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George Kennan sends “long telegram” to State Department

George Kennan sends “long telegram” to State Department


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George Kennan, the American charge d’affaires in Moscow, sends an 8,000-word telegram to the Department of State detailing his views on the Soviet Union, and U.S. policy toward the communist state. Kennan’s analysis provided one of the most influential underpinnings for America’s Cold War policy of containment.

Kennan was among the U.S. diplomats to help establish the first American embassy in the Soviet Union in 1933. While he often expressed respect for the Russian people, his appraisal of the communist leadership of the Soviet Union became increasingly negative and harsh. Throughout World War II he was convinced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s spirit of friendliness and cooperation with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was completely misplaced. Less than a year after Roosevelt’s death, Kennan, then serving as U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow, released his opinions in what came to be known as the “long telegram.”

The lengthy memorandum began with the assertion that the Soviet Union could not foresee “permanent peaceful coexistence” with the West. This “neurotic view of world affairs” was a manifestation of the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” As a result, the Soviets were deeply suspicious of all other nations and believed that their security could only be found in “patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power.” Kennan was convinced that the Soviets would try to expand their sphere of influence, and he pointed to Iran and Turkey as the most likely immediate trouble areas. In addition, Kennan believed the Soviets would do all they could to “weaken power and influence of Western Powers on colonial backward, or dependent peoples.” Fortunately, although the Soviet Union was “impervious to logic of reason,” it was “highly sensitive to logic of force.” Therefore, it would back down “when strong resistance is encountered at any point.” The United States and its allies, he concluded, would have to offer that resistance.

Kennan’s telegram caused a sensation in Washington. Stalin’s aggressive speeches and threatening gestures toward Iran and Turkey in 1945-1946 led the Truman administration to decide to take a tougher stance and rely on the nation’s military and economic muscle rather than diplomacy in dealing with the Soviets. These factors guaranteed a warm reception for Kennan’s analysis. His opinion that Soviet expansionism needed to be contained through a policy of “strong resistance” provided the basis for America’s Cold War diplomacy through the next two decades. Kennan’s diplomatic career certainly received a boost–he was named U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952.

After leaving government service, Kennan served on the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study until his death in 2005 at the age of 101.

READ MORE: Cold War History


Overview

The first phase of the Cold War began in the first two years after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The USSR consolidated its control over the states of the Eastern Bloc, while the United States began a strategy of global containment to challenge Soviet power, extending military and financial aid to the countries of Western Europe. An important moment in the development of America’s initial Cold War strategy was the delivery of the “Long Telegram” sent from Moscow by American diplomat George Kennan in 1946.

Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and the subsequent 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” argued that the Soviet regime was inherently expansionist and that its influence had to be “contained” in areas of vital strategic importance to the United States. These texts provided justification for the Truman administration’s new anti-Soviet policy. Kennan played a major role in the development of definitive Cold War programs and institutions, notably the Marshall Plan.


George Kennan and the Long Telegram

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.

By James M. Lindsay, CFR.org

Foreign service officers posted in embassies and consulates around the world send cables to Washington every day. Much of what they write is forgotten even before it is read at the State Department. A few cables gain notoriety when they are leaked to the public. Almost none help change the course of history. But the cable that George F. Kennan sent to his State Department superiors from Moscow on February 22, 1946 did just that.

Hopes in the United States were high during the winter of 1945-46. World War II had ended with the defeat of Japan and Nazi Germany. Many Americans expected that Washington would build on the relationship with its wartime ally, the Soviet Union. They shared the conclusion that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower reached visiting Moscow in 1945: “Nothing guides Russian policy so much as a desire for friendship with the United States.” But by late fall 1945 the alliance began to unravel as Moscow pushed to carve out a sphere of influence in the Balkans, a prelude to what would become Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

Then on February 9, 1946, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a fiery speech in which he spoke of the wartime alliance as a thing of the past and called for the Soviet Union to undertake a series of five-year plans aimed at a rapid military-industrial buildup.

Coming as it did just six months after World War II ended, Stalin’s speech alarmed U.S. officials. The State Department turned to Kennan, its foremost Soviet expert and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, for an explanation. The then-forty-two-year-old Kennan, a career foreign service officer, wired back a 5,000-word reply—the Long Telegram.

Kennan argued that U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union rested on an erroneous assumption: that Washington could influence Soviet behavior by offering incentives to encourage better behavior. To the contrary, powerful and irresistible internal dynamics drove Moscow’s behavior. The Soviets were:

committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanentmodus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.

As a result, only the threat of force could limit or alter Soviet ambitions.

Kennan published a revised version of the Long Telegram a year later in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” (He was still a State Department employee, and it was deemed unwise that he should write under his own name.) For all the revisions, the critical point remained the same:

the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

Kennan’s idea that the United States should seek to contain rather than appease or roll back the Soviet Union got noticed. (The words “contain” and “containment” did not appear in the Long Telegram.) As the official history of the Council of Foreign Relations, the publisher ofForeign Affairs, later summarized it:

Perhaps no single essay of the twentieth century can match the X article for its impact upon the intellectual curiosity of a confused nation, upon the mindset of equally confused policymakers and scholars, upon national policy in at least seven presidential administrations to come.* It ran only 17 pages its tone was scholarly, elegant but practical only three sentences used the magic word that came to define American policy for half a century.

The doctrine of containment would guide U.S. foreign policy for the next four decades. When the Soviet Union landed on the ash heap of history in 1991, foreign policy scholars across the ideological spectrum vied to win the Kennan sweepstakes and name the foreign policy era that succeeded containment. So far no one has claimed the crown.

Kennan, however, was never enamored with how his intellectual handiwork was implemented. He believed that the Truman administration gave containment a more belligerent and militaristic twist than he had intended. He found himself increasingly marginalized within the State Department, and he left the Foreign Service in 1950. He spent most of the rest of his life at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton writing elegantly though critically about U.S. foreign policy. He died in 2005 at the age of 101. He had provided the defining term of his era. But he always thought he was out of place, describing himself as a “guest of one’s time and not a member of its household.”

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.


"My Voice Now Carried": George F. Kennan's Long Telegram

“I react intensely to everything I see and hear,” George F. Kennan marveled after returning to Russia in July 1944. The “pulsating warmth and vitality” of the Russian people sparked “an indescribable sensation.” Living in Siberia as “part of them” packed more allure than luxuriating on “Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”[1] Kennan envisioned the Russian people and their government as “a beautiful lady guarded by a jealous lover.”[2] In this setup he figured as the true partner of the beloved. Immersing himself “deeper into Russia” could bring him “face to face with that indefinable something, so full of promise and meaning, that I always have felt to be just around the corner.”[3] Yet however much Kennan pined for transcendence, Josef Stalin pinned him to cruel reality. The wartime alliance had eased but not erased purge-era restrictions on contact between foreigners and Soviet citizens. Ostracism “was harder than ever to swallow.”[4] Years later, he reflected that only during his heartbreak months as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 did the isolation “weigh more heavily on me, or more deeply affect my thinking, than in these first weeks following the return to Russia.”[5]

Examining precisely how love for the Russian people and hatred for their government “deeply affect[ed]” Kennan’s thinking is key to understanding his shifting stance toward the Cold War. As World War II ended and relations with the USSR soured, he at first pushed for confrontation – and then in later years just as firmly pushed away from it. To both acts of this drama he brought urgency. For him, containing Soviet expansion required nimble policies akin to fencing. The emotional beliefs underlying Kennan’s swings remained consistent. His intense ambition, yearning for transcendence, and biases stayed in place even as his career rocketed upward. To the farm and to his family he stood devoted – though his eye still strayed. This believer in Freud regarded foreign policy as a matter of managing emotions. With his formative experiences in the Baltic nations and in pre-Nazi Germany in 1927-33, he still saw as normative the international framework of those years: Germany unified, Eastern Europe independent, Russia hemmed-in, and America above the fray.

A gifted writer and speaker, Kennan moved others with his emotional language, striking analysis, and measured yet urgent tone. His most consequential pronouncements, the long telegram of February 1946 and the Mr. “X” article in Foreign Affairs of July 1947, crackled with emotion even as they claimed the authority of cool reason and “realism.” The tragic irony – for both Kennan and US foreign policy – was that by using explosive language to puff up an existential “Soviet threat,” these two manifestos seemed to justify militarizing the Cold War. That dangerous development would appall Kennan and alienate him from the Truman administration . . . .

Worsening Soviet-American squabbling at postwar conferences held in San Francisco, Potsdam, and London boosted Kennan’s authority. “Whatever Kennan says carries great weight in the State Department,” affirmed Secretary James F. Byrnes. Frank K. Roberts, number two in the British embassy, remembered that “George was the great expert” on Russia, “and I benefitted enormously from this.”[6] Isaiah Berlin admired the focus on “attitudes, ideas, traditions” – in sum on “mentalities.”[7] Kennan held informal seminars at the Moscow embassy for junior officials, an opportunity for “blowing off steam.”[8] Not everyone, however, bought into his teaching. The Canadian ambassador observed that Kennan “suffers from having been here in the pre-war days when foreign representatives became indoctrinated with anti-Soviet ideas as a result of the purges and subtle German propaganda.”[9]

Unaware how rapidly US opinion and policy were already shifting, Kennan in January 1946 decided that duty demanded his return to the United States, where his “authority, objectivity and courage” on Russian affairs remained unmatched. He would resign and try to “influence public opinion at home along the lines of my own convictions.” Chip Bohlen and Doc Matthews had urged their friend not to “‘do anything foolish.’”[10] They advised him to ask for a paid home leave, relax at the farm, and then talk things over at the Department. Implied was the prospect of a position with greater authority.

