Know Your Former American Ambassadors to the Soviet Union and their relatives: George Kennan & George F. Kennan

May 15, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Posted in Historical | Leave a comment
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A Siberian posting sledge on a cold morning, with George Kennan standing at the right Between 1885 and 1886. (Library of Congress)

George Kennan was an American explorer noted for his travels in the Kamchatka and Caucasus regions of Russia and cousin twice removed to George F. Kennan. A diplomat and historian, George Kennan the elder was the author of Tent Life in Siberia. It’s an amazing story. In 1865 it took seven weeks to sail from San Francisco to Kamchatka.

The younger Kennan was United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Eisenhower administration (May 14, 1952 to September 19, 1952) and Ambassador to Yugoslavia during the Kennedy administration (May 16, 1961 to July 28, 1963). In 1956 he became a permanent member of the faculty of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Kardashof was one of three political exiles living in the Buriat village of Selenginsk whom Kennan visited in October, 1885. Kardashof had served his penal term at the Kara gold mines and Kennan hoped Kardashof and his fellow exiles could provide him with information about the Kara mines. (Library of Congress)

It was during the younger Kennan’s ambassadorship to the Soviet Union that a surreptitious listening device was discovered to have been implanted in a two-foot wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States given as a gift to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945.

Shortly after the younger Kennan’s death at age 101, David K. Lorio, Lecturer of Political Science at Texas State University-San Marco presented a paper at the Annual Southwest Political Science Association Conference on 24 March 2005 titled American Pessimist: George F. Kennan as Realist

Like so many other philosophers of international relations, Kennan grapples with the roles realism and idealism play in foreign policy. Realism, or realpolitik, as defined by Henry Kissinger is a foreign policy based on the calculations of power and national self-interest (Kissinger 1994, 137). The amorality and naked self-interest of Machiavellian thought represents the most extreme form of realism (Walling 2004). Foreign policy idealism, on the other hand, is based on natural rights and universal justice. A broader morality, beyond self-interest, prevails in idealism. Kant’s belief in perpetual peace and Woodrow Wilson’s trust in a community of power, rather than a balance of power, are examples of idealism (Walling 2004).

George Kennan, c1905. (Library of Congress)

As a conservative, pragmatist, and pessimist, Kennan is closely associated with realism. Kennan has an affinity for the more sophisticated European view of international relations: therefore more sympathetic to the darker, less sentimental view of human nature found in 19th Century European world politics than in the sunnier, optimistic Wilsonian policies of 20th and 21st Century America.

Kennan believes American foreign policy should be based on self-interest. His definition of self-interest
more closely resembles the narrower view of pre-First World War European statesman or even the American Founders rather than the broader 20th century view of his own countrymen. In 1948 he writes that one of the fundamental objectives of foreign policy should be:

to protect the security of the nation, by which is meant the continued ability of this country to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference, or threat of interference from foreign
powers… (Gellman 1984)

Prison in Irkutsk, eastern Siberia. c1885 (Library of Congress)

He is contemptuous of Wilsonian idealism.  America’s propensity to make the establishment of democracy a foreign policy goal is neither realistic nor desirable.  The United State’s foreign policies should be centered on American interests; not Kantian ideals for world peace.  He  addresses the role of morality in foreign policy and again emphasizes self interest:

When we talk about the application of moral standards to foreign policy, therefore, we are not talking about compliance with some clear and generally accepted international code of behavior.   If the policies and actions of the U.S. government are to be made to conform to moral standards, those standards are going to have to be America’s own, founded on traditional American principles of justice and propriety.  When others fail to conform to those principles, and when their failure to conform has an adverse effect on American interests, as distinct from political tastes, we have every right to complain and, if necessary, to take retaliatory actions.  What we  cannot do is assume our moral standards are theirs as well, and to appeal to those standards as the source of our grievances. (Kennan 1996, 272)

The Library of Congress photo archives has a lot of wonderful and interesting photographs in the George Kennan collection.


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