George F. Kennan

George F.
Kennan
1904
2005

American Diplomat, Adviser, Political Scientist known as "the father of containment"

Author Quotes

Not only the studying and writing of history but also the honoring of it both represent affirmations of a certain defiant faith — a desperate, unreasoning faith, if you will — but faith nevertheless in the endurance of this threatened world — faith in the total essentiality of historical continuity.

Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.

One sometimes feels a guest of one's time and not a member of its household.

Whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways, either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods of for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results.

Popular revolt against a ruthless, experienced modern dictatorship, which enjoys a monopoly over weapons and communications, ... is simply not a possibility in the modern age.

Reading, in contrast to sitting before the screen, is not a purely passive exercise. The child, particularly one who reads a book dealing with real life, has nothing before it but the hieroglyphics of the printed page. Imagination must do the rest; and imagination is called upon to do it. Not so the television screen. Here everything is spelled out for the viewer, visually, in motion, and in all three dimensions. No effort of imagination is called upon for its enjoyment.

Russia, Russia — unwashed, backward, appealing Russia, so ashamed of your own backwardness, so orientally determined to conceal it from us by clever deceit. So sensitive and so suspicious in the face of the wicked, civilized west. I shall always remember you — slyly, touchingly, but with great shouting and confusion — pumping hot water into our sleeping car in the frosty darkness of a December morning in order that we might not know, in order that we might never realize, to how primitive a land we had come.

The accords were fig leaves of democratic procedure to hide the nakedness of Stalinist dictatorship.

The average Russian of mature age today may someday have the moral satisfaction of seeing his government exercise a power unprecedented in history over the land masses of Asia and Europe. But it is not likely that he will ever know the comforts, in the line of housing, clothing, and other conveniences of civilized living, comparable to those that have existed in the advanced countries of the West. That renunciation of comfort is his involuntary contribution to something: either to the future comfort of his own children or to the increased military power of Russia. He hopes — and we hope with him — that it will not be only the latter.

The best an American can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountaintop where few have been before, where few can follow and where few will consent to believe he has been.

The best thing we can do if we want the Russians to let us be Americans is to let the Russians be Russian.

The more the ego is allowed to expand, the more powerful the temptation to reach for an even larger expansion.

The truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas -- complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemmas, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse.

The very concept of history implies the scholar and the reader. Without a generation of civilized people to study history, to preserve its records, to absorb its lessons and relate them to its own problems, history, too, would lose its meaning.

There are certain sad appreciations we have to come to about human nature on the basis of these recent wars. One of them is that suffering does not always make men better. Another is that people are not always more reasonable than governments; that public opinion, or what passes for public opinion, is not invariably a moderating force in the jungle of politics. It may be true, and I suspect it is, that the mass of people everywhere are normally peace-loving and would accept many restraints and sacrifices in preference to the monstrous calamities of war. But I also suspect that what purports to be public opinion in most countries that consider themselves to have popular government is often not really the consensus of the feelings of the mass of the people at all, but rather the expression of the interests of special highly vocal minorities — politicians, commentators, and publicity-seekers of all sorts: people who live by their ability to draw attention to themselves and die, like fish out of water, if they are compelled to remain silent. These people take refuge in the pat and chauvinistic slogans because they are incapable of understanding any others, because these slogans are safer from the standpoint of short-term gain, because the truth is sometimes a poor competitor in the market place of ideas — complicated, unsatisfying, full of dilemma, always vulnerable to misinterpretation and abuse. The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until people learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves — as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government — this sort of thing will continue to occur.

We are, if territory and population be looked at together, one of the great countries of the world — a monster country, one might say, along with others such as China, India, the recent Soviet Union, and Brazil. And there is a real question as to whether "bigness" in a body politic is not an evil in itself, quite aside from the policies pursued in its name.

We must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have answers to the problems, which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples. Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3 of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction... In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to 'be liked' or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague — and for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all. And a ruthless, reckless insistence on attempting to stamp out everything that could conceivably constitute a reflection of improper foreign influence in our national life, regardless of the actual damage it is doing to the cost of eliminating it, in terms of other American values, is the one thing I can think of that should reduce us all to a point where the very independence we are seeking to defend would be meaningless, for we would be doing things to ourselves as vicious and tyrannical as any that might be brought to us from outside. This sort of extremism seems to me to hold particular danger for a democracy, because it creates a curious area between what is held to be possible and what is really possible — an area within which government can always be plausibly shown to have been most dangerously delinquent in the performance of its tasks. And this area, where government is always deficient, provides the ideal field of opportunity for every sort of demagoguery and mischief-making. It constitutes a terrible breach in the dike of our national morale, through which forces of doubt and suspicion never cease to find entry. The heart of our problem, here, lies in our assessment of the relative importance of the various dangers among which we move; and until many of our people can be brought to understand the what we have to do is not to secure a total absence of danger but to balance peril against peril and to find the tolerable degree of each, we shall not wholly emerge from these confusions.

A guest of one's time and not a member of its household.

A political society does not live to conduct foreign policy; it would be more correct to say that it conducts foreign policy in order to live.

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.

Fig leaves of democratic procedure to hide the nakedness of Stalinist dictatorship.

For the love of God, for the love of your children and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness. You are mortal men. You are capable of error. You have no right to hold in your hands — there is no one wise enough and strong enough to hold in his hands — destructive power sufficient to put an end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet.

Here, for the first time, I felt an unshakable conviction that no momentary military advantage — even if such could have been calculated to exist — could have justified this stupendous, careless destruction of civilian life and of material values, built up laboriously by human hands over the course of centuries for purposes having nothing to do with war. Least of all could it have been justified by the screaming non sequitur: "They did it to us." And it suddenly appeared to me that in these ruins there was an unanswerable symbolism which we in the West could not afford to ignore. If the Western world was really going to make a pretense of a higher moral departure point — of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him, as expressed not only in himself but in the things he had wrought and cared about — then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength. Shorn of this strength, it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories; and the best it would accomplish in the long run would be to pull down the temple over its own head. The military would stamp this as naïve; they would say that war is war, that when you're in it you fight with every means you have, or go down in defeat. But if that is the case, then there rests upon Western civilization, bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory.

Author Picture
First Name
George F.
Last Name
Kennan
Birth Date
1904
Death Date
2005
Bio

American Diplomat, Adviser, Political Scientist known as "the father of containment"