George Kennan and America’s Role in the World

Kennan

This country needs more men like George Kennan.

George Kennan is best known for his “X” article, which laid out the policy of containment that was to define decades of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. George Kennan (1904-2005) was an accomplished diplomat, a devoted husband (a marriage of over 70 years!), a natural teacher, a meticulous historian, and a gifted writer. But perhaps the best way to describe him is as “conscience of a nation,” as John Lukacs puts it in his excellent biography, George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2009). What made George Kennan invaluable as a diplomat was that he was the best kind of patriot: a man who so loved his country that he did not turn a blind eye to its faults and defects but shined a light on them, wishing the improvement of our character and conduct as a nation. He was deeply committed to the principles of liberty and equality and believed America should exert its influence in the world, but he deplored the tendency toward wrongheaded, righteous interventions and the increasing overextension of our military throughout the world. In this vein he often quoted John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty all over the world; but we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This posture earned him the ire of both liberals and conservatives, and so it should be, for he had “no doctrines, only principles.”

George Kennan led a long and fruitful life, leaving behind a mountain of writings on the role of the U.S. in the world. As our country faces many serious threats, it is worth recalling the lessons of this sober-minded and clear-eyed American, of which the most important may be, humility:

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“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130, quoted from his 1953 address to University of Notre Dame).

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