How far did Kennan's ideas actually shape US policy towards the Soviet Union?

by Howard Fienberg

Dec 5, 1996

GV903, University of Essex, for Neil Robinson

George Kennan's "long telegram" set off a furor at the time. He had neatly summed up a certain view of the workings of Soviet society, and, however vaguely, had made a policy recommendation for how the United States should deal with the Soviet Union. However, it would seem that policy makers preferred to have his papers as a justification for their policy, or at least for a policy which they were still developing, rather than truly addressing Kennan himself and his ideas.

One can assess the extent to which Kennan's ideas on containment actually shaped US policy towards the Soviet Union by examining several aspects of US policy during the Cold War. First, one must look at the policy of containment, both in terms of its limits, and its militarization. Then, a look at the domestic political aspects of US policy would prove fruitful, followed by an examination of detente.

The Limits of Containment

Containment was a strategy to limit and prevent Soviet expansionism. It was a theory that said that communism was like water and would trickle into countries that were weak and unstable. In response, the US had to bolster the strength of other nations around the world in order to defend democracy and the open market. Truman made this his doctrine in 1947, as justification for intervention in the Greek Civil War (where the Soviets were believed to be involved in aiding the leftist rebellion) and aid to Turkey (which the Soviet Union was pressuring for concessions).

There had been a conclusion reached among American leaders that further Soviet imperialism necessitated their opposition. American tradition, however, forced them to attempt to "justify this resistance on nearly any basis other than as an appeal to the traditional balance of power." (Kissinger 113)

There was a tradition of idealism in America in all facets of its politics, but in international affairs in particular. Originally complacent in its acceptance of isolationism, not as a realist approach, but as a way of avoiding sullying American hands in European affairs, America eventually changed its tune. Following two world wars, America was ready to take its values to the rest of the world under a policy of crusading activism.

America was never comfortable with realist approaches to international affairs. It may well have been the founders' Protestant ethics reverberating within the political culture, but the positivist school never received much hearing.

George Kennan is cited as one of the original authors of the policy of containment. In describing the USSR's expansionist tendencies, he concluded that

its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. (Kennan 575)

He called for "firm containment" of the Soviet Union, countering the Soviets "with unalterable counter-force" anywhere the US saw them working against "the interests of a peaceful and stable world." (Kennan 581)

The ultimate objectives of containment were to prevent the expansion of Soviet power. This was an essentially contested concept, however, since there was no firm agreement on the limits. In examining containment policy, one must investigate both Kennan's views on the breadth of containment, and his views on what measures should be used and the limits of their usage.

Calling for America to choose its battles carefully, Kennan wanted the US to determine its spheres of interest and to defend only those interests which were most vital. For Kennan, that pretty much meant centers of military-industrial power, meaning Western Europe and Japan. America's foreign policy in the two world wars could be viewed in a similar light. America was preventing vital power centers "from falling under hostile control." (Gaddis 5)

Kennan placed emphatic limits on the reach of containment in this manner. Anything outside of the main areas was not to be fretted over. Obviously the fall of China was not a good development, but Kennan did not see it as an important loss for the US, since it was of little consequence as a center of military and industrial power. Kennan did not predict China's future status as a major power, but neither did most other experts at the time.

In the Third World, Kennan felt that, though the US could offer some modest aid to "help the emergent states," he didn't feel it was worth too much focus in power and resources. Besides lacking the military and industrial power he prized, he also noted that the immediate post-colonial period in the Third World was not conducive to real cooperation. He sustained that "anti-white and anti-American feelings were widespread," and would prevent any meaningful "partnership" with the West. (Mayers 259)

Probably, few leaders disagreed with this sentiment, but they certainly did not heed the implications of it as they set off on numerous forays throughout the Third World. According to NSC-68, "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere." (Gaddis 6) Wherever communism was suspected, the US took the task of opposing it. Even where it was not, the US was there. It was not so much that American leaders believed every piece of the earth sacred and a 'vital interest' (to use Kennan's classification), but that they feared a 'domino effect.' They were worried that the fall of one nation to pro-Soviet forces would precipitate a whole stream of nations to fall or defect to the Soviets, like a falling row of dominoes.

This was a serious leap from Kennan's provisions for containment. A psychological approach to containment was not what he usually preached, but he sometimes noted its importance. In general, though, it was part of the world of rhetoric and political posturing which he tended to ignore and downplay.

