Reconsiderations: Containment: A Reassessment

Courtesy Reuters

"I felt like one who has inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster."1 So George F. Kennan described the consequences of having published in this journal, 30 years ago this month, the article which introduced the term "containment" to the world. Attributed only to a "Mr. X" in order to protect the author's position as Director of the State Department's new Policy Planning Staff, the article, entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," was nonetheless quickly revealed by Arthur Krock as having come from Kennan's pen. Ironically, its very anonymity assured it a conspicuousness Kennan's subsequent efforts to clarify his views never attained.

No article in the history of Foreign Affairs has been more frequently reprinted; none, it would also appear safe to say, has lent itself to more variant interpretations. "Containment" has been defined as a global commitment to resist communism everywhere; as a passive, negative condemnation of millions to enslavement behind the iron curtain; as a blueprint for the domination of the world by American imperialism, and as the short-sighted acquiescence of a dutiful giant in the process of being nibbled away by midgets. Its critics have ranged from Robert A. Taft and John Foster Dulles to Walter Lippmann and J. William Fulbright; it has been invoked to justify such diverse enterprises as the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Korean "police action," the Eisenhower Doctrine, and, to its inventor's most intense discomfort, the war in Vietnam.

Historians have argued for years over what Kennan meant to say in the "X" article, and Kennan himself has attempted to resolve this issue in his Memoirs. But recollections are, of necessity, selective; critics have charged as well that elements of self-justification entered into Kennan's account.2 Within the past few years, however, thanks to the declassification of National Security Council and Policy Planning Staff documents from the 1947-1949 period and the

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