George F. Kennan

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A political society does not live to conduct foreign policy; it would be more correct to say that it conducts foreign policy in order to live.

George Frost Kennan (16 February 190417 March 2005) was an American advisor, diplomat, political scientist, and historian, most famous as "the father of containment" and as a key figure in the emergence of the Cold War.

Quotes[edit]

Now this problem of the adjustment of man to his natural resources, and the problem of how such things as industrialization and urbanization can be accepted without destroying the traditional values of a civilization and corrupting the inner vitality of its life — these things are not only the problems of America; they are the problems of men everywhere.
For the love of God, for the love of your children and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness. You are mortal men. You are capable of error.
  • If humiliation and rejection are to be the rewards of faithful and effective service in this field, what are those of us to conclude who have also served prominently in this line of work but upon whom this badge has not yet been conferred?
    We cannot deceive ourselves into believing that it was merit, rather than chance, that spared some of us the necessity of working in areas of activity that have now become controversial, of recording opinions people now find disagreeable, of aiding in the implementation of policies now under question. ... In no field of endeavor is it easier than in the field of foreign affairs to be honestly wrong; in no field is it harder for contemporaries to be certain they can distinguish between wisdom and folly; in no field would it be less practicable to try to insist on infallibility as a mark of fitness for office.
  • A political society does not live to conduct foreign policy; it would be more correct to say that it conducts foreign policy in order to live.
    • Lecture at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey (March 1954); published in “The Two Planes of International Reality” in Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954), p. 4
  • Now this problem of the adjustment of man to his natural resources, and the problem of how such things as industrialization and urbanization can be accepted without destroying the traditional values of a civilization and corrupting the inner vitality of its life — these things are not only the problems of America; they are the problems of men everywhere. To the extent that we Americans become able to show that we are aware of these problems, and that we are approaching them with coherent and effective ideas of our own which we have the courage to put into effect in our own lives, to that extent a new dimension will come into our relations with the peoples beyond our borders, to that extent, in fact, the dreams of these earlier generations of Americans who saw us as leaders and helpers to the peoples of the world at large will begin to take on flesh and reality.
    • Lecture at Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey (March 1954); published in “The Unifying Factor” in Realities of American Foreign Policy (1954), p. 116
  • A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all. And a ruthless, reckless insistence on attempting to stamp out everything that could conceivably constitute a reflection of improper foreign influence in our national life, regardless of the actual damage it is doing to the cost of eliminating it, in terms of other American values, is the one thing I can think of that should reduce us all to a point where the very independence we are seeking to defend would be meaningless, for we would be doing things to ourselves as vicious and tyrannical as any that might be brought to us from outside.
    This sort of extremism seems to me to hold particular danger for a democracy, because it creates a curious area between what is held to be possible and what is really possible — an area within which government can always be plausibly shown to have been most dangerously delinquent in the performance of its tasks. And this area, where government is always deficient, provides the ideal field of opportunity for every sort of demagoguery and mischief-making. It constitutes a terrible breach in the dike of our national morale, through which forces of doubt and suspicion never cease to find entry. The heart of our problem, here, lies in our assessment of the relative importance of the various dangers among which we move; and until many of our people can be brought to understand that what we have to do is not to secure a total absence of danger but to balance peril against peril and to find the tolerable degree of each, we shall not wholly emerge from these confusions.
    • Radcliffe Commencement Address (16 June 1954), published as "The Illusion of Total Security" in The Atlantic Monthly, # 194 (August 1954)
Without a generation of civilized people to study history, to preserve its records, to absorb its lessons and relate them to its own problems, history, too, would lose its meaning.
  • I lived, particularly in childhood but with lessening intensity right on to middle age, in a world that was peculiarly and intimately my own, scarcely to be shared with others or even made plausible to them. I habitually read special meanings into things, scenes and places — qualities of wonder, beauty, promise, or horror — for which there was no external evidence visible or plausible to others. My world was peopled with mysteries, seductive hints, vague menaces, "intimations of immortality."
    • A passage from the first volume of his Memoirs as quoted in Political Realism in American Thought (1977) by John W. Coffey, p. 26
  • A guest of one's time and not a member of its household.
    • Referring to himself, as quoted in Political Realism in American Thought (1977) by John W. Coffey, p. 26
