Kennan’s “X” Plus Fifty

Fifty years ago “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs. The most influential essay in the history of U.S. diplomacy, it promoted what was arguably the most effective American doctrine since Monroe’s: Containment. George F. Kennan was the author, and he signed himself “X” so that readers would not mistake the article for an official State Department pronouncement. But journalists soon smoked out its provenance and assumed (rightly) that it did express the Administration’s posture toward the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine of March 1947 had committed the U.S. to aid any nation threatened by domestic or foreign subversion, the Marshall Plan was proposed in June, and the military reorganization passed in July provided for an independent Air Force, Central Intelligence Agency, unified Defense Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff. What Kennan’s article did was to give these early Cold War initiatives a name that connoted purpose and coherence, and reassured the Congress and people that U.S.-Soviet rivalry need not lead to a third world war. Containment was a moderate, prudent approach that promised to defend America, her allies and values, until such time as the Soviet empire’s own contradictions brought about its internal collapse.

It took over four decades, but the Cold War ended in just that way. And ever since Mikhail Gorbachev made good on his promise to deprive us of our enemy, American pundits have called for some new “X Article” to chart a course for U.S. policy in the confusing new era upon us. Yet Kennan himself has always admitted—nay, insisted—that his own X Article was not original, was not meant to promote any doctrine, did not convey what he really meant, and failed to inspire policies he judged to be prudent. In fact, he has spent these fifty years trying to live down Containment and persuade us that the last thing we need now is another such doctrine. How can we read that riddle, and what implications has it for America after the Cold War?

The origins of the X Article lay in Stalin’s evident refusal to honor the letter or spirit of the Yalta Accords and in Kennan’s impatience with the feckless purrs and growls emanating from Washington. One of a handful of American diplomats with experience of the Soviet Union, he drafted a crash course on “the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs” and wired it from Moscow in February 1946. This famous Long Telegram hit the desks of Truman’s advisers in the very weeks when Stalin’s diatribe against the “imperialist camp,” Soviet pressure on Turkey and Iran, revelations of atomic espionage, and Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech were persuading them to “get tough” with Russia. The brooding Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was eager to have someone explain Soviet behavior, so he asked Kennan, now posted home, to comment on a report written by a Smith College professor. After penning five pages of notes Kennan asked if he might address the subject himself (just what Forrestal was hoping he’d say). In January 1947, he presented his ideas to the Council on Foreign Relations, whereupon Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of the Council’s prestigious journal, urged him to publish. Kennan cleared his article with State, wrote “X” at the top, and sent it on to New York. He was 43 years old.

Kennan had not been asked to lay out a strategy, much less an operational plan, but simply to offer a “psychological analysis” of what made the Soviets tick. So he described how Leninist ideology had provided the Bolsheviks with a pseudo-scientific justification for their lust for power and willingness to cut any corners in its pursuit. Having seized control of Russia as a tiny minority, the Communists saw absolute dictatorship and a pretense of infallibility as essential to their survival. But maintaining such total control over all collective human endeavor could only be justified by a ceaseless conjuring up of enemies at home or abroad. Over time, Kennan implied, the Communists became captives of their own system in that they dared not discard their myth of an implacable, predatory capitalism and of the ultimate triumph of socialism. All else was tactics. The Kremlin might change its party line, sign agreements, and retreat in the face of resistance. But none of that meant that the leadership had changed its nature or relinquished its goal to fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power.”

Kennan sensed that the Soviets were profoundly insecure and would be “difficult to deal with” for a long time. But that same insecurity meant that Stalin, unlike Hitler, was cautious and risk-averse. Hence the key element of U.S. policy “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” based on “application of counterforce at a series of shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” The idea was not new. Kennan and others had used various forms of the verb “contain” before. But its threefold appearance in the X Article in the absence of any other rubrics for U.S. policy set the concept in concrete. Kennan assured his readers that if the West hung tough for ten or fifteen years the Soviet system would implode. For its police-state methods only magnified the opposition they were meant to stamp out, exhausted the population, and created a grotesque economy that built industry and arms at the expense of infrastructure and living standards. “If disunity were ever to seize and paralyze the Party,” prophesied Kennan, “the chaos and weakness of Russian society would be revealed in forms beyond description … and Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.” Americans needed only to measure up to their own best traditions and the responsibilities “that history plainly intended them to bear.”

Arthur Krock exposed Kennan as the author and reasoned that “the State Department had made up its mind” about Russia. Life magazine and the Reader’s Digest published excerpts, and Containment became a household word. But leftists such as Henry Wallace assailed it as bellicose while the conservative Walter Lippmann thought it a “strategic monstrosity” that would require Americans to prop up disreputable regimes all over the world. Kennan agreed: he had rued the universality of the Truman Doctrine and now kicked himself for failing to specify that the only regions that had to be sheltered at all costs were Western Europe and Japan. He was especially upset by the militarization of Containment propelled by the Berlin Blockade of 1948, the Soviet A-bomb, “loss” of China, and formation of NATO in 1949, and Korean War in 1950. Kennan did support the latter (to shelter Japan), but deplored the icy division of Europe, race for thermonuclear weapons, and placement of tripwires and “lines in the sand” around the whole girth of Eurasia. He had imagined that Containment would mean political, economic, and psychological programs to rehabilitate Europe and Japan, and he feared that a militarized Cold War might only strengthen the Soviet hierarchy’s grip over its empire.

Historians debate whether Kennan was naive about Stalin’s willingness to use force or the way the Truman Administration would reify his doctrine. Some suggest that he was flattered by Forrestal’s attention and purposely glossed over their disagreements. Some think Kennan disingenuous in later claiming to have been misunderstood. In 1947 he thought it “not at all out of the question” that American forces might have to fight overseas, and was shrewd enough to know that security was a prerequisite for the political and economic recovery of Europe.

Whatever motives and misgivings may have played in his brain, it seems that the subtle contrarian Kennan was almost never in synch with the policymakers—and almost never wrong. In theory, Containment was the prudent and winning strategy (in part because it served to “contain” the United States, too). In practice, Containment was often botched, most notoriously in the Vietnam War which Kennan opposed. And the militarization of the Cold War, whether or not it became hyperbolic, did exact a terrible price through conscription, high taxes, federal impositions in science, education, business, and labor, and militarization of much of the economy. Abroad, Containment risked nuclear war, if waged too fiercely, and limited wars America dared not win or lose, if waged too tentatively. No wonder candidates never said, “Vote for me and I’ll drag the nation through four more years of nervous stalemate.” Yet once in office all of them did, and the public sighed with relief as hawkish presidents turned more dovish and dovish ones more hawkish.

Kennan was most insightful when he wrote that “the issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States.” And fifty years on we may contemplate with stupefaction the fact that Americans did summon the will, marshal the resources, make the sacrifices, and rebound from blunders and funks to pass the test—even though the duration and costs of Containment proved far greater than Kennan predicted or later thought necessary. Could Americans do it again? Do we have one more great effort in us, or are we exhausted, like the British after World War II? Perhaps the wisest course is to pray “put me not to the test” (a better translation than “lead me not into temptation”)—and to let Kennan himself be the “new Kennan” when he bades us to shun all catchwords and doctrines and “go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

For while it would be splendid if a new Mr. X were to plumb the mysterious “sources of Chinese (or Islamic) conduct,” I think the 93-year-old sage from Milwaukee might agree that what the world needs to know most are “the sources of American conduct.” We are a riddle that still begs for solution.

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