"If alive today, Kennan would note the danger of cornering the Russians to the point where they might lash out. He would also gesture toward the United States’ multiple problems at home and wonder how this exposed presence in Eastern Europe accorded with the long-term foreign and domestic interests of the American people."
George Kennan, the remarkable U.S. diplomat and probing observer of international relations, is famous for forecasting the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less well known is his warning in 1948 that no Russian government would ever accept Ukrainian independence. Foreseeing a deadlocked struggle between Moscow and Kyiv, Kennan made detailed suggestions at the time about how Washington should deal with a conflict that pitted an independent Ukraine against Russia. He returned to this subject half a century later. Kennan, then in his 90s, cautioned that the eastward expansion of NATO would doom democracy in Russia and ignite another Cold War.
Kennan probably knew Russia more intimately than anyone who ever served in the U.S. government. Even before he arrived in Moscow in 1933 as a 29-year-old aide to the first U.S. ambassador the Soviet Union, he had mastered Russian and could pass as a native. In Russia, Kennan immersed himself in newspapers, official documents, literature, radio, theater, and film. He wore himself thin partying into the night with Russian artists, intellectuals, and junior officials. Dressed like a Russian, Kennan eavesdropped on Muscovites in the streetcar or at the theater. He hiked or skied into the countryside to visit gems of early Russian architecture. His disdain for Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship, particularly after the onset of the bloody purges of 1935–38, was matched only by his desire to get close to the Russian people and their culture. In 1946, after dictating his famed long telegram to the State Department warning of the Soviet threat, Kennan was brought back to Washington. The following year, he won national attention for his article in Foreign Affairs calling for the containment of Soviet expansion.
Kennan was unique. When Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson told a colleague that the gifted diplomat was slated to head the newly formed Policy Planning Staff, the colleague replied that “a man like Kennan would be excellent for that job.” Acheson snapped back: “A man like Kennan? There’s nobody like Kennan.” Operating from an office next door to the secretary of state, Kennan helped craft the Marshall Plan and other major midcentury initiatives.
Kennan’s star would dim after 1949 as he opposed the growing militarization of U.S. foreign policy, but he was still venerated as a Russian expert. His advice was sought by the Truman administration when it feared provoking Russia’s entry into the Korean War, by the Eisenhower administration after the death of Stalin, and by the Kennedy administration during the Berlin crisis of 1961. Despite his televised opposition to the Vietnam War and his protests against the nuclear arms race, Kennan was consulted by officials in the State Department and in the CIA well into the 1990s. In 2003, he held a press conference to protest the invasion of Iraq. An elitist blinkered by ugly prejudices that he had absorbed in the early twentieth century, Kennan nevertheless remained a clear-sighted foreign policy analyst until his death in 2005.