"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 partial opening of the Kennan Papers, it has become possible to compare what Kennan said publicly and in his Memoirs with the positions he was taking inside the government at the time. These sources confirm Kennan's assertion that the "X" article was an incomplete and misleading reflection of his views. They also suggest that "containment," properly understood, is by no means an outmoded concept; that aspects of it bear striking relevance to problems the Carter Administration is likely to confront as it enters the fourth decade of what we may still regard, with some qualifications, as the cold war.


One of several paradoxes associated with the "X" article is that it was taken at the time, and continues to be remembered, as a work of prescription. Such was not its primary emphasis. Rather, Kennan devoted most of the piece to an explanation of Soviet hostility toward the West. Of the article's 17 pages, only three contained what might be considered recommendations for action by the United States, and these were couched only in general terms. For a document hailed as providing a new strategic concept for the postwar world, the "X" article in fact said remarkably little about strategy.

Kennan attributed Soviet hostility to a deep and brooding sense of uneasiness on the part of Kremlin leaders. This phenomenon reflected, to some extent, historical experience: lacking protective geographical barriers and subject, throughout its history, to recurrent invasion, the Russian state had never enjoyed the luxury of free security Americans had always taken for granted. Partly, the tendency arose also out of the conspiratorial habits formed by Bolshevik organizers during years in the underground: survival, for them, had come to depend on trusting no one. It was these two forms of insecurity - historical and organizational - which accounted for the peculiar and difficult behavior of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.

Ideology, in Kennan's scheme of things, performed several functions. It served to legitimize an illegitimate regime: if one could not claim to rule by the will of God, as had the Russian tsars, then ruling by the will of history, in the form of the Marxian dialectic, was the next best thing. It also provided justification for the repression without which Soviet leaders, unimaginative as they were, did not know how to rule: as long as most of the world was capitalist, harsh measures could be portrayed as necessary to protect the leading communist state. Finally, ideology was significant because it associated the Soviet Union with revolutionary aspirants in other countries, thus giving the Kremlin, through the international communist movement, an instrument with which to project influence beyond its borders.

But Kennan did not see ideology as a determinant of Soviet policy. The body of doctrine which made up communism was so amorphous that it required an intermediary to relate and apply it to the real world. This circumstance placed that intermediary - the Soviet government - in a position to say what ideology was at any given moment. "The leadership is at liberty," Kennan wrote,

to put forward for tactical purposes any particular thesis which it finds useful to the cause at any particular moment and to require the faithful and unquestioning acceptance of that thesis by the members of the movement as a whole. This means that truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves. It may vary from week to week, from month to month. It is nothing absolute and immutable.

Communism, then, was not so much a guide to action as a justification for action already decided upon. It was true, Kennan implied, that Stalin might not feel secure until he had come to dominate the entire world, but that attitude grew out of the dictator's own unfathomable sense of insecurity, not out of any principled commitment to the goal of an international classless society.

Kennan regarded Soviet expansionism as both easier and more difficult to deal with than that of Napoleon or Hitler: easier because it had no fixed timetable and would yield in the face of resistance; more difficult because of its persistence, its refusal to be discouraged by individual setbacks. It was within this context that Kennan made his call for a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world," he continued, "is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy."

Prospects for such an approach were favorable, Kennan maintained, because of the vulnerabilities which existed within Soviet society. These included the human costs of forced industrialization and terror, the destruction of war, the uneven nature of Soviet economic development, the problem of succession after Stalin's death, potential antagonism between the Party leadership and its rank and file, and the possibility that revolutionary movements outside the U.S.S.R. might look to places other than Moscow for inspiration and leadership. Kennan concluded this section of his article with a reference to the proposition, advanced in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, that "human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced."

Given these circumstances, the United States could not expect to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime, but neither should it regard war as inevitable. Nor did it have to resign itself to an indefinite policy of "holding the line and hoping for the best," for "it is entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement, by which Russian policy is largely determined." This could be done by its "creat[ing] among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time." The result, in due course, would be "either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power," for the simple reason that "no mystical, Messianic movement - and particularly not that of the Kremlin - can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs." All that was needed, then, was for the United States to "measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation."