Therefore, the policy of the US in the Third World was fundamentally opposed to Kennan' ideas. America consistently expended an undue amount of effort and resources in defending against supposedly Soviet forces in the Third World in which it had no interest. Then, when Reagan began his campaign in the eighties to roll back the Soviets from their positions in the Third World, there was still little support from Kennan's school; the areas on which both sides were wasting so much effort were of no consequence to him.

Alliances with these countries were a particularly poor choice of policy, from his standpoint. The US was being tied down to countries with which it shared little common interests. Alliances like the ones made with South Korea and Taiwan were foolhardy and circumscribed American freedom of movement in international relations. (Deibel 202) Kennan feared exactly what occurred, an ever-expanding structure of alliances, lacking a "logical stopping point" to keep them from firmly tying America to the majority of the non-communist world. (Deibel 193)

While the acquisition of 'vassal states' by the USSR over the years, in nations like Cuba, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Angola, and Vietnam, made the Soviets feel more powerful and secure, and may have changed global perceptions of Soviet power, Kennan believed that such expansion made little or no difference to the greater balance of power. Most of these 'vassals' were so only because the US had applied too much pressure on them; they were unlikely "to remain a satellite unless immediate enemies" left them "no alternative, as the US did. (Ullman 625)

A particular problem with the American preoccupation with brush-fire conflicts like Vietnam was that it was forcing the US "into a rigid international position", making it difficult to engage in the broader aspects of containing the Soviet Union. Considering the marginal power and potential of Vietnam, it was taking up far too much American attention, and was distracting the US from important global developments which it could use to its advantage. The "existing and future divisions within the Communist world" were staring America in the face, and it was doing nothing about them. (Mayers 259)

American leaders, in general, carried a serious distrust of concepts like spheres of influence, and the balance of power. Seeking "a Wilsonian solution to the problem of world order," (Kissinger 126) they desired a fight with the Soviet Union where the only mercy offered to the Soviets would be in exchange for an unconditional surrender, like the Allies had pursued in the previous war. This distrust of the realist way of conducting politics was reinforced by the two world wars, where even their allies had tried to bargain and muddle their way through. American leaders were ever fearful of the evils of 'appeasement,' and the concept continues to haunt politicians to this day.

The Militarization of Containment

Major problems arose when one considered the psychological consequences of losing peripheral interests; hence, the transformation of containment as a limited, realistic appraisal, to the conception of NSC-68. This document claimed that the Soviets were aggressively expansionist and had to be countered wherever they attempted to do so; a policy of crusading activism was called for in the face of overwhelming Soviet power. At face value, it wasn't too far off from Kennan's views.

More importantly, NSC-68 recognized that force was all that could be used in containing the Soviets because that was all that they would understand. Until such time as they could be forced to negotiate, diplomacy was useless and could only serve to reaffirm US superiority. This was fundamentally opposed to Kennan's philosophy that war was the weapon of last resort in containment.

In its appraisal of Soviet capabilities, NSC-68 was again opposed to Kennan, claiming that the Soviets were already surpassing American power in their military buildup. Kennan was adamant that although the Soviets were powerful, America was even more so. There was a fear-mongering ingrained within the document which can be juxtaposed to Kennan's problem-solving approach.

In response to the supposed Soviet superiority, NSC-68 proposed that the US should massively increase its military power and slash its social spending in order to do so, if necessary. The paper postulated that at least 50% of the GNP could be viably used for the military, if necessary. Such an astronomical figure in military spending baffled Kennan, considering his emphasis on diplomacy.

The creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is another poignant example of precisely what Kennan did not want. A fixed military alliance, even though it was with Europe, didn't synchronize with his views of a flexible foreign policy; it committed the US to the defense of Europe at all costs. The cost of defense was a distinctive problem that Kennan had with NATO, since he felt that the resources to be expended on the military defense of Europe were better spent on its economic and political recovery, as per the Marshall Plan. He didn't want containment to be limited to military force, because he felt that, as opposed to their supposedly vast military power, the greatest threat from the Soviets was "ideological subversion and political infiltration." (Deibel 194)

He was not opposed to military force in foreign policy, he simply did not see it as the primary tool. Although he had originally supported a withdrawal from South Korea in 1947, he recanted a couple of years later and encouraged American intervention, but only to return the peninsula to the status quo. He warned not to take the battle north for fear of bringing a Chinese or Soviet intervention. (Mayers 182) He was correct, but he was not heeded until after the fact.