Along with his frustration over foreign policy Kennan faced health problems. To treat his ulcers he was injecting himself with Vitamin C as well as with larostidine, shipped from New Jersey.[11] He would have a glass of milk brought to his desk every few hours. In February he suffered the grippe, which in the “sunless and vitamin-less environment” of Moscow, was hard to get over, “especially when demands of work leave no time for leisure or relaxation.” He often appeared despondent, junior staff members would later recall.[12]

In coping with these political, psychic, and physical problems, Kennan reverted, it appears, to a long-standing behavior pattern. When as a boy George was forbidden to play outside in the afternoon, he would take revenge by staying inside all morning as well. Similarly, if vacations from military school were not warmed by “understanding and sympathy,” especially from some pretty girl, he would refuse to socialize at all. If denied succor and inclusion, he would, he later recalled, deepen the deprivation and thereby exact “retribution.” Let those responsible “feel his bitterness.” “He had his pride. They could bend it but they could not break it. And let them pay for their folly in bending it . . . . A martyr he was, and a martyr he should remain, to the end of his days.”[13] As a middle-aged man, he reaffirmed: “If I cannot have all, or the greater part, of what I want most desperately, no one is going to deprive me of the glorious martyrdom of having none of it at all.” Rather proud of what he termed this “neurosis,” he noted that “my father was much the same way.”[14]

It was, then, not just his strategic and emotional concerns about the expansion of Stalin’s police state but also his practice of seeking “retribution” and “martyrdom” by widening the breach and deepening the pain that impelled Kennan to urge containment. Containment meant many things. Among them was his saying, in effect: Let those in the Kremlin who kept him from the people and culture he loved “feel his bitterness” and “pay for their folly.” If Kennan could not engage freely with Russians, he (and by extension the United States) would almost totally disengage from them. If Soviet authorities wanted to cut him off, he would bring about an isolation more extreme than anyone imagined. Kennan wanted Washington to contain the Kremlin, which had so cruelly contained him. His long telegram would single out as the “most disquieting feature of diplomacy in Moscow” the foreigner’s isolation from ordinary Russians and from Soviet policymakers, whom one cannot “see and cannot influence.”[15]

In actuality, however, Kennan’s argument about the Soviets being impervious to influence ignored recent experience. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Harriman had met with the dictator, who, especially in his “Uncle Joe” persona, had indeed been influenced to make significant agreements. Moreover, even amid deteriorating relations in 1945-1946, Stalin repeatedly signaled that, while refusing to give up Eastern Europe, he did want collaboration with Washington and London, especially to head off renewed aggression by Germany or Japan.

In constructing the containment doctrine, Kennan was, according to old habit, sharpening a painful situation. His emotion-infused reasoning jumped from accepting (or, more precisely, resolving to accept) that personal contact with the Russian people was cut off, to deciding that political contact with Soviet leaders would be, and should be, also cut off. America’s strategist was in effect embracing and extending the Kremlin’s regime of isolation. Containment offered a rationale and a strategy for Washington to shift from trying to compromise with identifiable Kremlin leaders, to blocking every move of an implacable and impersonal nationalist/ideological force.

On Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1946, these personal and political imperatives came together in number 511, at 5,540 words the longest telegram ever sent to the State Department and the most consequential document of Kennan’s long career. As it was the Friday of a holiday weekend, Kennan’s secretary “wasn’t all that thrilled” at being summoned to his apartment. She found him sick in bed but eager to dictate. He believed he could think better in a horizontal position, she later explained. Hours later, Kennan ordered the clerk in the code room: “This has to go out tonight.” “Why tonight? I’ve got a date,” she protested. He insisted.[16]

The cable had been commissioned by hardline colleagues in the State Department, principally Matthews and Elbridge Durbrow. They knew that their proud friend, furious at both the Soviet and US governments, was “boiling with moral indignation,” as Berlin later put it.[17] Meanwhile, on February 9, 1946, Stalin gave a major address lauding Marxist ideology while glossing over US and British assistance in the war. The State Department, in prodding Kennan for his analysis of the speech, anticipated “a real deep one, one of his better efforts.”[18] An aide later explained that “Washington wanted George to assemble his concepts in some kind of a ‘think piece’ that could be used in promoting [a] stronger line toward the Soviets.”[19]

He did not disappoint. The long telegram invoked, in the name of realism, a fantastic scenario in which the Soviet Union loomed as an inhuman force, without morality, unable to appreciate objective fact or truth, and pathologically compelled to destroy almost every decent aspect of life in the West. Russia was again, as in the sixteenth century, under the thumb of “Asiatic” tyrants. After inflating this existential threat, Kennan in his conclusion tried to reassure. He emphasized that the Soviet Union did not want war, differed from Nazi Germany, remained weaker than America, and could be contained without war if the United States and Western Europe instituted reforms. Indeed, heading off talk of an inevitable war was part of the motivation for advocating containment. Yet it was not the late-coming assurances, but the emotionalized depiction of the Soviet threat and his militarized language that resonated in Washington. The Kremlin was “impervious to [the]logic of reason and . . . highly sensitive to [the] logic of force,” Kennan insisted.[20] Not surprisingly, US officials concluded that containment mandated a military buildup. In his 1947 “Mr. X” article, Kennan again depicted the Kremlin as unapproachable, indeed as an insensate piece of metal: “a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force.” Containment was necessary because the Soviet-other was not only unfeeling but also, contradictorily, prone to hyper-emotion. His doctrine would checkmate dangerous Soviet emotions and the aggression they provoked. While painting this somber picture, Kennan held out possibility of a brighter future – and of renewed contact with the Russians. Containment would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”[21]

In keeping with his long running critique of US society, Kennan concluded both the long telegram and the “Mr. X” article with calls for domestic reform. “To avoid destruction,” by Russia, “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions.” Echoing past comments about the utility of catastrophe, he affirmed that Americans should welcome the Soviet challenge as a prod for “pulling themselves together.”[22] In sum, Kennan’s urging of containment reflected not only push-back against Soviet expansion, but also long-standing impulses and concerns: his passion for the Russian people, resentment of Soviet repression, propensity for self-punishment, professional ambition, aspiration to reform US society, and faith that US interaction with Russia, whether hostile or friendly, could spur needed change in America.

For the rest of his long life, Kennan would combat the widespread conclusion that containment necessarily entailed a military build up and possibly a military confrontation. He would protest that he had intended containment as a primarily political policy to be applied by adroit diplomats. Nevertheless, despite his caveats in the long telegram and the Mr. “X” article that the Soviets lacked a fixed timetable and did not intend military aggression, most observers concluded otherwise. Within a year of the greatest war in history, Kennan presented the Soviet Union as another existential threat. Not surprisingly, most people assumed a military response was again appropriate.

Chip Bohlen underscored the impact of the long telegram by almost immediately shutting down debate within the State Department. Gone was the “need to go into any long analysis of the motives or the reasons for present Soviet policy.” Instead, “we can take as accepted the principle” that the United States faced “an expanding totalitarian state” convinced that “the world is divided into two irreconcilably hostile camps.” Bohlen described the Soviet offensive as two-pronged: first, the “use or threat of Soviet armed force” and, second, the deployment of “political psychology.” Therefore the United States had to build up its military and reach out to Western Europe.[23] Thus from the start and even with Kennan’s closest associates, the long telegram helped militarize the Cold War.

The manifesto earned Kennan the acclaim he had craved: “My voice now carried.”[24] The Truman administration broadcast the pronouncement as intellectual justification for its ongoing policy of countering and isolating Russia. The document circulated to the War and Navy Departments as well as to diplomatic posts across the globe. The Kremlin obtained a copy through its spy network. Henry Norweb, Kennan’s old boss in Lisbon and now the ambassador to Cuba, celebrated the best political reporting he had ever seen, this “masterpiece” of “realism devoid of hysteria.” “Astonishing!” embassy staff gushed “This is an answer to prayer.”[25]

[1] George F. Kennan to Jeanette Kennan Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, George F. Kennan papers, Seeley G. Mudd Library, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

[2] Kennan, “Draft of Information Policy on Relations with Russia,” July 22, 1946, box 27, Dean Acheson Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, Independence, MO.

[3] Kennan to Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, Kennan papers.

[4] Kennan to Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, Kennan papers.

[5] Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950, 195.

[6] Gaddis interview with Frank K. Roberts, March 15, 1993, John L. Gaddis papers, Mudd Library, Princeton University, p. 4.

[7] Gaddis interview with Isaiah Berlin, November 29, 1992, p. 8, Gaddis papers.

[8] C. Ben Wright interview with William A. Crawford, September 29, 1970, pp. 3-4 Gaddis interview with Martha Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 1. Gaddis papers.

[10] Kennan to Elbridge Durbrow, January 21, 1946, file 4, box 140, Kennan papers.

[11] Kennan to Bohlen, January 23, 123 Kennan, George F./, RG 59, , National Archives.

[12] Kennan to Durbrow, March 15, 1946, 123 Kennan George F./, RG 59, , National Archives Wright interview with Crawford, September 29, 1970, pp. 7-8, 20-22.