  • For the love of God, for the love of your children and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness. You are mortal men. You are capable of error. You have no right to hold in your hands — there is no one wise enough and strong enough to hold in his hands — destructive power sufficient to put an end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet.
  • The best thing we can do if we want the Russians to let us be Americans is to let the Russians be Russian.
    • As quoted in US-Soviet Relations : The First 50 Years WNET TV {17 April 1984)
  • The very concept of history implies the scholar and the reader. Without a generation of civilized people to study history, to preserve its records, to absorb its lessons and relate them to its own problems, history, too, would lose its meaning.
    • As quoted in The New York Times (27 May 1984)
  • Not only the studying and writing of history but also the honoring of it both represent affirmations of a certain defiant faith — a desperate, unreasoning faith, if you will — but faith nevertheless in the endurance of this threatened world — faith in the total essentiality of historical continuity.
    • As quoted in The New York Times (27 May 1984)
  • Fig leaves of democratic procedure to hide the nakedness of Stalinist dictatorship.
    • On postwar accords regarding Eastern Europe, as quoted in The Wise Men (1986) by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas
  • The best an American can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow and where few will consent to believe he has been.
    • On trying to understand Soviet policies, as quoted in The Wise Men (1986) by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas
Reading, in contrast to sitting before the screen, is not a purely passive exercise...
  • Russia, Russia — unwashed, backward, appealing Russia, so ashamed of your own backwardness, so orientally determined to conceal it from us by clever deceit. So sensitive and so suspicious in the face of the wicked, civilized west. I shall always remember you — slyly, touchingly, but with great shouting and confusion — pumping hot water into our sleeping car in the frosty darkness of a December morning in order that we might not know, in order that we might never realize, to how primitive a land we had come.
    • Written about an incident where hot water was pumped from a switch engine on the next track into a diplomats sleeping-car; as quoted in George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy (1988) by David Allan Mayers, p. 30
  • There will be no room, here, for the smug myopia which views American civilization as the final solution to all world problems; which recommends our institutions for universal adoption and turns away with contempt from the serious study of the institutions of peoples whose civilizations may seem to us to be materially less advanced.
    • As quoted in Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (1989) by Anders Stephanson, p. 160
  • Reading, in contrast to sitting before the screen, is not a purely passive exercise. The child, particularly one who reads a book dealing with real life, has nothing before it but the hieroglyphics of the printed page. Imagination must do the rest; and imagination is called upon to do it. Not so the television screen. Here everything is spelled out for the viewer, visually, in motion, and in all three dimensions. No effort of imagination is called upon for its enjoyment.
    • “American Addictions” in New Oxford Review (June 1993)
We are, if territory and population be looked at together, one of the great countries of the world — a monster country, one might say...
  • I write to say that in the idea of the three American states' ultimate independence, whether separately or in union, I see nothing fanciful. [Such] are at present the dominating trends in the U.S. that I see no other means of ultimate preservation of cultural and societal values that will not only be endangered but eventually destroyed by an endlessly prolonged association … with the remainder of what is now the U.S.A.
War has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it.
  • We are, if territory and population be looked at together, one of the great countries of the world — a monster country, one might say, along with others such as China, India, the recent Soviet Union, and Brazil. And there is a real question as to whether "bigness" in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.
    • Around the Cragged Hill : A Personal and Political Philosophy (1994), p. 143
War seldom ever leads to good results.
  • I said that wherever these people, meaning the Soviet leadership, confronted us with dangerous hostility anywhere in the world, we should do everything possible to contain it and not let them expand any further. I should have explained that I didn't suspect them of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn't think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it.
  • Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.
    • "Foreword to 'The Pathology of Power'" by Norman Cousins (Norton, 1987), from At a Century's Ending: Reflections 1982-1995 (Norton, 1997, ISBN 0-393-31609-2), Part II: Cold War in Full Bloom, p. 118
  • Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before ... In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.
  • Whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods of for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results.
    • As quoted in "George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq" at History News Network (26 September 2002)
  • A doctrine is something that pins you down to a given mode of conduct and dozens of situations which you cannot foresee, which is a great mistake in principle. When the word ‘containment’ was used in my ‘X’ article, it was used with relation to a certain situation then prevailing, and as a response to it.
    • As quoted in "George Kennan Speaks Out About Iraq" at History News Network (26 September 2002)

