Kennan, George F. (George Frost), 1904-2005

Alternative names
Birth 1904-02-16
Death 2005-03-17
English, Russian, German

Biographical notes:

George Kennan (1845-1924), American journalist and author, was best-known for his writings on Russia.

In 1865 he was sent to Siberia as part of a surveying party to find a route for a telegraph line to connect Europe and America. Kennan traveled across Russia and wrote about his experiences in Tent Life in Siberia (1870). He worked as assistant manager of the Associated Press and wrote about the Russian prison and exile system for Century Magazine. In addition to his work on Russia, he covered the Spanish-American War and the Russo-Japanese War. He was a popular lecturer and interpreter of Russian and Asian culture to the West.

From the description of George Kennan papers, 1866-1986, bulk (1885-1892). (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122486570

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was a diplomat and a historian, noted especially for his influence on United States policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and for his scholarly expertise in the areas of Russian history and foreign policy.

While with the Foreign Service, Kennan advocated a policy of "containment" that influenced United States relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and served in various positions in European embassies, as well as ambassador to the Soviet Union. His career as a historian was spent at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he continued to analyze the history of Russia, Soviet Union and United States foreign policies, and foreign affairs.

From the description of George F. Kennan papers, 1871-2005 (bulk 1950-2000) (Princeton University Library). WorldCat record id: 424637171

George Kennan, journalist, lecturer and author, is best known for his writings on Imperial Russia. Born in 1845 in Norwalk, Ohio to attorney John Kennan and Mary Anne Morse Kennan, the young George left school at the age of twelve to take work as a telegrapher.

During the years of the American Civil War, he worked with the Military Telegraph Corps, which later led to employment with Western Union. In 1865, at the age of twenty, he was chosen for a Western Union expedition investigating the feasibility of laying telegraph cable from Alaska across the Pacific Ocean to Siberia. Traveling as part of a small team and with no previous knowledge of the Russian language, Kennan and his cohort trekked for a year by horseback, telega cart, dog sled and canoe. They endured the vagaries of the Siberian winter sleeping in tents and quartering with the nomadic Korak population. In 1866, expedition members had already begun erecting telegraph poles across the Siberian landscape when they received the belated news of the success of the Atlantic cable, which nullified their project. Kennan used this opportunity to travel across the entire Russian continent to Europe, and then returned home in 1867. His first book based on these travels, Tent Life in Siberia, was roundly praised after its publication in 1870.

Also in 1870, Kennan spent a year traveling in another outpost of the Russian Empire, the Caucasus. It was during this time that he began submitting articles to various publications, thus beginning his career as a journalist and cementing his reputation as an explorer and expert on Russia.

Upon his return to the United States, he worked in business for several years in Medina, NY, where he met Emeline Weld, whom he married in 1879. In 1877 he moved to Washington, D.C. to begin work as an assistant manager for the Associated Press, a job he held until 1885. In 1881, based on his professional reputation and skill, he was called to the White House to manage the telegraph and press reports of President Garfield's assassination.

In 1885, Roswell Smith, publisher of the The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, contacted Kennan with a commission for a series of articles on the Siberian prison and exile system. Kennan gladly accepted the assignment and arranged for a friend, artist George A. Frost, to accompany him and illustrate their voyage. Initially supportive of the tsarist government's efforts to maintain order against what he assumed to be a wave of Nihilists and revolutionaries, Kennan was soon surprised to find himself in sympathy with the radicals he so recently scorned. In his tours of Russian prisons and numerous meetings with exiles--among them Katherine Breshkovskaia, the "Grandmother of the Revolution"--he discovered many convicts to be from the educated classes, and found many guilty of crimes he felt to be legitimate opposition to the tyranny and arbitrary nature of the tsarist system.