Such, in brief, was the substance of the "X" article. It is hardly necessary to dwell on the criticisms it provoked, first and most eloquently from Walter Lippmann, who dismissed containment as a "strategic monstrosity," and then from a host of other commentators, on both the Right and the Left. Basically, these complaints boiled down to three points: (1) that Kennan's determination "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" would allow Moscow to determine the time, place, and nature of competition, and would as a consequence risk the commitment of American resources on unsuitable terrain; (2) that Kennan failed to make clear whether the roots of Soviet behavior were ideological or national, and so obscured the distinction between Russian expansionism and international communism; and (3) that by calling for actions which could only reinforce Stalin's paranoia, Kennan was precluding any movement toward the disengagement of Soviet and American forces in Europe, and an eventual negotiated settlement of outstanding differences.3

Certainly the first criticism was justified: Kennan's language did appear to imply relinquishing the strategic initiative to the Russians. Such a course of action would mean, Lippmann charged, that "for ten or fifteen years Moscow, not Washington, would define the issues, would make the challenges, would select the ground where the conflict was to be waged, and would choose the weapons." Containment could only be implemented "by recruiting, subsidizing and supporting a heterogenous array of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets, . . . a coalition of disorganized, disunited, feeble or disorderly nations, tribes, and factions around the perimeter of the Soviet Union."

In fact, though, such lack of discrimination in defining interests and choosing allies was the last thing Kennan favored. We know from Joseph Jones' book that he opposed the sweeping language of the Truman Doctrine; the first Policy Planning Staff paper, written in May 1947, advised taking steps to correct the impression that "the Truman Doctrine is a blank check to give economic and military aid to any area in the world where the Communists show signs of being successful." "It may be that we have undertaken too much," Kennan admitted to a National War College audience the following month; "there is a serious gap . . . between the things we have set out to do and our capabilities for doing them." Another Policy Planning Staff paper, completed in July, noted that "the extent of the calls on this country is so great in relation to our resources that we could not contemplate assistance to others on any universal basis, even if this were desirable. A beginning would have to be made somewhere, and the best place for a beginning is obviously in Europe."4

Kennan's emphasis on limited means, and on the consequent need to differentiate interests, comes through clearly in a comprehensive "Resumé of [the] World Situation" which he prepared for Secretary of State George C. Marshall in November 1947. The effort to stop the Soviet Union's political advance had "stretched our resources dangerously far in several respects," he argued; "it is clearly unwise for us to continue the attempt to carry alone, or largely single-handed, the opposition to Soviet expansion. It is urgently necessary for us to restore something of the balance of power in Europe and Asia by strengthening local forces of independence and by getting them to assume part of the burden." Significantly, Kennan described the European Recovery Program, then just getting underway, as "probably . . . the last major effort of this nature which our people could, or should, make."5

Kennan held out little hope for American interests in the Far East, not because that region was unimportant, but because the United States lacked the capacity to affect events there in any decisive way. "It is urgently necessary," he wrote in February 1948, "that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples." After conversations with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo in March, Kennan expressed support for a "political-strategic concept" based on the notion that "while we would endeavor to influence events on the mainland of Asia in ways favorable to our security, we would not regard any mainland areas as vital to us." Such an approach meant, in Kennan's view, no further involvement in the Chinese civil war, the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, the demilitarization and neutralization of Japan and the Philippines, and the maintenance of American bases on Okinawa, Guam, and the former Japanese-mandated islands.6

"Repeatedly," Kennan wrote in his Memoirs, "I expressed in talks and lectures the view that there were only five regions of the world - the United States, the United Kingdom, the Rhine valley with adjacent industrial areas, the Soviet Union, and Japan - where the sinews of modern military strength could be produced in quantity; I pointed out that only one of these was under Communist control; and I defined the main task of containment, accordingly, as one of seeing to it that none of the remaining ones fell under such control."7 The documents now available leave little doubt that this was, in fact, Kennan's view at the time.8 One can only marvel, as Kennan does in his Memoirs, at the extent to which the "X" article managed to convey precisely the opposite impression.

