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.

It was only a series of chance circumstances that led to publication of the article under a pseudonym. A career diplomat, George Kennan had been writing and speaking for over a decade on broad questions of the Soviet Union, its foreign policy and the American response. Within the government he was famous for his "Long Telegram" written from his embassy post in Moscow in early 1946, which set forth his analysis of the prospects for postwar Russia.

He spent an academic sabbatical at the National War College in 1946-47, continuing with his lectures. At the request of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in December 1946, Kennan prepared for him an informal paper entitled "Psychological Background of Soviet Foreign Policy"; this was the original title of what would become the X article. In early January Kennan spoke at a small study group of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York; the topic was "The Soviet Way of Thought and Its Effect on Soviet Foreign Policy." Although Kennan spoke only from notes, the confidential record of the meeting contains the following passage:

Turning to the connotation of those features of the Soviet way of thought, Mr. Kennan found no cause for despair. He thought that other Russian traits of character made it perfectly possible for the U.S. and other countries to contain Russian power, if it were done courteously and in a non-provocative way, long enough so that there might come about internal changes in Russia.

Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs, was a participant in the study group. A few days later Armstrong wrote to Kennan soliciting an article along the lines of his presentation to the Council. Kennan replied that the paper he had just written for Forrestal might be suitable, but in light of his new State Department position he could not be identified as the author. Armstrong expressed some hesitation about publishing an anonymous article but wrote a memo to his assistant editor, Byron Dexter, that Kennan’s view was "exceptionally interesting and though painful to the Soviets is not crude or unfair in spirit." Dexter replied: "I think that Kennan’s ideas on Russia are so good that our readers should be given a chance to share them and this overbalances the undesirable factor" of the author’s anonymity. In a letter to Kennan, Dexter suggested that the byline simply be "X." Over the course of the next weeks the manuscript was cleared in the State Department, received by Foreign Affairs, lightly edited and published in the issue of July 1947.

The article’s publication was the climax of a series of events that marked an irrevocable break in American policy, the final collapse of nostalgia for prewar isolationism. The first decisive moment came the morning of February 24, 1947, when the British ambassador, Lord Inverchapel, called on Secretary Marshall to formally advise the United States that Britain had found it impossible to grant further assistance to Greece (and Turkey), and to express the hope that the U.S. government "will agree to bear . . . the financial burden, of which the major part has hitherto been borne by His Majesty’s Government." In a memorandum drafted on behalf of Secretary Marshall by Under Secretary Dean Acheson, President Truman was informed that "this puts up the most major decision with which we have been faced since the war."

Within weeks the major decision was taken and on March 12, 1947, President Truman asked Congress to appropriate funds to aid Greece and Turkey. Thus was born the Truman Doctrine, which went beyond merely requesting aid for Greece and Turkey to justify that aid in the broader context of "support to free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure."

Three months later, a second step was taken. In June 1947 General Marshall addressed the Harvard graduating class and set forth a new plan to rescue the West European economies. Kennan’s article the next month seemed to round out the features of a new policy of engagement in Europe against the Soviet Union. Kennan supplied the concept and the name for the new commitment, although he had forcefully argued with his government colleagues against the broad thrust of the Truman Doctrine.

These events concerned and alarmed one of America’s leading policy critics, the late Walter Lippmann, who undertook a long rebuttal of the X article in his columns for the New York Herald Tribune beginning in September. Unable to know of Kennan’s arguments within the closed councils of policymaking, Lippmann equated the views of X with the Truman Doctrine and proceeded to contrast them with what he saw as the more positive approach of Marshall. This erroneous identification of his views rankled Kennan more than any of Lippmann’s substantive criticisms, since it was the sweeping generality and the military means of the Truman Doctrine that Kennan had, in fact, opposed.

Lippmann centered his attack on the idea of applying "counterforce" at every point, which he claimed would exhaust the resources of the United States. He believed that it was still possible to settle the status of Eastern Europe with Stalin and argued that the policy of containment would rule out such a settlement. It was, therefore, in the summer and fall of 1947 that the concepts, terminology and lines of debate for the next decades were set: containment and the cold war.

We are pleased in this 40th anniversary year to reprint the original X article, without change, and to accompany it with lengthy excerpts from Walter Lippmann’s rebuttal. In addition we attach Ambassador Kennan’s recent reflections on the article and the containment debate. Finally, we include a new article by W. W. Rostow, who also served as director of policy planning under Secretary of State Dean Rusk in the early 1960s, and was later national security adviser to President Johnson.

We believe this constitutes an illuminating package of thoughts—old and new—on the "greatest of American foreign policy problems." Ambassador Kennan in his reflections calls our attention to the need to develop a "wider concept" of what containment means:

a concept more closely linked to the totality of the problems of Western civilization at this juncture in world history—a concept, in other words, more responsive to the problems of our own time—than the one I so light-heartedly brought to expression, hacking away at my typewriter there in the northwest corner of the War College building in December of 1946.

Foreign Affairs and the international community are most indebted to the ambassador for hacking away at his typewriter, and we hereby express our respect and appreciation to a great statesman of our time.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now