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 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.
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 of Foreign 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.”