Cold War Strategist George F. Kennan Dies at 101

George F. Kennan, the American diplomat who authored the “Containment” policy that shaped U.S. Cold War policy, has died. He is most famous for authoring the “X” Article in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs arguing that the Soviet Union could be defeated by preventing them from conquering neighboring states. He was 101.

George F. Kennan Dies at 101; Leading Strategist of Cold War (NYT)

George F. Kennan, the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war, died on Thursday night in Princeton, N.J. He was 101. Mr. Kennan was the man to whom the White House and the Pentagon turned when they sought to understand the Soviet Union after World War II. He conceived the cold-war policy of containment, the idea that the United States should stop the global spread of Communism by diplomacy, politics, and covert action – by any means short of war.

As the State Department’s first policy planning chief in the late 1940’s, serving Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Mr. Kennan was an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of American aid to nations devastated by World War II. At the same time, he conceived a secret “political warfare” unit that aimed to roll back Communism, not merely contain it. His brainchild became the covert-operations directorate of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Though Mr. Kennan left the foreign service more than half a century ago, he continued to be a leading thinker in international affairs until his death. Since the 1950’s he had been associated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was most recently a professor emeritus. By the end of his long, productive life, Mr. Kennan had become a phenomenon in international affairs, with seminars held and books written to debate and analyze his extraordinary influence on American policy during the cold war. He was the author of 17 books, two of them Pulitzer Prize-winners, and countless articles in leading journals.

His writing, from classified cables to memoirs, was the force that made him “the nearest thing to a legend that this country’s diplomatic service has ever produced,” in the words of the historian Ronald Steel. “He’ll be remembered as a diplomatist and a grand strategist,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a leading historian of the cold war, who is preparing a biography of Mr. Kennan. “But he saw himself as a literary figure. He would have loved to have been a poet, a novelist.” Morton H. Halperin, who was chief of policy planning during the Clinton administration, said Mr. Kennan “set a standard that all his successors have sought to follow.”

Of that, there’s little doubt. Scholars debate the extent to which Kennan’s version of Containment policy was followed, with most arguing that Paul Nitze’s variant was ultimately more influential.* Certainly, American intervention in Korea and Vietnam was a departure from the Kennan formula.

Other coverage:

*See Efstathio Fakiolas‘ comparative essay on Kennan’s Long Telegram vs. Nitze’s NSC 68 for a detailed analysis.

Update (0911): Dan Drezner and Gregory Djerejian have excellent analyses of Kennan’s career, examining both his undeniable greatness and his blind spots.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. RGardner says:

    For those interested in the Long Cable, here are a couple of links: Highlights Whole thing

    When he was Ambassador to the USSR, Stalin expelled him after he compared conditions there to those in Nazi Germany. So true in retrospect.