Mr. X Goes to Washington:

An Interview with George Kennan

Fresh Out of Princeton in 1926, George Kennan Joined the Foreign Service.
It Changed His Life.



By Bob Guldin


When he wrote an article for the Foreign Service Journal in 1953, the accompanying author's identification said, "George F. Kennan needs no introduction to Journal readers."

That may no longer be quite as true as it was 46 years ago, so a biographical note is perhaps in order.

George F. Kennan is probably the best known and most highly esteemed scholar and shaper of foreign policy to emerge from the U.S. Foreign Service during its 75 years.

Kennan joined the Foreign Service in 1926, just two years after the Rogers Act was signed. As he explains below, the service was then still very much in transition -- from the old upper-crust diplomatic corps to a more democratic service that could welcome a young man like him, a Milwaukee lawyer's son.

Kennan was posted to Germany and the Baltic states, then served in Moscow with the first U.S. mission after the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933. He returned to Moscow in 1944, and while serving in the embassy wrote his famous "long telegram" to the State Department on the Soviet worldview, followed by a 1947 article in Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," under the pseudonym "Mr. X." Kennan urged a sober view of ideologically based Soviet expansionism, and coined the term "containment" as an appropriate Western response.

Kennan is considered by many to have established the conceptual framework for U.S. policy during the Cold War -- so much so, that when that era ended in the early 1990s, many observers asked "who would be the new Kennan" and establish a paradigm for the post-Cold War world. That question is still unanswered.

Secretary of State George Marshall selected Kennan in 1947 to be the first director of the department's new Policy Planning Staff. In 1952, Kennan served briefly as ambassador to the Soviet Union, and retired from the Foreign Service the next year.

Soon thereafter, Kennan was appointed a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a position he has held ever since, except for a stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963. He has written numerous works on foreign policy and diplomatic history, as well as several memoirs. His book Russia Leaves the War won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.

When we visited Kennan at his home in Princeton last December, we found him, at age 94, charming, funny, self-assured and in full command of his material. When Mrs. Kennan, concerned for his health, attempted to cut the interview short, Kennan objected, "We've only gotten started! We'll need at least a half-hour more."

Perhaps we've found the Kennan for the new era.

Escaping Milwaukee

Foreign Service Journal: As you know, this interview is occasioned in part by the upcoming 75th anniversary of the modern Foreign Service.
George F. Kennan: It's also occasioned by the fact that I'm probably the oldest living retired member of the Foreign Service. I don't know if there are any older.
At any rate, if anybody is, they're not very active.

FSJ: What first drew you to the Foreign Service, as a young man fresh out of Princeton?

Kennan: I came from Milwaukee, Wis., but I hadn't lived there since I was 13, because I was sent away to military school for four years. There followed those four years in Princeton. At Princeton I took a regular humanities course with an emphasis on modern history.
There came a man from the State Department in Washington who spoke to those of us that might be interested in the Foreign Service. I had very few ties to Milwaukee at that time, and no particular desire to return.
When I left college, I sensed, quite correctly, that I wasn't really ready to make decisions about my future. The thought of going back to Milwaukee -- I was afraid of getting caught there, with a job, a wife, a home and so forth, and never being able to get away from it.
What the man told us about the State Department and the Foreign Service interested me, and so I applied. That meant, in those days, several months in Washington, practically an academic year of tutor-ing, because the Foreign Service exam demanded of you things you didn't always have.

FSJ: Even if one had done well at Princeton?

Kennan: Even if one had done well at Princeton. They did want things about the United States and American affairs and especially commerce and geography and all of that.
So, like a number of other chaps, I did take the tu-toring course given by a great big, often drunken, Scots scholar but a very wonderful teacher and an amazing man. Most of us who had taken his tutoring got in.
This was in 1925 and '26, and then we took the exams. And only 18 of us were admitted out of 100-and-some candidates at that time. I was one of them. And I must say that I loved the service and the life and what it gave me, from that time on.

FSJ: At that point, the Rogers Act which created the unified Foreign Service, from what had previously been the separated consular corps and diplomatic corps, must have been very fresh history.

Kennan: It was. We were the second class admitted on the basis of the Rogers Act.

FSJ: Was the unified Foreign Service still coming together?

Kennan: With rather surprising results. Because they found that the old diplomats who were supposed to be snobbish and look down on the Foreign Service acquiesced in this with good grace and good humor, and took their consular jobs and in many instances loved them too. Whereas a number of the consuls general did not feel terribly comfortable in the jobs to which they'd been sent.
To this day, I'm not convinced that the amalgama-tion as it was then set up was entirely a good thing. Certainly, they should have much greater flexibility and movement from one service to the other. Perhaps it could have been more wisely architectured.
But we were all sent to consular posts initially, that's my recollection. That was a good idea; it gave you a broader concept of American representation abroad than most of the purely diplomatic assignments would.
Calling on the Proper Ladies

FSJ: Was there much difference in the qualifications or background or training between those who had come in previously and those under the Rogers Act?

