CONTAINMENT: 40 Years Later : Introduction

Forty years ago, in the pages of this journal, there appeared an extraordinary article that changed American foreign policy. Its title was "The Sources of Soviet Conduct"; written by George F. Kennan, it was first published under the pseudonym of "X." It was a closely reasoned, elegantly drafted analysis of Soviet foreign policy, its motives and ambitions. Perhaps more important, the article presented a strong prescription for American policy. Kennan argued that compared to the West, Russia was still by far the weaker party, that Soviet policy was highly flexible, and that "Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential." He concluded:

This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.

This brief passage defined the doctrine of containment as the fundamental American approach to the Soviet Union. The policy was in fact already evolving in the Truman Administration, but Kennan gave it an intellectual and analytical framework and brought it to public attention. The author’s true identity was quickly discovered (though not acknowledged until 1951), and the American press began to hail a new policy. Arthur Krock, then a reporter for The New York Times, cited the article as authoritative, public evidence that the Truman Administration was adopting Kennan’s policy recommendations after "appeasement of the Kremlin proved a failure."

As the discussion broadened and the author’s stature became understood, the secretary of state, George C. Marshall, summoned Kennan, whom he had just named director of the new Policy Planning Staff, and with "raised eyebrows" inquired about the article. The last thing Marshall had expected, Kennan later noted in his memoirs, was that his new policy planner would have his name bandied about in the press as the author of a "programmatical article, on the greatest of American foreign policy problems." His point made, Marshall never raised the matter again with Kennan.

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