George F. Kennan, diplomat, historian, writer, died on March 17. Excerpts from Karl Kaiser’s eulogy.
I am one of the millions of Europeans who benefited from George Kennan’s contribution, for I speak to you as a citizen of the peacefully united Germany, a democracy again, and the new Europe which is no longer divided into two hostile camps of communism and democracy, where the possibility of war has practically disappeared, and unprecedented unity is being created by the European Union.
It is this new Europe, for which George Kennan strove throughout his extraordinary life, as an analyst who frequently exposed its problems with surgical precision, as an advocate who was often ahead of his time, changing views and affecting policies, often misunderstood and criticized, ready to oppose what he considered wrong, always relevant.
Europeans remember him for his essential contribution to rebuilding Europe with the Marshall Plan and the Containment Policy as the two complementary centerpieces of U.S. policy. Containment, for which he laid the conceptual foundation, formed the basis of American foreign policy from the Truman Doctrine to the creation of NATO. The freedom of Berlin and of Western Europe is unimaginable without them.
It is true that Kennan later complained that containment was misunderstood and that the policy overreacted in military terms to the Soviet threat. But in 1967, NATO did exactly what Kennan had always advocated by adding to its goals a political dimension that sought dialogue and accommodation with the adversary. In the end, it was this combination of the military and political dimension, of deterrence and detente, which led to the demise of communism.
Kennan played a vital role in establishing the Marshall Plan, perhaps the most intelligent and forward-looking act of American foreign policy. It helped to rebuild Western Europe’s economy, supported the restoration of democracy and established the foundation for transatlantic economic interdependence.
Without the Marshall Plan and America’s continuous support of European integration with Franco-German reconciliation at its heart, we would not have Europe as an essential part of our Western community today, nor could that community continue to play a crucial role in this turbulent century without America actively supporting European unity.
Europeans also remember Kennan for his contribution to detente and to overcoming the division of Europe. Of course, that outcome is unthinkable without the contribution of the detente policy of American administrations from John F. Kennedy onward.
Nor is it imaginable that Gorbachev would have been able to release East Germany, the most important trophy of the world war unleashed by Germany, without the groundwork laid in the preceding decades by Western detente policy and German "Ostpolitik" which helped to rebuild trust and cooperation between Bonn and Moscow.
But Kennan’s views and voice played a crucial role in these processes by proposing alternative ideas for dealing with the East-West conflict and by offering interpretations of the Soviet Union which stressed the evolutionary potential of the country. Throughout his life, he preached patience when it came to fostering democracy in other countries and that statecraft should rely on and encourage the indigenous forces that could create it.
As I know from personal experience, Chancellor Willy Brandt revered him. In the early sixties, Kennan once came through Berlin on his way back from Moscow and gave Brandt his assessment of developments in Soviet leadership at the time. He told Brandt not to be afraid in pursuing new policies with the East. "Have courage," he said. His assessment and advice undoubtedly encouraged Brandt to develop a new approach, which later took shape as "Ostpolitik." Brandt met with Kennan repeatedly and always paid attention to his writings.
As a skeptic of human nature, Kennan considered nuclear weapons to be too dangerous to be put in human hands. As he put it: "War between great peoples in the modern age—total war—is a madness from which nobody can benefit." The destruction of Hamburg and Berlin, two cities he knew very well, shocked him profoundly.
As nuclear weapons became increasingly important in Western security policy, he constantly criticized what he called "grotesque deterrence," supporting and inspiring those critics in the U.S. and Europe who advocated arms control and disarmament in this field—a stance more important today than ever as these awful weapons may fall in the hands of jihad terrorists.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was not a forgone conclusion that the Cold War would end without a bloodbath. To be sure, the wise and prudent statesmanship of the leaders of that time was decisive, but they acted within an environment of trends and ideas that encouraged them to recognize a historical opportunity they fortunately grasped. Kennan’s contribution was vital in creating that very environment.
Today is therefore the moment for Europeans who now live in a free and reunited continent to express thanks to this extraordinary man. We Europeans honor him as an example of the very best in the American diplomatic tradition that proceeds on the basis of careful analysis, that seeks to understand the driving forces of other countries, in particular its adversaries, and that attempts to act as much as possible on the basis of a consensual and multilateral approach which respects international law and involves allies. As Germany’s Federal President Horst Koehler put it in a letter of condolence to Mrs. Kennan: "He remains an example to every young diplomat."