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The Great Foreign Policy Fight
For forty years George Kennan and Paul Nitze, architects of our foreign policy under nine Presidents, have squared off over Russia, the atom bomb, arms control—everything except their respect and affection for each other
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Upon arriving in Russia in the thirties, Kennan, unlike many other Westerners, had been less fascinated than repelled by the Bolshevik experiment. Long before it was fashionable, he had begun publicly to herald the failure of communism. Confirmation had come with the bloody purges of the late 1930s, which, for Kennan, finally exposed the dimensions of the paranoia and cruelty in Stalin’s nature. But significantly, Kennan’s disgust was always more with the means rather than the ends of communism: ”… objectives were normally vainglorious, unreal, extravagant, even pathetic—little likely to be realized, scarcely to be taken seriously.… But methods were another matter.… In war as in peace 1 found myself concerned less with what people thought they were striving for than with the manner in which they strove for it.”
Kennan’s warnings about Russia predictably received scant attention from Washington in the giddy days of SovietAmerican “friendship” during and right after the war. After the death of Roosevelt and the early signs of Truman’s trouble with the Russians, however, his dispatches began to enjoy a small—and select—following.
In mid-February 1946 an innocent request from the Treasury Department for an explanation of why Russia had repudiated some postwar economic agreements provoked Kennan to a reply that was remarkable for both its length and its scabrousness. Kennan resolved, he wrote, that it “would not do to give them just a fragment of the truth. Here was a case where nothing but the whole truth would do. They had asked for it. Now, by God, they would have it.”
What they, in fact, got was an eightthousand-word telegram containing the message that Kennan had been trying, unsuccessfully, to pound home for years. That message, stripped of its qualifiers, was that what motivated the Kremlin’s leaders was the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Despite the Hp service that the Soviets paid to Marxism, Kennan argued, communist ideology was—in a memorable phrase—but the “fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability.” The Russians were at heart cautious opportunists, though “committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi .”
The effect of what aptly became known as the Long Telegram exceeded its author’s greatest expectations. As Kennan wrote, “my official loneliness came in fact to an end.… My reputation was made. My voice now carried.”
Among those to whom Kennan’s voice carried was James Forrestal, the man responsible for bringing Paul Nitze to Washington. Forrestal now became the link between Nitze and Kennan. (The importance of having friends in high places had been first brought home to Kennan during the war. Confronted with conflicting instructions from the State Department and Pentagon, Kennan had finally gone directly to President Roosevelt. “Oh, don’t worry about all those people over there,” FDR had assured him with a genial wave of his cigarette holder. The fact that “those people ” included the “entire high command of the American armed forces in wartime,” as Kennan observed, was a point not lost upon the young diplomat.)
When Forrestal became the nation’s first secretary of defense, in early 1947, he took to asking a variety of people in Washington—including the Jesuits at Georgetown University and even casual visitors to his Pentagon office—their opinion on what he considered the essential conundrum of postwar U.S. foreign policy. “In dealing with Russia,” Forrestal asked, “are we faced with a nation or a fanatical religion?”
The answer Kennan gave was—in essence—“Both.” It took the form of an anonymous article—signed simply “X” and entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”—which appeared in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs . Where the “X” article differed from the Long Telegram was in promoting a policy “to contain Russian expansionism”—a phrase Kennan had first used in one of his unread epistles from Moscow nearly three years earlier. The containment of Russia’s inherently aggressive tendencies could be accomplished, Kennan advised, “by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”
Even more than the Long Telegram, the “X” article caught the imagination of the Truman administration, which was still trying to rally popular congressional approval for its doctrine—to which the President had given his name—of aiding forces opposed to communist “subversion.” “Containment” became the rock on which it hoped to found the postwar renaissance of the West and to rally support for the Cold War already under way with Russia.
There remained, however, the question of exactly what a policy of containment meant. And here, surprisingly, the author was of very little help. Kennan’s writings have always shown a gardener’s affinity for analogies based upon the physical world, perhaps because of his belief, expressed in another forum, that no idea can be made to “stick… unless it can be drummed into the minds of a very large number of persons, including quite a few whose mental development had not advanced very far.”