The Custodians of Civilization

"We of this generation did not create the civilization of which we are part and, only too obviously, it is not we who are destined to complete it. We are not the owners of the planet we inhabit; we are only its custodians."

--George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963

George F. Kennan's superb autobiography was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1968, one year after its publication. Kennan is at this point one of the United States' best diplomats and played a key role in the implementation of the Marshall Plan. In the first volume of his autobiography, Kennan comments on his nomination to head the Planning Unit that was in charge of implementing the Marshall Plan throughout Europe (Kennan, 1967):

I seem to recall that at some time during the first weeks of 1947, while I was still at the War College, Mr. Dean Acheson, then serving as Under Secretary of State, called me to his office and told me that General George Marshall, who had only recently assumed the office of Secretary of State, had in mind the establishment within the department of some sort of a planning unit - something to fill, at least in part, the place of the Divisions of Plans and Operations to which he was accustomed in the War Department. It was likely, Mr. Acheson indicated, that I would be asked to head this new unit when my tour of duty at the War College was completed. I gained no very clear understanding of what was involved.

The Marshall Plan was first announced by Secretary of State George Marshall in the well known Harvard speech. Regarding this speech Kennan mentions that:

We had access to the valuable views and studies of people on the economic side of the department. Will Clayton, then serving as Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, did not get back from Europe until mid-May, and the important memorandum he prepared on the subject of European recovery came too late to be of use to us in the preparation of our initial paper; but his views filtered through to us, I am sure in other ways.

Kennan's deep understanding of the German and Russian foreign policy agendas granted him a key role in the implementation and delivery of the plan. On the last page of the first part of his two-volume biography, Kennan wrote a conclusion that reminds of the political environment in the United States during the second mandate of George W. Bush:

'Never before,' I wrote on August 14, 1950, 'has there been such utter confusion in the public mind with respect to U.S. foreign policy. The President doesn't understand it; Congress doesn't understand it; nor does the public, nor does the press. They all wander around in a labyrinth of ignorance and error and conjecture, in which truth is intermingled with fiction at a hundred points, in which unjustified assumptions have attained the validity of premises, and in which there is no recognized and authoritative theory to hold on to.'

It is time for the United States to shift gears and look beyond what has been the core of its foreign policy agenda in the eight years of George W. Bush; it is time to look beyond a purely anti-terrorist, military strategy and incorporate to the issue of national security major threats to the environment and the human being.

Overall Kennan's biography fits very well into the story-telling of the Marshall Plan and his expertise as a diplomat in Germany and Russia conferred him a vision that many lacked at the time. The division of Germany into two parts and the rising popularity of communism throughout Europe at a time of misery were to be fought against with a forward-looking plan that today is seen as one of the major accomplishments in foreign policy of the twentieth century.

In the second volume of his autobiography Kennan reviews his positions as Ambassador in Moscow in the early 1950s and Belgrade in the early 1960s, professes his discrepancies with Secretary of State Dulles, and makes explicit his admiration for President Kennedy (Kennan, 1983).

Kennan passed away in 2005 at 101 years old. As one of the key figures in American foreign policy of the twentieth century, Kennan lived under the two most prominent Presidents of the United States in the second half of the previous century John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Kennedy wrote to Kennan on 28 October 1963:

Dear George: your handwritten note of October 22 is a letter I will keep nearby for reference and reinforcement on hard days. It is a great encouragement to have the support of a diplomat and historian of your quality, and it was uncommonly thoughtful for you to write me in this personal way.

As a European I am proud of the great contemporary men of Kennan's time who with their great work and passion designed, implemented and delivered a plan that today is according to many the success story of foreign aid of our time. Kennan and the contemporary men of his time understood their moment of truth and urgency and helped build the basis of what is today the European Union, a history of science fiction back in the 1950s.

It is time for the contemporary men and women of our time to understand our moment of truth and urgency, to reach new approaches to foreign policy that incorporate the developing world in an international consensus that raises the environment and the human being above everything and anything else. "We are not the owners of the planet we inhabit, we are only its custodians", wrote Kennan (Kennan, 1983).

* Original excerpt from The Monfort Plan (Wiley Finance, April 2010)

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