George F. Kennan ’25 in his State Department office, circa 1948.
Eric Schwab/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
On an anniversary of the Long Telegram, thoughts on diplomacy

George F. Kennan ’25 was the grand architect of Communist containment, which brought U.S. victory in the Cold War, and a transcendent scholar, author of more than 20 books and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes. He taught the importance of diplomacy, as well as the imperatives to integrate historical study into diplomatic practice and to avoid becoming like the very enemies we battle. These are enduring lessons as the United States confronts today’s large yet lesser threat of terrorism.

Last month marked the 70th anniversary of Kennan’s famous Long Telegram from Moscow to Washington, in which he outlined a resolute course of American foreign policy and galvanized the political establishment across the Republican-Democrat divide. The context was a widespread desire for continuation of the World War II alliance with the Soviets, and naïveté in many quarters about Joseph Stalin and his baffling regime.

Kennan had entered the diplomatic service the year after graduating from Princeton, and gone on to serve at the embassy in Moscow after Franklin Roosevelt had granted diplomatic recognition to the USSR in 1933. Kennan would be dispatched to Prague in 1938–39, in time to witness Hitler’s annihilation of Czechoslovakia. Next came a posting to Nazi Berlin, where Kennan was taken into custody in December 1941 after Germany declared war on the United States. After his release from a Nazi prison six months later, he was assigned to Lisbon and, after that, to London. Then, in June 1944, just as the Allies were making their D-Day landings in Normandy, Kennan was sent again to Moscow; he traveled through the smoldering ruins of heroic Stalingrad on his way. When he authored the Long Telegram in 1946, he had been abroad for 18 out of 19 years, and had just turned 42.

“I was, in a way, astonished,” the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who first met Kennan in Stalin’s Moscow in 1945, would recall. “He was not at all like the people in the State Department I knew in Washington during my service there. He was more thoughtful, more austere, more melancholy than they were. He was terribly absorbed — personally involved, somehow — in the terrible nature of the regime.”

Kennan’s text constituted a response to, of all things, a campaign speech by Stalin. Washington wanted to know if the hardline speech delivered at the Bolshoi Theatre, part of the despot’s “re-election” to the Supreme Soviet, should be taken at face value. Kennan had a fever and tooth trouble, and had tendered his resignation, so he expected to be leaving Moscow soon, but U.S. Ambassador W. Averell Harriman already had departed for the last time, leaving the embassy to Kennan, the deputy chief of mission. The answer to Washington’s query, Kennan wrote, “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 [a] single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be [a] dangerous degree of over-simplification.” Nineteen pages — some 5,000 words — followed, the longest telegram in State Department history.

Kennan cut through the fog to pinpoint the premises of Soviet behavior: a division of the world into two irreconcilable camps, capitalist and socialist; the tendency of contradictions within capitalism to generate world war; the resultant likelihood of a capitalist military intervention to destroy the Soviet Union; but also the possible windfall to socialism of, instead, an intra-capitalist war. Therefore, Kennan explained, the Soviets worked to exacerbate differences among capitalist powers, while manipulating the many Soviet sympathizers abroad.

Others had warned of the menace presented by the USSR, but Kennan illuminated with vivid and lucid prose how that opaque regime was driven to a kind of defensive aggressiveness by its history, national traditions, and institutional makeup. “The Soviet regime is a police regime par excellence, reared in the dim half world of Tsarist police intrigue, accustomed to think primarily in terms of police power,” he wrote. “This should never be lost sight of in gauging Soviet motives.” At a deeper level, because of longstanding Russian insecurities and a Soviet version of Russian messianism, “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.”

Kennan had administered a cold shower to official Washington. But he also provided hope, for he averred that the Soviet system contained the “seeds of its own destruction.”

The upshot would have to be a patient policy of deterring and containing Soviet aggressive impulses over a possibly very long haul, until that regime evolved or collapsed. “Much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society,” Kennan instructed. “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 [the] past ... We should be better able than Russians to give them this. And unless we do, Russians certainly will.” Containment, therefore, was about more than matching the Soviets tank for tank; it also entailed a competition in political systems, way of life, and values. “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society,” Kennan warned in conclusion. “After all, 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.”

