Essay on George F. Kennan

KennanThis is an essay submitted in the spring semester 2012 at the University of Oslo for the course NORAM2582 – America in the World.

Containment – What did Kennan mean?

As policy, containment was not practiced the way Kennan, the policy planner had envisioned it. His original vision is better understood if one keeps in mind the fact that Kennan was a sailboat captain. He was up for a long haul close to the wind.

It all came down to one sentence in the «X» Article where I said that wherever these people, meaning the Soviet leadership, confronted us with dangerous hostility anywhere in the world, we should do everything possible to contain it and not let them expand any further. I should have explained that I didn’t suspect them of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn’t think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it.

George Kennan, 1996[1]

In an attempt to explain an abstract concept, there always lies a risk of confusing symbols with reality or metaphors with facts. A careful choice of words is crucial. According to Stalin’s translator, when a copy of “The sources of Soviet conduct” was presented to Stalin, “containment” was translated as “udushenie”,[2] which is the Russian word for “strangulation”, and not ”sderzhivanie”, which is said to be more accurate. In retrospect: Was it inaccurate? To comprehend the concept of containment it may be necessary to better understand its origin and originator. Kennan the poet, the gardener, the farmer, the historian, the freethinker, the arrogant elitist – all these facets of his personality have been used as frameworks or guiding lights for students of containment. Oddly, we have so far sailed clear of the concept of “Kennan the sailboat captain”. No more. Kennan himself made – as far as this research has uncovered – no use of nautical metaphors. Therefore, this paper presents no claim that this is the framework, only that this is a framework for understanding containment, and, as such, it emphasizes the non-military soft-power aspects of containment, as Kennan originally envisioned it. It downplays the hardline military aspects of it, as practiced by the hawks among Kennan’s successors, Paul Nitze in particular.

Lake Nagawicka. From George F. Kennan: An American Life. Image from Joan Kennan Collection
Lake Nagawicka. From George F. Kennan: An American Life. Image from Joan Kennan Collection

In 1952 Kennan sailed his brand new seagoing sailboat “Nagawicka” from Bergen to its harbor in Kristiansand without any maps or nautical charts for the voyage,[3] facing strong headwind and stinging rain. As strategies go, this is not what one might expect from a professional strategist; his crew was in for a rough ride. As metaphors go, this is as good as any: A sailboat captain learns to trust his boat. If the rigging is tight, if the sails are right, if the crew is alert, you may actually progress steadily against bad weather, provided your sea charts are up-to-date. Fighting storms is futile, hazardous and a waste of energy, but you may endure them and gain speed and distance during its weaker moments. If you sail close to the wind, you will reach your destination. If you relax for an instant, you drift off and have to work twice as hard to regain your speed, direction or both. He wins the regatta, who never loses his concentration at the helm and who constantly reads the wind and adjusts his sails and politics correspondingly. Sailing and containment are both processes where economy of force is crucial to the outcome. Those who know the waters, read the weather and react promptly are less in need of brute force. Resorting to a diesel engine or to military force is just a backup option, never your plan A.

The term “containment” did not appear in, but is nevertheless permanently linked to the “long telegram” by George F. Kennan dated February 22nd 1946. In it, Kennan outlined the basis of Soviet foreign policy as irreconcilable with US foreign policy and beyond reach of lenient diplomacy. He described the Russian leadership as working through both open and covert channels towards the destruction of the western society way of life, and he basically said that Stalin and his political elite were “impervious to logic of reason” but still “highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw – – – – and usually does – – – – when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige engaging showdowns.” Despite his rather dystopian analysis of the Russian leadership he offered an upbeat conclusion: that the US “may approach calmly and with good heart.” Primarily, the West needed to be educated about the Russian realities and to have confidence in its own culture and strengthen it, as the Russian leaders were out of touch with the Russian people and would slowly self-destruct. He blamed Moscow, not Washington.

longteleframNo telegram in US diplomatic history – and as Wikileaks has exposed: The state department receives quite a few excellently worded telegrams[4] – has had anything near the effect Kennan’s had. The complicated relations toward the Soviet Union were suddenly made understandable for a broader audience. «Kennan tied everything together, wrapped it together in a neat package, and put a red bow around it,» reminisced George Elsey, a Truman aide.[5] According to Kennan’s biographer, the historian John Lewis Gaddis, this telegram “became the conceptual foundation for the strategy the United States – and Great Britain – would follow for over four decades.”[6]

A more immediate effect was Kennan’s transfer to Washington where he became a travelling lecturer, teaching at the National War College. In his lectures he introduced “containment” as a term. Soon after his lecture tour he was appointed head of the nation’s first political planning staff, from which he helped form the nation’s foreign policy under state secretary George C. Marshall. The Marshall Plan bears Kennan’s fingerprints.

