George Kennan and the Long Telegram
U.S. diplomat and historian George F. Kennan (1904 - 2005) in his office while director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, circa 1948.
February 22nd, 2012
11:14 AM ET

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.

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.

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Topics: History

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. John F. Phillips

    The greatness of George Kennan and the Long Telegram is that policy toward an adversary was suscinctly analyzed and articulated in a way that had lasting impact. Say what you want, but Henry Kissinger was the "successor" to Kennan, especially his work on the balance of power and what I believe was his greatest work, The Necessity for Choice. Kissinger also wrote a book in 1980, Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, that provided the same sort of analysis and specific formula for dealing with the post Cold War world that Kennan provided with the Long Telegram.

    Unfortunately, much of what Kissinger had to say in 1980 was ignored and we now have a foreign policy that seems to lack the specific goals and focus that is were the foundation of "containment". Despite some specific successes (Bin Laden, Libya, the Iran sanctions) American foreign policy seems to lack specific direction. In central Asia, we continue to support a government/military in Pakistan that actively works against our "goals" in Afghanistan. We seem to have no policy concerning relations with Russia. In my analysis, our policy toward China seems reactive rather than proactive because of the financial box of using China as an ATM to fund deficit spending. Our policy toward the major powers of Europe at times borders on arrogance. What is our policy toward Latin America?

    Perhaps we need another George Kennan and Henry Kissinger to remind us of the foreign policy challenges that face the United States as we are now in the second decade of the 21st century. We could sure do worse.

    February 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    It looks as if George Kennan's legendary "containment" of an aggressive Soviet Union after World War II wouldn't go out of fashion. It's still practicable today, one just has to replace the actors. Alarmed by the growing nuclear arms race, the Cold War architect and the father of containment policy supported negotiation with Russia and suggested American, French and British troops should be withdrawn from Germany. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev told reporters that Russia would withdraw from East Germany, if Nato troops did the same in the West. Back in the DC, Kennan's former Democratic colleagues denounced him as "out of touch".

    February 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Here j. von hettlingen, Nikita Khrushchev definately had the right idea. There should be no foreign troops in Germany at all!!!

      February 22, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  3. Marine5484

    Thanks to this cursed George Kennan, since 1952 the U.S. government has always had the wrong prorities and today, most of us are paying for it in one way or another! If this country is ever going to prosper again, we need to change things like cutting the excessive and unnecessary military spending and foreign aid. Moreover, we need to stay out of all these wars that don't concern us at all!

    February 22, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  4. Richard

    In hindsight, US Policy was completely ignorant, accomplished little to help Americans, and exacted a huge cost on the world. (Look at Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and everywhere else we butted in.)

    February 23, 2012 at 5:34 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Quite true Richard, quite true. Even today we're all paying for this stupidity judging by the big depression that we're currently in!!!

      February 23, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  5. S.V.P.YADAV

    Respected, Mr.James M. Lindsay Garu, In 1945-46 That while Republic of Soviet(U S S R) is there.after 1990s Soviet Union was cracked and havieng revolutions then it was exploded with so many countrys.after that, they are financially and statusly weeked for in this stabilisation theirs openion was changed. So relationship with U S is not necesory. so alliance with U S and Uerope not necesory. In my verdict. Mr. Geogre Kennon message is true or false i donot no.

    February 23, 2012 at 6:49 am | Reply
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  9. George Patton

    This George Kennan is responsible for much of today's miseries in the world. He was the author of the Cold War which never needed to happen in the first place. One tragic result of his "Telegram" led to the outbreak of the Korean War(1950-1953). Yet today for some right-wing politicians in Washington, the Cold War has yet to end!

    February 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  10. heron

    As someone who was born and spent more than half of his life in the Soviet Union, I can attest that Kennon’s analysis of the Soviet Union, its nature and its intentions, as well as implications thereof, was spot on.

    If you deny this, you are an ignoramus – at best.

    Below I ask you something in Russian and if you fail to reply in thе selfsame language, I’ll say that you don’t pass muster to talk on the subject.

    Прежде чем хулить человека который превосходно знал (и ценил!) россию, потрудись ответить, в чём он был неправ и как пo-твоему следовало отвечать СССР?

    I will also conclude that you’re just another leftist conspiracy theorist out there grinding his own axe, but having little genuine interest or knowledge in the subject-matter.

    February 24, 2012 at 8:06 am | Reply
  11. George Patton

    Yes heron, WW2 did leave a huge vacuum in Europe and the Russians were interested in spreading Communism to be sure. But the same war left Russia very weak and in a precarious position since we had nuclear weapons and they didn't so they had reason to be freightened. None of this however should have spoiled the good relations we had with the Russians during WW2 as we could have resolved or differences at the conference table. I would very much like to answer your question in Russian but can't since my keyboard contains no cyrillic letters. Finally, this George Kennan although he did spend a lot of time in Russia, seems to me to be another right-wing, Russian hating fanatic. I hope I answered you effectively!

    February 24, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
  12. heron

    George Patton,

    I've posted a lengthy response, but I don't see it on the page. I'll wait and repost it if doesn't appear.

    February 25, 2012 at 3:48 am | Reply
  13. heron

    George Patton,

    You did answer my question, although in too general terms for it being a serious argument against Kennan’s points. More importantly, your reasoning is flawed in several important ways. There’s no place here for a thorough analysis, but I will lay out few important points.

    Saying we should have resolved it at the conference table is a vacuous statement, unless you expound on the modalities of a possible bargain (or bargains) and demonstrate why the parties to the negotiation would have had no interest to renege on the agreement reached in the absence of any outside authority to enforce the terms of the bargain – that is why the bargain would have been self-enforcing and why the parties would have no interest to use the negotiation process strategically – that is to gain advantage that can be used down the stretch.

    to be continued...

    February 25, 2012 at 3:50 am | Reply
  14. heron

    More importantly still, your account of Russia’s motives is too narrow-minded, or should I say, “narrowly- rationalistic”. You misunderstand the decision-making context that Russian planners were facing. You think exclusively in terms of external motives – that is the structural elements of the international system prevalent at the time that impinged on Russian FP decision-making. (This betrays the realist paradigm in you that you were possibly trained into.) In other words, you tend to look at just one “game” the Russian’s were in, completely ignoring there were others (“games”) and the Russian’s were trying to maximize their payoff across multiple such “games,” where there was a high degree of interaction among those “games”. The fact that the Russians were rational players, doesn’t mean that they were solving the same TYPE of problem as an American foreign policy planner typically would.

    The significance of Kennan’s insights was that he had understood the nature of the Soviet state better than anybody else at the time and was first to realize that the way Russia, as a state, was organized and governed internally did have momentous implications for the conduct of its foreign policy. That was a crux of his argument and he did outline what those implications were. That is, Russia was solving a significantly bigger and more complicated puzzle, that your toy sketch above would suggest. Those internal vulnerabilities drove in large measure – to the extent unusual to American policymaking – Russian FP decision-making and required a significantly higher measure of external accommodation.

    February 25, 2012 at 3:53 am | Reply
  15. heron

    The assertion in my first post was that unless you are able to competently address this part of Russian DM calculus – or may even refute the significance Kennan gave to it – you’re not qualified to judge Kennan’s arguments. Period.

    Finally, whether Kennan was right-wing or not has no bearing on this discussion. Being right-wing or left-wing doesn’t make one right or wrong on a particular point. We all have our own biases, but an honest and competent discussion, a critique, should address only the specific arguments made, and refrain from the time-honored ad hominem.

    February 25, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply

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