Kennan, a member of the first generation of State Department specialists on the Soviet Union, was born in Milwaukee in 1904 to a well-to-do family, attended Princeton University in the early 1920s, and, perhaps because of his provincialism amid the glitter of the eastern elite, developed the sense of the outsider. A man of rarefied intelligence and strained sensibility, he was in many ways a latter-day Jamesian character. He was sensitive to the slightest rebuff, to minor breaches in etiquette, but, judging from his memoirs, when he returned to the United States from foreign service overseas in 1937, remained curiously untroubled by the economic depression, with its ravaging poverty, in his own nation.
In the diplomatic service, Kennan happily found what he termed "protective paternalism" and seemed to delight in the ordered tasks, the requirements of discipline, the acts of civic responsibility, the applications of intelligence, and the distance from the United States. When the United States opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, Kennan became third secretary in Moscow. He later claimed that his four years in Moscow were "unavoidably a sort of liberal education in the horrors of Stalinism," and his hostility to Marxism and the Soviet system grew. They offended his taste, his sensibility, and his values.
During those early years in the Soviet Union, he had a zest to understand, to penetrate, and to participate in Russian society. He soon complained to Washington about repression in the Soviet Union, stressing, for example in 1937, that "the great majority of the Soviet citizens who have had … extensive social or official relations with diplomats during the past few years have now disappeared … they have been intimidated, arrested, exiled, or executed." Such politics, he told Washington in terms that could suggest personal grievance, had destroyed "any prestige and popularity which foreign envoys might otherwise enjoy in the eyes of the Soviet public."
Having become a fierce critic of the Soviet system, Kennan deplored America's welcoming the Soviet Union in 1941 as an "associate in defense of democracy," for this alliance, he complained, would identify the United States with Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. By 1944, Kennan was already counseling that Soviet-American diplomatic collaboration was impossible. Fearing that the United States lacked "the political manliness" to stop the Soviets from carving out a sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe, he proposed, in despair, that the United States might as well divide Germany, partition Europe into spheres, and define "the line beyond which we cannot afford to permit the Russians to exercise unchallenged power or to take purely unilateral action." This was the containment doctrine in embryonic form.
In 1944 and 1945, Kennan's analysis was unacceptable to many policymakers, including his immediate superior, W. Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Harriman and many American policymakers had often defined American interests in universalist terms to include Eastern Europe, but believed that Soviet-American cooperation was possible—that the Soviets would withdraw or reduce their influence and accede in this area to free elections. These policymakers concluded that American economic power and atomic prowess might compel the Soviets to accede to American wishes in this border area. Unlike Kennan, they believed that Soviet policy was alterable, that accommodations could be reached—on American terms.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by some historical interpretations, had temporarily acceded to Soviet control in much of Eastern Europe, and confirmed that arrangement at the Yalta Conference of the "Big Three" (with Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) in February 1945. But Roosevelt had also hoped to bring the Soviets into a condominium of great powers, to involve the Soviets in the United Nations, and, through a combination of deftness and toughness, to push the Soviets to soften their policy in Eastern Europe.
In certain ways, Kennan's analysis of the Soviet Union seemed closer to that of former President Herbert Hoover. Most notably, Hoover, who had long chafed at the growth of Soviet power in Europe, had serious doubts about negotiating with the Soviets. In mid-1945, Hoover even recommended, about ten weeks before the August atomic bombings of Japan and Soviet entry into the Pacific war, his own policy of containment. Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman, who had just succeeded Roosevelt, to greatly soften the surrender terms for Japan in order to end the war before Soviet entry into the conflict and in order to restrain Soviet influence in Asia. Hoover had even proposed letting Japan retain Formosa and Korea, among other generous terms, in order to end the war well before the Soviets could gain territorial advantages in Asia.