Kennan’s fame outside the state department came in July 1947 when Foreign Affairs, a magazine with circulation beyond those with access to the classified telegrams of the State Department, published his “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” under the very thin disguise of the pseudonym “X”. In this article, which originated as a letter to State Secretary James Forrestal, based on his War College lectures, he elaborated on his views on the Soviet leadership, more than in the long telegram. His conclusion was the same, though worded otherwise: He asserted that in the global struggle, Soviet was the weaker part, and the seeds of its destruction were already spread and sprouting. The key passage, besides an extensive character assassination of the Soviet leaders, was that “the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate,” and that the “main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” This containment was to be achieved through “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” That would call for financial support or sanctions, political support or pressure and deploying troops or weapons when absolutely needed. Though he portrayed the Soviets as prone to retreat when confronted, he spoke against creating unnecessary confrontations that would cause the Soviet leaders to lose face. Hubris usually comes at a cost, both in politics and at sea.

Harry Truman (Wikimedia Commons)
Harry Truman (Wikimedia Commons)

Containment as a concept soon took on a meaning far beyond Kennan’s vision. It is generally associated with the Truman Doctrine as it was outlined in president Harry S Truman’s speech March 12th 1947 and practiced as US foreign policy during the cold war aided by a large military-industrial complex and a huge, growing nuclear arsenal and a series of proxy wars. In the 1947 speech, Truman announced a support program for the ailing governments of Greece and Turkey, but also announced a policy of supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” – in general. The support program would be multifaceted, mainly financial, but also military, mainly in the form of “advisors”. The containment policy has since been used as an argument for, or a backdrop in, policies towards countries susceptible to communist influence. In short, “containment” as a broad term means encapsulating communism by countering end preventing its every attempt to spread. As decades passed, seeing containment switched from a passive to an active mode and used to justify wars and a buildup of a military force he disapproved of, the Vietnam War in particular, Kennan repeatedly and loudly regretted his legacy. Especially, he blamed himself for not making the “X”-article clearer.[7] One passage from the long telegram didn’t make it to the X-article: “I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve – and that without recourse to any general military conflict.”[8] A unique aspect of Kennan’s legacy is that he, according to the later state secretary Henry Kissinger, “came as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history[9] and yet, he spent the last half of his 101 years lamenting this fact.

Reader's Digest March 1950
Reader’s Digest March 1950

Shortly after the “X”-story, the pocket-sized and very popular magazine Readers’ Digest published “The Only Way to Deal with Russia,”[10] simplifying the complexities of USSR beyond recognition, giving the impression that the Soviets were itching to overthrow USA. Somehow, something was lost in transmission. The political establishment as well as the general American public applauded his analysis and instantly adopted his evaluation of the Soviet leadership. It provided the West with a narrative that helped trigger the red scare, sell the concept of Cold War and justify the buildup of the military industrial complex. It must be noted, however, that the long telegram and the X-article apparently had no profound effect on Truman,[11] who already knew this narrative from his ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, whom Kennan briefed on a regular basis. Kennan’s reassurances that the Russians were weak and that its rulers were a passing fad, did not strike a nerve the way his warnings against their hostile intentions did. While “highly sensitive to logic of force” was understood immediately, “approach calmly and with good heart” apparently was not.

What frustrated Kennan almost immediately, after Truman’s speech on Greece and Turkey, was that his principles were adopted in general, while he had prescribed them for a very specific purpose against a very specific adversary in a very specific situation. It was a prescription meant primarily to fight the political advances of the Soviet Union, not military advances, not communists in general and definitely not China. He was no stranger to military power, and he supported the idea of financial and military relief specifically to Greece and Turkey, but not such support in general terms. He also resisted unnecessary displays of strength, knowing that there would be a price to pay for it. Containment was not meant to serve a military purpose, but rather be used against an ideological-political threat.[12] Kennan saw no immediate military threat from the war-ravaged empire. Empowering and enabling European nations to deal with the Russians on their own would prove more successful at a lower price, according to Kennan, who even deemed NATO unnecessary. He held the Marshall Plan and its financial incentives to be a weapon supplementary and superior to army divisions in containing communism, He saw the sticks of the Truman Doctrine and the carrots of Marshall Plan as two sides of the same coin spent on promoting the American open-door-policy.[13] A quick restoration of Japan and Germany was crucial. To resist communist influence in Europe, one had to build and nurture a European resistance. As a sailor he knew that you don’t fight the wind if you don’t have to. You fix the boat. You coach the crew. You plot a sensible course.

The National Security Council report NSC-68, penned primarily by Kennan’s successor Paul Nitze, argued that a policy of containment without massive military buildup to back it would be no more than a game of bluff.[14] In itself, the NSC-68 could not persuade Truman to such a buildup, but three factors[15] shipwrecked any naiveté or trust that the Truman administration might have harbored towards the Russian. First the Soviet atomic test, then the proclamation of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949 and finally the 1950 surprise attack on South Korea. Kennan’s passive containment gained some support during the Eisenhower- and Carter-administrations,[16] but it was largely overshadowed by Nitze’s active containment until the sudden fall of the East block gave renewed praise to Kennan’s worldview.

Hitler parading into Sudetenland. Among the spectators: George F. Kennan. (Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv)
Hitler parading into Sudetenland. Among the spectators: George F. Kennan. (Wikimedia Commons/Bundesarchiv)

To understand his original idea of containment, it is necessary to understand four basic facts about Kennan, besides his yachting skills. First of all, he knew his history. He spent two years in Berlin studying Russian language, literature and history full time from 1929. His interest in European history never waned. He studied Hans Rothfels’ articles on the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz with great interest.[17] Long transatlantic wartime flights gave him time and occasion to study the voluminous “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon. Second, he knew expanding totalitarian regimes from personal experience and harbored no illusions regarding their nature. He witnessed the rise of Nazism up close while stationed in Berlin. When Hitler annexed Sudetenland and later rolled over a defenseless Czechoslovakia, Kennan and his daughter were spectators to his open-car parade through Prague.[18] Third, he knew Russia. He studied the country, its people and its poets in particular. He observed personally how the nation and its leaders were not the same. He once expressed that “the strength of the Kremlin lies largely in the fact that it knows how to wait. But the strength of the Russian people lies in the fact that they know how to wait longer.” Kennan was no desk clerk in his younger days. He knew the importance of experienced field agents. Fourth and final: George F. Kennan was no diplomat at heart. Reading his biography, you lose track of how many resignations he submitted or how many bouts with depression and ulcers he endured. Despite this, in 1946 Kennan had advanced to the position of deputy chief of the American embassy in Moscow. Ambassador Averell Harriman had left for Washington, encouraging his deputy to express his opinions without his “dampening hand”.[19] When an impatient president Truman in early 1946 suspected that his state secretary James F. Byrnes was addicted to appeasement[20] as a working strategy towards the Russians, the state department suddenly paid more attention to the cables from Moscow and found one missing. The Americans were unable to define a working foreign policy towards the Soviet Union, which had turned down the Bretton Woods agreement. Then Stalin held an election speech that rattled the medals of the top brass in the State department.

Josef Stalin. No fan of Goerge F. Kennan.
Josef Stalin. No fan of Goerge F. Kennan.

George Kennan had posted nothing from Stalin’s election speech, which in his opinion didn’t really contain anything new. The silence prompted his superiors in Washington to ask for “an interpretive analysis of what we may expect” from Kremlin. The fed-up deputy chief in Moscow was bedridden with fever, sinus and tooth trouble. He had already made plans for writing a book on Soviet leadership, so he was well prepared when he dictated his more than 5000 word reply. “They had asked for it. Now, by God they would have it,” Kennan recalls in his “Memoirs.” He was loaded with facts, first-hand experience, a devil-may-care attitude and a poet’s command of his prose.

His experience with expanding totalitarianism matched Gibbon’s analysis of the decline of the Roman Empire. Any expanding empire runs the risk of overstretching,[21] and totalitarian empires with ambitions of world dominion more than others. If this empire has nothing to offer its conquered peoples besides oppression, it must waste much of its force fighting not just uprisings, but also the discontent and aggression the empire provokes by its sheer presence. As a result, occupied territories become a liability, not an asset. Kennan recognized this particularly in Hitler-Germany, which had nothing to offer non-Germans but oppression, but also in Soviet Russia.

According to his biographer, Kennan adopted three major ideas from Clausewitz. First, that war must be a continuation of politics. This insight, known to the Soviets, removes the concept of war as a binary phenomenon, being either on or off. It provides you with a third option: the dire straits of an imperfect peace. Second, the purpose of military actions is not to inflict maximal damage, but to make the desired impression. Third, he preached the virtues of defense over offense. Every offensive will in time exhaust itself until it reaches a point of leverage, or rather a point of vulnerability to leverage, where a defender with minimal appliance of force can stop the offense. A successful policy of containment might be implemented under such circumstances.