[13] Kennan diary, February 15, 1935, box 231, Kennan papers.

[14] Ibid., September 10, 1959. 15.

[16] Gaddis interview with Dorothy Hessman, September 24, 1982, pp. 3-4 Gaddis interview with Martha Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 2, both in Gaddis papers.

[17] Berlin, interview with Gaddis, box 1, Gaddis papers Kennan to Elbridge Durbrow, January 21, 1946, box 186, W. Averell Harriman papers, Library of Congress.

[18] Durbrow, interview with Gaddis, box 1, Gaddis papers Matthews to Kennan, February 13, 1946, 861.00/2-1246, RG 59, National Archives.

[19] Gaddis interview with Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 2, Gaddis papers.

[20]FRUS 1946, 6: 707. For a textual analysis, see Frank Costigliola, “‘Unceasing Pressure for Penetration’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George F. Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War,” Journal of American History 83 (March 1997), 1331-37.

[21] Kennan, American Diplomacy, 117, 127.

[22] Kennan, American Diplomacy, 127-128

[23] Memorandum by Charles E. Bohlen, March 13, 1946, box 7, Charles E. Bohlen files, RG 59, National Archives.

[24] Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950, 295.

[25] Henry Norweb to Kennan, March 25, 1946, folder 4, box 140, Kennan papers Gaddis, Kennan, 229.


75TH ANNIVERSARY OF “THE LONG TELEGRAM”: WAS GEORGE F. KENNAN’S ASSESSMENT OF THE SOVIET UNION ACCURATE?

February 22nd marks 75 years since George F. Kennan sent his famous “Long Telegram” to the State Department in which he provided an assessment of the Soviet Union that led to the U.S. containment policy of the Cold War. The Cold War, in turn, saw various conflicts, scores of covert operations, regime changes, and a nuclear arms race.

Conventional wisdom generally has it that Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet government was accurate. But was it? And if it wasn’t accurate, why has it been treated as a brilliant analysis that underpinned a policy still characterized as an inevitable necessity?

I n order to answer those questions, it is necessary to look at who George F. Kennan was, what the main points of his analysis were and how they have held up to the historical facts, as well as the political context in which his assessment was received.

Who Was George F. Kennan and What Shaped His Thinking?

George Frost Kennan graduated in 1926 from Princeton University with a degree in history. With an interest in international relations and a knack for picking up languages, he entered the Foreign Service. The State Department eventually offered to pay for graduate study of Chinese, Arabic or Russian. Opting for the latter — partly due to his famous namesake cousin’s travels and writings in Siberia — he enrolled in a new program for the study of Eastern European Affairs. Subsequently, he was stationed in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a period. By 1929, he was taking Russian history at the University of Berlin and learning the language from a combination of private tutoring and autodidact studies.

Kennan was a keen observer with an eye for detail, contributing to his writing prowess, which he developed early in his diplomatic career. He also had a sensitive disposition that sometimes tended toward the dramatic as can be seen from some of his letters and diary entries. He was plagued with ulcers throughout most of his adult life, along with other ailments, which prompted many months of recuperation away from his assigned locales at various times.

In the early years of his study of Russia, he leaned toward an Orientalist view of his subject, making sweeping generalizations even to the point of caricature about the nature of Russia, the Asiatic influence and its alien aspects. During the war, he even admitted to trying to subject Russian history and culture to Freudian psychoanalysis. Though he would temper this somewhat over the years, this tendency toward oversimplification would still be seen in his Long Telegram.

By the early 1930’s, Kennan’s growing expertise had gotten the attention of others in the State Department. When the Roosevelt administration decided to officially recognize the Soviet Union — the result of pressure from the business community as the U.S. had become its #1 importer — ambassador William Bullitt lobbied hard for Kennan to be appointed to set up a new embassy in Moscow. Despite misgivings about his perceived inexperience, Kennan was given the green light for the job.

Throughout his tenure in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, Kennan admittedly had limited contact with average Russians. However, for most of 1934, Kennan noted a relatively relaxed atmosphere in Moscow. Upon his return to the country in November of 1935, after months away on medical leave, he discovered many of his American colleagues had left and most of the Russians he had built relations of some kind with were no longer around. There was also more supervision from Soviet authorities along with an influx of spies at the embassy.

From 1936 to 1938, Kennan personally observed many of the show trials that were part of Stalin’s violent purges, often serving as US ambassador Joseph Davies’ translator and assistant. This solidified Kennan’s inclination toward viewing the Soviet government as morally repugnant and would contribute to his hardline views during and right after World War II.

Davies — a corporate lawyer, friend of Roosevelt and a contributor to his campaign — was viewed by Kennan and several others in the State Department as a dangerous dilettante who whitewashed Stalin and the Soviet government, reinforcing the president’s misguided policy of engagement with the Soviet dictator. According to diplomatic historian John Lukacs, who corresponded years later with Kennan about the background of his thinking in the lead up to the Long Telegram, Kennan stated that Roosevelt was naïve for thinking Stalin being treated as an equal would lead to a reasonable post-war arrangement. Kennan believed that pursuing this policy at the expense of Churchill, whom Roosevelt sometimes gave a cold shoulder to in order to curry favor with Stalin, was a serious mistake and allowed Stalin to triangulate with his wartime allies.

According to historian Susan Butler in her book, Roosevelt & Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt was playing the long game, motivated to win Stalin’s trust in order to get him to support the United Nations (UN). After winning the war itself, Roosevelt’s priority was to prevent the devastation of a third world war. Of course, this was meant to happen within the context of a U.S.-dominated global order. The UN was the vehicle through which that goal was to be pursued.

Kennan actively opposed Davies and his agenda, now writing from his position in the European Division of the State Department in Washington. This was after Kennan left Moscow in early 1937 due to mutual antipathy between the two men. His reports on the Soviet Union were designed to “balance out” Davies’ “overly optimistic” reports to the president. Eventually, Stalin became aware of Kennan’s writings and perceived them to be attempts to “turn Roosevelt personally against” the Soviet Union.

After Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Ambassador Averell Harriman rushed to Washington to brief Harry Truman on matters relating to the Soviet Union. He advised the new president that Stalin viewed U.S. restraint as weakness and therefore believed he could operate with a free hand, fearing few consequences from Washington. Truman, a foreign policy novice, was also taking advice from his friend and anti-Soviet hardliner, James Byrnes. Truman would ultimately make Byrnes his Secretary of State.

Kennan, for his part, began sending a steady stream of dispatches to the State Department in a Cassandra-like mission to convince top officials of the true nature of the Soviet Union and the implications for how the U.S. should conduct relations with it.

In May, he wrote a lengthy essay titled “Russia’s Position at the Close of the War with Germany,” in which he acknowledged the challenges the Soviet Union would be facing in the post-war environment. These included the fact that a significant portion of the country had been destroyed, over-extension if they attempted to take over too much territory in Europe, the logistical difficulties of administering countries with different languages and customs and which felt resentment at the brutal treatment they’d been subjected to during wartime occupation. But Kennan insisted the Soviet Union had expansionist ambitions and would implicitly have to be contained rather than negotiated with, at least for a period of time. This theme would appear again in the Long Telegram.

By late summer of 1945, Kennan was expressing his displeasure with post-war settlement talks, pooh-poohing any concessions to the Soviets. For example, he opposed U.S. withdrawal of troops from western Czechoslovakia — despite the fact Washington was treaty-bound to do so — arguing that it would show U.S. weakness. He characterized any economic assistance to the Soviets as simply funds that would be channeled to their defense industry. In a foreshadowing of the McCarthy era hysteria, he warned of the Soviets potentially cultivating western citizens who could be “trained like pets ‘to heal without being on the leash.’”

By February of 1946, Kennan had reiterated to the State Department his desire to resign. His intent was to go into academia and perhaps write a book. The dispatch that would become known as the Long Telegram was his last-ditch effort to make his case about the Soviet Union.

The Long Telegram

The Telegram was precipitated, not by a Treasury Department request for an explanation as to Soviet non-cooperation with the World Bank and IMF as Kennan had claimed, but was a request for an assessment of a speech given by Stalin on February 9th that had alarmed some in Washington. The speech itself, delivered at Bolshoi Theater on the eve of elections for the Supreme Soviet, was initially not considered by Kennan to be more than a fairly typical propaganda speech by the Soviet dictator. But it represented an opportunity for Kennan to push his strident perspective once again.

Kennan’s Telegram ran approximately 5,000 words and was divided into 5 sections — like a sermon, as Kennan himself admitted. It is also riddled with generalizations about Russian hostility toward the outside world, Asiatic despotism, irrationality, etc. For example, in Part 2 of the Telegram, Kennan states:

“Without [Soviet sacrifice of all ethics] they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [the] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.”

While Russia indeed had a thousand year history of autocratic governance, Kennan’s treatment of Russian history ignored the complexities within that history, making it sound like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin were the only leaders Russia had ever had. He ignored the enlightened rule of Prince Vladimir, the reforms of Alexander II, as well as the difference in the mindset of many modern officials who served under Nicholas II which contributed to his overthrow. He ignored the fact that the thinking of those who led the February 1917 Revolution (generally more of a social democratic nature) were different than those of the Bolsheviks who supplanted them.

In the next paragraph, Kennan states:

“The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth — indeed, their disbelief in its existence — leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.”