When China was giving a thrashing to America on the peninsula, some people were proposing that nuclear weapons be used against the Chinese. Kennan was always wary of nuclear arms. He preferred at least the flexible response available from a conventional military; nuclear weapons posed no more options than 'destroy, or not'.

Containment could be handled from numerous angles, according to Kennan. One of the most appealing to Kennan over the years was the sort of subversion of the Soviet satellites which the USSR most often tried with the West; it was fighting fire with fire. Taking advantage of possible splits in the communist community was of prime importance in Kennan's containment approach. The most prevalent reason for Yugoslavia's defection from the Soviet bloc seems to have been that Stalin vetoed Tito's acceptance of Marshall Aid. A rare point in history, Kennan's approach was followed, and Yugoslavia was embraced, not as an ally, but as a tool against the USSR.

When considering the disruption of Soviet society, Kennan doubted that there was anything the US could do which would "abruptly or significantly alter" the Soviet regime. However, he was in favor of the long-term usage of anti-Soviet propaganda offered to the Soviet populace. He felt it was useful to always communicate to Soviet citizens that the outside world was not their enemy, only the enemy of their government. (Mayers 125) Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were two early applications of this, and Carter and Reagan both emphasized human rights throughout the Soviet bloc in order to stir up their citizenry. The language of the Helsinki accords, while not typical propaganda, has been credited with the rise in resistance to the Soviet regime, especially in Poland with the Solidarity movement.

Economic power was another useful tool, as shown by the Yugoslav episode. An economically strong America could bribe away satellites, or make them envious of western prosperity. Soviet desire for western business and technical collaboration could be used to the advantage of the US; limitations could be placed on these activities, linking their resumption with a demand that the Soviets behave properly internationally. (Mayers 126)

The crusading activist, militarized strategy can be deemed a success in the long run, since it is currently accepted wisdom that it was the SovietsŐ forays into empire that drained away its power; that competing with the US militarily exhausted the Soviet Union to the point of collapse.

Examined from KennanŐs standpoint, one would more likely conclude that the strategy was in fact a very dangerous policy, which placed the world on the brink of nuclear holocaust over non-essential interests. It also spawned an unrealistic American policy to the rest of the world, making it support brutal dictatorships simply because they were anti-communist. The risks and costs of the implemented policy of containment were far too high compared to the relative gains, and Kennan's ideas had little to do with the end strategy.

Domestic America

The domestic affairs of the United States do not figure immediately in the US policy towards the Soviet Union. While these do not fall under the auspices of foreign policy per se, they are intricately related, either as impetuses to, parts of, or results of policy.

First of all, the government expanded. More bureaucracies were created to deal with a larger perception of the world, and new organizations and positions were created. The National Security Act of 1947 created the Department of Defense, the cabinet position of the Secretary of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency (from the remnants of the wartime OSS), and the National Security Agency. It also established the National Security Council, which focused foreign policy control for the executive branch. As well, this expansion saw the movement away from professional diplomats toward more political appointments at the higher levels, as administrative positions in the foreign service were increased. This was related to the difficulties of the McCarthy era, discussed later.

Second of all, there was the development of the Iron Triangle, or the military-industrial complex. This was the cooperation between members of congress, the Pentagon, and business; they were all in need of each other to survive, so that it became a growing, self-perpetuating cycle of cooperation in allocating government funds in Congress for the military to buy weapons that it would contract businesses to build, which would create more jobs, making the Congress more popular, and electable. This was warned against by Eisenhower, in his presidential farewell address, but it was given little credence as a conception of American politics until the late 1960's.

The military buildup, particularly of nuclear strategic armaments, was justified in terms of the race to counter the Soviet threat. Originally, it was supposed to be a deterrent against the Soviets' massive advantage in conventional forces, especially in Europe. Later, it became a means of mutual deterrence; owning nuclear weapons became justified as necessary in preventing anyone from using them. The policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was a natural outgrowth, but the mentality behind it theoretically drove the superpowers to match each other's nuclear stockpiles, and to counter any increase in strategic power by one side.

Organski and Kugler, in their book The War Ledger, compared the strategic expenditures of the superpowers, and concluded that there was no link between one sides' expenditure increases and those of the other. They linked increased spending on the military to domestic pressure, providing some quantitative proof of the workings of the military-industrial complex.