The confusion arose largely out of Kennan's failure to explain what he meant by "counterforce." Without further qualification the word suggested, and was taken by Lippmann to mean, military resistance to Soviet expansion wherever it occurred. But a preliminary version of the "X" article, found in the Kennan Papers, conveys a very different impression. The passage is worth quoting in full:

The problem of meeting the Kremlin in international affairs therefore boils down to this: Its inherent expansive tendencies must be firmly contained at all times by counter-pressure which makes it constantly evident that attempts to break through this containment would be detrimental to Soviet interests. The irritating by-products of an ideology indispensable to the Soviet regime for internal reasons must not be allowed to become the cause of hysterical alarm or of tragic despair among those abroad who are working towards a happier association of the Russian people with the world community of nations. The United States, in particular, must demonstrate by its own self-confidence and patience, but particularly by the integrity and dignity of its example, that the true glory of the Russian national effort can find its expression only in peaceful association with other peoples and not in attempts to subjugate and dominate those peoples. Such an attitude on the part of this country would have with it the deepest logic of history; and in the long run it could not fail to carry conviction and to find reflection in the development of Russia's internal political life and, accordingly, in the Soviet concept of Russia's place in international affairs.9

One need hardly emphasize the difference between this passage, which describes "counter-pressure" as an effort to encourage, by example, long-term changes in the Soviet concept of international relations, and the "X" article's apparent endorsement of "counterforce," to be applied in circumstances which the Russians could largely control. It is a startling demonstration of the misunderstandings which can flow from a slight shift of phrase, combined with an excessive devotion to the principle of economy in prose.

A second point on which the "X" article was misunderstood had to do with the question of what was to be contained: Soviet expansionism or international communism. Lippmann accused Kennan of having become "exclusively preoccupied with Marxian ideology, and with the communist revolution." "It was the mighty power of the Red Army, not the ideology of Karl Marx, which enabled the Russian government to expand its frontiers," Lippmann pointed out; "the policy which I suggest is . . . to divide the Red Army from the Red International."10

It is true that Kennan, like most observers at the time, used the terms "communism" and "Soviet expansionism" almost interchangeably. But a careful reading of the "X" article would hardly sustain the argument that it was "exclusively preoccupied" with ideology; rather, as noted earlier, it emphasized the malleable nature of communism and the extent to which ideology reflected Soviet national interests. "The role of ideology in Soviet political society, while of tremendous importance, is not primarily that of a basic determinant of political action," Kennan wrote in his preliminary version of the "X" article. "It is rather a prism through which Soviet eyes must view the world, and an indispensable vehicle for the translation into words and actions of impulses and aspirations which have their origin deeper still. . . . But it is important to remember that its bearing is on coloration of background, on form of expression, and on method of execution, rather than on basic aim."11

Kennan drew from this the conclusion that a communist regime beyond the reach of Soviet military or police power would pose no great threat to American security, and might even offer certain advantages. As he explained at the University of Virginia in February 1947:

Perhaps this bubble cannot really be pricked until one of these parties has come into power in a country not contiguous to the borders of the direct military power of Russia. . . . A communist regime in power in some such country which either failed to meet its responsibilities and discredited itself in the eyes of the people or which turned on its masters, repudiated the Kremlin's authority, and bit the hand that had reared it, might be more favorable to the interests of this country and of world peace in the long run than an unscrupulous opposition party spewing slander from the safe vantage point of irresponsibility.

Kennan went on to predict in this lecture that if the Chinese Communists ever gained control in China, "the men in the Kremlin would suddenly discover that this fluid subtle oriental movement which they thought they held in the palm of their hand had quietly oozed away between their fingers and that there was nothing left there but a ceremonious Chinese bow and a polite and inscrutable Chinese giggle."12

The idea of encouraging tension between the Soviet Union and the international communist movement lay behind several of Kennan's most important policy recommendations during this period. His suggestion, in the summer of 1947, that Marshall Plan aid be offered to the Soviet Union and its East European satellites was an attempt, not only to place the onus for dividing Europe on the Russians, but also to strain the relationship between the Kremlin and its clients. Early in 1948, he recommended relating the level of U.S. naval and air activity in the Eastern Mediterranean to the level of communist activity in Italy and Greece, with the thought that a conflict would thereby be produced between the interests of Greek and Italian Communists on the one hand, and Soviet security requirements on the other. "In conflicts of this sort," he noted, "the interests of narrow Soviet nationalism usually win."13

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that Kennan welcomed Tito's break with Moscow in the summer of 1948. As a Policy Planning Staff study noted in June:

The international communist movement will never be able to make good entirely the damage done by this development. For the first time in the history of the movement, a servant of the international communist movement controlling territory, armed forces, and a political organization, has defied, with at least temporary success, the authority of the Kremlin. This example will be noted by other communists everywhere. Eventually, the non-Russian communists will come to appreciate that they have no future as servants of Kremlin policies.

