Ambassador George Frost Kennan
George Frost Kennan brings together the world of academia and the world of public policy like no other individual this century. He is an historian who has made history. He is a diplomat who, as Henry Kissenger wrote, has authored much of the diplomatic doctrine of our era.
Upon graduating from Princeton in 1925, Kennan joined the Foreign Service. After a brief posting in Geneva, he learned that he could have three years of graduate study at a European university if he was prepared to learn one of the rarer languages. Kennan chose Russian, both because of the likely opportunity of future service there and the family tradition established by a cousin of his grandfather, in whose name he would later help to create the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
After his graduate study, Kennan continued his service abroad in Tallinn and Riga. He traveled widely within whatever country he served, following his instinctive need to know its people and their culture. In 1933, he went to Moscow as interpreter for William C. Bullitt, the first U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
His subsequent career took him to Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Lisbon, and London. But the center of his attention remained the Russian nation and people. It was from Moscow that he sent the "long telegram" urging the United States government to stand firm against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. This was followed in July of 1947 with an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs signed "X," which enunciated his policy of containment, a policy which achieved a life of its own. Its importance cannot be overstated: it shaped American doctrine for the next 40 years; it conditioned other countries' policies in relation to America; and it underpinned many major diplomatic and political initiates, such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Berlin Airlift.
In 1950, Kennan took leave of the Foreign Service over differences in strategy and attitudes, and accepted an invitation from Robert Oppenheimer, then the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, to come to the Institute as a visitor. In the next two decades, he moved between the diplomatic and academic worlds, serving as Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in 1960-63, as Stafford Little Lecturer at Princeton, as George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford, and as University Fellow at Harvard from 1965-69. But his home remained the Institute for Advanced Study, where he found the time and resources necessary for his work as an historian. Twenty-one books were to follow, two of which have won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, as well as countless articles, projects, criticisms, correspondence, and speeches. From 1974-75, Kennan was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he co-founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies with then Wilson Center director Jamese Billington and historian S. Frederick Starr.
George Kennan's stature only grew over time. Mkihail Gorbachev, upon meeting Kennan during the 1987 summit in Washington, gave him a warm embrace. "Mr. Kennan," he said, "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; this is the way we view you."
Recognition may have come late to George Kennan, but it has come in full measure, culminating when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989 by President George Bush.