Childhood & Early Life
George F. Kennan was born George Frost Kennan, on February 16, 1904, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. His father, Kossuth Kent Kennan, was an established lawyer and specialized in tax-law, while his mother, Florence James Kennan, was a homemaker. His mother died just two months after his birth
His father remarried but George was never quite close to his step-mother. He always held himself guilty for the demise of his mother. He became shy and introvert and never got close to his father.
He finished his early schooling from Wisconsin and at the age of 8, he was sent to live in Germany with his step-mother. In Germany, he resumed his education in German. Following his high school graduation, he moved back to Wisconsin and pursued further education.
He enrolled at the ‘St. John’s Military Academy’ and in 1921, he moved to Princeton to study history at ‘Princeton University.’ He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1925. He wanted to follow his father’s career path, so to study law, but law school was too expensive and he applied for a job at the United States Foreign Service. He got through the entrance exam and for the next few months, he studied at the Foreign Service School. He got his first job in Geneva, Switzerland, as a vice consul. He was later transferred to Hamburg, Germany. By now, he had decided to quit his job at the US Foreign Service and expected to resume his studied through all the money he had. He was, however, selected for a linguist training program that allowed him to keep working while also resuming his studies.
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Role in the US Foreign Policy
Working for the US Foreign Service, he worked in many places, including Berlin, Tannin, Estonia, and Latvia. Almost all these places were located around the Soviet Union, with which United States had no special diplomatic relations during the 1920s.
However, when George decided to quit his job in 1929, he was sent to the University of Berlin, in anticipation of the Soviet Union role in the coming years/decades. He studied Russian culture, language, and thought. The US government employed several other personnel, too, for the same job, so that an effective diplomatic policy toward the Soviet Union could be made.
George finished his studies in the early 1930s and in 1933, he moved to Moscow with US Ambassador William C. Bullitt. It was after the US had begun establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and also recognised the Soviet Government.
George worked there for two years and later, he was sent to Prague and Germany. He spent the entire decade working like that.
During the outbreak of World War II, he was interned by Germany for six months and released in 1942. He later worked as a US diplomat in Moscow and Lisbon during the rest of the war.
The Soviet Union and the US fought on the same side during the war but a power struggle between the two was apparent. The Soviet Union was a staunch supporter of communism, while US abhorred it. Soviet wanted to expand the reach of communism, which alerted the US.
Right after the conclusion of the war, in 1946, George sent a telegram to the US, which he wrote in Moscow. Commonly referred to as the ‘Long Telegram,’ the article became a sensation among the American diplomats in Washington D.C. The article consisted of a detailed ‘containment policy,’ which was an answer to the expansionist foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was widely read and appreciated by high officials and statesmen. George became a known man in the American political circles.
In late 1946, George returned back to the US and in 1947, he began working as the director of policy-planning staff in the ‘State Department.’
In July 1947, his article was published in the magazine ‘Foreign Affairs’. George did not use his real name for the article and signed it as ‘X.’ It was titled ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct.’ The article explained in detail the psychology and structure of the Soviet Foreign Policy. In this article, George also criticized the US foreign policy that aimed toward appeasing the Soviet Union.
George also stated that while Soviet was up for using their military force for the expansion of their ideology, they would retreat if the western countries strongly oppose them. George later stated that if the US uses a counter-pressure in the regions where Soviet desires to expand, it will be forced to back out or retreat or will try to cooperate with the US. George further stated that it could also lead to a collapse of the Soviet Union. These views eventually became the core fundamentals of the US policy toward the Soviet Union. For the most part, they were successful.
In 1950, George resigned from the ‘State Department’ and began working as a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study at the Princeton University. He was hired as U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1952 but a year later, he moved back to the US. In 1956, he began working as a permanent faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study’s ‘School of Historical Studies.’ He, however, kept a close eye on international affairs.
In the 1950s, he increasingly became an opponent of his own article that had helped the US design their diplomatic relations with the Soviet. Later, the US and the Soviet Union entered in the ‘Cold War’ and George advocated that dialogue can take place between the two nations. He criticized the heavy weaponization by the USA during the ‘Cold War’ and stated that his theory was ‘misunderstood.’
Personal Life & Death
George F. Kennan married a Norwegian woman, Annelise Sorensen, in 1931 and the couple had four children together. The couple stayed together until his death in 2005.
George died on March 17, 2005, at his home, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was 101 years old at the time of his death.