Kennan cited a communist China as one country where Titoist tendencies might manifest themselves; so, too, were the remaining satellites in Eastern Europe. The first comprehensive National Security Council study on that part of the world, which originated as a Policy Planning Staff document and was approved by President Truman in December 1949, called for fostering "a heretical drifting-away process on the part of the satellite states." Such a trend might eventually result, it noted, in the formation of "two opposing blocs in the communist world," a situation which could "provide us with an opportunity to operate on the basis of a balance in the communist world, and to foster the tendencies toward accommodation with the West implicit in such a state of affairs."14

Behind this anticipation of polycentrism within the international communist movement was a simple confidence in the durability of nationalism, and in the Russians' chronic inability to avoid alienating those with whom they came in contact. "The actions of people in power are often controlled far more by the circumstances in which they are obliged to exercise that power than by the ideas and principles which animated them when they were in opposition," a Policy Planning Staff study concluded in August 1948. Moreover,

Kremlin leaders are so over-bearing and so cynical in the discipline they impose on their followers that few can stand their authority for very long. . . . Conditions are therefore favorable to a concerted effort on our part designed to take advantage of Soviet mistakes and of the rifts that have appeared, and to promote the steady deterioration of the structure of moral influence by which the authority of the Kremlin has been carried to peoples far beyond the reach of Soviet police power.15

What these documents show, then, is that there was no contradiction between the concepts of "containment" and "liberation," if by that latter term is meant the cautious encouragement of centrifugal tendencies within the international communist movement. But it should be noted that this approach implied "liberation" only from Soviet control, not necessarily from communism. "We are not necessarily always against the expansion of communism, and certainly not always against it to the same degree in every area," Kennan observed late in 1947; "it all depends on circumstances."16 If ideology reflected rather than determined state interests, it followed that communism posed a threat to American security only where linked to, and the reliable instrument of, a state like the Soviet Union, which combined hostility with the ability to do something about it.

The third major criticism which Lippmann made regarding the "X" article was that "the policy of containment . . . does not have as its objective a settlement of the conflict with Russia." Lippmann went on to urge the mutual withdrawal of "non-European" armies from Europe.17 It is true that the "X" article made no specific proposals along these lines, although it did foresee, over an indeterminate length of time, a gradual "mellowing" of the Soviet regime which might make it possible to relax tensions. The documents show, though, that while Kennan was not sanguine about the prospects, he was prepared to explore opportunities for negotiations even before Stalin's death; that his own proposal for disengagement in Europe, which caused such a furor when broached publicly in the 1957 Reith lectures, had in fact been advanced tentatively within the government as early as 1948.

Kennan had always taken the position that negotiations required not so much strength as self-confidence. Military power had its uses, he acknowledged: "You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background." But the military balance alone would not determine the course of negotiations, simply because weapons and troop levels were only one of several components of power on the international scene. "Remember that . . . as things stand today," he told a National War College audience in October 1947, "it is not Russian military power which is threatening us, it is Russian political power. . . . If it is not entirely a military threat, I doubt that it can be effectively met entirely by military means." Kennan had concluded, by the end of 1947, that the psychological impact of the Marshall Plan had restored a substantial degree of self-confidence in Europe, and had provided "the greatest shock to Soviet foreign policy since the invasion of Russia by the Germans in 1941."18 If those trends continued, he believed, the time would be right to begin investigating prospects for accommodation with Moscow.

In a February 1948 Policy Planning Staff paper, Kennan advocated preparations for negotiations with the Russians aimed at persuading them "(a) to reduce communist pressures elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East to a point where we can afford to withdraw all our armed forces from the continent and the Mediterranean; and (b) to acquiesce thereafter in a prolonged period of stability in Europe." "The day will come when the Russians will find it to their advantage to talk to us," Kennan wrote two months later in an unsent letter to Walter Lippmann, "and it may be sooner than many of us suspect. That day will come when they have arrived at the conclusion that they cannot have what they want without talking to us."19

Underlying Kennan's position was the assumption that the Soviet Union was not impervious to outside influences; that change was at least as inevitable there as in the West, and that, through careful diplomacy, such changes could be turned to the West's advantage. As a Policy Planning study put it:

The Soviet leaders are prepared to recognize situations, if not arguments. If, therefore, situations can be created in which it is clearly not to the advantage of their power to emphasize the elements of conflict in their relations with the outside world, then their actions, and even the tenor of their propaganda to their own people, can be modified.20

It was this belief in the mutability of ideology, an idea Kennan had expressed clearly but to little effect in the "X" article, which formed the basis of his argument that Soviet hostility toward the outside world need not last forever, and that it was in the interests of the United States to be prepared to benefit from such modifications in the Russians' behavior as might arise.

