Despite Kennan's doubts about some aspects of the Truman Doctrine, most commentators viewed Truman's speech and the "X" essay as parts of the same program—containment. Most unfriendly critics focused on the Truman Doctrine. They charged the United States with bailing out British imperialism in the Middle East, establishing American imperialism there, risking war against the Soviet Union, exaggerating the crisis, militarizing policy, abandoning negotiations, misinterpreting Soviet action, misunderstanding the civil war in Greece, supporting totalitarianism there, escalating the Cold War, and trying to scare the American people. Both right-wing critics like Senator Robert A. Taft, a leading Republican, and left-wing critics like Henry A. Wallace, who had recently left Truman's cabinet because of disagreements on foreign policy, agreed that the Soviet Union was not a military threat. A self-styled heir of Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy, Wallace argued publicly for a settlement of the Cold War and the avoidance of the arms race.
Shortly after Kennan's essay appeared, Walter Lippmann, the respected columnist and sympathetic critic of American foreign policy, published in a series of columns a penetrating critique of the containment policy, later collected as The Cold War: A Study of U.S. Foreign Policy (1947). Interpreting the "X" essay as the intellectual rationale for the Truman Doctrine, Lippmann focused on the essay. It was, he contended, fundamentally wrong on two major grounds: it misunderstood the sources of Soviet behavior and offered recommendations for American policy that were a diplomatic and strategic "monstrosity."
Whereas Kennan had mostly stressed Marxist ideology as the major source of Soviet actions (belief in the "innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism"), Lippmann argued on the basis of Russian history that expansion—the quest for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and power in the Mediterranean—was an inherited czarist ambition, not a communist innovation. By emphasizing the continuity of Russian and Soviet history, Lippmann minimized the role of communist ideology. Yet, curiously, in explaining Soviet behavior, he did not stress the long history of Western hostility and American opposition to the Soviet system. Unlike later revisionist historians, Lippmann was not placing the burden for Soviet-American antagonism on American, or Western, actions.
Lippmann agreed with Kennan that Soviet power would expand unless confronted by American power, but he objected on pragmatic grounds to Kennan's plan for the next generation or beyond: resistance with "counterforce" wherever the Soviets threatened, until the pressure destroyed or mellowed the Soviet system. Lippmann argued that this plan was too optimistic: America did not have the patience, the economic power, or the armed forces to contain the Soviet Union wherever it showed signs of encroaching and until it collapsed. Kennan's doctrine was strategically dangerous to the United States; it gave the Soviet Union the initiative, allowed the Soviets to choose for confrontation the areas near their border where they were stronger, and would ultimately lead to excessive demands upon American forces. Lippmann warned that the United States, compensating for inadequate military strength, would recruit and organize a "heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents, and puppets," who might plunge the United States into crises or compel it to abandon them and risk charges of appeasement and "sell out." Kennan's strategy required the United States to create "unassailable borders" near the Soviet Union, which would be an unnatural alliance for the West. For Lippmann, the doctrine of containment, as represented by the "X" essay, failed the test of realism. The essay did not recognize the limits of American power and thereby threatened to involve the United States in dangerous alliances, and ultimately to sap American will and morale when the policy of confrontation did not bring prompt victory.
Lippmann's alternative strategy—later known as "disengagement" when Kennan publicly advocated it a decade later—called for the withdrawal from Germany and eventually from continental Europe of the armies of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. This policy, Lippmann argued, would be the "acid test" of Soviet intentions, and, if successful, would reduce tension, eliminate troubling issues, move the two great powers toward a modus vivendi, contribute to a better life for many Europeans, and conserve American resources.
More important than this specific proposal, Lippmann was counseling the continuation of negotiations, the use of diplomacy, in order to achieve at least a partial Soviet-American settlement. The Truman Doctrine and "X"'s diagnosis, the columnist asserted, erred because they rejected diplomacy. "The history of diplomacy," Lippmann wrote, "is the history of relations among rival powers, which did not enjoy political intimacy, and did not respond to appeals to common purposes. Nevertheless, there have been settlements…. For a diplomat to think that rivaland unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is all about."
Drawing less attention in 1947 than Lippman's analysis but more concern in the early 1950s was the savage critique of Kennan's thinking from the right in America. Containment, to those critics, was appeasement, accepting Soviet domination of much of Eastern Europe. In their judgment, containment was timid, if not pusillanimous. A notable critic, the right-wing James Burnham, who had once been on the anti-Stalin American left, charged that containment was the "bureaucratic verbalization of a policy of drift [concealing] its inner law…. Let history do it." These critics wanted action—penetration of the "iron curtain," overthrow of communist regimes, liberation of the "captive peoples." At minimum, there should be, these critics contended, America-directed sabotage, clandestine activity, and paramilitary involvement against the Soviets and what was regarded as their "stooge" governments in Eastern Europe. None of those proposed aggressive tactics, according to the right-wing critics, was countenanced or encouraged by containment. Those critics were actually very wrong— but they could not know about the then-secret American tactics.
Significantly, Kennan had often used the terms "Russian" to denote "Soviet" and "Russia" to mean "Soviet Union," thus casually ignoring the fact that many Soviet citizens (about 25 to 30 percent or about 45 to 54 million of the USSR's population) were not ethnic Russians, and that Russian history, when Kennan discussed it, was not actually the history of many Soviet peoples. Kennan's prominent critics in the 1940s and 1950s usually neglected this important difference. But occasionally some hyphenated Americans, especially Ukrainians, did stress what was called the "nationalities problem" (the fact that the Soviet Union was composed of a number of different nationality groups) and argue that the Soviet Union might come apart, under American-directed pressure, and splinter into different nationality-based states.