This statement of crude bigotry speaks for itself. Kennan goes on in the next sentence to suggest Stalin did not have reliable sources of information about the outside world:

“There is good reason to suspect that this government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of [the] outside world.”

It’s unclear why Kennan thinks being a brutal dictator necessarily precludes intellectual ability — something that had been remarked upon by westerners who had dealt personally and professionally with Stalin — or having a sophisticated diplomatic staff or competent intelligence services.

Professor of history Geoffrey Roberts, in his book Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939–1953, demonstrates that Stalin did in fact have sufficient sources to provide him with a pretty good picture of what was going on in the world. While his ideology did play a role in his interpretation of events and priorities, he was more than capable of taking a realist approach to international affairs when confronted with limitations on his ability to get what he wanted.

In Section 3, Kennan warns readers to watch out for a list of actions by the Soviets that could potentially be threatening to the west, including:

“Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state: intensive-military industrialization maximum development of armed forces…”

It’s interesting to note that this did indeed happen — in the late 1940’s, after relations between the Soviets and the West broke down and the Cold War was underway. The Soviet Union had begun demobilizing its military in 1945 when the war ended which Kennan, being the expert, surely should have known.

As an historian, Kennan should have also known that there were plenty of historical examples of Russia pursuing a realist, balance of power approach to foreign policy, regardless of its domestic policies. For a man with such a supposedly brilliant grasp of his subject, not considering the aforementioned nuances about Russia’s past and its leadership would seem to reveal a significant lack of insight.

But perhaps one could argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin represented something fundamentally different when it came to formulating foreign policy. Kennan seemed to think so, arguing in absolutist terms in Section 4:

“In general, all Soviet efforts on unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources strength beyond reach of Soviet control. This is only in line with basic Soviet instinct that there could be no compromise with rival power and that constructive work can start only when Communist power is [dominant].”

In Section 5, he reiterates the point that the Soviet Union is irrational and implicitly cannot be reasoned with via negotiations:

“Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force.”

Obviously, this would provide a convenient justification for U.S. military hegemony and keeping high military budgets. This approach was also likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy as the Soviets would predictably view such a buildup as an excuse to justify their own, particularly in light of their recent history of invasion and the death and destruction that accompanied it.

Kennan was advocating a hard line on the Soviet Union, suggesting the Russians were incapable of honesty or meaningful negotiation and only understood force. As previously mentioned, Kennan’s experience with Stalin’s show trials during the Great Terror of the mid-30’s contributed to this harsh thinking. Another factor that reinforced this view was Stalin’s decisions during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. That event hardened Kennan’s position that the Soviets were worthy only of the military aid necessary to defeat the Nazis but not a full political alliance during the war, much less afterward.

As early as 1941, he suggested a political alliance with the Soviets would be equivalent to condoning the Soviet invasion of Finland and the division of Poland, stating that the Soviets would have to accept the consequences of having collaborated with Hitler and deserved no western sympathy. Interestingly, Kennan never mentions the events that led up to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which included Stalin strenuously but unsuccessfully attempting to pursue a military alliance with France and Britain to counter Germany’s stampede through Europe. Moreover, much of the west had failed to act honorably, appeasing or enabling Hitler’s aggressive ambitions at various points. One doesn’t have to agree with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but an historian should certainly be aware of and consider the context of this event.

Kennan also admitted he had no patience for considering the sensibilities of domestic opinion on the conduct of foreign policy, which would have complicated his stance of military aid to the Soviets without an alliance.

An overview of Kennan’s analyses over the course of his service in the State Department, as well as some of his correspondence, shows that he clearly struggled between moralist and realist impulses. While it is understandable that Kennan (along with Ambassador Harriman), on a human level, felt disgust by the Soviet response to the Warsaw Uprising, the calculations that went into Stalin’s decision turned out to be a bit more complicated than how it was perceived by Kennan and others.

According to Kennan, considering that Soviet territory had been liberated by this time and the western allies had opened up the long-desired second front, Stalin’s decision to refuse the use of airfields in Ukraine for U.S. and British planes in support of the Warsaw insurgents in mid-August represented a callous and self-satisfied prioritization of the post-war division of Europe to the Soviet Union’s benefit.

However, according to historian Roberts, the backstory to Stalin’s decision was that the Soviet Union had parachuted a liaison officer into Warsaw days before to facilitate the dropping of supplies, but he was captured and killed by the Germans. This incident had reinforced Stalin’s growing skepticism about the wisdom of the uprising, which had been organized by the Polish Home Army — a wing of the Polish government –in-exile in London (aka AK). Furthermore, western media had reported the Soviets had encouraged the uprising and then cynically abandoned it.

Again the reality is more complicated than this narrative. When the uprising began on August 1st, Stalin thought it may have a chance of success due to the weakening of the German army. However, as events unfolded, Stalin began to express doubts about its feasibility. On August 5th, Stalin replied to a message from Churchill about British plans to drop 60 tons of equipment and ammunition to the insurgents. Stalin told Churchill it was unlikely the insurgents could take over the city in light of the Germans’ four defensive divisions.

In a meeting with the leader of the Polish government-in-exile on August 9th, Stalin told his interlocutor that he saw the uprising as not “a realistic affair when the insurgents had no guns whereas the Germans in the Praga area alone had three tank divisions, not to speak of infantry. The Germans will simply kill all the Poles.”

While it became apparent that there were anti-Soviet elements within the uprising, there is no evidence Stalin or the leadership of the Red Army did not make every realistic effort to try to take Warsaw as soon as possible, as some have tried to assert. After the Germans reinforced their positions in Poland, it became much more difficult for the Soviets to capture Warsaw as quickly as they had originally anticipated. According to Roberts:

“The uprising did reinforce Stalin’s inclination to capture the city the problem was that he was unable to do so. Stalin could, of course, have ordered the Red Army to concentrate all its available strength on the capture of Warsaw. Even so, it is doubtful that the city would have fallen very quickly given the time it would have taken to redeploy forces from other fronts and such action would have jeopardized other operational goals that were considered by Moscow as important as storming Warsaw.”

Just prior to the Warsaw Uprising, Kennan wrote a long essay intended for Harriman in which he acknowledged that with the coming defeat of Germany, the Soviet Union would — for better or worse — occupy the most significant place in Europe. In this essay, “Russia — Seven Years Later”, Kennan stated that there was no stable basis for understanding reality in the Soviet Union and few Americans would ever understand this mystery. This underscores the main problem with Kennan and his analyses of the time. He implies here that he is one of a very few or perhaps even the only one smart enough to discern the ugly puzzle that is the Soviet Union. Kennan, not necessarily through any fault of his own, had limitations on his access to the Soviet government and Stalin’s thinking. He also lacked access to information that would later become available to historians, not only about Stalin’s thinking but about those in his own government. It is therefore inevitable that Kennan’s analyses and conclusions would likewise suffer from these limitations. These limitations can be forgiven, but he never seems to acknowledge his necessarily restricted perspective. Instead he is cocksure in his proclamations, lacking the humility to offer caveats that may have been in order and to prevent his proclamations from being used by militant cold war ideologues — something which he later complained of when attempting to clarify that his containment policy was meant to focus on the political and diplomatic rather than the military.

How Kennan’s Views Dovetailed with Washington’s New Foreign Policy Consensus

Within weeks of Kennan’s telegram, Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri. Though Churchill acknowledged the bravery and sacrifice of the Soviet people, a particular passage in the speech, in which Churchill speaks of an iron curtain behind which the states of Eastern Europe were not just subject to being in the Soviet sphere of influence but were being increasingly subject to Soviet dictatorial control, captured everyone’s attention. Furthermore, Churchill spoke of growing concerns about communist influence in Western Europe and Soviet tensions at the time with Iran and Turkey. He also invoked the specter of Hitler in connection with not allowing a Soviet Union that admired force and disdained weakness to expand indefinitely.

A year later, President Truman gave a speech in which he introduced what would become known as the Truman Doctrine. In the speech, Truman stated that every nation in the world had to choose between alternative ways of organizing society — one based on freedom and elected representative government and the other based on repression and rule by a minority. Consequently, it was the responsibility of the U.S. to support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He requested aid for the Greek government in its battle with a communist insurgency and for Turkey which was confronted by Soviet claims in the Turkish Straits.

At this point hardliners in both the U.S. and Britain had determined that the Soviets were pursuing their interests “unilaterally” without consideration for the interests of the western powers.

However, as WWII drew to a close, Stalin had remained hopeful of maintaining the “Grand Alliance” with the U.S. and Britain, though he was aware of the possibility that the western powers might eventually make an accommodation with Germany against the Soviets. In addition to securing a defensive buffer or “sphere of influence” on the Soviet western border, Stalin’s main foreign policy objective was preventing the re-emergence of Germany as a military power — which he believed could occur within a generation unless it was specifically prevented from doing so. He also initially showed more openness to what he termed “New Democracy” for the Eastern European states.

