The most influential thinker in 20th-century American foreign policy completed his own century this week. As George Frost Kennan quietly celebrated his 100th birthday Monday at home in Princeton, N.J., scholars were still debating whether his doctrine of containment, which guided eight U.S. presidents through a treacherous Cold War, applies to new threats and a new global ideology as implacably hostile to the United States as Soviet communism.
"Kennan is a remarkable figure - there's no one of comparable influence," says Steven David, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It was a matter of his being at the right place at the right time with the right idea."
The time was February 1946 and the place was Moscow, where Kennan was completing a second tour as a diplomat assigned to the U.S. Embassy. Prompted by a routine inquiry from Washington, Kennan set down his thoughts on how to respond to the threat posed by the Soviet Union.
The 5,000-word missive that became known as the "Long Telegram" sketched ideas that Kennan would elaborate the next year in a seminal article in Foreign Affairs (under the pseudonym "X" because he still worked for the State Department) and in books to follow.
Without flinching from the brutal, expansionist nature of the Soviet regime, Kennan proposed that the United States could outlast the Soviet Union and defeat it without resorting to war. His belief that American strength and values, along with close cooperation with allies, would ultimately lead to the crumbling of the Soviet system was vindicated in 1991.
Now the United States faces rogue states and a shadowy network of terrorists united by religious fanaticism. Is the principle of containment still relevant? Scholars are divided.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush adopted a doctrine of pre-emption that broke explicitly with the idea of containment. He invaded Afghanistan, vowed to hunt down terrorists around the world and ordered the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, calling it an intolerable threat.
In a 2002 interview, Kennan expressed deep skepticism about the plan to invade Iraq. And the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there has prompted administration critics to assert that the war has only proven that containment was working in Iraq.
"I think containment is completely relevant for any potential enemy that has a return address - Iraq, Iran, North Korea," says Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago. "We've been containing North Korea for half a century."
Cumings calls Kennan's warnings about the Iraq war prescient. "Kennan was a member of a generation that built the post-war world system, and multilateralism was at the core," Cumings says. "The Bush administration has badly damaged that system by refusing to work with allies and ignoring the views of France and Germany, which now seem to have been quite accurate."
But al-Qaida is a different story, according to both Cumings and David, of Johns Hopkins. "With terrorist groups that could strike at any time, my sense is that containment in inadequate," David says.
Brief excerpts from Kennan's writings and interviews illustrate the force of his ideas and experiences over many decades:
On Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, from a 1998 interview with CNN:
"I don't think FDR was capable of conceiving of a man of such profound iniquity, coupled with enormous strategic cleverness, as Stalin. He had never met such a creature, and Stalin was an excellent actor and when he did meet with leading people at these various conferences, he was magnificent, quiet, affable, reasonable. ... [When he disagreed with aides] he turned on them and the yellow eyes lit up and you suddenly realized what sort of an animal you had by the tail. ... He was a man of absolutely diseased suspiciousness."
From the "Long Telegram" of February 1946, dictated by Kennan from his sickbed in Moscow :
"The Soviet regime is a police regime ... reared in the dim half-world of Tsarist police intrigue, accustomed to think primarily in terms of police power. This should never be lost sight of in gauging Soviet motives.
"In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure. This political force has complete power of disposition over the energies of one of the world's greatest peoples and resources of the world's richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism. ...
"The problem of how to cope with this force is undoubtedly the greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably the greatest it will ever face. ... It should be approached with the same thoroughness and care as the solution of a major strategic problem in war. ... But I would like to record my conviction that the problem is within our power to solve - and without recourse to any general military conflict. ...
"Much depends on the health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like a malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. ...
"Finally, we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping."
From "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," by "X," in Foreign Affairs, 1947:
"Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy. ... It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power."
On the prospect of invading Iraq, from an interview with The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, Sept. 25, 2002:
"Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.
"In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end."