George Frost Kennan died on March 17 in his home—one year and one month and one day after his 100th birthday.  I am now 81 years old.  He was the greatest American I have known.

He was (and remains) A Triumph of Character.  His obituaries recorded his many achievements adequately, often with the praise that was his due.  There was a sense of respectful distance in some of them, a sense that George Kennan was part of a now irretrievable past.  That is not untrue, and, yet, he was A Man of All Seasons or, putting it differently, A Party of One—a man of principles rather than of ideas.  An idea, someone once wrote, is like a fixed cannon: It can only fire in one direction.  Whereas a principle is like a cannon fixed on a revolving platform: It can strike error in any direction.

That was why secretaries of state and other diplomats so often felt uneasy with this splendid American exemplar of the once Foreign Service; that was why so many academic historians did not wholly comprehend the unique qualities of his history books; that is why his philosophy was often misunderstood or, rather, mistakenly categorized.  Never mind—his writings will live, as long as there are men and women who read them.  The breadth of his knowledge and the mastery of his style are sufficient for that kind of intellectual appreciation.  But then, those qualities were inseparable from his person.

Here was this middle-class young man, with his family anchored in the Midwest, who lost his mother in his early childhood, a good enough student to be entered in the Princeton of the 1920’s where he was something of a loner, not rich but studious, accepted then by a Foreign Service that was admirably lean in those times, recognized by his superiors, directed and posted to places where he would perfect his Russian studies, including Berlin, where he met and married his beautiful and inimitable wife, now his widow, after 74 years of an inspiring marriage.  Among other Foreign Service officials of his rank, he was primus inter pares, though he did not share the Wilsonian and internationalist public philosophy of the 30’s and 40’s; but, besides his official duties, he had no power or influence save for his pen.  He was largely right about Europe in the 30’s; he was very right about the Soviet Union in the 40’s, but it took time, probably too much time, for his voice to be heard in Washington, in 1946 and in 1947.  He knew that and regretted it; in one of the telling passages in the incomparable first volume of his Memories (to me, the finest autobiography written by an American, far superior to Henry Adams’), he wrote, well, that’s how things and people are: They open their eyes and ears only when they are, finally, willing to do so and then momentarily indeed.  That is why he, unlike almost everyone else, discounted the value of his now-famous Long Telegram of 1946 and of his Containment article in 1947.  They included Ideas Whose Time Had Come; and he knew that ideas whose time has come—that is, ideas that are popular—ought to be treated with skeptical caution.

Here rises the example of George Kennan’s character.  At that time, and thereafter, when the ideology of anticommunism turned into a substitution of American patriotism, this early and principled anticommunist had not the least inclination to purse, let alone profit from, his reputation; to the contrary, he saw long-lasting and great danger in that devolution—indeed, in much of the entire governmental philosophy of the Cold War.  Thus, his counsels were cast aside by such different secretaries of state as Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles.  Thereafter, Kennan chose to live in Princeton where, for the next 50 years—the second half of his long life—he wrote his books and articles and public addresses, many of them grave and somber warnings against the ideologization and militarization of the ever-more-swollen American state.  He had changed his mind, so many people said; and how ignorant they were, and still are, unwilling and unable to see the sterling consistency of his character and of his principles.

How fortunate was this once country, from whose midst such a fine mind and such a great character could arise!  How ignorant and wasteful were (and are) the people who ignored or misunderstood him!  Perhaps he was not meant to be a protagonist of his times; but let me say what another American said at the funeral of another American 140 years ago: Now he belongs to the ages.