An Ambiguous Political Prophet

THE KENNAN DIARIES, carefully edited by Frank Costigliola, a University of Connecticut historian, covers an amazing and sometimes disturbing 88-year period of personal journal-writing by George F. Kennan, who became the most famous diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century.

Born in 1904 (he died in 2005) Kennan, a Milwaukee native, grew up in an upper-class Scotch-Irish Presbyterian family with three older sisters and a father who was a tax attorney.

After graduating from Princeton, Kennan became a Foreign Service officer with the State Department, eventually serving in posts throughout Europe. But Kennan’s first love was Russia. He wrote in his diary that “he had a mystical connection to Leningrad, as though he had once lived there.” He was offered a three-year university stint in Berlin by the State Department—Kennan’s boss wanted him to be educated like a pre-Bolshevik Russian gentleman. Kennan’s grasp of the Russian language and history became exceptional. Together with his prodigious analytical skills, it would be the foundation of his brilliant career.

After 20 years abroad, Kennan fired off his famous 5,540-word “Long Telegram” on Feb. 22, 1946, from Moscow to Washington. Soon afterward, in July 1947, he wrote another piece in Foreign Affairs under the byline “X.” In the two pieces he said that the Soviets under Stalin would try aggressively to expand, but that the U.S. should not employ military means to stop them. Instead, Kennan advocated “containment,” heavily monitoring the Russians with hard-headed diplomacy and tough talk. He also stated that the Soviet Union would eventually self-destruct.

Kennan became famous overnight and was appointed to the State Department’s U.S. Policy Planning Staff. He also worked closely with Secretary of State George Marshall in developing the Marshall Plan, which put Europe back on the road to recovery.

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