New Democracy was an acknowledgment that a dictatorship of the proletariat was not the only way toward socialism. Instead the Eastern European countries could evolve toward socialism over the long term. Stalin believed this was a very real possibility in light of all that he was able to achieve in terms of the Soviet Union’s industrial and social development within the decade before the war. A peaceful Europe would be needed to facilitate this. Consequently, Stalin advised the Bulgarian Communist Party in September of 1946 to form the equivalent of a Labor Party comprised of workers and other members of the lower classes. He told representatives of the Czech and Polish left much the same thing that summer. By 1947–48, however, the New Democracy experiment collapsed as the Communist Party victories seen in some Eastern European countries had resulted largely due to vote rigging and intimidation, revealing that the ideology was not yet strong enough to compete with right-wing and nationalist sentiments.

Relations between the Soviets and the western powers eventually deteriorated with distrust increasing on both sides. As a result, Stalin pursued a more repressive approach and tighter control over Eastern Europe and implemented a cultural crackdown at home — though it was much milder than the purge of the 1930’s.

The roots of that deterioration of relations lay partly in the response of the U.S. political class to the events in Europe in 1940. As detailed by historian Stephen Wertheim in his book, Tomorrow the World, foreign policy planners in the U.S. — led by members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) — were alarmed by the Nazi takeover of France in June. The idea that Britain could also fall was now seriously entertained. This prompted a major realignment in internationalist thought within the U.S. political class, from a rather restrained hegemony mostly confined to the western hemisphere and support for international law and disarmament, to a world order dominated by U.S. military supremacy. American national security was broadened to incorporate the objective of not allowing the U.S. to be denied action and influence around the world. This included free economic exchange with the acknowledgment that “trade would extend no further than force allowed, but force would be committed as far as trade necessitated.”

The Soviet Union had largely been ignored in these planners’ thinking until the Soviets began turning the tide on the Germans in 1943. It was then recognized that the Soviet Union would emerge from the war as a significant world power that would have to be accommodated to some degree within the new U.S. global order. It was initially accepted that the Soviets would have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. This was permissible as long as enough economic and political openness was afforded to those countries so as not to undermine newly defined U.S. interests. Additionally, anti-Soviet hardliners, such as Leslie Groves and James Byrnes now occupied influential positions within the Truman administration.

Interestingly, the Soviets had begun to recognize the dynamics at play in U.S. political thinking as reflected in Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Norikov’s diplomatic telegram of September 1946, considered to be the Soviet counterpoint to Kennan’s Telegram. Norikov opens his dispatch with:

“The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the post-war period by a striving for world supremacy. This is the real meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles: that the United States has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy — the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, industry and science — are enlisted in the service of this foreign policy.”

Despite the communist rhetoric, Norikov was not wrong in his assessment of the general goals of U.S. policy in the post-war world. It should be noted that Norikov’s points were similar to those being made by others in the Soviet leadership and media at the time so they were not touted as special.

Within this backdrop, it is clear that Kennan’s views had been used to justify what was already desired by U.S. supremacists and hardliners in terms of American domination as the Soviet Union was now perceived as a major threat to that agenda. The pursuit of this policy had already been decided upon and would have gone ahead with or without Kennan’s assessment, but the Long Telegram provided a convenient intellectual foundation for public rationalization. Kennan, as it turns out, was not driving the policy with his unique acumen but was being used to justify a predetermined policy by the real drivers who resided farther up the political hierarchy.

In the summer of 1946, Kennan embarked on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of the U.S. to disabuse Americans of any lingering sympathy they may have had for the Soviet Union as an ally during the war. It was around this time that Kennan began to think of himself as a grand strategist, inspired by reading Edward Mead Earl’s Makers of Modern Strategy. Earle was an historian and military strategist with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. He was part of the elite northeastern brain trust, which included the CFR planners, which now exerted influence over the State Department. Kennan also read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and attempted to compare it to current events. Kennan went on to teach at the newly established National War College. He published his X article in Foreign Affairs in July of 1947, warning of a messianic and expansionist Soviet Union. As a member of the newly-created National Security Council (NSC) that same year, Kennan encouraged the establishment of covert operations by the newly-formed CIA, but believed those operations should be subjected to NSC review.

By 1950, Kennan ironically found himself at loggerheads with Secretary of State Dean Acheson over a NSC memorandum known as NSC-68 that had been drafted by a State Department Policy Planning team headed by Paul Nitze. Based on the assumption that the Soviet Union was a messianic and expansionist power that could not be negotiated with, NSC-68 called for a massive buildup of economic and military power to counter it — representing an “active” containment rather than a passive one. The memo was based on greatly exaggerated projections of Soviet power and distorted perceptions of Soviet intent. Truman initially balked at adopting NSC-68 due to the high cost of implementation but changed his mind after the start of the Korean War.

Kennan and Acheson also disagreed over Kennan’s support of a no-first-use nuclear policy as NSC-68 called for expansion of not only conventional military power but nuclear as well. He also opposed the re-arming of Germany, acknowledging years later in a letter that the Soviets had been genuinely “spooked” by our intention to re-arm Germany and have them join NATO. Stalin perceived these moves as evidence of the U.S. desire to undermine Soviet security and deny his country its rightful gains won through blood in WWII. But Kennan also believed that Stalin should have realized that NATO would not have been able to mobilize enough forces to actually aggress on the Soviet Union.

Kennan would later admit that the Long Telegram read like an alarmist primer designed to “arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.”

Reflecting how his views had evolved, Kennan told John Lukacs in 1995, regarding the early days of the Cold War: “But the only way to find out whether we could or could not come to some sort of an understanding with [the Soviets] that would reduce the growing military tensions and assure a more peaceful passage of Europe through the postwar period was to test them in reasonably private and realistic negotiations. If no agreement was possible, then that was that and then we would plainly have to face the consequences. But we would not know whether any such understanding was possible or not until we had talked with them. And this we were never willing to do.”

It was this that made Kennan unique — his willingness to re-think his views and to develop nuance and complexity in his subject of focus. Unfortunately, by the time this process was well underway for Kennan his influence in government waned. And, despite the fact that he was treated as a “wise man” by the cultural elite in the media and academia, his wise counsel on contemporary issues of import — such as his warnings against NATO expansion after the Cold War ended — would conveniently be ignored by those making the decisions.


Excerpts of Kennan's 1946 `Long Telegram'

Excerpts from the 8,000-word "Long Telegram" George Kennan sent to the State Department in 1946 after the department asked for help in understanding the Soviet Union:

"[The] USSR still lives in antagonistic `capitalist encirclement' with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence . . . .

"At bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was . . . unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.

"It was no coincidence that Marxism . . . caught hold and blazed for first time in Russia. Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international, could a doctrine thrive which viewed economic conflicts of society as insoluble by peaceful means . . . .

"On [an] unofficial plane particularly violent efforts will be made to weaken power and influence of Western Powers of [on] colonial backward, or dependent peoples. On this level, no holds will be barred . . . .

"In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken . . . .

"We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own. Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened by experiences of past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security. They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities. We should be better able than Russians to give them this. And unless we do, Russians certainly will."


The 75th Anniversary of "The Long Telegram": Was George F. Kennan's Assessment of the Soviet Union Accurate?


Kennan.
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February 22nd marks 75 years since George F. Kennan sent his famous "Long Telegram" to the State Department in which he provided an assessment of the Soviet Union that is credited with shaping the U.S. containment policy of the Cold War. The Cold War, in turn, saw various conflicts, scores of covert operations, regime changes, and a nuclear arms race.

Conventional wisdom generally has it that Kennan's assessment of the Soviet government was accurate. But was it? And if it wasn't accurate, why has it been treated as a brilliant analysis that underpinned a policy still characterized as an inevitable necessity?

In order to answer those questions, it is necessary to look at who George F. Kennan was, what the main points of his analysis were and how they have held up to the historical facts, as well as the political context in which his assessment was received.

Who Was George F. Kennan and What Shaped His Thinking?

George Frost Kennan graduated in 1926 from Princeton University with a degree in history. With an interest in international relations and a knack for picking up languages, he entered the Foreign Service. The State Department eventually offered to pay for graduate study of Chinese, Arabic or Russian. Opting for the latter - partly due to his famous namesake cousin's travels and writings in Siberia - he enrolled in a new program for the study of Eastern European Affairs. Subsequently, he was stationed in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a period. By 1929, he was taking Russian history at the University of Berlin and learning the language from a combination of private tutoring and autodidact studies.

Kennan was a keen observer with an eye for detail, contributing to his writing prowess, which he developed early in his diplomatic career. He also had a sensitive disposition that sometimes tended toward the dramatic as can be seen from some of his letters and diary entries. He was plagued with ulcers throughout most of his adult life, along with other ailments, which prompted many months of recuperation away from his assigned locales at various times.

In the early years of his study of Russia, he leaned toward an Orientalist view of his subject, making sweeping generalizations even to the point of caricature about the nature of Russia, the Asiatic influence and its alien aspects. During the war, he even admitted to trying to subject Russian history and culture to Freudian psychoanalysis. Though he would temper this somewhat over the years, this tendency toward oversimplification would still be seen in his Long Telegram.

By the early 1930's, Kennan's growing expertise had gotten the attention of others in the State Department. When the Roosevelt administration decided to officially recognize the Soviet Union - the result of pressure from the business community as the U.S. had become its #1 importer - ambassador William Bullitt lobbied hard for Kennan to be appointed to set up a new embassy in Moscow. Despite misgivings about his perceived inexperience, Kennan was given the green light for the job.