Memo PPS23 (1948)[edit]

"Memo PPS23", written 28 February 1948, declassified 17 June 1974
  • We must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have answers to the problems, which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples. Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3 of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction...
    In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to 'be liked' or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague — and for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
    • VII. Far East

American Diplomacy (1951)[edit]

Public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics.

World War I[edit]

Until people learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.
A democracy is peace-loving. It does not like to go to war. It is slow to rise to provocation. When it has once been provoked to the point where it must grasp the sword, it does not easily forgive its adversary for having produced this situation.
  • There are certain sad appreciations we have to come to about human nature on the basis of these recent wars. One of them is that suffering does not always make men better. Another is that people are not always more reasonable than governments; that public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics. It may be true, and I suspect it is, that the mass of people everywhere are normally peace-loving and would accept many restraints and sacrifices in preference to the monstrous calamities of war. But I also suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular government is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all, but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts: people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent. These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of understanding any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemma, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until people learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.
  • A democracy is peace-loving. It does not like to go to war. It is slow to rise to provocation. When it has once been provoked to the point where it must grasp the sword, it does not easily forgive its adversary for having produced this situation. The fact of the provocation then becomes itself the issue. Democracy fights in anger — it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it — to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end.
    This is true enough, and, if nations could afford to operate in the moral climate of individual ethics, it would be understandable and acceptable. But I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath — in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat. You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could have prevented some of these situations from arising instead of proceeding from an undiscriminating indifference to a holy wrath equally undiscriminating.

Memoirs 1925 - 1950 (1967)[edit]

Germany[edit]

Here, for the first time, I felt an unshakable conviction that no momentary military advantage — even if such could have been calculated to exist — could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life...
  • Here, for the first time, I felt an unshakable conviction that no momentary military advantage — even if such could have been calculated to exist — could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life and of material values, built up laboriously by human hands over the course of centuries for purposes having nothing to do with war. Least of all could it have been justified by the screaming non sequitur: "They did it to us." And it suddenly appeared to me that in these ruins there was an unanswerable symbolism which we in the West could not afford to ignore. If the Western world was really going to make a pretense of a higher moral departure point — of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him, as expressed not only in himself but in the things he had wrought and cared about — then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength. Shorn of this strength, it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories; and the best it would accomplish in the long run would be to pull down the temple over its own head. The military would stamp this as naïve; they would say that war is war, that when you're in it you fight with every means you have, or go down in defeat. But if that is the case, then there rests upon Western civilization, bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory.
    • Written in regard to the Allied destruction of Hamburg and other German cities, p. 437

Russia — Seven Years Later (September 1944)[edit]

  • The average Russian of mature age today may some day have the moral satisfaction of seeing his government exercise a power unprecedented in history over the land masses of Asia and Europe. But it is not likely that he will ever know the comforts, in the line of housing, clothing, and other conveniences of civilized living, comparable to those that have existed in the advanced countries of the West. That renunciation of comfort is his involuntary contribution to something: either to the future comfort of his own children or to the increased military power of Russia. He hopes — and we hope with him — that it will not be only the latter.


Misattributed[edit]

  • Heroism is endurance for one moment more.
    • This was an old saying of mountaineers of the Caucasus which Kennan quoted in a 1921 letter to Henry Munroe Rogers, as quoted in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations 16th Edition, and in Mental Disorders In The Social Environment : Critical Perspectives (2005) by Stuart A. Kirk, p. 31

Quotes about Kennan[edit]

  • [His ideas] were misinterpreted both by those who shared them as well as by those who rejected them.

External links[edit]

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