Overall, though, the "X" article expressed Kennan's concept of containment in an inaccurate and incomplete manner. Kennan's admitted imprecision of language contributed to this misunderstanding, as did the fact that his official position precluded public clarification. Lippmann compounded the problem by focusing his objections on selected portions of the article, ignoring especially its broader implications regarding the role of ideology in the Soviet state. But whatever the causes of the original confusion, there is sufficient evidence in the newly released documents to corroborate Kennan's argument, made ten years ago in his Memoirs, that the "X" article should no longer be taken as the definitive statement of what he meant by "containment."21


"It was not 'containment' that failed," Kennan wrote in those Memoirs; "it was the intended follow-up that never occurred." There is, in fact, much to be said for viewing containment as a process involving several stages: first, restoration of a balance of power in areas threatened by Soviet expansionism; second, reduction of the Soviet Union's influence beyond its borders through the cautious exploitation of antagonisms between Moscow and the international communist movement; and third, as a long-range objective, alteration of the Soviet concept of international relations as a means of facilitating a negotiated settlement of outstanding differences.22 Only the first of these stages can be said to have been fully implemented during the early years of the cold war; ironically, its very success impeded progress toward the other two.

The problem was the extent to which Kennan's strategy relied on psychology. He sought to deny key industrial areas to the Russians, but to do so primarily by instilling a sense of self-confidence in the minds of the people who lived there. That approach placed his program at the mercy of whatever fears, rational or irrational, those people might hold.

One such fear was the prospect of Soviet military attack, and the possibility that the United States might not be able to do anything about it. Kennan thought this fear groundless, but in the end he was forced to acknowledge that self-confidence in Western Europe would not develop without a specific security guarantee by the United States. Another concern was the possibility that German militarism might revive; that prospect made the indefinite partition of Germany more attractive to most West Europeans than reunification. The difficulty with such measures as the North Atlantic Treaty and the establishment of an independent West German state was that they tended to perpetuate the division of Europe into two hostile camps, thereby delaying the negotiations leading toward Soviet and American disengagement which Kennan thought essential for stability in that part of the world. Nor would it be easy to call a halt once the process of forming alliances had begun: "There is no logical stopping point in the development of a system of anti-Russian alliances," Kennan wrote late in 1948, "until that system has circled the globe and has embraced all the non-communist countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa."23

Another unanticipated difficulty involved the psychological effect communist victories in countries not vital to American security could have in those which were. It is significant that Kennan supported aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947, not because those states were on his list of key industrial regions which had to be kept out of Russian hands, but because of the impression their collapse would have produced in Western Europe, which was such a region. For similar reasons, he endorsed the decision to aid South Korea in 1950, even though three years earlier he had described the American position there as untenable, and had advocated withdrawal as soon as possible.24 It was not all that difficult, then, to slide from a belief that the balance of power required nothing more than a limited application of effort in a few key locations to a conviction that that balance could be maintained only by massive expenditures of energy in peripheral areas.

Nor was it a simple matter to maintain the distinction between Soviet expansionism and international communism. Confusion on this point stemmed partly from the Truman Administration's imprecise public rhetoric: in order to get its foreign aid program through the Congress, the Administration had found it necessary to present the Soviet threat in global terms, an approach which did not encourage differentiation between varieties of communism. The heated political atmosphere of the period also caused problems: even before Senator Joseph R. McCarthy had given his name to the syndrome, expressions of willingness to deal with communists anywhere had begun to risk accusations of disloyalty, even treason. Reinforcing these tendencies was an increasingly widespread habit of using ideology as a predictive instrument, of assuming that ideological orientation took precedence over other influences in determining the behavior of states, and could be used as a basis upon which to anticipate their behavior. The combined effect of these trends was to inhibit further efforts to exploit differences within the international communist movement.

