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"My Voice Now Carried": George F. Kennan's Long Telegram

“I react intensely to everything I see and hear,” George F. Kennan marveled after returning to Russia in July 1944.

Editors’ Note: To mark the 75th anniversary of one of the most consequential and well-known foreign policy documents in American history, George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” the History and Public Policy Program is privileged to publish the following essay from Professor Frank Costigliola exploring Kennan’s relationship to Russia and the Soviet Union, his mental and physical state in 1946, and the impact of his February 22, 1946, cable to the State Department.

Frank Costigliola, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut, previously edited and published The Kennan Diaries (W.W. Norton, 2014), for which he received the Link-Kuehl prize given by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) for documentary editing. He is the author or editor of several other books, including Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances (Princeton, 2012), which won SHAFR’s Robert H. Ferrell Prize..

The essay is excerpted from Professor Costigliola’s forthcoming book, Between America and Russia: The Inner Life of George F. Kennan (Princeton, 2022), and is not to be quoted from without his express written permission. Professor Costigliola may be contacted through the University of Connecticut.

- Christian Ostermann and Charles Kraus

"My Voice Now Carried": George F. Kennan's Long Telegram

“I react intensely to everything I see and hear,” George F. Kennan marveled after returning to Russia in July 1944. The “pulsating warmth and vitality” of the Russian people sparked “an indescribable sensation.” Living in Siberia as “part of them” packed more allure than luxuriating on “Park Avenue among our own stuffy folk.”[1] Kennan envisioned the Russian people and their government as “a beautiful lady guarded by a jealous lover.”[2] In this setup he figured as the true partner of the beloved. Immersing himself “deeper into Russia” could bring him “face to face with that indefinable something, so full of promise and meaning, that I always have felt to be just around the corner.”[3] Yet however much Kennan pined for transcendence, Josef Stalin pinned him to cruel reality. The wartime alliance had eased but not erased purge-era restrictions on contact between foreigners and Soviet citizens. Ostracism “was harder than ever to swallow.”[4] Years later, he reflected that only during his heartbreak months as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 did the isolation “weigh more heavily on me, or more deeply affect my thinking, than in these first weeks following the return to Russia.”[5]

Examining precisely how love for the Russian people and hatred for their government “deeply affect[ed]” Kennan’s thinking is key to understanding his shifting stance toward the Cold War. As World War II ended and relations with the USSR soured, he at first pushed for confrontation – and then in later years just as firmly pushed away from it. To both acts of this drama he brought urgency. For him, containing Soviet expansion required nimble policies akin to fencing. The emotional beliefs underlying Kennan’s swings remained consistent. His intense ambition, yearning for transcendence, and biases stayed in place even as his career rocketed upward. To the farm and to his family he stood devoted – though his eye still strayed. This believer in Freud regarded foreign policy as a matter of managing emotions. With his formative experiences in the Baltic nations and in pre-Nazi Germany in 1927-33, he still saw as normative the international framework of those years: Germany unified, Eastern Europe independent, Russia hemmed-in, and America above the fray.

A gifted writer and speaker, Kennan moved others with his emotional language, striking analysis, and measured yet urgent tone. His most consequential pronouncements, the long telegram of February 1946 and the Mr. “X” article in Foreign Affairs of July 1947, crackled with emotion even as they claimed the authority of cool reason and “realism.” The tragic irony – for both Kennan and US foreign policy – was that by using explosive language to puff up an existential “Soviet threat,” these two manifestos seemed to justify militarizing the Cold War. That dangerous development would appall Kennan and alienate him from the Truman administration . . . .

