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The legacy of the most influential Cold War diplomat

George F. Kennan’s advocacy of a “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union had profound impact on the Truman and successor administrations.

George F. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, is pictured on Feb. 4, 1959, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee.
Henry Griffin, Associated Press

“We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture … than we have put forward in the past.” This is from the famous “Long Telegram” sent from Moscow to Washington by diplomat George F. Kennan in early 1946.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of that event. Kennan’s advocacy of a “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union had profound impact on the Truman and successor administrations.

The alliance against Nazi Germany, vital to victory in World War II, collapsed soon thereafter. Soviet leaders’ efforts to force Britain, France and the United States out of Berlin sparked four decades of Cold War. The Korean War made the conflict global.

The Cold War was essentially rooted in different conceptions of society and relations between nations. The Soviet Communist Party was a passing political machine. More profound is enduring Russian insecurity and fear of invasion.

Kennan was among the most perceptive of the Cold War U.S. policy analysts. He focused on traditional prudent realist diplomacy, including inherently conflicting national interests.

He emphasized that Soviet and U.S. leaders contrast in experiences and outlook. Direct human experience with brutal total war informed Moscow’s worldview.

The fundamentally unproductive Soviet system — if restrained — would eventually collapse. Relations with friendly nations were relatively more important.

Kennan headed the policy planning staff of the State Department during the Truman administration, when containment became formally established as the foundation of the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union. He also became a target of isolationists, nationalists and others unhappy with this approach.

John Foster Dulles, who became President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, seemed to take pleasure in snubbing and sidelining Kennan. Eisenhower after his inauguration established working groups to “redefine” our foreign policy. Kennan chaired one.

Kennan’s group dominated discussion and analysis. Dulles in effect had to defer to Kennan. Ike, whom Fred Greenstein termed “the hidden-hand president,” again provided vital leadership.

President John Kennedy brought Kennan back into service as ambassador to Yugoslavia. Positioned at the crossroads of Cold War conflict, representing our national interests in a major breakaway East European state, he acquitted himself commendably.

In 1979, Princeton University Press published Kennan’s scholarly, challenging book, “The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order.” After unifying Germany, Otto von Bismarck provided effective diplomatic leadership to continental Europe through managing complex alliances. His departure from office, and the mediocre leadership that followed, set the stage for World War I.

Today the European Union provides a unifying structure, while Germany has reemerged as principal leading nation on the continent. Chancellor Angela Merkel has succeeded in securing greater financial discipline within the EU, especially regarding heavily indebted nations of southern Europe. She also is adept at limiting strong domestic political pressures to abandon the leadership role, which includes underwriting the solvency of nations many Germans view as profligate.

German nationalist sentiments are subdued but still potentially potent. The success of Merkel’s balancing act, leading the diverse nations of the EU while reconciling often-intense domestic political factions, is exceptionally impressive.

The EU and NATO alliance provide frameworks for nations to coordinate counter-pressures on Russia, in Ukraine and elsewhere. The fact that NATO has endured strongly, with no serious internal weakness or external challenge, since the end of the Cold War implies that containment has a strong continuing role as well. Within these alliance structures, economic and military, economic strength provides important tools for diplomatic leverage.

In our post-Cold War world, ambitious young women and men seek to emulate Kennan’s policy reformation. Instead, we should refine and update his insights.

Learn more: John Lewis Gaddis, “George F. Kennan: An American Life”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu