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George Kennan: 20th century prophet

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Conventional wisdom holds that most leaders were “C” students. If that’s true, then they should pay attention to what the “A” students are saying.

Case in point: U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan, active from before World War II until after the Cold War, was perhaps the greatest foreign policymaker since John Quincy Adams. He was brilliant: the quintessential “A+” student, and the world might be better off if its leaders had more often followed his advice.

  • As far back as the early 1940s, Kennan repeatedly cautioned his supervisors that despite Americans’ warm feelings toward the Soviets, such optimism was nothing but wishful thinking and profoundly misinterpreted Russian intentions.

  • As the Soviet Union grew more hostile, Kennan outlined a strategy that would become known as “containment,” in which the United States would avoid aggression but still try to “contain” communism. By the same token, Kennan advised our government against trying to police the world.

  • As early as 1950, he warned in a memo against trying to backstop France in Vietnam, where “neither they nor we, nor both of us together, can win.”
Lesson: Listen to your geeks and your visionaries. We may run the world, but they understand it.

—Adapted from “The Last Wise Man: Sketches From a Life,” George F. Kennan, The Atlantic.

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