Worsening Soviet-American squabbling at postwar conferences held in San Francisco, Potsdam, and London boosted Kennan’s authority. “Whatever Kennan says carries great weight in the State Department,” affirmed Secretary James F. Byrnes. Frank K. Roberts, number two in the British embassy, remembered that “George was the great expert” on Russia, “and I benefitted enormously from this.”[6] Isaiah Berlin admired the focus on “attitudes, ideas, traditions” – in sum on “mentalities.”[7] Kennan held informal seminars at the Moscow embassy for junior officials, an opportunity for “blowing off steam.”[8] Not everyone, however, bought into his teaching. The Canadian ambassador observed that Kennan “suffers from having been here in the pre-war days when foreign representatives became indoctrinated with anti-Soviet ideas as a result of the purges and subtle German propaganda.”[9]

Unaware how rapidly US opinion and policy were already shifting, Kennan in January 1946 decided that duty demanded his return to the United States, where his “authority, objectivity and courage” on Russian affairs remained unmatched. He would resign and try to “influence public opinion at home along the lines of my own convictions.” Chip Bohlen and Doc Matthews had urged their friend not to “‘do anything foolish.’”[10] They advised him to ask for a paid home leave, relax at the farm, and then talk things over at the Department. Implied was the prospect of a position with greater authority.

Along with his frustration over foreign policy Kennan faced health problems. To treat his ulcers he was injecting himself with Vitamin C as well as with larostidine, shipped from New Jersey.[11] He would have a glass of milk brought to his desk every few hours. In February he suffered the grippe, which in the “sunless and vitamin-less environment” of Moscow, was hard to get over, “especially when demands of work leave no time for leisure or relaxation.” He often appeared despondent, junior staff members would later recall.[12]

In coping with these political, psychic, and physical problems, Kennan reverted, it appears, to a long-standing behavior pattern. When as a boy George was forbidden to play outside in the afternoon, he would take revenge by staying inside all morning as well. Similarly, if vacations from military school were not warmed by “understanding and sympathy,” especially from some pretty girl, he would refuse to socialize at all. If denied succor and inclusion, he would, he later recalled, deepen the deprivation and thereby exact “retribution.” Let those responsible “feel his bitterness.” “He had his pride. They could bend it but they could not break it. And let them pay for their folly in bending it . . . . A martyr he was, and a martyr he should remain, to the end of his days.”[13] As a middle-aged man, he reaffirmed: “If I cannot have all, or the greater part, of what I want most desperately, no one is going to deprive me of the glorious martyrdom of having none of it at all.” Rather proud of what he termed this “neurosis,” he noted that “my father was much the same way.”[14]

It was, then, not just his strategic and emotional concerns about the expansion of Stalin’s police state but also his practice of seeking “retribution” and “martyrdom” by widening the breach and deepening the pain that impelled Kennan to urge containment. Containment meant many things. Among them was his saying, in effect: Let those in the Kremlin who kept him from the people and culture he loved “feel his bitterness” and “pay for their folly.” If Kennan could not engage freely with Russians, he (and by extension the United States) would almost totally disengage from them. If Soviet authorities wanted to cut him off, he would bring about an isolation more extreme than anyone imagined. Kennan wanted Washington to contain the Kremlin, which had so cruelly contained him. His long telegram would single out as the “most disquieting feature of diplomacy in Moscow” the foreigner’s isolation from ordinary Russians and from Soviet policymakers, whom one cannot “see and cannot influence.”[15]

In actuality, however, Kennan’s argument about the Soviets being impervious to influence ignored recent experience. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Harriman had met with the dictator, who, especially in his “Uncle Joe” persona, had indeed been influenced to make significant agreements. Moreover, even amid deteriorating relations in 1945-1946, Stalin repeatedly signaled that, while refusing to give up Eastern Europe, he did want collaboration with Washington and London, especially to head off renewed aggression by Germany or Japan.

In constructing the containment doctrine, Kennan was, according to old habit, sharpening a painful situation. His emotion-infused reasoning jumped from accepting (or, more precisely, resolving to accept) that personal contact with the Russian people was cut off, to deciding that political contact with Soviet leaders would be, and should be, also cut off. America’s strategist was in effect embracing and extending the Kremlin’s regime of isolation. Containment offered a rationale and a strategy for Washington to shift from trying to compromise with identifiable Kremlin leaders, to blocking every move of an implacable and impersonal nationalist/ideological force.

On Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1946, these personal and political imperatives came together in number 511, at 5,540 words the longest telegram ever sent to the State Department and the most consequential document of Kennan’s long career. As it was the Friday of a holiday weekend, Kennan’s secretary “wasn’t all that thrilled” at being summoned to his apartment. She found him sick in bed but eager to dictate. He believed he could think better in a horizontal position, she later explained. Hours later, Kennan ordered the clerk in the code room: “This has to go out tonight.” “Why tonight? I’ve got a date,” she protested. He insisted.[16]

The cable had been commissioned by hardline colleagues in the State Department, principally Matthews and Elbridge Durbrow. They knew that their proud friend, furious at both the Soviet and US governments, was “boiling with moral indignation,” as Berlin later put it.[17] Meanwhile, on February 9, 1946, Stalin gave a major address lauding Marxist ideology while glossing over US and British assistance in the war. The State Department, in prodding Kennan for his analysis of the speech, anticipated “a real deep one, one of his better efforts.”[18] An aide later explained that “Washington wanted George to assemble his concepts in some kind of a ‘think piece’ that could be used in promoting [a] stronger line toward the Soviets.”[19]

He did not disappoint. The long telegram invoked, in the name of realism, a fantastic scenario in which the Soviet Union loomed as an inhuman force, without morality, unable to appreciate objective fact or truth, and pathologically compelled to destroy almost every decent aspect of life in the West. Russia was again, as in the sixteenth century, under the thumb of “Asiatic” tyrants. After inflating this existential threat, Kennan in his conclusion tried to reassure. He emphasized that the Soviet Union did not want war, differed from Nazi Germany, remained weaker than America, and could be contained without war if the United States and Western Europe instituted reforms. Indeed, heading off talk of an inevitable war was part of the motivation for advocating containment. Yet it was not the late-coming assurances, but the emotionalized depiction of the Soviet threat and his militarized language that resonated in Washington. The Kremlin was “impervious to [the]logic of reason and . . . highly sensitive to [the] logic of force,” Kennan insisted.[20] Not surprisingly, US officials concluded that containment mandated a military buildup. In his 1947 “Mr. X” article, Kennan again depicted the Kremlin as unapproachable, indeed as an insensate piece of metal: “a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force.” Containment was necessary because the Soviet-other was not only unfeeling but also, contradictorily, prone to hyper-emotion. His doctrine would checkmate dangerous Soviet emotions and the aggression they provoked. While painting this somber picture, Kennan held out possibility of a brighter future – and of renewed contact with the Russians. Containment would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”[21]

In keeping with his long running critique of US society, Kennan concluded both the long telegram and the “Mr. X” article with calls for domestic reform. “To avoid destruction,” by Russia, “the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions.” Echoing past comments about the utility of catastrophe, he affirmed that Americans should welcome the Soviet challenge as a prod for “pulling themselves together.”[22] In sum, Kennan’s urging of containment reflected not only push-back against Soviet expansion, but also long-standing impulses and concerns: his passion for the Russian people, resentment of Soviet repression, propensity for self-punishment, professional ambition, aspiration to reform US society, and faith that US interaction with Russia, whether hostile or friendly, could spur needed change in America.

For the rest of his long life, Kennan would combat the widespread conclusion that containment necessarily entailed a military build up and possibly a military confrontation. He would protest that he had intended containment as a primarily political policy to be applied by adroit diplomats. Nevertheless, despite his caveats in the long telegram and the Mr. “X” article that the Soviets lacked a fixed timetable and did not intend military aggression, most observers concluded otherwise. Within a year of the greatest war in history, Kennan presented the Soviet Union as another existential threat. Not surprisingly, most people assumed a military response was again appropriate.

