George Kennan honored at 100th birthday symposium

Cold War diplomat makes surprise visit at Institute for Advanced Study.

By: Jeff Milgram
   When the Institute for Advanced Study threw a 100th birthday "party" for the visionary diplomat and historian George Kennan on Wednesday, the surprise was on the guests.
   The institute brought together six panelists — including a former secretary of state and the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union — and some 200 dignitaries for a four-hour symposium on the legacy of the U.S. Foreign Service official who drew up America’s policy of containing the Soviet Union after World War II.
   But the guest of honor took everyone by surprise when he made a rare public appearance.
   Symposium organizers did not believe Mr. Kennan would attend because of his frail health. When he was wheeled in on a wheelchair, Mr. Kennan received a standing ovation.
   In his brief remarks, made from the rear of the auditorium of Wolfensohn Hall, Mr. Kennan, who turned 100 on Monday, talked about his 44-year association with the institute.
   Mr. Kennan was invited to become a visiting member in 1950 by the institute’s third director, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In 1956, he was invited to join the permanent faculty, but only if he could guarantee that he would remain there and not move on after a couple of years.
   "I never regretted that I gave that assurance," he said. "I’ve regarded it as a privilege ever since to consider myself as a member of this faculty."
   The panelists, in turn, said it was a privilege to know Mr. Kennan.
   "The George Kennan I know, and that most of us know, is far more than a diplomat," said Lawrence Eagleburger, who served under Mr. Kennan in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and later became President George H.W. Bush’s last secretary of state.
   "George Kennan was a great teacher as well as a great ambassador," Mr. Eagleburger said.
   Princeton University is hosting a daylong conference today on Mr. Kennan’s legacy. Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver a major address on the international security environment at 10 a.m. in Alexander Hall’s Richardson Auditorium.
   Mr. Kennan graduated from Princeton in 1925 and joined the Foreign Service the following year. He served as vice consul in the Baltics, followed by several years of advanced Russian studies in Berlin.
   When World War II began, he was posted in Berlin; when it ended, he was in Moscow.
   An avid writer and diarist, Mr. Kennan took a creative and personal approach to diplomacy.
   "George Kennan’s life as a foreign service officer, diplomat, whatever, came at a time, a creative time, when — God knows — creation was necessary. I would suggest to you … that we are in a similar circumstance right now. Where are the George Kennans? God knows we could use them," Mr. Eagleburger said.
   Mr. Kennan is best known for his 8,000-word "long telegram," urging the United States to stand firm against Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe. In 1947, he expanded on his policy of "containment" in an article, signed X, in the journal Foreign Affairs.
   The article shaped American doctrine for the next 40 years and influenced the foreign policies of Germany, Britain and, to some extent, France.
   The doctrine also led to other political initiatives, such as NATO, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift.
   "George Kennan was clearly the author of containment and he’s been running away from it ever since," Mr. Eagleburger said. Mr. Kennan did not stress military containment, Mr. Eagleburger explained; he stressed economic containment.
   In fact, Mr. Kennan predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its failing economic system, Mr. Eagleburger said.
   Alexander Bessmertnykh, the last foreign minister before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, said Mr. Kennan always separated the Soviet system from the Russian people, its history and culture. "Kennan loved Russia and Russians," he said.
   Mr. Bessmertnykh urged the Russian and American governments to fund a program to translate Mr. Kennan’s works into Russian.
   Karl Kaiser, the director emeritus of the German Council on Foreign Relations, praised Mr. Kennan’s support for Europe and his opposition to nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.
   "George Kennan, a skeptic of human nature, believes nuclear weapons should not be in human hands," Mr. Kaiser said.
   He said German leaders "revere" Mr. Kennan.
   Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state who now runs the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Kennan always believed that the United States must not delude itself into thinking that it can do everything all over the world.
   "George Kennan has immensely improved his country," Mr. Talbott said.