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Outsider Forged Cold War Strategy

George F. Kennan, right foreground, is shown in 1952 with Soviet President Nikolai Shvernik, center, and A.F. Gorkin. Kennan loved Russian culture.
George F. Kennan, right foreground, is shown in 1952 with Soviet President Nikolai Shvernik, center, and A.F. Gorkin. Kennan loved Russian culture. (AP)

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His confidence in his own intellect was such that he sometimes declined to explain himself to politicians. For example, he refused to lobby for the Marshall Plan, the aid program that revived the economy of Western Europe after World War II. He was a diplomat, he said, not a salesman.

W. Averell Harriman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow when Mr. Kennan was minister-counselor of the U.S. Embassy, remarked that Mr. Kennan was "a man who understood Russia but not the United States."

Believing as he did in a limitless human capacity for error, Mr. Kennan was an unabashed elitist who distrusted democratic processes. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas reported in their book "The Wise Men" that he suggested in an unpublished work that women, blacks and immigrants be disenfranchised. He deplored the automobile, computers, commercialism, environmental degradation and other manifestations of modern life. He loathed popular American culture. In his memoirs, he described himself as a "guest of one's time and not a member of its household."

A touchstone of his worldview was the conviction that the United States cannot reshape other countries in its own image and that, with a few exceptions, its efforts to police the world are neither in its interests nor within the scope of its resources.

"This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable," he said in an interview with the New York Review of Books in 1999.

"I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders."

These ideas were particularly applicable, he said, to U.S. relations with China and Russia.

In the late 1940s, when he was a lecturer at the National War College and head of the State Department's policy-planning staff, he took an increasingly critical view of U.S. policy. His concern was that containment had been turned on its head, that an undue emphasis on military pressure rather than diplomacy was increasing the danger of war with the Soviet Union rather than reducing it.

He predicted that schisms would appear in the communist camp that could be exploited by the United States. Indeed, Yugoslavia declared its independence of Moscow in 1948. Mr. Kennan wrote that a similar rift would develop between the Soviet Union and China. It occurred in the 1950s.

At the same time, he warned against such involvements as the one the United States undertook in Vietnam: "To oppose efforts of indigenous communist elements within foreign countries must generally be considered a risky and profitless undertaking, apt to do more harm than good."

In the early days of the Korean War, when the invasion of South Korea had been repulsed, he urged that United Nations forces be kept out of North Korea and that negotiations begin. His advice was ignored. When the north was invaded, 300,000 communist Chinese "volunteers" entered the conflict and drove U.N. forces back below the 38th parallel, the boundary between north and south. In 1951 Mr. Kennan's contacts with the Soviet delegation at the United Nations started the process that led to a truce in 1953.

Mr. Kennan was the first analyst to say that nuclear weapons could serve as a deterrent but could never be used in war. He was so outspoken in his opposition to developing a hydrogen bomb that Secretary of State Dean Acheson said, "If that is your view, you ought to resign from the Foreign Service and go out and preach your Quaker gospel, but don't do it within the department."


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