Containment - Reflections on kennan's original meaning

Twenty years after Kennan's "X" essay, when publishing his memoirs, Kennan lamented publicly for the first time that his "X" essay had been misunderstood and that he had been mistaken for the architect of those very features of the Truman Doctrine that he had opposed. He had not intended to offer a doctrine, he claimed, but wanted to show that war with the Soviet Union was neither inevitable nor necessary, that there was no need to conclude from the failure of American concessions to the Soviets that there must be an eventual war between the two great powers. Kennan regretted that he had not explained his meaning of "counterforce" and, thus, had seemed to endorse the militarization of American foreign policy. In 1967 he claimed that by counterforce he had meant "not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat."

Some scholars have regarded this belated explanation as disingenuous, as an effort to rewrite his past. Certainly, it is curious that, as a master stylist who presumably sought clarity, he chose a metaphor that was so clearly military to express what he claims was a nonmilitary meaning. Even some friendly critics suggest that Kennan's use of language revealed that he intended to propose more than just a political or economic response—also a military one.

Until 1955, despite Kennan's many speeches and articles, including the reprinting of the "X" essay in his American Diplomacy (1951), he never publicly clarified his 1947 meaning, never explained that his 1947 intentions had been grossly distorted. Even in 1967, he did not adequately explain his years of public silence before correcting the record. In his memoirs, however, he did provide a 1948 letter to Lippmann, which Kennan never sent, in which he clarified his understanding of the communist threat and of the American response. In that unsent letter Kennan wrote that he did not favor the stationing of military forces near the Soviet border to halt Soviet aggression, for the Soviets "don't want to invade anyone…. They don't want war of any kind….They far prefer to do the job with stooge forces."

In clarifying his understanding of the Soviet threat, Kennan revealed in this letter that he considered the real communist threat internal but often military: "The violence is nominally domestic, not international, violence. It is, if you will, a police violence." The implication of this analysis, which he seemed to deny in 1967, was that small-scale American interventions might be necessary to deal with these "police" threats. For, presumably, Kennan did not think that the United States should rely in every case on words of support, friendly advice, and economic assistance, even if they were inadequate. In most cases, he assumed, they would be sufficient. But what if the "stooge forces" were not conquered so easily? Applying this logic in the 1960s, others could argue that the Truman Doctrine and the counsel of "X" shaped, if not dictated, the commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnam—a conclusion and policy that Kennan opposed by 1966.

In 1947 communism was, for Kennan, monolithic. It was in the service of Joseph Stalin. "Any success of a local Communist party," Kennan later explained, "any advance of Communist power anywhere [was] an extension … of the political orbit, or at least the dominant influence, of the Kremlin." Looking back on the 1940s, even in 1967, Kennan maintained that the Chinese Communist Party had been "an instrument of Soviet power"—a conclusion disputed by some experts who trace the Sino-Soviet rift back to this period and contend that Stalin opposed the revolution of Mao Zedong.

Yet, in the late 1940s, unlike in his "X" essay, Kennan actually started predicting that Chinese communism might become independent of the Soviet Union and even a threat to the Soviet state. "The men in the Kremlin," Kennan thought, might well "discover that this fluid and subtle oriental movement had quietly oozed away between their fingers and there was nothing left but a ceremonious Chinese bow and a polite inscrutable Chinese giggle."

Placing himself in 1967 closer to Lippmann's views than the text of his 1947 essay may have justified, Kennan emphasized that "X" did not mean to bar negotiations, only to postpone them until issues could be settled. Whereas in 1947 Kennan had seemed to locate that time in the distant future, in 1967 he implied that he had thought it was quite near when he wrote the essay. Nor, he claimed, did he want a permanent division of Europe, only a temporary division until the possibilities for negotiations developed.

Commenting in 1967 on "X"'s 1947 analysis of Soviet motivations, Kennan lamented, "much of it reads exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy." This belated reassessment indicates how far in two decades Kennan and the American consensus had shifted. In 1947, however, his tough-minded, hostile analysis of Soviet policy won him respect within the administration and among scholars of the Soviet Union. Few then dissented or criticized him, even though he minimized Russian history and ignored Western hostility in explaining the sources of Soviet conduct.

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