible for men to have that quality we call independence of character, to face the loneliness and opprobrium this sometimes involves, and to stand up like men for their friends and their beliefs and their sense of duty to the national tradition.

Now it is my impression, from the recollection of my days as an undergraduate, as well as from the associations I have had with the University in recent years, that the things I have been talking about here – namely, understanding based on a firm grasp of the humanities, and character based on a uncompromising integrity in all personal associations – are the very essence of a Princeton education and represent goals to which this University has clung in the face of very considerable pressures of the time which tended to divert it in other directions. My plea, therefore, is not that this University depart one jot from its established principles when it approaches the problem of teaching international affairs. It is rather that it not permit itself to be persuaded by anybody that there is anything in this subject of international relations that makes redundant any part of the traditional Princeton training or calls for anything in particular beyond what this Princeton training aims to achieve, and does when it is at its best.

If men on this campus want to prepare themselves for work in the international field, then, I would say: let them read their Bible and their Shakespeare, their Plutarch and their Gibbon, perhaps even their Latin and their Greek, and let them guard as the most previous of their possessions that concept of personal conduct which has grown up in this institution around the honor system, but of which the honor system is only a part and a symbol. Let them guard that code of behavior which means that men learn to act toward each other with honor and truthfulness and loyalty, to bestow confidence where confidence is asked, and to build within themselves those qualities of self-discipline and self-restraint on which alone – as it seems to me – the integrity of a public service must be founded, if it is to rest secure.

If these things are clung to and cultivated, then Princeton will be doing what is most important to prepare her sons to confront the problems of international life, whether as citizens or as public servants. Whatever else can be taught them about the immediate contemporary facts of international life will be a useful superstructure – but only that.

This was originally published in the March 6, 1953 issue of PAW.