Throughout his tenure in the Soviet Union in the 1930's, Kennan admittedly had limited contact with average Russians. However, for most of 1934, Kennan noted a relatively relaxed atmosphere in Moscow. Upon his return to the country in November of 1935, after months away on medical leave, he discovered many of his American colleagues had left and most of the Russians he had built relations of some kind with were no longer around. There was also more supervision from Soviet authorities along with an influx of spies at the embassy.

From 1936 to 1938, Kennan personally observed many of the show trials that were part of Stalin's violent purges, often serving as US ambassador Joseph Davies' translator and assistant. This solidified Kennan's inclination toward viewing the Soviet government as morally repugnant and would contribute to his hardline views during and right after World War II.

Davies - a corporate lawyer, friend of Roosevelt and a contributor to his campaign - was viewed by Kennan and several others in the State Department as a dangerous dilettante who whitewashed Stalin and the Soviet government, reinforcing the president's misguided policy of engagement with the Soviet dictator. According to diplomatic historian John Lukacs, who corresponded years later with Kennan about the background of his thinking in the lead up to the Long Telegram, Kennan stated that Roosevelt was naïve for thinking Stalin being treated as an equal would lead to a reasonable post-war arrangement. Kennan believed that pursuing this policy at the expense of Churchill, whom Roosevelt sometimes gave a cold shoulder to in order to curry favor with Stalin, was a serious mistake and allowed Stalin to triangulate with his wartime allies.

According to historian Susan Butler in her book, Roosevelt & Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt was playing the long game, motivated to win Stalin's trust in order to get him to support the United Nations (UN). After winning the war itself, Roosevelt's priority was to prevent the devastation of a third world war. Of course, this was meant to happen within the context of a U.S.-dominated global order. The UN was the vehicle through which that goal was to be pursued.

Kennan actively opposed Davies and his agenda, now writing from his position in the European Division of the State Department in Washington. This was after Kennan left Moscow in early 1937 due to mutual antipathy between the two men. His reports on the Soviet Union were designed to "balance out" Davies' "overly optimistic" reports to the president. Eventually, Stalin became aware of Kennan's writings and perceived them to be attempts to "turn Roosevelt personally against" the Soviet Union.

After Roosevelt's death in April of 1945, Ambassador Averell Harriman rushed to Washington to brief Harry Truman on matters relating to the Soviet Union. He advised the new president that Stalin viewed U.S. restraint as weakness and therefore believed he could operate with a free hand, fearing few consequences from Washington. Truman, a foreign policy novice, was also taking advice from his friend and anti-Soviet hardliner, James Byrnes. Truman would ultimately make Byrnes his Secretary of State.

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Contents

Joseph Stalin, General Secretary and de facto leader of the Soviet Union, spoke at the Bolshoi Theatre on 9 February 1946, the night before the symbolic 1946 Supreme Soviet election. The speech did not discuss foreign policy, but instead made pledges to expand industry. He justified the expansion by pointing to Marxist–Leninist theory, warning that capitalism possessed a predisposition towards conflict. [2]

Stalin's speech provoked fear in the American press and public, [6] with Time magazine calling it "the most warlike pronouncement uttered by any top-rank statesman since V-J Day." [4] George F. Kennan, then working for the US State Department as chargé d'affaires in Moscow, [7] found the speech routine and reflective of previous statements from Stalin. [2] With this in mind, he issued only a quick summary of the speech for the State Department. [2] Despite the familiar statements from Stalin, the context in which they were made – including the Soviet Union's recent rejection of Bretton Woods and evidence of atomic espionage in the United States and Canada – alarmed officials in Washington. [8] In a 1982 interview, former diplomat Elbridge Durbrow expressed that Stalin's speech had in effect said, "to hell with the rest of the world." [9] US President Harry Truman was confused by the Soviet's policies, at times appearing belligerent and at others exercising self-restraint. [10] Leaders were increasingly coming to the conclusion that the existing quid pro quo strategy was ineffective against the Soviets, but had no replacement strategy. [11]

Durbrow and other diplomat H. Freeman Matthews – both readers of Kennan's earlier telegrams – were confused by Kennan's relative silence about the speech. On 13 February, Matthews drafted a message, signed by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, asking for an analysis. The message described the press and public's reaction having been, "to a degree not hitherto felt", [12] and expressed: "We should welcome receiving from you an interpretive analysis of what we may expect in the way of future implementation of these announced policies." [12] W. Averell Harriman, having recently return from his ambassadorship to the Soviet Union, spoke to Kennan and encouraged him to write a thorough analysis. [12] [note 1]

Kennan probably wrote out rough drafts of a message before dictating a final version to his secretary, Dorothy Hessman, on 22 February 1946. [13] Finishing late at night, he took the message to the Mokhovaya code room in Moscow and had it telegraphed back to Washington. [14] The message was quickly dubbed the "long telegram" because, at a little over 5,000 words, it was the longest telegram ever sent in the history of the State Department. [15] [note 2]

Identified as "511" by Kennan's State Department number, [17] the message is divided into five sections, covering the Soviet Union's background, current features, future prospects and the implications these would have for the United States. [18] It opens with an apology for the its length but qualifies the necessity of responding to all the then pressing concerns at once. [17] Kennan begins by laying out the world from the Soviet's perspective, splitting it into socialist and capitalist sectors. [19] The alliance between the United States and Great Britain was destined to fail, [20] and would either lead to war between them or a joint attack on the Soviet Union. [19] The Soviets believed they would ultimately prevail in such a conflict, but would need to grow their strength and exploit the capitalist's tendency towards conflict amongst one another in the meantime. [19] Kennan described these ideas as absurd, pointing out that capitalist countries were not failing and were not always in conflict. [21] Further, he described the idea that the United States and Great Britain would deliberately enter into a war against the Soviets as the "sheerest nonsense". [22]

The Soviet leaders reached these illogical sentiments, he explained, [22] because, " . at the bottom of the Kremlin's view of world affairs is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity." [10] The authority of previous Russian rulers was "archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of western countries." [22] This understanding of Russian history was joined with the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. [22] Their obstinance in dealing with the West was borne out of necessity [23] seeing the rest of the world as hostile provided an excuse "for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand." [23] Until the Soviet Union either experienced consistent failures or their leader was persuaded that they were negatively impacting their nation's interest, the West could not expect any reciprocity from the Soviets. [23]

The Soviet government, Kennan continued, could be understood as occupying two distinct spaces: an official, visible government and another operating without any official acknowledgement. [22] While the former would participate in international diplomacy, the latter would attempt to undermine the capitalist nations as much as possible, [22] including efforts to "disrupt national self confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity." [22] He concludes that the Soviets ultimately have no expectation of reconciliation with the West. [10]

Kennan concludes not by offering specific courses of action, but instead offers more general solutions, such as the necessity of maintaining courage and self-confidence in interactions with the Soviets. [11] Managing the threat would require "the same thoroughness and care as solution of major strategic problem in war, and if necessary, with no smaller outlay in planning effort." [24] Comparing them to Nazi Germany, he points out that the Soviets were much more patient and often risk averse. [24] Being weaker than the West, not having regular procedures for replacing leaders, having absorbed too many territories, failing to inspire its people and being overly reliant on negative propaganda meant "we may approach calmly and with good heart [the] problem of how to deal with Russia." [24]

Kennan emphasizes the need of educating the American public about the threat of international communism. [24] Keeping Western society strong was important to ward of the expansive tendencies of communism: [24] "The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping." [25]

On American foreign policy Edit

Matthews sent Kennan a cable praising the telegram, describing it as "magnificent", adding, "I cannot overestimate its importance to those of us here struggling with the problem." [14] Byrnes praised it as well, writing he had read it "with the greatest interest" and describing it as "a splendid analysis". [14] Harriman was less enthused, calling it "fairly long, and a little bit slow reading in spots." [14] He nonetheless sent a copy to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal. Forrestal was largely responsible for the spread of the long telegram, sending copies across Washington. [14] It gained a larger readership than was typical for a classified document, with readers including ambassador to Cuba Henry Norweb, British diplomat Frank Roberts, General George C. Marshall and President Truman. [26]

The long telegram was quickly read and accepted by Washington bureaucrats as the best explanation of Soviet behavior. [27] Policymakers, military officials and intelligence analysts generally came to understand that the Soviet Union's primary foreign policy goal was world domination under a Communist state. [28] Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes that the ultimate impact of the long telegram is that it "became the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War", [23] and that it "won [Kennan] the reputation of being the government's foremost Soviet expert". [29] In 1967, Kennan reflected "My reputation was made. My voice now carried." [30] In mid-April 1946, at Forrestal's insistance Kennan received an appointment in the National War College as Deputy for Foreign Affairs. [31]

The Truman administration quickly accepted Kennan's conclusions, understanding that the Soviet's had no reasonable grievances with the West and would never cooperate with capitalist states. It was therefore senseless to try and address the Soviet's concerns, leaving a policy of containing Russian interests as the best response. [32] Historian Louis Halle writes that the timing of the long telegram's appearance was important, "[coming] right at a time when the Department . was floundering about, looking for new intellectual moorings." [33] He continues that the telegram served as "a new and realistic conception to which it might attach itself." [34] Gaddis and historian Wilson D. Miscamble both believe that Halle overstates Kennan's impact on State Department thinking, emphasizing that the Department was already moving towards a more adversarial position against the Soviets, [35] though Miscamble concedes, "there can be no doubt that Kennan's cable exercised a catalytic effect upon departmental thinking especially as regards the possibility of the United States achieving any non-adversary relationship with the Soviet Union." [36]

