George F. Kennan '25 was crying. He browsed the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald '17's "The Great Gatsby," moved by its descriptions of a Midwesterner's life in the Northeast.
I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known . . . They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together.
Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise" lured Kennan to Princeton — climbing with clear blue aspiration, the great dreaming spires of Holder and Cleveland towers — but he found himself ill-suited to the elitism of the eating club system and the rigor of the coursework.
As recalled in a biography of the men who created the U.S. foreign policy at the beginning of the cold war, "Wise Men" by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, Kennan was an introverted student in college, even as he prepared to enter a career focused on the world outside.
And if there is any man to receive credit for conceiving U.S. foreign policy in the cold war, it is Kennan, whose theory of containment provided the justification behind U.S. policies.
Yet for the second half of his life, after his foray into government, he resided in Princeton as a scholar and writer.
Kennan died four days ago in his bed in his home a mile from the University, where, as an undergraduate in the 1920s, he was ill, often felt lonely and ranked near the bottom academically.
It was the university on whose Board of Trustees he later served, to whose archives he delivered portions of his voluminous papers, in whose backyard he raised two of his children.
It was the University's student newspaper he spoke to following Khrushchev's resignation. He lunched with one of its young alumni — a Rhodes Scholar — to discuss the alumnus' thesis about him. An initial interview request had been denied, though, because of Kennan's longstanding policy on declining undergraduate interviews.
The adviser of that same thesis had, too, had his request for an interview turned down years earlier, until he — also as a Rhodes Scholar — published part of his thesis in a prominent journal.
For decades, Kennan ate lunch in the cafeteria at the Institute for Advanced Study, brought his grown children home for Christmas and visited Trinity Church in town.
If Kennan had a large part in defining world politics in the second half of the 20th century, Princeton — the school and the community — had a large part in defining him throughout his life. He lived here for nearly the entire century, dying last week at 101.
Just as Kennan's public eschewal of politics and commitment to written scholarship were a symbol of his professional philosophy, his private life in Princeton reflected his religious, deeply internal understanding of the world.Beginnings
A Milwaukee native, Kennan attended St. John's Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wis.
He thought of himself as a Midwesterner, and when he matriculated at Princeton in fall 1921, his experience was not like Amory Blaine's, the title character in Fitzgerald's "Paradise."
Kennan later described his undergraduate years as difficult and lonely.
His grades suffered during his first year when he caught scarlet fever working as a postman in Trenton. And he was unaccustomed to the "elite East coast" atmosphere of the school, said Yale University professor John Lewis Gaddis, who is writing Kennan's authorized biography.
"He wasn't a big joiner, and was somewhat shy, so he didn't have a whole lot of friends," said his daughter, Joan, in an interview Saturday. But she added that he also had "fond memories" of the school.
"Reading his correspondence from that period shows that he may have had fun there from time to time," Gaddis said.
Kennan considered applying to law school after graduating, but decided it was too expensive and instead applied for the Foreign Service.
He went to Berlin to study a language and chose Russian because his great-great-great-uncle and namesake had written about and explored Siberia.
Kennan eventually joined the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he met politics professor emeritus Robert Tucker. Tucker joined Kennan's team as an attaché in 1944, working as Kennan's research assistant.
"He became a kind of mentor to me and a guide for the rest of my life," Tucker said in an interview.
Kennan became famous after it was revealed that he was the anonymous "X" who developed and labeled the theory of containment in the July 1947 Foreign Affairs article "The Causes of Soviet Conduct." Almost instantly, he went from being an anonymous State Department employee to a major political icon.
The sudden fame affected his family, too. When Grace, his oldest daughter, went to college, fellow students called her Miss X.
"He went from a normal, nice father to the father who wrote the X article," she said. "It was a big shock to discover that my dad, who had been just my dad, suddenly became public property."
Following Kennan's death, his four children gathered in his home with his wife, Annelise.
"It was his enormous curiosity that kept him alive so long," Grace said. "He had an enormous interest in the world, and I remember, even toward the end, he would get so angry at the paper, angry at the TV."
Their father usually would watch only two things on television — tennis and college football — but read voraciously.
When 10-year-old Grace returned from a year at a D.C. boarding school with an accent he disliked, Kennan read to her from "Treasure Island" and "Jane Eyre" until she was reaccustomed to his voice. He reread all of Shakespeare in his 90s, browsed the writing of St. Paul and had a lifelong love of biographies.
Kennan retained his famed intellect to the end. He occupied an office at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study (IAS) until well into his 90s.
At 99, he edited the manuscript of a book on the Cold War by Jack Matlock, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union who held the George F. Kennan chair at IAS.