Yet another problem with Kennan's strategy was its emphasis on Soviet intentions rather than on capabilities; on what the Russians were likely to do, rather than on what they could do.25 This was not an easy approach to sustain because it ran up against the national security bureaucracy's proclivity for worst-case analysis. It required accepting on faith the notion that the Russians did not want a war when in fact many of their actions - Czechoslovakia, Berlin, Korea - appeared to indicate the opposite. Kennan's emphasis on intentions became even harder to maintain once it had become clear that the Soviet Union had the potential, should war come, of inflicting substantial damage on the United States and its allies. News of the Russian atomic bomb made it appear much less risky to base military planning on Soviet capabilities rather than intentions; the price, though, was a persistent overestimation of Soviet strength, and an equally persistent lack of enthusiasm for negotiations until perceived strategic inadequacies had been remedied.

Finally, a fundamental assumption underlying Kennan's concept of containment had been the awareness that the United States lacked the resources to sustain worldwide commitments, and that, accordingly, hard choices would have to be made between what it would have to accept, and what it could reasonably expect to change. American officials never entirely lost sight of that fact, but the conclusions of the strategic reassessment which took place early in 1950 - that means were capable of greater expansion than had been thought - had strong appeal; there ensued, as a result, a certain loss of sensitivity to the relationship between costs and commitments which Kennan had so strongly stressed.26

There was, in all of these problems, a common thread: all of them - preoccupation with building alliances, the use of ideology as a predictive instrument, concern with credibility, the emphasis on commitments and neglect of costs - reflect excessive attention to the processes of diplomacy, and a corresponding tendency to lose sight of objectives. They reflect an inclination to let strategy dictate policy rather than the other way around. To the extent that the United States contributed to the perpetuation of the cold war, it was in large part as a result of this confusion between ends and means, of the habit of concentrating so much on the mechanisms of containment as to lose sight of precisely what it was that strategy was supposed to contain.

But if Kennan's critics within the government preoccupied themselves excessively with processes, it must be noted that he himself leaned too far in the other direction by failing to devote sufficient attention to the problems of implementing containment. Skeptical of the efficacy of written policy statements as guides to action, Kennan relied simply on the continued presence of qualified experts to guide the hand of policymakers, much as he had done with Secretary of State Marshall between 1947 and 1949. He gave little thought to what might happen if those policymakers, or the bureaucracies they controlled, failed to seek such advice.27 Nor did he concern himself adequately with the question of how self-confidence could be maintained, whether within the government, with the general public, or among allies overseas, while at the same time making the sharp distinctions between vital and peripheral interests, varieties of communism, and adversary capabilities and intentions upon which his strategy depended so heavily.

Partly because of this combination of difficulties (and partly also because of external circumstances), it would not be until the early 1970s that the United States would undertake a sustained effort to implement what Kennan had regarded as "the intended follow-up" to containment - the exploitation of fissures within the international communist movement, and the exploration with the Russians of opportunities for reducing tensions through negotiations. There is irony in the fact that these initiatives occurred during the administration of a President who, in his early career, had denounced Kennan's ideas as passive and defeatist. The diplomacy of Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger was not so much a conceptual breakthrough, then, as it was a return to the unimplemented aspects of containment Kennan had proposed a quarter of a century before.


To a considerable degree, the original objectives of containment have now been achieved. Whether because of the nuclear weapons stalemate or the diffusion of power from large states to small, there exists today a more stable international equilibrium than most observers 30 years ago would have thought possible. Certainly a split has developed between the Soviet Union and the international communist movement: the word "communist" now takes in such a diversity of systems and personalities as to render it little more than a semantic expression. Nor can it be denied that changes have taken place in the way the Russians view the international order. There is room for debate over how far they have come in accommodating themselves to it, but there can be little question that "mellowing" has taken place since Stalin's day.

But these things have happened more in spite of than because of American policy. The United States did, of course, play a vital role in restoring the balance of power in Europe after World War II. By maintaining its end of the nuclear balance, it contributed further to that stability. But the other great force which has constrained the superpowers - the rise of nationalism - has proceeded for the most part independently of American efforts; by the early 1950s Washington officials had lost sight of Kennan's idea of working with nationalism to contain the Russians. Similarly, the American proclivity for employing ideology as a predictive instrument may well have delayed fragmentation of the communist monolith. It was no small feat to begin treating communism as a unit at precisely the moment, with the emergence of Tito in Yugoslavia and Mao in China, that it ceased to be one. Nor has the United States helped all that much in smoothing the Kremlin's path toward a new view of the international order. By refraining for so long from negotiating with the Russians, we very likely confirmed their fears of the outside world; more recently, in the view of some, we have negotiated too often, thereby encouraging Moscow to take the outside world too much for granted.

