Kennan’s authority stems from his integrity, his intellectual independence, and his willingness to forgo the “heady satisfactions of power,” writes James O. Freedman, the president of Dartmouth.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. February 19, 1992.

James O. Freedman is the president of Dartmouth College. This essay is adapted from an address he delivered at Dartmouth’s Convocation last September.

Eighty-eight years ago February 16th, George F. Kennan ’25 was born in Milwaukee. Now, at a time of fundamental change in the nations that formerly constituted the Soviet Union, Kennan’s accomplishments as a historian of Russia and a principal architect of postwar American foreign policy are especially noteworthy.

When I speak to students about Kennan’s life, I describe it as an emblem of intellectual independence and influence stemming directly from his willingness to forsake the power of an insider for the perspective and moral authority of an outsider. I tell them they may find it reassuring that a man who would become such a prominent intellectual entered Princeton poorly prepared academically (he described himself later as “the last student admitted”) and that his academic performance there was undistinguished.

Uncertain of what else to do upon graduating from Princeton, Kennan took the Foreign Service examination and passed. After postings in Germany, Finland, and the Baltic nations, Kennan, although not yet thirty, accompanied America’s first ambassador to Moscow when the United States recognized the Soviet government , in 1933. Four years later, upon returning to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, Kennan felt estranged from the uncongenial country that the United States had become, a “guest in one’s time and not a member of its household.”

In 1946, after wartime service in Lisbon, London, and Moscow, Kennan became the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, where he was one of the government’s acknowledged experts on Soviet affairs. His influence on American diplomacy was significantly enhanced with the publication, in July 1947, of his celebrated “Mr. X article” in the journal Foreign Affairs. In the essay, which he wrote pseudonymously so that its content would not be associated with governmental policy, Kennan expressed reservations about resting American foreign policy upon the hope of building trust with the Soviet Union. He called for a policy of containment based upon “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

Kennan’s proposal became the intellectual underpinning of the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Berlin airlift. Few career diplomats have attained such influence. For the next forty years, Kennan’s conception of containment remained a firm, if controversial, cornerstone of American foreign policy.

Yet Kennan – for all the satisfaction he might have taken from such influence – was repelled by the virulence of anti-Communist rhetoric during the Cold War and by the headlong acceleration of the nuclear arms race. As he often stated publicly, he preferred a rational, disciplined foreign policy based upon respect for the superpowers’ zones of vital interest.

Even as he became the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1952, Kennan’s criticism of American foreign policy were not well received at the State Department. Never, perhaps, was Kennan more acutely aware that he was both an insider in the making of foreign policy and an outsider to the foreign-policy establishment than on the day, in 1953, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ’08 informed him that, after twenty-seven years, his career in the Foreign Service was at an end. In criticizing the policies of his superiors, Kennan had ignored the pressure of conformity.

Forced to retire at an early age, Kennan embraced scholarship as his principal vocation. He returned to the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, where he had worked in the early fifties, and since then has written more than twenty books. Among them are Russia Leaves the War (1956) – the first volume of a history of Soviet-American relations from 1917 to 1920 – and Memoirs, 1925-1950 (1967), each of which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kennan continued to follow at a distance the conduct of foreign affairs, but he increasingly found it to be an empty exercise. He scorned the war in Vietnam as a monumental error that gave further evidence of America’s moral decadence and intellectual incompetence. And he disapproved of what he regarded as the self-indulgent behavior and values of the student Left during the turbulent years of the 1960s.

Burdened by a growing feeling of intellectual loneliness, Kennan sought “in the interpretation of history a usefulness I could not find the interpretation of my own time.” He adopted the outside status of a scholar, conscientiously distancing himself from the immediacy of events precisely so that he could better contribute to understanding them.

In his Memoirs, Kennan described himself as uncomfortable with his contemporaries and his nation, partial to the temper of the eighteenth century, and envious of the life of a cultivated European. He wrote that American politics had become mundane and trivial and that civilized society had entered a spiral of decline.

Kennan considers a spontaneous tribute paid him by Mikhail Gorbachev to have been the crowning closure to his life’s work. At a reception at the Soviet embassy in 1987, during Gorbachev’s historic visit to Washington, the two met for the first time. Nevertheless, Kennan later wrote in Sketches from a Life (1989), Gorbachev “amazed me by throwing out his arms and treating me to what has now become the standard statesman’s embrace. Then, still holding on to my elbows, he looked me seriously in the eye and said: ‘Mr. Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you.’”

In Kennan’s reaction to Gorbachev’s tribute one senses the personal anguish he must have felt, caught as he was in the fateful tension of being both an insider and an outsider to the making of American foreign policy: “I reflected that if you cannot have this sort of recognition from your own government to ring down your involvement in such a relationship, it is nice to have ti at least from the one-time adversary.”

In the end, George Kennan’s inestimable effectiveness and influence rested upon his daunting integrity, his refusal to trim his views to fit the fashion of the moment, and his willingness to relinquish the insider’s heady satisfactions of power in order to preserve his moral authority as an outsider.

We live today in a society of self-promotion and networking, a culture obsessed with who’s in and who’s out – who’s hot and who’s not – a country mesmerized by the meretricious tinsel of fame. As I tell students, if the United States truly cares about excellence, we must celebrate those heroes and heroines who achieve the disciplined dignity of intellectual independence. The life of George Kennan provides an elevating example of such heroic achievement.

This was originally published in the February 19, 1992 issue of PAW.