George_F_Kennan_-_An_American_LifeThe American historian and foreign policy advisor Robert Kagan has observed a cultural difference between Europeans and Americans with regards to foreign policy, leading him to the caricature-like conclusion “Americans are from Mars. Europeans are from Venus.” His argument is based on observing that Americans are less patient with diplomacy. They “tend to seek finality in international affairs: They want problems solved, threats eliminated”.[22]  Europeans are in for the long haul, being more process-centered. Americans are powerboat captains, always with preset destinations. Europeans are sailors, being right where they want to be: out sailing.

Professor John L. Harper, in a response to Kagan’s article in Policy Review, identifies Kennan’s attitude to the cold war as a “third American approach”, the first two being “Roosevelt’s impulse to ‘retire’ Europe from world politics and Acheson’s to embrace and control it in a U.S.-led alliance”. According to Harper, Eisenhower embraced Kennan’s vision of Europe and encouraged its emergence as a third great power block. In Kagan’s setting, Kennan appears more as patient European than his successor, Paul Nitze. In 1946, Mikhail Gorbachev was 16 years old. The cold-war historian John Lewis Gaddis believes that George Kennan saw him coming.[23] Kennan’s unfulfilled dream was to become the playwright Anton Chekov’s biographer. Gaddis suggests[24] that Kennan learned at least two skills from Chekov: the virtues of patience and achieving a lot with less, which both are features of a good sailor.

In a recent lecture at Princeton, Gaddis presented a far-from-perfect maritime analogy: Kennan sometimes failed to see the need of a government to say that the course is set. In that respect, government is like a supertanker, impossible to turn on a dime.[25] Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson was comfortable with that. Kennan was not. He worried constantly about contrary winds and currents blowing them off course. Gaddis blames this on Kennan’s artistic temperament. His sailing experience would be a better explanation. “You make one little mistake in demanding conditions, and suddenly it becomes a big mistake,” explains John Rousmaniere, who preaches the gospel of risk management.[26] Rousmaniere is no foreign policy advisor. He is a safety-at-sea instructor.

Kennan knew the dire straits of Soviet politics and foreign policy. He trusted his boat and was in no hurry. He did not fear the facing winds, and even if the following captains and their crews didn’t always stick to his recommended course, they navigated their nuclear submarines and supercarriers by the charts he plotted and finally, some decades later than Kennan’s timetable suggested, they even reached their destination.


Gaddis, John Lewis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (The Penguin Press, 2011), Kindle edition

Gaddis, John Lewis and Gellman, Bart, Speech/debate at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs March 1st 2012, , visited April 9th

Kagan, Robert, Power and Weakness, (Policy Review No. 113 June and July 2002, with commentary from professor John L Harper)

Kennan, George, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967)

Kennan, George, Telegram to State Secretary, February 22nd 1946

Kennan, George, The Sources of Soviet Conduct (Foreign Affairs, July 1947)

Kennan, George, Containment: 40 years later (Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987)

Kennan, George and Lukacs, John, George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment, 1944-1946 (University of Missouri Press, 1997)

Kissinger, Henry, White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979)

Kupchan, Charles A, The End of the American Era (Knoph/Vintage 2007)

McCullough, David G., Truman (Simon & Schuster, 1992)

PBS, Newshour, April 18th 1996, visited April 19th 2012.

Rousmaniere, George, quoted in New York Times April 19th 2012,  , visited April 20th 2012

Stanghelle, Harald, Aftenposten, November 30th 2010, visited April 20th 2012

Thompson, Nicholas:  The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War (Henry Hold and Co, 2010), Kindle edition

Williams, William Appleman, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (WW. Norton and company 2009)


[1] PBS NewsHour, 1996

[2] Thompson, location 1730

[3] Gaddis, George Kennan, location 587

[4] Stanghelle, Aftenposten

[5] Thomson, location 1318

[6] Gaddis, George F. Kennan, location 4463

[7] Gaddis, Princeton speech 2012

[8] Kennan, Telegram to State Secretary

[9] Kissinger, White House Years

[10] Thompson, location 1723

[11] McCullough, Truman, p 491

[12] Kennan, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1987

[13] Williams, p 269

[14] McCullough, p 772

[15] Kupchan, The End of the American Era, location 969

[16] Kupchan, location 995

[17] Gaddis, location 4643

[18] Gaddis, location 2815

[19] Gaddis, location 4351

[20] Gaddis, location 4332

[21] Gaddis, location 5503

[22] Kagan, Power and weakness

[23] Gaddis, Princeton 2012

[24] Gaddis, Princeton 2012

[25] Gaddis, Princeton 2012

[26] New York Times, April 19th 2012

We visited Lake Nagawicka summer 2012. This is the lake where  Kennan learned to sail.
We visited Lake Nagawicka summer 2012. This is the lake where Kennan learned to sail.