Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Walter Roberts: George Kennan and Public Diplomacy -- "Basically, George Kennan Was an Old-Line Diplomat"

Walter's friendship with George F. Kennan was forged in Yugoslavia; Kennan was his boss but also became a mentor.  They continued to stay in touch over the years, until shortly before Kennan's death.  This connection grew up despite the fact that Kennan's perspective on U.S. public diplomacy was definitely from the old school -- respectful, perhaps, but aloof.  Both Walter and Milt Iossi, a former Foreign Service officer who also served at Embassy Belgrade under Ambassador Kennan, shared their memories of him in pieces posted on UNC's "American Diplomacy" online journal.

Amb.-Designate Kennan with JFK at the White House, Feb. 1961
…We in the Embassy in Belgrade were fascinated when the telegram came in to request accreditation for George Kennan.  We had known George Kennan – I personally had known him very, very slightly from previous incarnations – and we were very happy because it enhanced our own stature.  The fact that John F. Kennedy would select George Kennan, and that George Kennan would accept an appointment to be ambassador to Yugoslavia, having been Ambassador to the Soviet Union, was in my opinion an indication that the Presidency of John F. Kennedy would take Yugoslavia seriously.

When George Kennan came, he immediately showed an interest in what we were doing.   I might say that he showed an interest particularly because that was the time when the press law was published, so the entire American -Yugoslav relationship was somehow involved.  Because if the Yugoslavs had succeeded in eradicating USIS, that would have been a major setback in Yugoslav-American relations.   So George Kennan took an immediate interest, and talked to Tito about it.  He wanted that law to become a non-law.
Kennan with Tito, Belgrade 1961
But I have to tell you that basically George Kennan was an old-line diplomat.  He did not show a particular interest in the information program.  As far as the cultural program was concerned, he was more interested.  But I think if you had woken him up at 3 o’clock in the morning and asked him whether he’s happy with USIS, he would probably have said “I’m happy with USIS, but I don’t think it ought to be in the Embassy.”  I think he was much more taken with the British approach, whereby the cultural program was a self-standing operation outside the Embassy.  But he was kind enough, and smart enough, not to show this openly.  And in particular, it was his personal relationship with me – he somehow liked me – and I think I was probably the one officer in whom he confided most.  But not because I was a USIS officer, but because I was who I was.  

1973 Note to George Kennan
So my relationship with George Kennan continued to become a friendship.  I continued to visit him in Princeton after he retired or resigned.  I was basically in touch with him until about a year before he died, when he really didn’t want to talk on the telephone anymore.  As you know, he reached 101 I think, and I think the last time I saw him in Princeton was when he was 98 or 99.  He was still mentally completely, at the time I saw him, but I understand when he reached 100, things went wrong a little way.  But he continued to live in his own house, they had a couple working for them, and he was one of the sweetest and kindest and nicest persons I ever encountered in my whole life.

No comments:

Post a Comment