On this date, the chairman of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department, George F. Kennan, using the pseudonym “Mr. X,” published an article entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the July edition of Foreign Affairs. The article focused on his call for a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union and established the foundation for much of America’s early Cold War foreign policy.
The article was a polished version of a 5,500-word telegram Kennan had sent on 22 February 1946 to the State Department, when he was the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow. Years later in his memoirs, Kennan mocked his “sermon,” saying he reread the telegram with “horrified amusement.” He also claimed that it sounded like “one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution.” But in 1946, when he wrote it, he believed every word.
The telegram warned Washington that, “The USSR still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence.” Kennan went on to say, “we have a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] 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, if Soviet power is to be secure.” Kennan argued that the solution to dealing with the Soviets was to contain them. Just six months after the USSR and America had fought on the same side in World War II, the telegram contributed to the chilling of relations between the two countries and the onset of the Cold War.
In the article for Foreign Affairs, Kennan argued that to meet the Soviet threat the U.S. should employ “a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
However, Kennan believed that the Soviet Union posed a political and not a military threat. And so he argued against a build up of nuclear arms, which he believed would only serve to fuel an extremely dangerous arms race. Kennan also opposed the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the decision to send UN forces across the 38th parallel during the Korean War. And after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in August 1949, Kennan argued against a crash program in the United States to build a hydrogen bomb.
By the time Kennan left the Policy Planning Staff in late 1949, his views on the Soviet Union diverged widely from those of the Truman Administration. The Berlin blockade seemed to belie his insistence that the Soviet threat was primarily political, and both the public and Congress were calling for a more aggressive approach towards the USSR.
During the Eisenhower years, Kennan became an outspoken critic of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s policy towards the Soviet Union. He complained frequently that the U.S. had failed to take advantage of the liberalizing trend within the USSR following the death of the country’s longtime leader Joseph Stalin. And Kennan was also a prominent critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Vietnam, he would say, “is not our business.” He argued that the escalation of the war made a negotiated settlement much less likely.
But, ironically, it was Kennan’s article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 that has been used (or misused) in determining much of U.S. foreign policy during the following decades. “My thoughts about containment” said Kennan in a 1996 interview to CNN, “were of course distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War.”