Containment - Kennan's public statement of containment

Writing mysteriously as "X" in 1947, George Kennan, then the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, first publicly articulated the doctrine of containment in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in Foreign Affairs (July 1947), the influential journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. That mid-1947 statement, it might be said, became the near-canonical expression of containment, though Kennan himself, even in the 1940s when operating in the State Department, provided various formulations in speeches and reports that departed, sometimes, significantly from the 1947 essay.

When his identity quickly leaked out, his Mr. "X" analysis was interpreted as official policy, because of his position in the State Department and because the essay seemed to justify a recent bold departure in American foreign policy: Truman's call on 12 March 1947, in the so-called "Truman Doctrine" speech, for economic and military aid "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

Kennan's essay offered both a diagnosis of and a prescription for treating the Soviet threat; actually, he frequently termed it "Russian" and thus often used that adjective and the noun "Russia" to mean "Soviet" and "Soviet Union." His prescription attracted the most attention: the need to confront "the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where [the Soviet Union] shows signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful world." There would be perpetual crises, presumably frequent confrontations. Such a policy "must be … long-term, patient but firm and vigilant." Kennan predicted that it would increase enormously the strains in Soviet society, compel Soviet foreign policy to be cautious and circumspect, and produce the gradual mellowing or breakup of the Soviet system. Containment promised the liberation of Eastern Europe and an American victory in the long run, without preventive war. History was on the side of the West. His faith that the future belonged to democratic capitalism directly repudiated the Marxist faith that capitalism would crumble from its own contradictions.

Kennan's diagnosis of Soviet policy was central to his optimistic forecast and to much of his doctrine. Soviet policy was, he asserted, relentless but not adventurous—"a fluid stream which moves constantly wherever permitted to move toward a given goal." This patient but insatiable expansion, he explained, was the logical outgrowth of communist ideology. Soviet hostility to the West, in turn, was a result largely of the "neurotic world view" of Soviet leaders and of their need to create a foreign enemy to justify dictatorship at home. Their "world view" was both paranoid and functional; it misunderstood Western actions but also helped Soviet leaders to stay in power.

The Soviet policy, he stressed, could be altered only by Soviet authorities, not by any other national power. "Once a party line has been laid down," he asserted, "the whole Soviet governmental machine, including the mechanism of diplomacy, moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force." In that view, Soviet officials at the middle levels were basically automatons, and there were presumably no important differences among top Soviet leaders.

Kennan's message was clear: Soviet hostility was not a reasonable response to America's wartime policy or to earlier American actions, nor could negotiations ease or end this hostility and produce a settlement of the Cold War. His analysis became the new orthodoxy: the Soviet Union was "committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional ways of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."

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