Reconsiderations: The Question of Containment

Courtesy Reuters

In the July 1977 issue of Foreign Affairs, which marked the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance in its pages of George F. Kennan's famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," John Lewis Gaddis ambitiously attempted to resolve once and for all the seemingly interminable controversy that has surrounded Kennan's call for containment ever since that first public enunciation. Diplomatic historians doubtless noted with interest that Professor Gaddis contends, quite categorically, that the retrospective elucidation of containment found in the first volume of Kennan's Memoirs is wholly satisfactory with respect to what have been far and away its most controversial features: to wit, the assertions that the policy was "political" rather than "military," and that it was to be cautiously implemented within strictly defined geographical limits rather narrower than had commonly been supposed.

The burden of this essay is that Kennan's belated apologia was misleading, and that Gaddis errs in his reconstruction of containment as regards the crucial questions of its means and scope. For neither in life itself nor in Kennan's postwar writings can "political" and "military" measures be so sharply distinguished as the onetime policymaker's reminiscences suggest. And, while containment was certainly no rationale for uninhibited global intervention, fundamental objectives and concerns of the policy tended to promote a broader interventionism than Kennan admits or Gaddis realizes.1

Professor Gaddis bases his reconstruction of containment in some measure on Kennan's denial that communist ideology was a "determinant of Soviet policy." While probably not without some effect on the Soviet leadership's perceptions of political realities, communism was essentially a façade: domestically it provided a legitimizing myth for a usurping regime; in the realm of foreign affairs it cloaked Russian "national interests" with the appearance of beneficent purpose and made willing stooges of gullible foreign revolutionaries. Disposing of ideology as a "determinant," however, raises an obvious question that Gaddis does not really answer: How then did Kennan account for Soviet expansionism? He states only that the diplomat believed that the Soviet leaders

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