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The 75th Anniversary of "The Long Telegram": Was George F. Kennan's Assessment of the Soviet Union Accurate?

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February 22nd marks 75 years since George F. Kennan sent his famous "Long Telegram" to the State Department in which he provided an assessment of the Soviet Union that is credited with shaping the U.S. containment policy of the Cold War. The Cold War, in turn, saw various conflicts, scores of covert operations, regime changes, and a nuclear arms race.

Conventional wisdom generally has it that Kennan's assessment of the Soviet government was accurate. But was it? And if it wasn't accurate, why has it been treated as a brilliant analysis that underpinned a policy still characterized as an inevitable necessity?

In order to answer those questions, it is necessary to look at who George F. Kennan was, what the main points of his analysis were and how they have held up to the historical facts, as well as the political context in which his assessment was received.

Who Was George F. Kennan and What Shaped His Thinking?

George Frost Kennan graduated in 1926 from Princeton University with a degree in history. With an interest in international relations and a knack for picking up languages, he entered the Foreign Service. The State Department eventually offered to pay for graduate study of Chinese, Arabic or Russian. Opting for the latter - partly due to his famous namesake cousin's travels and writings in Siberia - he enrolled in a new program for the study of Eastern European Affairs. Subsequently, he was stationed in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a period. By 1929, he was taking Russian history at the University of Berlin and learning the language from a combination of private tutoring and autodidact studies.

Kennan was a keen observer with an eye for detail, contributing to his writing prowess, which he developed early in his diplomatic career. He also had a sensitive disposition that sometimes tended toward the dramatic as can be seen from some of his letters and diary entries. He was plagued with ulcers throughout most of his adult life, along with other ailments, which prompted many months of recuperation away from his assigned locales at various times.

In the early years of his study of Russia, he leaned toward an Orientalist view of his subject, making sweeping generalizations even to the point of caricature about the nature of Russia, the Asiatic influence and its alien aspects. During the war, he even admitted to trying to subject Russian history and culture to Freudian psychoanalysis. Though he would temper this somewhat over the years, this tendency toward oversimplification would still be seen in his Long Telegram.

By the early 1930's, Kennan's growing expertise had gotten the attention of others in the State Department. When the Roosevelt administration decided to officially recognize the Soviet Union - the result of pressure from the business community as the U.S. had become its #1 importer - ambassador William Bullitt lobbied hard for Kennan to be appointed to set up a new embassy in Moscow. Despite misgivings about his perceived inexperience, Kennan was given the green light for the job.

Throughout his tenure in the Soviet Union in the 1930's, Kennan admittedly had limited contact with average Russians. However, for most of 1934, Kennan noted a relatively relaxed atmosphere in Moscow. Upon his return to the country in November of 1935, after months away on medical leave, he discovered many of his American colleagues had left and most of the Russians he had built relations of some kind with were no longer around. There was also more supervision from Soviet authorities along with an influx of spies at the embassy.

From 1936 to 1938, Kennan personally observed many of the show trials that were part of Stalin's violent purges, often serving as US ambassador Joseph Davies' translator and assistant. This solidified Kennan's inclination toward viewing the Soviet government as morally repugnant and would contribute to his hardline views during and right after World War II.

Davies - a corporate lawyer, friend of Roosevelt and a contributor to his campaign - was viewed by Kennan and several others in the State Department as a dangerous dilettante who whitewashed Stalin and the Soviet government, reinforcing the president's misguided policy of engagement with the Soviet dictator. According to diplomatic historian John Lukacs, who corresponded years later with Kennan about the background of his thinking in the lead up to the Long Telegram, Kennan stated that Roosevelt was naïve for thinking Stalin being treated as an equal would lead to a reasonable post-war arrangement. Kennan believed that pursuing this policy at the expense of Churchill, whom Roosevelt sometimes gave a cold shoulder to in order to curry favor with Stalin, was a serious mistake and allowed Stalin to triangulate with his wartime allies.

According to historian Susan Butler in her book, Roosevelt & Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt was playing the long game, motivated to win Stalin's trust in order to get him to support the United Nations (UN). After winning the war itself, Roosevelt's priority was to prevent the devastation of a third world war. Of course, this was meant to happen within the context of a U.S.-dominated global order. The UN was the vehicle through which that goal was to be pursued.

