Kennan’s containment strategy: a consensus on what not to do


The most famous modern example of the United States consciously adopting a grand strategy was the concept of “containment” against the Soviet Union, devised by diplomat and Russian region specialist George Kennan in the aftermath of World War II. Yet a look at how Kennan’s idea evolved, how it was adopted, and how it unfolded over time, indicates that this was not an outright affair; that it was adopted mainly in a negative direction; that it provided relatively little advice during the long decades of the Cold War; and that it seemed prescient – romantic even – especially in retrospect after the Cold War was over.

America’s foreign policy elites adopted a partial containment myth in order to worship at the altar of grand strategy before declaring that such a radical approach is no longer possible. Both propositions are wrong and are partly motivated by nostalgia – for a simpler time that was not at all so simple. In truth, Kennan’s theory codified the conventional wisdom of his colleagues who agreed only on this do not make. Moreover, reaching such a negative consensus is certainly possible today – if not in the larger foreign policy community scattered along the East Coast with all its divisions and ‘global’ perspectives rather than ‘ Americans ”, at least within the defense expert community centered around the Pentagon. By refusing to mythologize the past, the defense community can, on its own, better build a framework to prepare for the decades of the mid-21st century.

ON FEBRUARY 9, 1946, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave a speech at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, following an “electoral” campaign for the Supreme Soviet. The election was rigged, of course. But the aim of the campaign, as Stalin’s speech would clearly say, was to rejuvenate the revolutionary spirit of the country after the victory in the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The speech focused the minds of Soviet State Department experts: rather than being a turning point for them, it helped confirm their frozen views on Stalin’s intentions. At the Bolshoi Theater, the Soviet tyrant did not mention Russia and the Russian people, which the Kremlin had insisted on throughout the war (and which Stalin had only bragged about the previous May when the Allies won). Instead, Stalin spoke only of the victory of “our Soviet system” and, for the first time since 1941, made little mention of gratitude to the Western Quondam allies. The Soviet leader accused “modern monopoly capitalism” of being the root cause of the war and hinted that Nazism was simply part of this larger category. This was nothing new – Stalin had spoken in a similar vein in the 1930s. But now it turns out that the grueling and titanic struggle for survival against Adolf Hitler, which had cost well over twenty million lives in the Soviet Union, nothing had changed in Stalin’s pre-war thinking. Stalin, moreover, underlined in his speech that the Communist Party and its ideology must be further strengthened, and that from now on we will talk much less about patriotism and historic Russia. There would also be no mention of marshals and generals responsible for winning the war. Personalities, that is, individuals, no longer counted, with the exception of Stalin himself. As the late British historian Hugh Thomas wrote, summing up the speech, “Russia was determined to become the Soviet Union again, the capital of world communism, and not the great ally.”

Kennan was deputy head of the US mission in Moscow. But his superior, Ambassador W. Averell Harriman, had left Moscow and encouraged Kennan to speak cables exactly as he wished now, with no one up in the embassy to review him. Meanwhile, Kennan’s superiors in Washington wanted advice from him regarding Stalin’s February 9 speech. Kennan, bedridden with a bad cold, decided that sick or not, “nothing but the whole truth would do.” Surrounded by a small group of helpers in his room on the Embassy floor, Kennan dictated an analysis of Soviet behavior. It was sent on February 22, George Washington’s birthday, and has come to be known as “the long telegramThe most influential cable in American diplomatic history.

Kennan argued that Marxist rhetoric, and, essentially, conspiracy theories about the goals of Western capitalist nations, constituted what was basically a neurosis stemming from a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Marxism was a “fig leaf” for rationalizing a closed society and police state tactics, and also for expressing an insignificant Russian fear of the outside world. Soviet foreign policy, he said, would not change – and had not changed despite everything that happened during World War II – because it was deeply rooted in the irrational aspects of the Russian character. and the “archaic” form of Russian rule, itself partially determined by geography and history: in which an agricultural people living in an exposed plain without natural barriers had turned vulnerability into paranoia. Marxism-Leninism, in other words, despite pseudo-scientific rhetoric, was just a rhetorical sheet of paper for centuries-old Russian fears and nationalism. Nothing the West would do, positive or negative, could change Stalin’s mind.

This is the kind of deterministic analysis that led to the belief that reason would not work with the Soviets as much as force would; or at least the threat of force. Kennan actually had no intention of going that far. (He continually complained that others did not understand him as he understood himself.) In Kennan’s mind, he was simply explaining what was behind Stalin’s speech, especially Stalin’s return to Marxist bases. -Complete Leninists after the detour of the Great Patriotic War. After all, Kennan was careful to write that Stalin “had no fixed timetable, was not inclined to take unnecessary risks and, if resisted, would withdraw.” In addition, the Soviet Union was weaker than the West and had no established procedure for replacing its leaders. So the United States must not despair. Importantly, the word “containment” does not appear at all in the telegram. The Long Telegram had focused on an explanation of Soviet ideology and behavior, and it was only in the most rudimentary form that it had laid out a plan of how to deal with it.

The road to accepting Kennan’s telegram was paved by the events of the time. Days after Washington’s birthday, Stalin refused to honor the March 2 deadline to withdraw troops from part of Iran that the Soviet Union had occupied during the war. Then came a speech Winston Churchill – now leader of the British opposition – delivered less than two weeks after Kennan sent his telegram. At Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill said: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has come down across the continent. [of Europe]. From there, says Churchill, an Anglo-American alliance against the Soviet Union must naturally follow.

Kennan had caught the zeitgeist. As an example of the telegram’s impact, James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy at the time, made it compulsory reading for thousands of senior officers across the military. In April, an abridged version appeared in Time magazine. As with other foundational essays, this was a case of a writer pushing an open door and expressing what was already on the minds of his colleagues, both among the Russian expert community and at State Department, as well as President Harry Truman himself.

Indeed, in 1946, in the same time frame as the telegram from Kennan, Harriman and Charles E. Bohlen, another American diplomat and expert on Russia with field experience in Moscow, had concluded that he did there was no hope of evolution in the Soviet Union. “It’s not a question of wisdom,” explained Harriman. “It’s about having been exposed to the disease.” The hope that Stalin, affectionately called “Uncle Joe” by the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would become a more reasonable leader thanks to the critical help he received from the Western Allies during the war, had long since vanished quickly. . For example, Stalin’s rejection of the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 had already closed the door to post-war US economic aid. Keep in mind that those at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow knew the situation better than anyone because of their close-up view of Soviet life and suspicion. The dream of a great post-war alliance including the Soviet Union was certainly dead by the beginning of 1946. It remained for Stalin’s speech to finally punctuate it, and Kennan’s telegram to put into words the half-realized thoughts and less articulate of his colleagues. .

THE COLD WAR was rapidly taking shape. And Kennan’s writings simply reflected the times rather than breaking into entirely new ground. In August 1946, the Soviet Union requested bases in the Dardanelles. Stalin did not retreat until Truman sent the Sixth Fleet to the eastern Mediterranean. Then, in February 1947, the British government suddenly informed the State Department that, overwhelmed by the postwar recovery, it did not have the means to provide military and economic assistance to Greece and Turkey. . A month later, the Truman Doctrine officially originated in a speech by the President to Congress, in which the United States would eventually fill the void left by Britain in the eastern Mediterranean.

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