There is need to align American policies, to a greater extent than has been done in the recent past, with what is already happening in the world - to let events work for us, rather than against us. Kennan argued 30 years ago that the United States could more easily find security in a diverse world than could the Russians. There is no reason to think that any less true today. Possibly there should be a new name for this strategy: "containment" always was something of a misnomer, suggesting as it did the disconcerting precedents of Sisyphus, or the boy with a finger in the dike. But whatever the label, the assumption behind Kennan's argument in this respect remains valid - that the United States can tolerate diversity with greater self-confidence than can the Soviet Union, and that, as a consequence, the overall "correlation of forces" in the world need not be regarded as necessarily inimical to our interests.

There are other ways in which Kennan's ideas from the 1940s might be fruitfully applied to contemporary affairs. One would be to stop using ideology as a predictive instrument. It would be helpful to recognize that we have been no more successful in anticipating the behavior of communist states on the basis of their ideological orientation than they have been in anticipating our own. Compared to such entrenched phenomena as nationalism, racism, greed, or sheer human intractability, communism is today a relatively insignificant determinant of events on the international scene, unless of course we choose to impart significance to it by giving it more attention than it deserves. The objective of containment was, and still should be, to limit the expansion of Soviet influence in the world. To allow energies and resources to be diverted to the task of opposing something called "international communism" is not only to pervert the intent of Kennan's strategy; it is to embark in pursuit of a phantom.

We can also learn from Kennan a certain skepticism regarding the dangers posed by Soviet hegemonic aspirations. Because the Russians handle diversity badly, their attempts to expand influence tend to take on anti-national characteristics, and to generate in time their own resistance. "One must not be too frightened," Kennan observed in his Memoirs,

of those who aspire to world domination. No one people is great enough to establish a world hegemony. There are built-in impediments to the permanent exertion by any power of dominant influence in areas which it is unable to garrison and police, or at least to overshadow from positions of close proximity, by its own troops.28

This is nothing more than a recognition of the "staying power" of nationalism, and of the inescapable effects of what Clausewitz a century and a half ago called "friction." (The principle is known to a more recent generation of strategists as Murphy's Law: "What can go wrong will go wrong.") One can always question such reassurances from "worst-case" perspectives, but the phenomenon they describe has rarely failed to manifest itself.

Similarly, it would be advantageous to keep in mind Kennan's admonition that there should be some correspondence, in strategy, between the effect desired and that likely to be produced. "The world situation is not something which exists independently of our defense policy and to which we need only react," Kennan wrote in 1948. "It will be deeply influenced by the measures which we ourselves take. . . . Our policies must therefore be viewed not only as a means of reacting to a given situation, but as a means of influencing a situation as well."29 It is all too easy, in concentrating on an assessment of adversary capabilities and intentions, to forget the extent to which they are apt to be the product of one's own.

Finally, there is in Kennan's approach a set of propositions so obvious that they often escape notice: that there are limits to power; that there are no commitments without costs; that there are risks in becoming so preoccupied with processes as to lose sight of objectives; that as strategy needs to be informed by policy, so policy needs to be informed by a clear vision of the national interest, framed with a keen sensitivity to both ideals and capabilities. Our position in the world, Kennan has repeatedly argued, depends largely on what we ourselves make it:

If we wish our relations with Russia to be normal and serene, the best thing we can do is to see that on our side, at least, they are given the outward aspect of normalcy and serenity. Form means a great deal in international life. . . . What is important, in other words, is not so much what is done as how it is done. And in this sense, good form in outward demeanor becomes more than a means to an end, more than a subsidiary attribute: it becomes a value in itself, with its own validity and its own effectiveness, and perhaps - human nature being what it is - the greatest value of all.30

In an age when security is acknowledged to be a relative and not an absolute concept, hinging not so much on what configuration of power actually exists as on how it is perceived, it is well to be reminded that we have the ability to shape those perceptions to a considerable extent through the manner in which we bear ourselves. Self-confidence, by this logic, becomes more than just good psychology; it is nothing less than a key determinant of power in the world today.


