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George Frost Kennan, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, drafted his "long telegram" in February 1946 in response to an urgent request by the State Department for clarification of Soviet conduct.

Kennan addressed possible motives behind the Soviet Union's refusal to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He also indicated why Stalin publicly denounced capitalism.

The 8,000-word cable became famous for both its length and content, recommending a policy of containment that would dominate U.S. policy toward the U.S.S.R. for a generation.

Excerpts from Kennan's Long Telegram:

Answer to Dept's 284, Feb. 3, involves questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be dangerous degree of oversimplification. I hope, therefore, Dept will bear with me if I submit in answer to this question five parts, subjects of which will be roughly as follows:

(1) Basic features of postwar Soviet outlook. (2) Background of this outlook. (3) Its projection in practical policy on official level. (4) Its projection on unofficial level. (5) Practical deductions from standpoint of US policy.

I apologize in advance for this burdening of telegraphic channel; but questions involved are of such urgent importance, particularly in view of recent events, that our answers to them, if they deserve attention at all, seem to me to deserve it at once. There follows:

Part 1: Basic Features of Post War Soviet Outlook, as Put Forward by Official Propaganda Machine, Are as Follows:

a. USSR still lives in antagonistic "capitalist encirclement" with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence. ...

Capitalist world is beset with internal conflicts, inherent in nature of capitalist society. ...

Internal conflicts in capitalism inevitably generate wars ... intra-capitalist wars between two capitalist states, and wars of intervention against socialist world. ...

Intervention against USSR, while it would be disastrous to those who undertook it, would cause renewed delay in progress of Soviet socialism and must therefore be forestalled at all costs. ...

Conflicts between capitalist states, though likewise fraught with danger for USSR, nevertheless hold out great possibilities for advancement of socialist cause. ...

Part 2: Background of Outlook

... First, it does not represent natural outlook of Russian people. Latter are, by and large, friendly to outside world, eager for experience of it, eager to measure against it talents they are conscious of possessing, eager above all to live in peace and joyful fruits of their own labor. Party line only represents thesis which official propaganda machine puts forward ... to a public often remarkably resistant in ... its innermost thoughts. ...

Second, please note that premises on which this party line is based are for most part simply not true. Experience has shown that peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence of capitalist and socialist states is entirely possible. Basic internal conflicts in advanced countries are no longer primarily those arising out of capitalist ownership of means of production, but are ones arising from advanced urbanism and industrialism as such, which Russia has thus far been spared not by socialism but only by her own backwardness. Internal rivalries of capitalism do not always generate wars; and not all wars are attributable to this cause. ...

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 a vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added ... fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in the West. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted Russian rulers rather than Russian people. ... And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it. ... 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. ...

Part 3: Projection of Soviet Outlook in Practical Policy on Official Level

... On official plane we must look for following:

Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state: ... great displays to impress outsiders; continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weaknesses and to keep opponents in dark.

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. However, other points may at any time come into question. ...

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 UNO United Nations Organization not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest and aims of all, but an arena in which aims just mentioned can be favorably pursued. As long as UNO is considered here to serve this purpose, Soviets will remain in it. ... Its attitude to that organization will remain essentially pragmatic and tactical.

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. ...

Russians will strive energetically to develop Soviet representation in, and official ties with, countries in which they sense strong possibilities of opposition to Western centers of power. ...

In international economic matters, Soviet policy will really be dominated by pursuit of autarchy for Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated adjacent areas taken together. ... I think it possible Soviet foreign trade may be restricted largely to Soviet's own security sphere. ...

Part 4: Following May Be Said as to What We May Expect by Way of Implementation of Basic Soviet Policies on Unofficial, or Subterranean Plane, i.e., on Plane for Which Soviet Government Accepts no Responsibility

To undermine general political and strategic potential of major Western powers ...

On unofficial plane particularly violent efforts will be made to weaken power and influence of Western Powers on colonial backward, or dependent peoples. ...

Where individual governments stand in path of Soviet purposes pressure will be brought for their removal from office. ...

In foreign countries Communists will, as a rule, work toward destruction of all forms of personal independence -- economic, political, or moral. Their system can handle only individuals who have been brought into complete dependence on higher power. ...

Everything possible will be done to set major Western Powers against each other. ...

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

Part 5: Practical Deductions from Standpoint of US Policy

In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US 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, if Soviet power is to be secure. ... In addition, Soviet power has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people who experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history. ...

I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve -- and that without recourse to any general military conflict. And in support of this conviction there are certain observations of a more encouraging nature I should like to make:

(1) Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force: For this reason it can easily withdraw -- and usually does -- when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige engaging showdowns.

(2) Gauged against Western world as a whole, Soviets are still by far the weaker force. Thus, their success will really depend on degree of cohesion, firmness and vigor which Western world can muster. ...

For these reasons I think we may approach calmly and with good heart problem of how to deal with Russia. ...

Our first step must be to apprehend ... the nature of the movement with which we are dealing. We must study it with same courage, detachment, objectivity, and same determination not to be emotionally provoked or unseated by it, with which doctor studies unruly and unreasonable individual.

We must see that our public is educated to realities of Russian situation. ... I am convinced that there would be far less hysterical anti-Sovietism in our country today if realities of this situation were better understood by our people. ... It may be also be argued that to reveal more information on our difficulties with Russia would reflect unfavorably on Russian American relations. ... But I cannot see what we would be risking. ...

Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. ...

We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past. ...

Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. ...

