An insider's look at U.S. foreign relations
Kennan, one of the few diplomats to become widely known in his own lifetime, was a keen observer and reporter on events little known to the general public. A loner at Princeton in his undergraduate days, he reports knowing none of his teachers well and demonstrated no special skills or noteworthy achievements. As he notes, "I left college as obscurely as I entered it." But "Princeton had prepared the mind for further growth," and he decided to take the examination for the Foreign Service, mainly, he notes, because he couldn't figure out what else to do.
On his first foreign assignment, to the consulate in Geneva, Kennan began his decades-long study of European history, politics and society. Here he began to develop skills that set him apart from many of his Foreign Service colleagues. By continuously meeting with a broad spectrum of people in the countries to which he was assigned, he learned to assess both the underlying factors and the details of current affairs that drove the countries. As a budding diplomat, he also developed fluency in German and Russian, and kept records about all the interesting phenomena he observed. He had a proclivity for taking notes and translating them into reports--which served him well throughout his career, but, one senses, also had a price, as he tended to avoid talking things through with colleagues and providing feedback to his superiors in a manner that they might best have profited from it.
Kennan was fortunate to serve in the right places at the right time. He witnessed the rise of Hitler, Stalin's battles to oust his competitors, and later, the purge trials of the 1930's. Building his knowledge of the factors by which Soviet practices operated, at long last he got the opportunity to inform U.S. leaders about what he thought was essential to understand and respond to the Soviet challenge. His famous "long telegram," sent in eight parts, was avidly read by Secretary of Defense Forrestal and others. Forrestal circulated the telegram within the Defense Department, and Kennan became an instant celebrity. Secretary of State George Marshall named Kennan Director of the Policy Planning Staff, and the studies he directed became important contributions to the making of U.S. policy. Although he became known as the originator of U.S. "containment policy," Kennan later stated his regret that he had not made it clearer that he did not mean that military force should be the only or primary means of containing the Soviets.
Despite his fame, Kennan remained an independent thinker, but often he was not in tune with U.S. leaders. Realizing this, and uneasy that he could not get Marshall, Acheson and others to accept his views more broadly, Kennan chose to leave the Foreign Service and to return to Princeton, this time as a senior scholar/researcher. He remained a prolific writer, completing two volumes on U.S.-Soviet Relations 1917-1920 and several other noteworthy books. This volume, Memoirs 1925-1950 serves as the best introduction to his thought and accomplishments, and provides valuable insights into U.S. diplomatic operations of the time and period it covers.