Michael Howard has written of Clausewitz that he "had less cause to fear his critics than to be wary of many of his professed admirers."31 The same might be said of Kennan as well, for like the Prussian strategist's great work On War, the "X" article was put to uses its author could hardly have foreseen. It was no accident that Kennan came to harbor a certain lack of confidence "in the ability of men to define hypothetically in any useful way . . . future situations which no one could really imagine or envisage."32

And yet, there is in Kennan's writings a degree of foresight and a consistency of strategic vision for which it would be difficult to find a contemporary parallel. Kennan is not often regarded as a strategist, but if "strategy" is thought of as the rational relationship of national objectives to national capabilities, then he has as good a claim as anyone to having devised a coherent American strategy for dealing with the postwar world.

The concerns which produced that strategy probably will not dominate events of the next decade to the extent that they have the past three. Dilemmas of economics, ecology, race and technology all are likely to overshadow in importance traditional sources of Soviet-American antagonism; these issues tend to cut across old cold war fault lines. The test of lasting relevance, however, is the extent to which principles developed in one context can be fruitfully applied in others. If the continued pertinence of the ideas Kennan worked out during the early years of the cold war is any guide, his strategic concepts, like those of Clausewitz, may find application in circumstances far removed from those which gave rise to them. One can only hope that the full range of Kennan's writings will be taken as text, though, and not just the misleading, but eminently persuasive, "X" article.


1 George F. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950, Boston: Little Brown, 1967, p. 356.

7 Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950, p. 359.

8 See, for example, Kennan's National War College lecture, "Contemporary Problems of Foreign Policy," September 17, 1948, Kennan Papers, Box 17.

9 Unpublished Kennan paper, "The Soviet Way of Thought and Its Effect on Foreign Policy," January 24, 1947, Kennan Papers, Box 16.

11 Kennan, loc. cit., Footnote 9.

12 Kennan University of Virginia lecture, "Russian-American Relations," February 20, 1947, Kennan Papers, Box 16.

13 PPS 23, February 24, 1948, Foreign Relations: 1948, I. p. 519. See also Kennan notes for Secretary of State Marshall, July 21, 1947, Foreign Relations: 1947, III, p. 335.

14 PPS 35, "The Attitude of This Government Towards Events in Yugoslavia," June 30, 1948, Foreign Relations: 1948, IV, p. 1081; NSC 58/2, "United States Policy Toward the Soviet Satellite States in Eastern Europe," December 8, 1949, National Security Council Files, Modern Military Records Division, National Archives, GPO. See also PPS 39/1,"U.S. Policy Toward China," November 23, 1948, Foreign Relations: 1948, VIII, p. 208.

15 PPS 38, "United States Objectives With Respect to Russia," August 18, 1948, Policy Planning Staff Files, Department of State.

16 Kennan talk to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, December 1, 1947, and to the Secretary of the Navy's Council, December 3, 1947, Kennan Papers, Box 17. See also George F. Kennan, Realities of American Foreign Policy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954, p. 76.

18 Transcript, Kennan post-lecture comment, National War College, September 16, 1946, Kennan Papers, Box 16. See also Kennan National War College lecture, "Soviet Diplomacy," October 6, 1947, ibid., Box 17; Kennan talk to Business Advisory Committee, Department of Commerce, September 24, 1947, ibid.; and PPS 13, November 6, 1947, Foreign Relations: 1947, I, p. 772.

19 PPS 23, February 24, 1948, No. I, p. 522; Kennan to Lippmann, April 6, 1948, Kennan Papers, Box 17.

20 PPS 38, August 18, 1948.

22 Ibid., p. 365; interview with George F. Kennan, Princeton, New Jersey, February 2, 1977.

23 PPS 43, "Considerations Affecting the Conclusion of a North Atlantic Security Pact," November 24, 1948, Foreign Relations: 1948, III, p. 286.

28 Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950, p. 130.

29 Kennan to Marshall and Robert Lovett, August 5, 1948, Foreign Relations: 1948, I, p. 599.

30 Kennan, University of Virginia lecture, February 20, 1947, Kennan Papers, Box 16.

31 Michael Howard, "The Influence of Clausewitz," in Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 28.

32 Kennan, Memoirs: 1925-1950, p. 408.

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  • John Lewis Gaddis is Professor of History at Ohio University, currently on two-year leave as Visiting Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947.
  • More By John Lewis Gaddis