Hoover's counsel failed, largely because his proposal—very soft surrender terms for Japan— seemed politically unacceptable in America. But neither of the two high-level administration officials he approached—Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and President Truman—seemed opposed, in principle, to Hoover's motivating desire to contain Soviet influence and power. These two American leaders, however, knew something important that was kept secret from Hoover and the American people—that President Roosevelt at Yalta, in return for Stalin's promise to enter the Pacific war within three months of Germany's surrender, had granted some important territorial concessions in Asia. State Department efforts to renege on those territorial terms failed in mid-1945, partly because Soviet armed intervention in the Pacific was still deemed necessary by American leaders in order to speed Japan's surrender and reduce U.S. casualties.
Practicing his own early form of containment in 1945, President Truman, disliking the fact that the Soviets had an occupation zone in Germany and thus a role in the postwar reconstruction of that nation, acted to bar the Soviets from any role in the postwar occupation and reconstruction of Japan. In mid-August 1945, when Japan surrendered, Stalin hoped speedily to land troops in northern Japan to establish a Soviet presence in Japan, but Truman insisted, successfully, that Stalin back down. The Soviets nevertheless stuck by their mid-August agreement with the United States on Korea. The Soviets occupied only the northern half of Korea, and southern Korea was unoccupied by Allied forces, until the American troops arrived in September 1945, a few weeks after the Soviets could have taken over the south.
In early 1946, when Stalin publicly warned of future capitalist wars, called for Soviet military strength, and refused to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Department of State asked for an analysis of Soviet policy. That request evoked from Kennan his famous Long Telegram (about 5,500 words) of 22 February 1946, an early statement of his "X" essay. "The more I thought about this [opportunity]," he later wrote, "the more it seemed obvious that this was 'it.' For eighteen months I had done little else but pluck people's sleeves, trying to make them understand the nature of the phenomenon with which we in the Moscow embassy were daily confronted and which our government and people had to learn to understand if they were to have any chance of coping successfully with the problems of the world."
Kennan's telegram—explaining that the Soviet Union was expansionist, malevolent, warlike, and uncompromising—neatly expressed the emerging conclusions among policymakers in Washington. The response was, Kennan recalls, "nothing less than sensational." It lifted him from the relative obscurity of chargé d'affaires in Moscow, won the affection of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, brought Kennan a position at the newly created National War College, and gave him fame and popularity within the higher echelons of the Truman administration. Kennan had not offered new thoughts or insights, but rather, at a critical juncture, had phrased in telling words the emerging analysis within the administration.
According to some revisionist historians, his message arrived shortly after policymakers had moved away from "liberation" in Eastern Europe and the hopes of using "atomic diplomacy" to roll back Soviet influence there. The Soviets, while delaying elections in Bulgaria in August 1945, had not yielded further to implied threats. The result was a virtual stalemate in this area. While pledged to universalism, and wanting democratic governments and an economic open door in Eastern Europe, the United States was not prepared to go to war to achieve its goals there.
Two weeks after the Long Telegram, on 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill, now former British prime minister, delivered his Iron Curtain address. The Soviet Union, he asserted, did not want war, only the "fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of [its] power and doctrines." The implication was that the Soviet Union was insatiably expansionist and would use subversion and aggression to take over Europe and Asia. Churchill's clarion call to the West had the endorsement of President Harry S. Truman, who had read the speech in advance and presumably welcomed it as part of the administration's strategy of reorienting the American public for a "get-tough" policy toward the Soviet Union.
That strategy included exploiting the dispute in Iran, where the Soviet Union had not yet withdrawn its troops from Azerbaijan, an oil-rich northwestern province once part of czarist Russia's sphere of influence. In early 1946, the United States pushed this issue into the United Nations forum and insisted upon keeping the matter there even after the Soviet Union promised in late March to remove its troops in a few weeks. American success in this venture established for many policymakers that firmness could compel the Soviets to withdraw from recently occupied areas beyond Eastern Europe and to accede to American demands.