"Daddy was always young for his age," Grace said. "When he was in his 90s, he acted like he was in his 80s. When he was in his 80s, he acted like he was in his 70s."
In his 70s, Kennan took a celestial navigation course and sailed from Norway to Denmark during the summer.
At Princeton, the Kennans also enjoyed the company of Tucker and his wife, who moved here in 1962.
The last time the Tuckers saw Kennan, about three months ago, "it was very difficult for him to speak and we spoke mostly to Mrs. Kennan," Tucker said. "But he was still conscious and was able to recognize my wife and me."
It was the relationships they built that kept the Kennans in Princeton for decades, their daughters said.
"They made very nice friends here," Grace said. "They finally came here and got to see the same people year in and year out, and they really enjoyed being able to set down roots here."
Another friend was IAS professor Glen Bowersock, who met Kennan briefly during his time at Oxford in the 1960s. The two met again in the 1980s when Bowersock took up an appointment at the Institute.
"He was a deeply respected figure, whose conversation was eagerly sought and always appreciated," Bowersock said. "His memories of his diplomatic career evoked persons and epochs that were long since past."
When the Soviet Union fell, Bowersock recalled, "he said that he had never imagined that in his own lifetime he would see both the birth and the death of communism in Russia."Not a traditional academic
For all his intellectual commitment, Kennan pushed off traditional academia.
Recruited heavily by Princeton, as well as Harvard and Yale, Kennan turned down the chance to take a teaching position.
Kennan was, however, a renowned lecturer, and students flocked to large lecture halls wherever and whenever he spoke, Gaddis said.
When Gaddis asked Kennan why he did not want to become a regular professor, the reply came: "I would have had to grade papers; I would have agonized over giving a paper a C, a C+ or a C-."
He taught a Wilson School graduate seminar for several years in the 1960s and enjoyed it, but decided to stop to devote more time to writing so he could reach a larger audience, Wilson School professor emeritus Richard Ullman said.
Kennan "had a few ironclad rules in life," Ullman said. "One of them was that he never gave interviews to undergraduates" since that would open a floodgate of interview requests.
Ullman was turned away by Kennan's secretary when he tried to schedule an interview for his senior thesis at Harvard University about U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1930s.
But once he was at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a chapter of his thesis had been published in the journal World Politics, the same secretary contacted him to say Kennan wanted to meet him.
Barton Gellman '82, a staff writer at the Washington Post and a Daily Princetonian trustee, also encountered Kennan's no-interview policy when he was writing a senior thesis about him.
But he sent a manuscript of his thesis to Kennan before publishing it as a book in 1984. The correspondence led to a series of lunch meetings between Gellman and Kennan, during which the recent graduate gained a more personal understanding of the diplomat.
"He was a very restrained kind of dignified, erect figure," Gellman said. "He didn't have the personality for political combat — he was much more confident with a fountain pen and a pad of paper than he was conveying his ideas in person."
Encouraged by friends and neighbors, Kennan toyed with the idea of running for Congress, Ullman said.
"Thank God he never succumbed to it," he said. "He wouldn't want to go with the majority — he would have been no good at horse-trading within the Congress. He realized his influence would best be exerted through his scholarship."
If Kennan seemed removed from or distant to undergraduates, Gellman said, it was because he was so absorbed in this work.
"He had this very kind of anxious sense of urgency that there was so much more he needed to say," Gellman said. "He had to keep finding better ways to explain his ideas because he thought there was so much going wrong with the world. He felt a religious obligation — he was a very religious man — to set things right."Writing words
During his career, Kennan published 19 books, including two Pulitzer Prize winners –– 1956's "Soviet-American Relations 1917-1920: Volume 1, Russia Leaves the War" and 1967's "Memoirs 1925-1950."
"He had a beautiful writing style," Grace said. "It was something he worked at very hard, that he took a lot of pride in."
Some of his papers are housed at Mudd Manuscript Library, which will soon make available six boxes of materials Kennan wanted to release posthumously. These materials, such as letters to his sister and poetry, relate mostly to Kennan's early personal life.
"What will open is not going to change anyone's understanding of George Kennan or American foreign policy," said Dan Linke, University archivist and curator of public policy papers in Mudd. "If anything, it will only increase understanding of his early life."
Last year, Linke spent hundreds of hours with other archivists assembling a centennial exhibition on Kennan. The team drew on 20 other collections that included documents by Kennan or materials that were timely to his career, such as the papers of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor at Foreign Affairs Magazine when the X Article was published.
The event — at which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke — was a celebration of Kennan's lifelong efforts to improve the world around him.