– George F. Kennan reflecting on the long telegram, 1967

Offering a different perspective, Matthews notes in a 12 March 1946 letter that the administration had already moved in the direction of not catering to Soviet interests before the long telegram, pointing to a speech Byrnes delivered on 28 February, drafted before Byrnes had read Kennan's message. [38] In the speech, Byrnes explains: "We will not and we cannot stand aloof if force or threat is used contrary to the purposes of the [United Nations] Charter. . If we are to be a great power we must act as a great power, not only in order to ensure our own security but in order to preserve the peace of the world." [38] Matthews explains that long telegram would instead serve as the administration's rationale for subsequent actions. [38] [note 3] Historian Melvyn P. Leffler points out that before the long telegram had circulated widely, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already resolved in February 1946 that "collaboration with the Soviet Union should stop short not only of compromise of principle but also of expansion of Russian influence in Europe and in the Far East. [39]

On the Soviet Union Edit

Though the long telegram was a classified document, it circulated widely enough that a copy leaked out to Soviet intelligence. Stalin was among its readers and called on his American ambassador, Nikolai Novikov, to send a similar telegram from Washington to Moscow. [40] Ghostwritten by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, [41] the piece was sent on 27 September 1946. [20]

Representative of Stalin's opinions, [20] Novikov's telegram argued in part: "The foreign policy of the United States reflects the imperialistic tendencies of American monopolistic capitalism, [and] is characterized . by a striving for world supremacy." [42] Amiercan would attempt to achieve supremacy by cooperating with Great Britain, [43] but their cooperation was "plagued with great internal contradictions and cannot be lasting . It is quite possible that the Near East will become a center of Anglo-American contradictions that will explode the agreements now reached between the United States and England." [42]

Kennan provided commentary on Novikov's telegram in a 1991 piece for the journal Diplomatic History. [44] He wrote in part, "These poor people, put on the spot, produced the thing," but "it was only a way of saying to their masters in Moscow: 'How true, sir!'". [45]

Origins Edit

On 7 January 1947, Kennan spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations, based at the Harold Pratt House in New York City. [46] The theme of the meeting was "Soviet Foreign Relations", presented to a small group and designated as "not for attribution". Kennan did not prepare a written a speech, having given dozens of similar talks in the years before. In his talk, he discussed the Soviet leader's perspectives on the rest of the world, rooted in both their Marxist-Leninist ideology and Russian history. The Soviets justified their dictatorship by pointing to external enemies, most of which were imaginary. For change to occur, the United States and its allies would need to "contain" the Soviets in a "non-provocative way". [47]

International banker R. Gordon Wasson attended the discussion and was impressed by Kennan, suggesting that the Council revise the talk for publication in their journal Foreign Affairs. Journal editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong had not attended the discussion but requested on 10 January that Kennan revise his talk into an article. [48] Kennan responded to Armstrong in a 4 February letter, writing, "I really can not write anything of value on Russia for publication under my own name. If you would be interested in an anonymous article, or one under a pen name, . I might be able to make the necessary arrangements." [48] Armstrong replied on 7 March, agreeing to Kennan's suggestion, writing that the "disadvantage of anonymity" was outweighed by the potential importance of the article. [48]

Taking time off from the State Department, Kennan worked as a lecturer at the National War College. His work left him little time to write a new essay, so he searched for previous work to repurpose. In January 1946, Forrestal had asked Kennan for an analysis of a piece by Smith College professor Edward F. Willett entitled "Dialectical Materialism And Russian Objectives". Kennan was unimpressed with the work, but decided that rather than denigrating the piece he would instead publish a new analysis. [49] The paper, titled "Psychological Background of Soviet Foreign Policy", was around six-thousand words. In late-January 1946, he sent it to Forrestal, who described it as "extremely well-done", sending it on to General Marshall. [50] [note 4] In a 10 March letter to John T. Connor, an aide of Forrestal, Kennan inquired as to whether it would be appropriate to publish this piece anonymously to Foreign Affairs. [53] Forrestal agreed, as did the State Department's Committee on Unofficial Publications. [50]

Kennan made several minor corrections to the piece, along with scratching his name out and writing "X" in its place. He added a note on authorship, writing: "The author of this article is one who has had long experience with Russian affairs, both practically and academically, but whose position makes it impossible for him to write about them under his own name." [50] Armstrong published Kennan's piece under the title "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", removing Kennan's note and leaving only the "X" as an identifier. [54]

"The Sources of Soviet Conduct" Edit

– "X" (George F. Kennan), The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Section II

Kennan's piece opens with a description of how the Soviet leaders were shaped by Marxism-Leninism, serving as the "pseudo-scientific justification" [56] for why Stalin and the other leaders ought to remain in power despite lacking popular support. [50] At times quoting Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, [57] he writes that the Soviet leaders "aggressive intransigence" against the outside world compelled them "to chastise the contumacy" which they had provoked. [58] To maintain power, the Soviet leaders would need to maintain the illusion of external threats: [50]

. the [Soviet] leadership is at liberty to put forward for tactical purposes any particular thesis which it finds useful to the cause at any particular moment and to require the faithful and unquestioning acceptance of that thesis by the members of the movement as a whole. This means that truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves. [59]

The Soviets, however, were not prepared to attempt an immediate overthrow of the West, it being implicit in their ideology that capitalism would inevitably fail. [60] They would instead turn their focus to the long-term goal of "[filling] every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power." [61] To oppose them, the United States would need long-term strategies to contain Soviet expansionary ambitions. Containment against the Soviets, Kennan explains, would require an application of "counter-force" along shifting points of geographical and political interests. [60] This "perimeter defense" concept, wherein all geographic area were considered of equal importance, [62] required the United States "to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world." [63]

Containment would prove its success in the long-term because the Soviet economy was rudimentary and the government leadership lacked procedures for orderly succession. [60] Any disruption in Soviet politics held the possibility of "[changing the state] overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies." [64] Containment was particularly suited for use against the Soviets, Kennan thought, because of their Marxist-Leninist ideology, which encourages a patience not evident with leaders like Napoleon or Hitler. [65] He continues: " . the Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry. Like the Church, it is dealing in ideological concepts which are of long-term valididty . It has no right to risk the existing achievements of the revolution for the sake of vain baubles of the future." [66]

– "X" (George F. Kennan), The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Section III

The end result of containment would allow for "either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." [68] The indefinite frustration the Soviets were bound to face would necessitate their adjustment to the reality of their situation. [52] The strategy would require the United States to manage its own issues successfully, [52] with Kennan concluding: "To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation. Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. [69]

Immediate Edit

Armstrong wrote to Kennan in May 1947, [70] writing, "It's a pleasure for an editor to deal with something that needs practically no revision. . I only wish for your sake as well as for ours that it could carry your name." [52] The piece was due for inclusion in Foreign Affairs next issue, July 1947. [71] [note 5] The long delay between its writing and publication – some five months – resulted in the piece not discussing recent communist uprisings in Greece and Turkey, nor any mention of the Truman Doctrine. [52]

The magazine did not circulate widely with a little over 19,000 subscribers and a then expensive cover price of $1.25 (equivalent to $14 in 2020). The July issue did not deviate from these trends until journalist Arthur Krock wrote a column in The New York Times on 8 July. [72] In it, he writes that the main thrust of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" was "exactly that adopted by the American government after appeasement of the Kremlin proved a failure", [73] and that the piece's author had clearly studied the Soviet Union "at the closest range possible for a foreigner." [73] Krock concludes that the author's views "closely resemble those marked 'Top Secret' in several official files in Washington." [73]

Krock's column resulted in a rush for copies of Foreign Affairs. [72] He had not identified Kennan as "X" in his column, [72] but proved responsible for revealing Kennan's identity [74] Forrestal had let Krock see the draft copy sent to Foreign Affairs, still containing Kennan's name at its end. [72] Other diplomats suspected Kennan's authorship due to the piece's distinct prose as well as the quoting of Edward Gibbon. [75] As the rumor spread, the State Department offered no comment. The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of the United States, broke the story on Kennan's identity, with a headline on 9 July reading: "'X' Bared as State Dep't Aid [sic]: Calls for Overthrow of Soviet Government". [76]

Kennan's role in the State Department lent the article the authority of an official policy declaration. [74] Though he had not intended for the article to be a comprehensive statement on American foreign policy, [74] a piece in the 21 July issue of Newsweek explained that the "X" article provided a rationale for both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan and "[charted] the course that this country is likely to pursue for years to come." [77] Marshall, concerned by the amount of attention both Kennan and the article were drawing, spoke with Kennan in a private meeting. [76] Kennan's explanation that the article had been "cleared for publication by the competent official committee" satisfied Marshall, "[b]ut it was long, I suspect, before he recovered from his astonishment over the strange ways of the department he now headed." [78]

Walter Lippmann's critique Edit

Political commentator Walter Lippmann responded to the article, [74] published in the New York Herald Tribune across fourteen different columns, the first which appeared on 2 September 1947. [79] Lippmann's analysis was widely read and collected in a 1947 book. [79] [note 6] Lippmann critiqued the article as having presented a "strategic monstrosity", providing the Soviets with the initiative in any conflict, resulting in the United States depending on "a coalition of disorganized, disunited, feeble or disorderly nations, tribles and factions." [79]