To scholars of the Cold War, Kennan's Long Telegram to the Secretary of State in 1946 still holds a certain resonance. It seemingly foresaw the bipolar divisions of the Cold War within Stalin's rhetoric and post-war reticence in global economic cooperation. Kennan discusses three key issues in his Long Telegram, namely the basic motivating factors behind Soviet foreign policy and its historical antecedents; the projection of this long-reaching outlook on policy at both official and unofficial levels; and the practical consequences for US foreign policy.

Kennan acknowledges that the motivating factors behind the post-war Soviet outlook are complex, but at the heart of the Kremlin's foreign policy was ideology. Underlying the Soviet view was the impossibility of a "peaceful coexistence" between capitalism and socialism, with the USSR living in an "antagonistic 'capitalist encirclement'". Whilst this entrapment of socialism created conflict with outside capitalist states, the "internal conflicts of capitalism" also created a situation where intra-capitalist war was inexorable. Thus, Kennan believed that Soviet policy would seek to destabilise the West through exploiting internal conflict for revolutionary means.

Kennan makes two distinctions of this outlook. Firstly that this view is not in any way "natural" to the Soviet people, but it emanates from the apparatus of "power-party, secret police, and Government", and secondly, that it is simply an untruth as history has shown that capitalist and communist states can survive in a "peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence". The insecurities of the Kremlin thereby originate not from any "objective analysis of the situation" but from a "neurotic view of world affairs" that is specific to the Russian history of originally neighbouring fierce nomads and later being privy to "more competent, more powerfully, more highly organized" societies. Rather than an inherent advantage in the doctrines themselves, Kennan saw Marxist-Leninist ideology as the "perfect vehicle for a sense of insecurity" of the ruling elite as it provided a clear justification for fears of the outside world.

Kennan came to the conclusion that the projection of this outlook on policy would lead to the USSR attempting to strengthen their power in the international environment through overt and covert means. Officially, the USSR would seek to strengthen bases of military, economic, and psychological1 power at home; advance the limits of their official power in certain strategic points and further afield to colonised areas; and deepen diplomatic ties to, and official cultural contact with the West. In concert with these overt actions, Kennan feared the promulgation of localised Communist parties throughout the West, "a concealed Comintern tightly coordinated and directed by Moscow", who could go on to dominate a wide range of national institutions ranging from labour unions to liberal magazines to sympathetic national governments. Kennan bluntly states the goals of these policies - "to undermine general political and strategic potential of major Western powers" to achieve the "total destruction of rival power."

The final section of the Telegram outlining the practical consequences for US foreign policy urged the US to confront "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US 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, if Soviet power is to be secure". If however, situations were properly handled "showdowns" could be avoided as the Soviet leadership lacked Hitler's adventurism and were weaker militarily. Kennan's closing advice on dealing with Russia is both vague and broad reaching. He suggests a cool rationality, education against "hysterical Anti-Sovietism", and strengthening the "health and vigor" of American society in general, rather than any specific policy.

Whilst Kennan has become synonymous with the introduction of the concept of "containment" into the geopolitical lexicon, the vagueness of the actions mentioned in the Telegram and the militarisation of containment policies suggest that the themes of Kennan may have been followed subsequently, but Kennan's ideal of political-ideological containment was misconstrued. Although Kennan went on to discuss containment further in his "X" article, it seemingly failed to influence policymakers towards demilitarised containment strategies. Gaddis aptly suggests that military containment is inseparable from ideological containment as military losses are psychologically devastating; and US credibility would be at stake if it were successfully challenged2, thus perhaps reconciling Kennan's ideals.

Kennan's use of ideology as a determinant of foreign policy is also debated. Fakiolas contests the belief that Kennan's analysis tended towards a "monolithic and mechanistic view of Soviet behavior by placing overwhelming emphasis on Marxist dogma and, thereby, ignoring to focus on the influence of Realpolitik in the formation of Soviet policy"3. In the Long Telegram there is little focus on the content of Marxist dogma, rather the focus is on its deployment as a justification for action and predetermined by existing insecurities4. This too denies complexity in foreign policy formation, as it sees the sources of conflict as static.

Whilst Kennan did mention that many of the Soviet's capabilities were at the time weaker than the West, in hindsight Kennan's fears of well-coordinated communist parties subverting Western nations from within were overstated. Kennan later justified this overstatement was due to his perception of Western Europe and Japan being socially, politically and morally destabilized by the experience of World War 2 and therefore highly vulnerable5. However, if this vulnerability existed it could have been exploited by either side equally, and Kennan himself argues that during the post-War period there was a Russian thirst for peace and stability - rather than a threat to the status quo.

With the subsidence of the Cold War, Kennan's ideological-political threat was contained peacefully, and the US maintained a level of "health and vigor" as Kennan prescribed. The policy legacy pursued by the US however diverged critically from Kennan's ideal, yet maintained the same end - survival.

Footnotes

  1. Kennan notes internal policy may be devoted to "great displays to impress outsiders; continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weakness and keep opponents in the dark." Kennan's Long Telegram
  2. John Lewis Gaddis, "The Evolution of Containment", in Terry Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis (eds) Containing the Soviet Union, Washington: Pergamon, 1987, p.3
  3. Efstathios T. Fakiolas "Kennan's long telegram and NSC-68: a comparative theoretical analysis". East European Quarterly, Jan 1998 v31 n4, p416.
  4. Fakiolas comments that "Soviet behavior was determined by a peculiar messianic amalgam of the communist ideology and the Russian aggressive nationalism" rather than a more pure form of Marxism, p.417
  5. George Kennan, "Reflections on Containment", in Deibel and Gaddis, p.16

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