Sunday, July 1, 2012

Big Thinker: The diplomat who argued for “containment”—and lived to regret it


George Kennan was the J. Alfred Prufrock of American diplomacy—acutely observant, toxically self-absorbed, and to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” Stress-fueled ulcers would periodically compel him to take weeks or months of convalescence. Several times he tendered, and then rescinded, his resignation from the Foreign Service. Bureaucratic setbacks or unexpected foreign developments would provoke him to all but reverse his positions. His love-hate relationship with his own country would plunge him into alienation and despair.

Yet Kennan (1904-2005) was also the greatest American strategist of the 20th century. Not only did he conceive the now-totemic Marshall Plan and the policy of containment that guided the United States through the Cold War, but he also inaugurated the study of grand strategy at the National War College, created the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, and helped define the realist school of foreign policy thinking. Outside government, he was an award-winning historian, a sometimes hugely influential gadfly-cum-prophet, and a friend and colleague to intellectual giants such as Isaiah Berlin and J. Robert Oppenheimer, his boss at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey.

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