Lippmann incorrectly concluded that Kennan's article had inspired the Truman Doctrine, which Lippmann opposed. [80] Kennan's article was completed in late January 1947 and Truman announced his Doctrine in a 12 March 1947 speech. Despite this chronology, Gaddis writes: "there is no evidence that it influenced the drafting of that address and abundant evidence that Kennan had sought to remove the language in it to which Lippmann later objected." [79] For Lippmann, however, the piece was "not only an analytical interpretation of the sources of Soviet conduct. It is also a document of primary importance on the sources of American foreign policy – of at least that part of it which is known as the Truman Doctrine." [79]

Because of the rushed nature in which Kennan had written the article, he regretted some views expressed within and agreed with some of Lippmann's critiques. [74] Though Kennan did not send the final draft of the piece until 11 April – a month after the announcement of the Truman Doctrine – he did not revise it despite having qualms with sections of the Doctrine. [80] Kennan's position in the State Department made hesitant offering any public clarification, [81] not offering a response until the publishing of the first volume of his memoirs in 1967. [74]

Long term Edit

"The Sources of Soviet Conduct" widely introduced the term "containment". [82] Reflecting on the article in his 1979 memoir, Henry Kissinger writes, "George Kennan came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history." [83] Gaddis writes that Kennan's silence to Lippmann's critiques resulted in the idea of containment becoming "synonymous, in the minds of most people who knew the phrase, with Truman's doctrine." [81] Gaddis further writes that some have misinterpreted Kennan's views by placing undue emphasis on the "conspicuous but misleading 'X' article." [84] [note 7]

In the article, Kennan uses refers to "counterforce" rather than "counter-pressure" and does not explain its meaning, something in his memoirs he admitted led to confusion for readers. [86] Kennan reassessed his views on perimeter defense after the article was published, instead shifting to the idea of "strongpoint defense" with defense instead focused on particular areas. [87]

In Kennan's memoirs he recalled that his "entire diplomatic experience took place in rather high northern latitudes." [88] Thomas Borstelmann writes that Kennan's few experiences outside of Europe contributed to his detestation of the people of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America: "He tended to lup them together as impulsive, fanatical, ignorant, lazy, unhappy, and prone to mental disorders and other biological deficiencies." [89] In the first of his memoirs, published in 1967, Kennan links Soviet despotism to its leaders "attitude of Oriental secretiveness and conspiracy." [90] In a 1942 lecture, he explained that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 revealed the Russians were not "westernized" but instead "17th century semi-Asiatic people." [89] Borstelmann further writes that Kennan's perspectives on race were not unique to him but were instead common in his contemporary American policymaking circles. [89]


III. Projection of Soviet outlook in practical policy on official level.

We have now seen nature and background of the Soviet program. What may we expect of its practical implementations?

Soviet policy is conducted on two planes: (1) official plane represented by actions undertaken officially in the name of the Soviet government and (2) subterranean plane of actions undertaken by agencies for which the Soviet government does not admit responsibility.

Policy promulgated on both planes will be calculated to serve basic policies A to D outlined in “I.” Actions taken on different planes will differ considerably, but will dovetail into each other in purposes, timing, and effect.

On official plane, we must look for following:

A. Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state intensive military-industrialization maximum development of armed forces great displays to impress outsiders continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weaknesses and to keep opponents in dark.

B. Wherever it is considered timely and promising, efforts will be made to advance official limits of Soviet power. For the moment, these efforts are restricted to certain neighboring points conceived of here as being of immediate strategic necessity, such as northern Iran, Turkey, possibly Bornholm. 2 However, other points may at any time come into question, if and as concealed Soviet political power is extended to new areas. Thus a “friendly” Persian government might be asked to grant Russia a port on Persian Gulf. Should Spain fall under Communist control, question of Soviet base at Gibraltar Strait might be activated. But such claims will appear on official level only when unofficial preparation is complete.

C. Russians will participate officially in international organizations where they see opportunity of extending Soviet power or of inhibiting or diluting power of others. Moscow sees in [the United Nations] not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest and aims of all nations, but an arena in which aims just mentioned can be favorably pursued.
. . .

D. Toward colonial areas and backward or dependent peoples, Soviet policy, even on official plane, will be directed toward weakening of power and influence and contacts of advanced Western nations, on theory that insofar as this policy is successful, there will be created a vacuum which will favor communist-Soviet penetration. Soviet pressure for participation in trusteeship arrangements thus represents a desire to be in a position to complicate and inhibit exertion of Western influence at such points rather than to provide major channel for exerting of Soviet power. Latter motive is not lacking, but for this Soviets prefer to rely on other channels than official trusteeship arrangements. Thus we may expect to find Soviets asking for admission everywhere to trusteeship or similar arrangements and using levers thus acquired to weaken Western influence among such peoples. . . .


75th Anniversary of the Long Telegram

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Overview

This February marks the 75th anniversary of the Long Telegram. The telegram, written by George F. Kennan, detailed what he perceived to be the Soviet view of the world and the confrontation between capitalism and communism. His analysis subsequently became the foundation for the U.S. policy of containment toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. To mark the anniversary of this document, our panel considered the legacy of the Long Telegram for U.S. and Russian foreign policy and the enduring lessons to be learned from Kennan’s analysis of U.S.-Soviet relations.

Send questions to our speakers by email to [email protected], tweet us @KennanInstitute, or post on our Facebook page.


Read our 2019 publication, edited by Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky and Catholic University Professor Michael Kimmage, titled A Kennan for Our Times: Revisiting America's Greatest 20th Century Diplomat in the 21st Century. The book highlights the enduring legacy of George F. Kennan and features a collection of scholarly and personal essays as well as interviews with four previous directors of the Office of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, which George F. Kennan established.

Watch our latest Kennan Xplainer video on The Long Telegram here for a brief history of this document and its historical significance.

Angela Stent
“The Long Telegram did have a profound effect on US decision-makers. For some it crystallized what they had for some time suspected. Kennan had forcibly repudiated many of the premises under which the Roosevelt administration had dealt with Stalin. Kennan the diplomat had proclaimed the dangers of diplomacy and accommodation in his analysis and that fell on many receptive ears.”

“Vladimir Putin has created a new national idea—a hybrid ideology we could call it—but it’s not designed to have universal appeal. Rather, the idea of Russian exceptionalism ‘Russkiy Mir’—Russia as a leader of the conservative international, a bulwark against chaos and regime change and a protector of traditional values, is designed to appeal to the millions of Russian speakers who live outside of Russia in the post-Soviet space, or in the West or elsewhere, and also to non-Russian conservatives in the West and beyond to Euro-skeptics, to Leftists as well around the world who dislike America.”

Ivan Kurilla
“The Kremlin today would prefer to look into Russian-American relations of 2021 as something very close to the Soviet-American relations of 1945. This is something which gives the Kremlin the feeling of greatness, the feeling of [a] much bigger influence than it actually possess in the contemporary world.”

“It looks like the contemporary aim—or contemporary goal—of Russian foreign policy is to reestablish if not the world of 1945, at least the essence of Russian-American relations that used to be during the Kennan Long Telegram.”

Michael Kimmage
“When looking at Russia and China together at the moment, the challenge the West faces is not its overextension, and an excess of unwanted involvement, as was true in 1946. It is—by contrast—a relative lack of involvement in many parts of the world. So here I would point to Central Asia, the south Caucuses, large parts of Asia, and also Africa—where more trade, more investment, more military ties, more vaccine diplomacy might be desired from the West by individual countries, but in many areas you’ll see the West choosing not to commit itself very deeply which frames the problem not of Western colonialism but of Western passivity and inaction.”

“Putin has answered a popular call in Russia, not for hostility with the West, but for geopolitical autonomy from the West. To that degree, Putin can use his propaganda machine to reinforce a message which already exists and this is very different—and I would argue much more effective—than the propagation of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism in 1946.”

Thomas Graham
“The world is no longer bipolar—it is multipolar. America cannot contain Russia or China when other major countries are unwilling to follow the American lead. And for these countries the alternative to American hegemony—or leadership, as a Biden administration would have it—are not all obviously worse. China’s centrality to the global economy makes countries reluctant of falling behind America’s efforts to constrain China’s economic advance."

“The United States needs to deal with its domestic problems. It needs to know what it wants. It needs to demonstrate that its coping effectively with its domestic problems and the responsibility of a world power. It needs to exude the spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the intellectual currents of the present world. Now as we all know, that hardly describes the United States today. But it is just those qualities that are ultimately the foundation of American success in the world, and that conviction to my mind, is a central legacy of Kennan’s work.”


What would Kennan do today?

Kennan, says Gaddis, would likely approve of U.S. President Joe Biden's apparent approach with Putin: engagement, while maintaining a tough line.

"What Kennan would also do would have been to try to explain that Putin is a very popular leader," said Gaddis, noting he would also try to explain Russia's authoritarian tradition.

"He would plead with us to understand those circumstances," said Gaddis, to "put ourselves in those positions, and above all else, avoid arrogance, avoid trying to tell other countries what to do and how to live their lives and what's good for them."

In the Long Telegram, Kennan concludes by counselling the U.S. to begin by fixing its own house to prevail over communism.

"Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués," Kennan concluded in the Long Telegram.

"If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit."

* This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed, with Melissa Gismondi.



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