In the summer of 1946, Truman requested an analysis of Soviet policy. Simplifying Kennan's analysis in the Long Telegram, the resulting study (put together by White House assistant George Elsey and endorsed by Truman's counsel Clark Clifford) stressed the influence of Marxist ideology on Soviet action. The Kremlin leaders, according to that report, "adhere to the Marxian theory of ultimate destruction [of capitalist states] by every means at their disposal." Efforts at accord or mutual understanding would be "highly dangerous" for the United States, because concessions would raise Soviet demands. Warning that the Soviet Union might start war to spread communism, the report called for "resisting [Soviet] efforts to expand into areas vital to American security." Among the potential "trouble spots" requiring American attention were three in the Far East—China, which needed a "unified and economically stable" system; Japan, which had to be reconstructed and made democratic; and Korea, which should be "united and independent."
"The language of military power is the only language which [the Soviet Union] understands," the Clifford-Elsey report asserted. Agreeing with the general tone and analysis of the report, which was still in draft form, Kennan urged the addition of a key paragraph, which with minor cosmetic changes ended up in the final report:
Whether it would actually be in this country's interests to wage atomic and biological warfare against Russia in the event hostilities should develop is of course a question which would require careful consideration in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. This decision might be influenced by a number of factors which can not now be estimated, but it is important that this country be prepared to use them if need be, for the mere fact of such preparedness may prove to be the only powerful deterrent to Russian aggressive action and in this sense the only sure guaranty of peace.
By late summer 1946, the Soviet Union's refusal to endorse the American plan for international control of atomic energy confirmed to policymakers that the Soviets were deceitful, suspicious, and uncompromising. How, Americans asked sincerely, could the Truman administration's offer, which they incorrectly deemed magnanimous, be rejected? Concessions were impossible. Compromise would not work. Kennan privately suggested that the United States use implicit "atomic diplomacy" to force the Soviets to accept the U.S. plan. He proposed, in the words of an associate, tactics "designed to convince the Russians of our serious intent and of the consequences if they chose to continue their present course." His proposal included the public announcement of "the construction of a new bomb-proof General Staff headquarters in a remote region"—a possible preliminary to war.
It is unclear whether or not Kennan in 1946 was mulling over the possibility of preventive war by the United States. He had given some thought to the prospects of actual war, and how it should be fought, if it occurred. Meeting during the summer with General Carl Spaatz, the chief of staff of the air force, Kennan said that the war, in the summary words of a minutes-taker's notes, should be "conducted by the U.S. [as] an air war in the strictest sense of the term." According to Kennan, there were only "about ten vital points" in the Soviet Union to be bombed in order to cripple the Soviet Union and force its speedy defeat. They were not primarily cities but production areas and railroads. He saw no need to try to invade and occupy the USSR after such air attacks, and anticipated a revolution in which "the Bolshevik regime would crack."
In mid-1946, when Kennan met with Spaatz, the United States only possessed about five or eight A-bombs, though Kennan, like many American officials, was not allowed to know the top-secret number. Thus, his sketch of a bombing attack on the Soviet Union may have implied nuclear weapons or conventional weapons, or, most likely, a combination of both kinds of bombs. He may not have known that his thinking about virtually a push-button war was markedly at odds with the emerging secret American military planning at the time in which there was usually an assumption that war, if it came, would involve a long, costly conflict between armies on the European continent. According to those plans, the bomb could be helpful, but not decisive.
Amid the growing East-West tension, with his own expanding reputation as a prescient Soviet expert, Kennan found additional opportunities to refine and advance his views in Washington and in other influential quarters. In January 1947, Secretary Forrestal, Kennan's benefactor, asked him to comment on a manuscript on Soviet policy, and Kennan went beyond the assignment to present on 31 January his own lengthy interpretation. His paper for Forrestal—based on an early January speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York—became the "X" essay. It was speedily cleared by the State Department, because Kennan's thoughts were compatible with emerging American policy. Upon publication of the essay, he became the recognized philosopher-diplomat of containment. He had synthesized the emerging wisdom and dignified it within an acceptable intellectual framework.