Kennan: It seems to me the Rogers Act did signify a certain social democratization of the Foreign service, as compared with the old Diplomatic Service. Remem-ber that the old Diplomatic Service really assumed an independent income, and a pretty secure family or professional background in this country before you entered it.
At the time I was admitted to the Foreign Service, I don't think snobbish considerations played a great role. They were quite prepared to take other kinds of people, as they did myself. I didn't come of a wealthy family; my father was a modest lawyer. And I had no social connections whatsoever.
What they looked for in the can-didates was a firm, reassuring family background. They were impressed that I had come to Princeton and come through it creditably.
I can remember only one or two men in our class -- both, incidentally, became excellent Foreign Service officers -- who came of the old New England top drawer. They were very good men.
The only thing was they did feel that we ought to be able to go to a foreign post in a diplomatic capacity, and we ought to be able to deal with the diplomats of other countries. And the French and British and German governments almost invariably chose their diplomats from the upper classes. And these were fellows who knew how to behave themselves. Much greater stress in those days was given to manners than is given today.
We were supposed to have been the equivalent of officers in the Army or the Navy. That was why the term Foreign Service officer was chosen. When we came to Washington to enter this Foreign Service school, we were given a list of the ladies that we should call on in Washington.
We were part of the diplomatic family in Washington once we were appointed, and we were supposed to call on the proper people. And we were expected to go to their homes and if they were not home to leave a proper card with the proper initials on it. And if we were admitted we were supposed to know how to enter what was very often a rather elegant and high-class home and acquit ourselves creditably of this task.

FSJ: And did you do this?

Kennan: Oh, yes! We did, usually two of us together. Washington was considered to have a certain portion of its inhabitants who were in close association with the diplomatic corps, who formed the sort of society in which the diplomatic corps circulated.

FSJ: With the newly amalgamated Foreign Service, though, it wasn't quite so necessary that FSOs bring with them an independent income.

Kennan: Not quite so necessary. We entered with an annual salary of $2,500 a year. But many of the perks which now exist did not exist at that time. When you went to a foreign post, yes, they paid your way to the post, but after that you were on your own. You had to find your own housing. Nobody cared. All the State Department did was buy us a ticket, a steamship ticket usually, and after that they washed their hands of us.
We had to find our way to the post and report to the senior officer. And then we had to find a place to live on our own expense.

FSJ: I understand there's more assistance with housing now.

Kennan: It's much more paternalistic now than it was then. We were rather assumed to have enough knowledge of the world and maturity to know how to go through all this.

The One-Room Foreign Service Schoolhouse

FSJ: These days, when you enter the Foreign Service, there's the A-100 class, which is basic training for new FSOs. What kind of training did you get?

Kennan: We had at that time a Foreign Service School in the department, which was the first thing we were assigned to. It was in a comfortable room, one of the big rooms in the State, War and Navy Building looking down over the White House gardens. And I can re-member Calvin Coolidge coming out and putting on Indian feathers to be photographed for some reason of his own.

FSJ: That's a famous photograph; you saw him in that garb?

Kennan: Yeah, we did (laughs). We were all taught by one experienced, older consul general of the service, William Dawson, who was a fine linguist and who had had very considerable experience in both the diplomatic and consular service -- that was infrequent at the time. FSJ: So you had one teacher for that course?

Kennan: We had one teacher, and we had classes in various things, what visa work was about, passport work, commercial work. And we were asked in the end to write a mock Foreign Service report. Great importance was attached at that time to your own writing ability and style.

FSJ: What then was your first assignment?

