I have no trouble believing George Kennan opposed NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe; quotes about that are easy to find, e.g. on Wikipedia, using relatively recent thus accessible sources.

On the other hand, I read two sources claiming that Kennan even opposed the very establishment/creation of NATO. Benjamin Miller's 2020 book (p. 78) says:

The administration’s strategy, however, partly shifted toward a more assertive defensive realism, including moves that Kennan opposed such as the establishment of NATO, the formation of an independent West German state, persistent deployment of US forces in postoccupation Japan, and developing the H-bomb. Kennan viewed these steps as enhancing the security dilemma by encircling the Soviet Union with military alliances.

A 2014 article in The New Republic states that:

It is worth remembering that Kennan opposed NATO's creation.

I could not find any direct quotes by Kennan. I suspect, if any exist, that they date from the late 1940s or early 1950s, when those debates were in focus. This makes them challenging to find.

I also checked Kennan's Wikiquote page, but only found a tertiary source, saying he opposed it:

The hagiography of George Kennan’s foreign policy acumen omits some blemishes on his record. For all of his conceptual clarity, Kennan erred in many of his predictions. He opposed the creation of NATO, the most successful alliance in world history. [...]

That seems to be from Daniel Drezner's, The Ideas Industry (2017), Chapter 1: "Do Ideas Even Matter?"

So, did Kennan say or write anything explicitly opposing the creation/establishment of NATO, that survives on the record?

  • 2
    Let's be clear that the question is whether he publicly expressed opposition (as the last line suggests) rather than what he was thinking (as the simplified title might suggest), because the latter is off-topic.
    – Oddthinking
    Mar 17, 2023 at 12:43
  • 1
    @Oddthinking: indeed. Also, I want to thank Ellie Kesselman for the nice & extensive copyedit in that direction. I was rather lazy about that. Mar 18, 2023 at 3:39
  • Fizz you are most welcome! You are one of my favorite posters here and on Politics SE. Mar 25, 2023 at 3:47

1 Answer 1


David Mayer's 1990 book George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy has the most detailed account on Kennan's view on that that I could find, albeit a lot of that is paraphrased (pp. 152-155):

Against the ominous background of communist coup in Czechoslovakia and Soviet military rumblings—related, as it turned out, to preparations for the Berlin blockade—the Truman government began investigating the means by which the United States might best support the Brussels coalition. Public opinion, as measured in the Gallup polls, was growing in favor of a permanent American alliance with the principal states of Western Europe, but Kennan was unimpressed, and he told Marshall that a formal US-West European military connection was incidental to thwarting the type of threat really posed by the Soviets. [...]

Kennan did admit that a transatlantic security pact would probably boost the confidence of Frenchmen, Britons, and others, but he worried that a heightened concentration on military matters would divert attention from the urgent problem of completing Europe's economic recovery and would prejudice all efforts to find diplomatic answers to the East-West conflict. As it was, he lamented, too many people on both sides of the Atlantic were preoccupied with a military balance of power on the continent. Of course, a healthy balance was essential, but Western Europe's ultimate success and safety depended on the outcome of its struggle for internal political stability. In other words, a UScentered military alliance would "address itself to what is not the main danger." [fn: 69]

Once it did become certain that the United States would join some variety of European security pact, Kennan hoped to limit its geographic scope to those states bordering (plus Luxembourg) on the north Atlantic. [...]

Kennan also worried that, if a US-West European military organization were established to include states east of the Atlantic zone (e.g., Italy, Greece, West Germany), the political division of Europe would deepen and chances of its future eradication would be slight. None of the satellite regimes could thereafter contemplate a slow reorientation away from the Soviet Union: "Any move in that direction would take on the aspect of a provocative military move." An eventual Soviet-US withdrawal from the center of Europe would be foreclosed; no third force assuring a more stable balance of global power would issue from the continent. To avoid such an acutely strained international division, the North American and European Atlantic powers should assure West Germany, Italy, the Scandinavians, Greece, and other affected nations of their lively concern for the security and interests of noncommunist Europe. [...]

Bohlen was Kennan's only significant ally on this matter (in the State Department) and agreed that the administration should proceed cautiously before tying the United States to a solemn security arrangement in Europe. To his dismay, Kennan's own Policy Planning Staff voiced contrary views and during his absence (to the Far East) in March 1948 produced a set of recommendations going beyond what even Bevin thought necessary. These proposed that the Brussels Treaty states expand their membership to include all of Scandinavia, Portugal, Italy, and eventually Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Austria. And it would be understood that a military attack against any one of them would constitute an attack against the United States. In mid-April, the NSC adopted most of this advice over Kennan's protests.

[...] In the end, Kennan resigned himself to the concept of a North American-West European defense pact; ironically, in late 1948 he was assigned to help devise NATO's specific provisions and institutions. He nevertheless remained skeptical about Italy's admission and later was adamant in his opposition to the entrance of Greece, Turkey, and (in 1954) West Germany. [fn: 75] His desire remained for a looser arrangement relying on a US-Canada alliance that would cooperate with a European military coalition centered in Britain, France, and Benelux as circumstances warranted.

So, yeah, in summary, he kinda opposed NATO in principle (as distracting), and he more explicitly opposed NATO including specific central or southern European states at the time.

The book has academic style footnotes, which the most relevant ones for that section are primary sources:

  1. SDPPSP 1948, PPS 43, November 24, 1948, p. 491.
  2. Ibid., p. 492. [...]
  1. Kennan to W.W. Rostow, May 15, 1962, File "2-B 1962" in Box 28, Kennan Papers; Kennan to Norman Graebner, May 16, 1959, File "2-B 1959" in Box 28, Kennan Papers; Kennan to Robert Matteson, December 16, 1958, File "2-B 1958" in Box 28, Kennan Papers.

I suppose that double checking those is rather difficult (especially the latter--75). I had hoped the SDPPSP might be online, but alas it doesn't seem to be, or at least "address itself to what is not the main danger" doesn't return any hits on the web but to Mayer's book.

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