Kennan actively opposed Davies and his agenda, now writing from his position in the European Division of the State Department in Washington. This was after Kennan left Moscow in early 1937 due to mutual antipathy between the two men. His reports on the Soviet Union were designed to "balance out" Davies' "overly optimistic" reports to the president. Eventually, Stalin became aware of Kennan's writings and perceived them to be attempts to "turn Roosevelt personally against" the Soviet Union.

After Roosevelt's death in April of 1945, Ambassador Averell Harriman rushed to Washington to brief Harry Truman on matters relating to the Soviet Union. He advised the new president that Stalin viewed U.S. restraint as weakness and therefore believed he could operate with a free hand, fearing few consequences from Washington. Truman, a foreign policy novice, was also taking advice from his friend and anti-Soviet hardliner, James Byrnes. Truman would ultimately make Byrnes his Secretary of State.

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Natylie Baldwin is author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations available in e-book and print. She has traveled throughout western Russia since 2015 and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians. She blogs at  (more...)
 

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4 people are discussing this page, with 9 comments  Post Comment


John Lawrence Ré

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In his fly-on-the-wall journal, As He Saw It, Elliott Roosevelt points out in the last chapter that it was only Stalin (not Chrurchill or the Europeans) who kept his promises on everything that had been agreed to by the big three in Cairo, Tehran and Yalta. Might have been a very different world had FDR lived out his last term or had Henry Wallace succeed him. Instead we got Plan B, a strategy whose orignis can be traced to the profiteering from WWI whereby neolocolonial objectives were reversed so that the military based economy was prioritized over privileged control over the developing world's resources.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 20, 2021 at 9:48:17 PM

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Natylie Baldwin

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Reply to John Lawrence Ré:   New Content

I - and many others - wonder if the Cold War could have been averted had FDR lived. I think it's possible, but we'll neve know. Based on my reading of WWII history, I agree that Stalin kept his promises to the other allies with respect to the war. He saw the benefit of maintaining the Grand Alliance in terms of the stability it would offer the Soviet Union and what he saw as the furtherance of socialism.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 20, 2021 at 10:26:34 PM

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John Zwiebel

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But it represented an opportunity for Kennan to push his strident perspective once again.

Were those views obtained "honestly" or, like Rachael Maddow's (or Oliver North's), assumed because it brought him fame and/or influence.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 20, 2021 at 10:46:04 PM

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John Lawrence Ré

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As much as I dislike his views, I would say he came by them incorrectly, but honestly. He naively misunderstood the raison d'être behind the Department of State's interest in his views. Once he came to the realization that his views would be used to justify converting the US to a war time economy, he began to qualify his positions. All in all, I believe his "deathbed confession" was more sincere than Eisenhower's who knew - or should have known - better, for example.

This is the type of thoughtful, intelligent article you would hope to find more of on OEN, instead of the incessant dopey whining over Trump and the nerdy he-said, she-said beltway bullshit.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 20, 2021 at 11:43:12 PM

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Allan Wayne

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Reply to John Lawrence Ré:   New Content

Murder, famine, mass executions, concentration camps, terror, genocide...what's not to like about Stalin?

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 at 5:47:06 AM

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Reply to Allan Wayne:   New Content

Allan, why is this a reply to me? I am not denying that litany...didn't even address it. Stalin was brutal, yes, but he kept his word to Roosevelt. Simple fact - no need for whataboutism or to get your drawers bunched.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 at 6:08:06 AM

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Sorry. I just recently finished reading The Life of Lenin by Louis Fischer. My bad. Seriously, I have been thinking of purchasing a jock strap. But I hear they are out of style.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 at 8:14:50 AM

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Ha ha. No worries, mate.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 at 8:14:24 PM

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It is an excellent article.

I should have posted a complement to the author.

But you are correct to opine that Keenan came to his conclusions "honestly". I can't say one way or the other. My point was to suggest how those views were used to justify actions taken by the Oligarchy which resulted in the "cold war". They don't seem as clownish as "Russiagate" but the results are the same aren't they.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 21, 2021 at 7:44:27 AM

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