Kennan: My first assignment was officially as a vice consul in Hamburg. But just at that time Pinkney Tuck, who was a member of the old Diplomatic Service, a very distinguished one, had been made the American observer to the League of Nations in Geneva. Tuck was serving as American consul general, and he found himself unable to cope with the consular work, because so many other demands were being made on him from the other duties as an observer and point of contact with the League of Nations.
So Tuck asked for a couple of officers to aid him. And a boy by the name of Henry Beck and I (Beck was a brilliant fellow; he'd gone through Harvard in three years) went out there in the way that I've described; somebody bought our ticket to Geneva, and said go out.
And I remember we reported in at Tuck's office. He was very nice, very polite to us. And he said, "What brings you here? How long are you going to be in this town?" We said, "We're assigned here," whereupon he blew up, threw his papers around, and said "God damn it, I asked for experienced officers and look what they send me!"
Well, we dug in, and took the consular correspondence very seriously. He was quite mollified. We did better than he expected. But that went on only for four or five months, to carry him through the summer, the difficult period.
I moved on then to Hamburg where we had a big office because Hamburg was then the leading port of the European continent. That meant a lot of work for the American consulate general. Because many of the older customs of the 19th century which have now been abandoned had been preserved. No goods could be shipped to the United States, but what I had to sign the outgoing invoice and customs document. I was also given the seamanship work;
I had a little office of my own in the basement of the Hamburg American Line building. Every American ship captain who came in had to deposit his papers with me and leave them with me until they were ready to sail. This was a holdover from sailing ship days. The tramp steamers used to hire Americans, then come to Europe and hire cheaper labor.
We also screened immigrants, especially from Russia, who had great visa problems. We had at this time no relations with the Soviet government.

The Day I Almost Resigned

FSJ: You were in the Foreign Service for 26 years. Looking back on your career, what did you feel were the high points, and the low points?

Kennan: About a year after I entered the service, I was in Hamburg, I knew German and I began attending courses in literature and other subjects. And I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't have gone directly from Princeton to the Foreign Service, that I should have graduate school training. And I began to feel so strongly about this that I wanted to go home and consult with the department about this. So they let me do this, at my own expense of course, and I went to Washington, and went to see the director of personnel at the department. He was very cold and said, "Is this your decision? All right, then, that's it." He said go up and write your resignation. And I started upstairs and on the stairs I met Willie Dawson, the old head of the Foreign Ser-vice school, and he said "What are you doing here?" and I told him and he said, "Look, are you sure you want to do this?"
He said we are now just putting into operation a system of special training of three years post-graduate training for men already in the service, in any of what were regarded as the four exotic languages -- Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Russian. You could have post-graduate training without leaving the Foreign Service, so I did sign up for the Russian. But we had to serve for a year and a half in that field before our academic training even began. They wanted to make sure that we didn't succumb to the liquor or the women or the wrong things, and that we could be depended upon as serious officers.
So I was then sent as a consular officer for a year or so in the Baltic countries, then as part of the diplomatic staff in Riga, and then returned to Berlin. I was then sent to the University of Berlin largely because it had the best courses in the world at that time on Russian and Soviet life and economics, and also because they realized I had the linguistic capability in German to go there as a regular student.
This was a school set up by Bismarck for German diplomats. So I went there for two years, and at the end of that time FDR decided to recognize Russia.
I happened to be home on leave at the time the agreements with Litvinov for the conclusion of relations were completed. And I was introduced to Bill Bullitt, the first man selected to go to Russia as ambassador. Bullitt was delighted and took me along as a personal aide all the way to Russia. He spent only a few days and went back to organize an embassy. But my wife and I were left as the first American diplomatic representatives residing in Russia for some months. All of this, of course, was enormously exciting and interesting. I loved the Russian assignment. We were there at a difficult time, but we were prepared for this.
After about four years of service in Russia, I was removed, I think at the instance of the ambassador that FDR sent to replace Bullitt. Bullitt was a brilliant man; he was explosive and impatient, but he was a man of the world and he knew what he was doing.
But the man sent to replace him was a fraud, a figure in the Democratic Party [ed note: Joseph Davies]. He was ... whew! The day he and his wife came, all of us who were Foreign Service officers met in Loy Hender-son's flat and asked ourselves if we should all resign, because we, through great devotion and effort, had made our embassy in Moscow, along with the German embassy, the most respected diplomatic mission in town. Diplomats came to us for guidance in understanding Russia.
And we felt that this assignment of ambassador showed that the president couldn't have cared less about us. He didn't give a goddamn. He wanted to get kudos for this in the Democratic Party.
In his view, the whole mission was expendable for his political purposes at home. I rebelled against this. We considered resigning en masse.
I expect that the ambassador knew my feelings. I was soon transferred. I didn't serve there again until '44 when Averell Harriman took me along as counselor of the embassy.

FSJ: I know you served with and under some impressive people. Are there one or two people that really stand out in your mind?

Kennan: I was very close in my official position to George Marshall when he was secretary of State. I had the only office adjoining his. If I have any hero it was George Marshall -- a man of a great many qualities, qualities very similar, literally, to those of George Washington.
I served with Wilbur Carr briefly in Czechoslovakia, when Czechoslovakia was folding. Carr was a great old standby, an assistant secretary in the Department of State who was really a rock and foundation of the department for many, many years.
Of the others -- Averell was the hardest, stiffest, most demanding and unbending of my chiefs, but a man of great quality.