Secretary of State James Byrnes deemed the Long Telegram “a splendid analysis,” while Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal 1915 circulated it internally and made sure it got to President Harry S. Truman. “My reputation was made,” Kennan would write. “My voice now carried.”

“We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”

George F. Kennan ’25

Returning to Washington, Kennan inaugurated the foreign-policy adviser position at the National War College in 1946, and then the directorship of a State Department policy-planning think tank in 1947. That year he followed his bracing but classified Long Telegram with an essay in Foreign Affairs, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” under the byline Mr. X, to conceal his identity as a government official and communicate his views publicly as a concerned citizen. He urged “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Such a posture, he predicted, including “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points,” would induce a “gradual mellowing” of Stalin’s system.

Kennan’s ideas never were consistent. Behind closed doors, he also was pushing hard for clandestine sabotage operations against the Soviets and covert assistance to armed underground anti-Communist movements, a position usually seen as the opposite of containment and dubbed “rollback.” In September 1946, he even had urged consideration of preventive nuclear war to deter feared Soviet aggression. But very soon he objected to the founding of NATO, the arming of newly established West Germany, and the building of a nuclear arsenal. (In later years, reacting to the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, he would ferociously deny he had intended any military dimension to containment.)

Revulsion at the prospect of Armageddon and an abiding personal disquiet caused a break with his mentor Dean Acheson — Truman’s secretary of state — and turned Kennan into a critic of the global strategy he had invented. He entered the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as a visiting scholar in 1953 and joined as a permanent faculty member in 1956. Neither his previous nor his future government service matched the brilliance of his books. Indeed, his one great triumph in government, the Long Telegram, was one of writing and conceptualization, not of implementation: He played no part in making those concepts become real.

In the daily work of diplomacy, he was less successful. A stint in 1952 as U.S. ambassador to Moscow had lasted less than five months. At a press conference at a German airport, Kennan likened his restricted living conditions in Stalin’s Moscow to his imprisonment in Hitler’s Berlin — this from a man who had written incisively about Soviet sensitivities. The infuriated Russians denied him re-entry as persona non grata, a fate no other American ambassador in Soviet history suffered. Kennan lasted longer, two years (1961–63), as ambassador to Yugoslavia, but when its Communist leader Tito professed neutrality over the Soviet threat to Berlin — a victory for balance-of-power strategists like Kennan — the ambassador erupted in disappointment that Tito had not gone further. He soon resigned what turned out to be his last government posting.

There was no small irony, as well, in Kennan’s elevation of American domestic behavior to the core of its fight against foreign foes. He lamented in his diary that even his friends did “not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repudiation of the things [the American public] lives by.” But just as Kennan rightly maintained that the nation’s foreign-policy aims should be commensurate with its resources, avoiding overextension — particularly in places where genuine national interests were not at stake — so he continued to insist that the United States could prevail abroad only by remaining true to itself at home.

Today’s Russia is considerably smaller and weaker than the Soviet Union, without a globally resonant ideology such as Communism, but Moscow continues to vex Washington. Almost to his passing in Princeton on March 17, 2005, Kennan had been pressing for continued diplomatic engagement, recognizing that although the two countries rarely agreed, Russia did have state interests and could be neither ignored nor isolated. What he would have advised in the face of President Vladimir Putin’s more recent aggressive posture over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the Syria intervention, and the bomber overflights of Europe can be only a matter of speculation. Long-term patient resolve? Not overestimating the Russian menace or underestimating America’s manifold advantages? Building up U.S. alliances, domestic institutions, and infrastructure as a basis for negotiating from strength? As a rule, Kennan sought to direct Washington along the narrow path between showdown and conciliation, either of which can lead to unnecessary war. Diplomacy never gets any easier.

Stephen Kotkin is the John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor of History and International Affairs and the founding co-director with Adm. Mike Mullen of Princeton’s Program in History and the Practice of Diplomacy.