Chip Bohlen underscored the impact of the long telegram by almost immediately shutting down debate within the State Department. Gone was the “need to go into any long analysis of the motives or the reasons for present Soviet policy.” Instead, “we can take as accepted the principle” that the United States faced “an expanding totalitarian state” convinced that “the world is divided into two irreconcilably hostile camps.” Bohlen described the Soviet offensive as two-pronged: first, the “use or threat of Soviet armed force” and, second, the deployment of “political psychology.” Therefore the United States had to build up its military and reach out to Western Europe.[23] Thus from the start and even with Kennan’s closest associates, the long telegram helped militarize the Cold War.

The manifesto earned Kennan the acclaim he had craved: “My voice now carried.”[24] The Truman administration broadcast the pronouncement as intellectual justification for its ongoing policy of countering and isolating Russia. The document circulated to the War and Navy Departments as well as to diplomatic posts across the globe. The Kremlin obtained a copy through its spy network. Henry Norweb, Kennan’s old boss in Lisbon and now the ambassador to Cuba, celebrated the best political reporting he had ever seen, this “masterpiece” of “realism devoid of hysteria.” “Astonishing!” embassy staff gushed; “This is an answer to prayer.”[25]

 


[1] George F. Kennan to Jeanette Kennan Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, George F. Kennan papers, Seeley G. Mudd Library, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.

[2] Kennan, “Draft of Information Policy on Relations with Russia,” July 22, 1946, box 27, Dean Acheson Papers, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library, Independence, MO.

[3] Kennan to Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, Kennan papers.

[4] Kennan to Hotchkiss, October 8, 1944, box 24, Kennan papers.

[5] Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950, 195.

[6] Gaddis interview with Frank K. Roberts, March 15, 1993, John L. Gaddis papers, Mudd Library, Princeton University, p. 4.

[7] Gaddis interview with Isaiah Berlin, November 29, 1992, p. 8, Gaddis papers.

[8] C. Ben Wright interview with William A. Crawford, September 29, 1970, pp. 3-4; Gaddis interview with Martha Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 1. Gaddis papers.

[9] Gaddis, Kennan, 208.

[10] Kennan to Elbridge Durbrow, January 21, 1946, file 4, box 140, Kennan papers.

[11] Kennan to Bohlen, January 23, 123 Kennan, George F./, RG 59, , National Archives.

[12] Kennan to Durbrow, March 15, 1946, 123 Kennan George F./, RG 59, , National Archives; Wright interview with Crawford, September 29, 1970, pp. 7-8, 20-22.

[13] Kennan diary, February 15, 1935, box 231, Kennan papers.

[14] Ibid., September 10, 1959. 15.

[15]FRUS 1946, 6:701.

[16] Gaddis interview with Dorothy Hessman, September 24, 1982, pp. 3-4; Gaddis interview with Martha Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 2, both in Gaddis papers.

[17] Berlin, interview with Gaddis, box 1, Gaddis papers; Kennan to Elbridge Durbrow, January 21, 1946, box 186, W. Averell Harriman papers, Library of Congress.

[18] Durbrow, interview with Gaddis, box 1, Gaddis papers; Matthews to Kennan, February 13, 1946, 861.00/2-1246, RG 59, National Archives.

[19] Gaddis interview with Mautner, September 24, 1983, p. 2, Gaddis papers.

[20]FRUS 1946, 6: 707. For a textual analysis, see Frank Costigliola, “‘Unceasing Pressure for Penetration’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George F. Kennan’s Formation of the Cold War,” Journal of American History 83 (March 1997), 1331-37.

[21] Kennan, American Diplomacy, 117, 127.

[22] Kennan, American Diplomacy, 127-128

[23] Memorandum by Charles E. Bohlen, March 13, 1946, box 7, Charles E. Bohlen files, RG 59, National Archives.

[24] Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950, 295.

[25] Henry Norweb to Kennan, March 25, 1946, folder 4, box 140, Kennan papers; Gaddis, Kennan, 229.

About the Author

Frank Costigliola

Frank Costigliola is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut.

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