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From World War To Cold War
In an exchange of letters, a man who had an immeasurable impact on how the great struggle of our times was waged looks back on how it began
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
Half a century ago next February, George F. Kennan sent a telegram whose consequences have vibrated through our lives ever since. Kennan, temporarily in charge of the American Embassy in Moscow while Ambassador Averell Harriman was away, had become increasingly vexed by his failure to make Washington understand what he believed to be the Soviet Union’s international intentions. Then, in mid-month, he received a routine request from the Treasury Department, which wanted him to explain some instance of Soviet intransigence about the World Bank.
“The occasion, to be sure, was trivial,” Kennan wrote in his memoirs, “but the implications of the query were not. . . . 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. ”
It took the form of an eight-thousand-word telegram —”all neatly divided, like an eighteenth-century Protestant sermon, into five parts. (I thought that if it went in five sections, each could pass as a separate telegram and it would not look so outrageously long.) ” The wire laid out the “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs,” concluding that although “impervious to logic of reason, ” Moscow was “highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw—and usually does—when strong resistance is encountered at any point. ”
The reception was all that Kennan could have wished, and more. Indeed, the Long Telegram became the founding document of the policy of “containment “the cornerstone on which the West built its Cold War strategy.
Today that war is over, and George Kennan alone remains of the generation of leaders who first shaped its course. So when we learned that the historian John Lukacs, a frequent contributor to this magazine, has long enjoyed a close friendship with Kennan, the editors eagerly asked if he would interview him about the origins of the Cold War. Lukacs agreed, but with one proviso: Because “both Kennan and I are believers in (and practitioners of) the primacy and the accuracy of the written word, ” the interview would take the form of an exchange of letters. The result is a magisterial summary by one uniquely qualified to make it of the process through which America’s heroic wartime ally became our dreaded foe.
We both agree that the two mountain ranges that marked the historical landscape of the twentieth century were the two world wars and that Communist aggressiveness and its dangers were consequences of them. In 1917 the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia was but a consequence of the First World War, and in 1947 the beginning of the Cold War was a consequence of the Second World War. By now hundreds of books and studies exist about the origins of the Cold War. But what interests me is something of the years 1945 and 1946, the passage from the Second World War to the Cold War. For during that time we may discern a revolution in American attitudes and opinions, and not only in the course of the great American ship of state. In 1945 the government, the military, and the leaders of American public opinion saw the Soviet Union as the principal ally of the United States. Yet by the spring of 1947—months before the publication of your famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs expanded on the thoughts in the Long Telegram—all these elements saw the Soviet Union as the principal opponent, indeed enemy, of the United States.
That was not a geopolitical necessity (as many people saw it, including Hitler). It was a natural and often overdue reaction to Stalin’s actions—more precisely, to how he interpreted the division of Europe. I write “overdue,” contrary to the so-called revisionists and to others too, who argue that the American reaction in 1947 was immoderately hasty. I for a long time have thought that the opposite was true: that an American attempt to define the conditions—geographic, even more than political—of a postwar Russian sphere in Eastern Europe, preferably through an agreement with Stalin, should have been made much earlier. You may or may not agree with me about this, but what really interests me is not the undue haste but the undue lassitude of Washington and of public opinion. And here I come to a most telling passage from volume I of your Memoirs , your description of the reception of the Long Telegram you sent on February 22, 1946.