George Kennan, like so many others, remembered exactly where he was and what he did upon hearing the news of John F. Kennedy’s death:
“I had been at a luncheon when I heard he had been shot, but on returning to the office shortly afterward I received confirmation of his death. My reaction, in addition to the obvious shock, was one of the most dismal foreboding for the future of this country. The first person I went to, to talk about it, was Robert Oppenheimer, and we both had the impression that this event marked in many ways a deterioration of the entire situation in this country.”
Kennan, most noted for his influence on U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War and advocacy of a policy of containment, served as Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to July 1963. Kennan’s correspondence with Kennedy dates from 1959 and includes an 8 page letter of foreign policy advice written to during the 1960 presidential campaign.
On October 22, 1963, exactly one month before Kennedy’s death, Kennan sent a handwritten note of encouragement to Kennedy, writing “I don’t think we have seen a better standard of statesmanship in White House in the present century.” Kennan also wrote that he hoped Kennedy would be discouraged “neither by the appalling pressures of your office nor by the obtuseness and obstruction you encounter in another branch of government,” and expressed gratitude to Kennedy “for the courage and patience and perception for which you carry on.”
Kennedy responded a few days later, on October 28th saying he would keep the letter nearby “for reference and reinforcement on hard days.” Kennedy died in Dallas only 26 days later.
The Kennedy-Kennan correspondence consists of 79 pages, a small percentage of the 72,545 pages of Kennan’s papers digitized as part of our NHPRC-funded digitization grant. All of the digitized documents, including Kennan’s permanent correspondence files and unpublished writings can be accessed by clicking on the folder titles listed in the finding aid.