In his series of articles for the Century (published between 1887 and 1891), Kennan exposed the abuses of the penal system. He highlighted the inhumane practice of total seclusion and indefinite detention of arrestees practiced in the Peter-Paul and Schlusselberg fortresses in St. Petersburg, as well as wrote about the journey to Siberia, traveled on foot by already exhausted and malnourished prisoners. He discussed the years of grueling mining work to which many were sentenced, as well as the horrid living conditions in which they were maintained. The violence to which exiles were subjected--floggings, beatings, shootings and hangings--was also exposed in his articles. Collected together into a two-volume book, Siberia and the Exile System (1891), his writings shocked the American public, and created high demand for Kennan as a public lecturer. According to the lecture schedule in his papers, between 1889 and 1900 he delivered more than five hundred talks on Russia, often appearing dressed in the rags and chains of exiles. Through this work, Kennan soon became the leading influence on anti-tsarist sentiment in the United States.

Russia was not Kennan's sole focus, however. He also traveled to Cuba as a war correspondent for the Outlook magazine during the Spanish-American War, to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, and traveled to and wrote about the Philippines, Korea, China, and Martinique. Kennan's other interests included Native American rights and railway development in the United States. He was the author of a biography of E.H. Harriman, railroad magnate and financier of the Harriman Alaska Expedition.

In addition to his work an as author, Kennan worked as an assistant manager of the Associated Press (1877-1885), vice president of the American Red Cross (1898), and vice president of the Medina Publishing Company. He also served as vice president of the American branch of the Society of the Friends of Russian Freedom. The Society sought to raise funds for the support of anti-tsarist Russian exiles and counted among its founding members Mark Twain, Alice Stone Blackwell, and William Lloyd Garrison.

George Kennan died following a stroke on May 10, 1924.

From the guide to the George Kennan papers, 1856-1987, 1866-1919, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was a diplomat and a historian, noted especially for his influence on United States policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and for his scholarly expertise in the areas of Russian history and foreign policy. While with the Foreign Service, Kennan advocated a policy of "containment" that influenced United States relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and served in various positions in European embassies, as well as ambassador to the Soviet Union. His career as a historian was spent at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he continued to analyze the history of Russia, Soviet Union and United States foreign policies, and foreign affairs.

Kennan was educated at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin and earned his B.A. degree at Princeton University in 1925, where he studied history with an emphasis on modern European diplomacy. Following graduation, he entered the Foreign Service. His first post was as vice consul in Geneva, and in the next year he was transferred to Hamburg, Germany. In 1928, Kennan entered a training program though the Foreign Service, studying Russian language, history and culture at Berlin University. The United States did not yet have diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and so Kennan was assigned to "listening posts" around the U.S.S.R. in Tallinn, Estonia (1927) and in Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania (1931-1933).

His first assignment in Moscow came in 1933 under William C. Bullitt, the first United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, aiding in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and the Kremlin for the first time since 1917. He held positions as third secretary from 1933 to 1934, second secretary from 1935 to 1936, and from 1944 to 1946, minister-counselor (the second highest rank at the embassy), first under W. Averell Harriman and then under General Walter Bedell Smith. During this period, he was also appointed to positions in Vienna (1935), Prague (1938), Berlin (1939), Lisbon (1942), and London (1944). Kennan was detained in Berlin for five months after United States' entry into World War II.

Kennan rose to prominence in February 1946 when he wrote what became known as the "Long Telegram." Written in response to an inquiry from the U.S. Treasury regarding Moscow's refusal to support the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the telegram outlined Kennan's assessment of the psychology of the leaders of the Soviet Union and provided principles on which the United States should base policies towards the Soviet Union. Kennan wrote that Stalin was "impervious to the logic of reason but highly sensitive to the logic of force," by which he meant primarily diplomatic and economic force more so than military. The telegram resonated in Washington, D.C.--although the interpretation of the Soviet threat became predominantly described as a military one--and Kennan became an influential figure in the State Department on Soviet affairs. Kennan further developed his views in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" published under the pseudonym X in Foreign Affairs in July 1947. In this article, he used the term "containment" to describe his philosophy for dealing with the spread of Soviet power and influence. Again, this was interpreted by others in Washington as a military strategy, although Kennan intended it to be primarily achieved through diplomacy, economic sanctions, and covert action--anything short of war. Containment became one of the primary rationales for United States' Cold War policies, including the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1949, the commitment of American forces in Southeast Asia in 1965, and the Reagan administration arms buildup during the 1980s.