The Iron Triangle seems to conflict with Kennan's conception of how foreign policy should operate. Kennan was in favor of pragmatism, and spending no more than was necessary, not using foreign affairs to justify the padding of coffers. As well, a foreign policy held hostage to the Iron Triangle's desire to increase its wealth and standing would be one of continuous military expansion and conflict, to which Kennan would have been vehemently opposed, particularly considering his favoring for diplomacy over force.

A third aspect was anti-communist hysteria. The fifties saw the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the nation in bashing leftists, blacklisting innocent people, and calling for a tougher foreign policy. The campaign got most of its thrust from the aftermath of the Communist victory in mainland China, which prompted the cry of "who lost China?!"

Professional diplomats from a varied political spectrum were weeded out of the foreign service as suspected reds. For most, their only real crimes were putting diplomacy before the use of force, and not being vigorous enough in their opposition to the Soviet Union. This resulted in a thinning of the skills and expertise of the foreign service, weakening American policy efforts. Kennan believed in relying heavily on diplomacy in American policy and would never have supported such moves.

As well, Kennan wanted the USA to show it "has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time." (Kennan 581) The chaos of the McCarthy period and similar bouts of internal repression of dissent to the government line merely showed weakness. Just as bluster would be taken as a sign of weakness, so would the sort of internal ruckus which characterized this period. Kennan felt it necessary, if not to show a united front, then at least a vigorous and strong one, in a spiritual sense. The US had to "carefully guard its own political vitality and social balance," and the "ideological crusades and extreme posturing" were as "repellent to him" as they were detrimental for the nation. If not careful, the US might fall prey to what Kennan deemed the Soviets had "staked their political fortunes" on, the "destruction of the soul of the western world." (Mayers 118)

A fourth aspect was in academia. The social sciences received momentous grants to develop new strategies, such as game theory, and new strategic-study think tanks, such as the RAND corporation, were developed. In addition, the universities were contracted to develop new weaponry. As well, the new development discipline was established in order to better understand the Third World. This sort of mobilizing of American resources fit his interests precisely, though the linking of academia to the Iron Triangle might have caused him pause.

Finally, there was the popular unrest of the late 1960's - early 1970's. Such unrest, to a certain extent, showed that the US practiced what it preached; this kind of dissent was only allowable in a liberal democracy such as the US. However, someone of Kennan's ilk would have worried about the divided front this offered to the Soviets and the world; an America of "brawling, chanting" and disorderly citizens. Another threat was the increase in people accepting the communist viewpoint via revisionist scholarship, which he abhorred. The unrest posed another threat, internally, in that it might cause a reaction, which would swing power to "right-wing demagogues." (Mayers 286) Still, it was during this period that the US policy of detente developed, so Kennan's ideas were being better reflected abroad than at home.

So, one sees variable support for Kennan's ideas in domestic America. The expansion of government power would have been supported by Kennan's outlook, as would have the links with academia. The other two factors, the anti-communist hysteria and the development of the Iron Triangle, were essentially opposed to Kennan's ideas on US policy. However, the Iron Triangle did in fact help promote American fortitude in the face of the Soviets, and the McCarthy era, although it showed American weakness, did result in the rise to power of Richard Nixon, who would eventually institute a policy towards the Soviet Union which most closely fit Kennan's ideas, detente.

One other factor in domestic politics was a continual problem for Kennan, and his fellow realists: the excessive rhetoric used by politicians, which the public absorbed, and then demanded action upon. Rhetorical proclamations like the Truman Doctrine were far more rhetoric than policy, but the public expected a policy that followed those guidelines. Some realists insist that the public should have been taught the realist approach instead of having it hidden beneath rhetorical speeches. Most simply wished to isolate "diplomacy and the foreign policy elite from Congress and the public." (Mayers 294) Henry Kissinger fell into this category, and that is one's lead into the topic of the era of detente.


A preliminary glance at the period of detente shows an American policy with which Kennan would have little to quibble. However, a closer examination reveals as much a mixed bag in detente as in the rest of America's policy towards the Soviet Union.

The signing of the Helsinki accords helped bring a modicum of stability to European relations in the late 1970's, as the conflict was lessened. Such stability certainly fits the goals of Kennan. Unfortunately, they also removed territorial boundaries in Europe from the cold war conflict, legitimizing the divided nature of Europe. This essentially ruled out any change in the unity of the Soviet bloc, in effect formalizing the Brezhnev doctrine.