FSJ: You've had a career with several phases -- you've been known as a diplomat, a shaper of policy, a writer and scholar. During which period in your career do you feel you made the greatest contribution?

Kennan: Serving in Moscow after the war, in the winter of '46, the ambassador was gone and I was charg´┐Ż d'affaires. I had written for Harriman three longer articles about how I saw the Soviet Union, coming back after seven years' absence. I handed them to Harriman as my chief, to do what he wanted with them. They were not regular dispatches; they were rather literary papers. They appear as annexes to the first volume of my memoirs.
And then I wrote this long telegram, which for some reason struck this very, very responsive bell back in Washington, and it was circulated all around. It was made required reading for officers of the armed services in the Pentagon. [James] Forrestal was then the secretary of the Navy and was interested.
And when I came home from Russia I was assigned as the first civilian deputy commandant of the National War College, in the first year of the college's existence. I had to set up political instruction.
And during that time Gen. Marshall came into office as secretary of State, made his trip to Europe and came back extensively worried. He decided to set up a planning unit in the Department of State similar to one that he had had in the War Department.
He had very much on his mind the problem of Europe. Something had to be done about Europe and done in a hurry. He couldn't go through the bureaucracy if he wanted to move quickly. So he said, "I'm going to take you away from the National War College. I want you immediately to set up a small staff in the Department of State." And he gave me the rooms right next to his office. He said, "I want you to tell me, within a matter of two to three weeks at the most, what this government should do about Europe."
So not only did I have to find quarters in the department -- I had to look around for people. I had no time to go outside the department, so I gathered together a small group of seven or eight from within the department. And we threw ourselves into this work, which we completed in the time given and submitted a report to the secretary. And the significant wording of that whole report appeared unchanged in his Harvard speech and did set in certain very fundamental ways the whole framework of the Marshall Plan. I also wrote the "X" article for Foreign Affairs at this time.
Almost Isolationist

FSJ: How do you see the Foreign Service as having changed during its 75 years?

Kennan: Though people talk about the modern Foreign Service having started in 1924, there was, in the present sense of the word, nothing modern about it. It was, in fact, very old-fashioned by modern standards. The modern Foreign Service, to my mind, dates from the immediate aftermath of World War II, and has very little relation to what had been established before the war.
For example, ours was a service where we were all known to the top people in the department. The under secretary, the assistant secretaries, had participated in examining us, and we were not ciphers for them -- we were real people. They followed our careers with interest and read our efficiency reports. They were moved by all this in their promotions and the nature of the assignments they gave us. I don't think that anybody can expect that today. Whatever may be the virtues of the Foreign Service, it's part of the vast Washington bureaucracy today, and you can't change that.

FSJ: If you were talking to some bright young people today, college graduates, would you recommend the Foreign Service to them?

Kennan: No. A number of youngsters have come to me to ask my advice about this. What I have said in recent years was: Look, if you are going to regard life in the Foreign Service as a prolongation of your education, as a remarkable and unique opportunity to live in a foreign city with a respectable entree to the whole place, including the government -- if you take it that way, then by all means.
But if you're fiercely ambitious, and you want to get ahead, and you're interested in getting promoted before anybody else, then I wouldn't join it. I would have to say also that I've gradually become persuaded that this is not a thing one should join for life.
That's for two reasons. First, if one had a wife, she would now want a professional life of her own. But also, the fact that top ranks of the service are so blocked by White House appointments means that you're apt to be cut off just when you've achieved the peak of your usefulness to the government.

FSJ: You are identified as a scholar and a writer with the realist, as opposed to the idealist, school of foreign affairs. We seem to be moving further away from that in the current period -- getting more idealistic, perhaps more altruistic. From the realist perspective, which emphasizes the pursuit of specific American interests in the conduct of foreign policy, it's difficult to understand what the American interest in Somalia or Bosnia might be.

Kennan: This is difficult to say in a few words. I feel that we are greatly overextended. We claim to be able to do more than we really can do for other people. We should limit our contributions, and let others take the initiative.
I'm close to the isolationists, but not entirely, because I've always recognized that those alliances to which we belong and which the Senate has approved as provided for by the Constitution, we must remain faithful to those. That includes the original NATO alliance, our alliance with Japan. Our complicated relations with Latin America contain elements of long-term assurances, in the Monroe Doctrine sense.
Beyond that, when other countries come to us asking for help, we should ask, "Why do you need it?" and "Why should we provide it?"
Within our time, I don't think that democracy is going to be the universal form of government. I'm very hesitant about our pushing democracy and human rights on other countries, whose democracy in any case would be rather different from our own. We can't ask other countries to be clones of America.



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