As one of the State Department's small coterie of Russian experts, Kennan spent five years in the American embassy in Moscow, returning there in 1944 as minister-counselor. Despite his distaste for the Soviet regime, as World War II ended he recommended reassigning control of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. His influential February 1946 "Long Telegram" argued that the internal dynamics of Russian communism made genuine Soviet-Western understanding unattainable. Widely circulated throughout the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy, it made him an instant celebrity.
From 1947 to 1949 Kennan headed the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, exercising his greatest impact on American foreign policy by enunciating the containment doctrine that became the basis of U.S. Cold War strategy toward the Soviet Union. He later suggested that American officials misinterpreted his original version of containment by overemphasizing the military aspects, which he regarded as secondary. His claim, which has generated substantial historiographical debate, runs contrary to his policymaking at the time, however.
Kennan soon found himself increasingly out of sync with the evolving Cold War policies. In the late 1940s and again during the 1950s, he called for the neutralization and unification of Germany, and he opposed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Although on leave, Kennan initially supported U.S. intervention in the Korean War but regretted the decision to carry the war into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea). In 1951 he took part in unofficial negotiations with Soviet diplomats that led to the opening of armistice talks. In 1952 he was briefly ambassador to the Soviet Union, but his criticism of Josef Stalin's regime resulted in expulsion. Kennan then began a lengthy career as a historian and political commentator. Keen to encourage polycentrism within the communist world, Kennan welcomed his 1951 appointment as ambassador to Yugoslavia, where he remained until 1963. He applauded the manner in which President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handled the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kennan believed that American preoccupation with Vietnam distracted officials from pursuing détente with the Soviets. He applauded French President Charles de Gaulle's initiatives toward détente and called for Western recognition of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). Initially outraged by the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kennan demanded massive American troop reinforcements in Western Europe but soon endorsed Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik.
Kennan initially showed little interest in Vietnam. In 1950 he had urged American attempts to encourage noncommunist, nationalist "third forces" in Indochina but by 1955 had grown pessimistic that such endeavors would succeed. Despite misgivings, he endorsed President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Johnson's subsequent escalation of the war convinced Kennan that the United States was too heavily involved in a country of relatively slight strategic significance. He suggested that the United States restrict itself to defending strategic enclaves and supporting the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) government. During widely publicized congressional hearings in 1967, he argued that employing the force levels needed to ensure victory in Vietnam would likely trigger Chinese intervention and full-scale, probably nuclear, Sino-American war. By November 1969 he publicly advocated American military withdrawal, notwithstanding the probability that the communists would then take over South Vietnam.
In 1967 and 1972 Kennan published two volumes of best-selling confessional memoirs. He continued to write well into his nineties, frequently warning against the American tendency to intervene in nations and conflicts of little direct strategic interest and suggesting that wider concerns, particularly the environment, population growth, and arms control, were of far greater importance. During the late 1960s he opposed the eastward expansion of NATO, and in 2003 he condemned the forthcoming U.S. invasion of Iraq. Kennan died in Princeton, New Jersey, on 17 March 2005.
Gellman, Barton D. Contending with Kennan: Toward a Philosophy of American Power. New York: Praeger, 1984.; Hixson, Walter L. George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.; Kennan, George F. Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy. New York: Norton, 1994.; Kennan, George F. Sketches from a Life. New York: Pantheon, 1990.; Mayers, David. George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.; Miscamble, Wilson D. George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947–1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.; Stephanson, Anders. Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.