The start of triangular diplomacy by Kissinger and Nixon, begun by the opening of formal relations with mainland China, was an explicit rendering of Kennan's doctrine. A crack in the Soviet bloc was utilized to its fullest extent to pressure the Soviets. Engaging in cooperative efforts with China scared the hell out of the USSR and compelled the Soviets to move closer to the Americans.

The implementation of arms control agreements was precisely the sort of checks on military conflict for which Kennan might have hoped. Though the rationale behind them on the American side was to limit Soviet military expansion, they also lessened the international military tension to a certain extent.

Engagement with the Soviets on all matters of cultural, technical, and economic matters was just the sort of interaction for which Kennan had been striving. As well, the downturn in blistering rhetoric made for a easier, more manageable relationship. Vitriolic taunting made the US appear weak, emotional and ineffectual, according to Kennan; hence the decrease was positive in terms of US position.

In particular, where there was a conflict, it was better managed than in the past. For the most part, America remained "cool and collected", as Kennan preferred. As well, American demands of Russian policy were made in a much more subdued manner, leaving "the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige." (Kennan 576)

Of course, the conflict in the Third World continued unabated, if not increasing, in this period. The Soviets stepped up their aid to revolutionary movements, and acquired a set of vassal states. Kennan would not have cared much about Soviet exploits in this regard, but the US performed was rarely less active. The continuing infatuation with the spread of communist regimes in the third world was not a part of the Kennan focus, and the coup against Allende in Chile, or the fight against the Marxists in Angola, were simply not part of his grand strategy.

Since detente was a game of smoke and mirrors, it is not surprising that it probably made few policy experts happy. It encompassed some of Kennan's prescriptions, but also continued the militarized and limitless form of crusading activism which he abhorred. Most conservatives felt that detente was

a ruse that had allowed the Soviets to expand their presence and influence abroad virtually without opposition, especially in the Third World... to race ahead with their strategic programs while our strength declined... to drive the West out of the Third World, replacing Western influence and presence with their own... isolating and surrounding the United States. (Gates 194)

They acted accordingly, and near the end of the Carter administration, detente, and much of Kennan's influence over policy, was dead.


Kennan brought to foreign policy an antiquated conception of how to formulate policy, and that was why his ideas did not meet with much implementation in US policy to the Soviet Union. Only when someone such as Kissinger came along, who was of similar beliefs, did a Kennan-style foreign policy truly see the light of day. Even in that case, detente was a limited, short-lived exercise.

The conception of diplomacy and foreign policy as separate and private from the rest of a nation's affairs was obviously heavily influenced by realist theory on policy-making. Such a process, however, is difficult if not impossible in a modern democratic state, due to the dispersion of power within both the nation and the government, as well as the imposition of national values and ethics into the foreign policy machine (if it can be referred to as such). The isolated foreign policy machine was a product of earlier periods, under such masters of the craft as Richelu and Metternich, but they operated under different circumstances. In fact, it is not surprising that Kissinger would favor this kind of approach, since he was a historian of these diplomatic periods as an academic.

However, it was this approach that doomed Kennan's policy ideas. Although he recognized the importance of America's domestic scene, he wanted to divorce it from the international one, a nearly impossible task. While "insulating diplomacy and the foreign policy elite from Congress and the public" (Mayers 294) was an interesting idea, it was impractical. Thus, Kennan's ideas saw limited reflection in actual US policy to the Soviet Union.

Also, though he often raged about American leaders' usage of emotional rhetoric, he himself used just the same in his "X" article. His stance was at times incoherent and contradictions were inescapable.

Works Cited

Deibel, Terry L.. "Alliances and Security Relationships: A Dialogue with Kennan and His Critics." Containment: Concept and Policy. vol. 1. Ed. Terry L. Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1986. (189-215)

Gaddis, John Lewis. "Introduction: The Evolution of Containment." Containment: Concept and Policy. vol. 1. Ed. Terry L. Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1986. (3-19)

Gates, Robert M. From the Shadows. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Kennan, George ("X"). "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Foreign Affairs . July 1947. (567-582).

Kissinger, Henry. "Reflections on Containment." Foreign Affairs . May/June 1994. (113-130)

Mayers, David. George Kennan and the Dilemmas of US Foreign Policy . Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ullman, Richard H. "Containment and the Shape of World Politics, 1947-1987." Containment: Concept and Policy. vol. 2. Ed. Terry L. Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1986. (615-637)

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