In April 1946, Kennan returned to Washington, D.C., where he taught at the National War College, and in 1947, he was appointed director of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. In this capacity, he was a principle architect of the Marshall Plan, which sent billions of dollars of aid to help rebuild Western Europe following World War II. When Dean Acheson became Secretary of State in 1949, Kennan remained in the State Department as one of his principal advisors. However, during this period Kennan became increasingly critical of United States policy, especially the military interpretation of containment and the entry of UN troops into North Korea, and so in 1950 Kennan took a leave of absence to devote himself to research and scholarship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Kennan returned to the State Department in March 1952 when President Harry S. Truman appointed him Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. The assignment was short-lived, however. Kept under heavy surveillance by the Soviets, in October 1952 he compared conditions to those he suffered under his Nazi internment during World War II, and the Soviet government declared him persona non grata, which forced his return to the United States. Because of policy differences between Kennan and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (who found containment too passive), Dulles employed a technicality to force Kennan's retirement from the State Department in 1953.

He returned to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became a professor in the School of Historical Studies in 1956. Kennan became a prolific and respected diplomatic historian, studying modern European and Russian history, international relations, and American foreign policy and diplomacy. He also remained an important, often critical, voice in the ongoing debate about American foreign policy, advocating the use of diplomacy rather than military force and for foreign policy that was "very modest and restrained." Kennan was critical of the buildup of conventional and nuclear weapons during the arms race, which many argued for in the name of containment. He also advocated against military involvement in Vietnam, indicating that it was not an area of the world critical to American security. Later in his career, Kennan became a supporter of Russian and Soviet studies in the United States, identifying scholarship as a productive means to establish favorable relations with Moscow.

Over the course of his career, Kennan wrote numerous influential and critically acclaimed books, including American Diplomacy 1900-1950 (1951), Russia Leaves the War (1956), Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin (1961), two volumes of memoirs (1967, 1972), The Decline of Bismarck's European Order (1979), The Nuclear Delusion (1982), and Around the Cragged Hill (1993). He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for Russia Leaves the War and the other for the first volume of his memoirs. Though he remained at the Institute for Advanced Study until his retirement in 1974, Kennan did return to government service briefly on two occasions, as ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 until 1963 for President John F. Kennedy and traveling to Switzerland in 1967 as a representative for the State Department to help convince Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Josef Stalin, to immigrate to the United States.

George Frost Kennan was born on February 16, 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Kossuth Kent Kennan, a lawyer, and Florence (James) Kennan. He met Annelise Sorensen of Norway while studying in Berlin and they married in 1931. The Kennans had four children: Grace Kennan Warnecke, Joan Kennan, Wendy Kennan, and Christopher J. Kennan. Through the course of his career, Kennan was the recipient of many honors for his work in the field of international affairs, including the Albert Einstein Peace Prize (1981), the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (1982), the Gold Medal in History of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1984), the FDR Freedom from Fear Award (1987), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1989, the highest civilian honor in the United States). George Kennan died on March 17, 2005 in Princeton, New Jersey at the age of 101.

From the guide to the George F. Kennan Papers, 1871-2005, 1950-2000, (Princeton University. Library. Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections)


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  • Diplomacy
  • International relations
  • Ambassadors
  • Russo--Japanese War, 1904-1905
  • Arms control
  • Prisons--Russia
  • Communism
  • Political prisoners
  • Nuclear nonproliferation
  • American politics and government
  • History--Study and teaching--United States
  • Economic assistance, American
  • Communism--Soviet Union
  • History--Study and teaching
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975
  • Ambassadors--United States
  • American history/20th century
  • Spanish--American War, 1898
  • World War II
  • Diplomatic and consular service, American--Soviet Union
  • Diplomatic and consular service, American
  • Exiles
  • Economic assistance, American--Europe
  • Diplomats--Correspondence, reminiscences, etc
  • Prisons
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975--United States
  • World politics--20th century
  • Revolutionaries--Russia
  • Cold War
  • Political prisoners--Russia


  • Authors
  • Journalists
  • Lecturers


  • Russia (as recorded)
  • China (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)
  • Russia (as recorded)
  • Siberia (Russia) (as recorded)
  • Cuba (as recorded)
  • Yugoslavia (as recorded)
  • Russia (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • China (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)
  • Russia (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Siberia (Russia) (as recorded)
  • Soviet Union (as recorded)