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Mr. X: George Kennan and the Beginnings of Cold War Foreign Policy

In February 1946, George Kennan was head of the State Department’s mission in Moscow. The Treasury Department requested he profile the Soviet Union in an attempt to understand the motivations behind Josef Stalin’s foreign policy decisions. Through then Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Kennan sent what has since become known as the Long Telegram to the Treasury Department. It outlined the ideological motivations of the Soviet Union and predicted the Soviets would attempt to expand both their influence and territory in the coming decades. Roughly a year later in March 1947, Kennan published his ideas under the pseudonym “Mr. X” in an article submitted to the magazine Foreign Relations. In the article, he called for the United States to adopt a policy of containment in regards to Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and around the world. Kennan's idea of containment was limited compared to the containment practiced by the United States in subsequent decades, especially the 1960’s. Put simply, he argued the United States must designate areas of military-industrial importance which cannot fall into Soviet hands while simultaneously keeping the people in the designated areas from losing confidence in the market economy or liberal democracy.

One of Kennan’s first arguments concerning containment was the designation of military-industrial zones. He listed the following in a report to the State Department on the direction of global foreign policy: “the nations and territories of the Atlantic community….the countries of the Mediterranean and Middle East as far as, and including Iran, and Japan and the Philippines”[1]. For Kennan, a military-industrial zone was a group of countries whose resources could be used by the Soviet Union against the United States if that zone fell to communism. Therefore, it was of utmost importance that United States see to it that no zones did so, making them the centerpiece of American foreign policy. There were other interests in other parts of the world, but these would take a backseat when determining when to deploy the military or send monetary support to a country. Furthermore, maintaining a hierarchy of interests meant the United States did not need to intervene in an international conflict if it did not impact a country in a military-industrial zone. If that were the case, the United States, according to Kennan, must put two countries “where necessary one against the other; to see that they spend in conflict with each other, if they must spend it at all, the intolerance and violence and fanaticism which might otherwise be directed at us, that they are compelled to cancel each other out”[2]. In other words, if a designated zone was not under threat by an international conflict, then it was best for the United States to maintain the status quo. In Kennan’s mind, this kept the United States from overextending itself and attempting to contain communism over the entire globe regardless of strategic importance. He called for a particularized approach to foreign policy, believing “the complete security or perfection of the international environment will never be achieved”[3]. As a result, it was necessary for the United States to choose its most important foreign policy objectives based on economic and military significance rather than a blind fear or hatred of communism. The American “policy toward the Soviet Union,” he said “must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies”[4]. Note, Kennan did not call for the containment of communism, but rather the containment of Soviet expansion, which for him meant containing the Soviets to regions where the United States did not have a vital interest.

Kennan’s second argument concerned the psychological draw of communism, especially for countries devastated by the Second World War. One of his objectives was the “encouragement of self confidence in nations threatened by Soviet expansionism”[5]. For the countries of Western Europe, whose economies were devastated by the war, Keenan feared that communism would have a particularly strong appeal. In response, he advocated economic assistance to any of the five military-industrial zones with poorly functioning economies. He believed if countries receiving the aid were permitted to plan for themselves how it was used, they would not only become self-sufficient, but maintain faith in the capitalist system[6]. His idea would eventually influence the Marshall Plan. The goal of economic aid was not to buy allies, but rather to create a third, non-communist power center in Europe that could stand up to both the Soviet Union and the United States[7]. This part of Keenan’s plan proved a bit optimistic. As historian Josef Joffe pointed out in Europe’s American Pacifier, European countries did not integrate militarily or economically without an American defense guarantee. As a result, Western Europe was indelibly linked to the United States.

Containment became a household word in foreign policy circles during the Cold War. It was first articulated by a somewhat obscure diplomat in 1947 and originally contained two key goals, discussed above. Over the next four decades it would go through several transformations depending on the military spending habits of the current government. Under the Eisenhower administration, for example, the defense budget was slashed, leaving the Joint Chiefs of Staff believing it was necessary to include nuclear weapons to make up for conventional troops in their plans for containment. As another example, In 1963, containment would be applied universally by the Kennedy Administration, leading to an involvement in Vietnam that Kennan believed was not vital to American interests.

Although his policy was not always applied as he intended, Kennan came, as Henry Kissinger said, “as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.”


[1] John Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, (New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 1982). 30.

[2] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 29.

[3] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 27.

[4] Mr. X, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947, 5.

[5] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 37.

[6] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 37.

[7] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 41.

All images from the New York Times

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