George F. Kennan and the Geopolitics of Containment.

Author:Sempa, Francis P.


George F. Kennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1904. He became a Foreign Service officer in 1926, and was successively assigned to posts in Geneva, Hamburg, Berlin twice, Tallinn, Riga, Prague, and Moscow. After Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, Kennan and other Berlin embassy staffers were held captive at a hotel in Bad Nauheim, Germany for six months.

After the war in February 1946, when Kennan was serving at the Moscow Embassy, he wrote a five-thousand word telegram, known ever since as the "Long Telegram," explaining Soviet politics and Stalin's approach to foreign policy. Kennan believed that Soviet Russia posed a geopolitical challenge to the United States in the post-war world. A year later, Kennan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs using the pseudonym "X," entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," wherein he advocated the policy of containment.

U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall appointed Kennan the first Director of the Policy Planning Staff (PPS) in 1947. Marshall wanted the PPS to take a long view of U.S. interests based on an unsentimental approach to world politics. Kennan applied his brilliant intellect and considerable writing skills to policy papers that provided the intellectual architecture for the containment doctrine.

After Dean Acheson succeeded Marshall as Secretary of State, Kennan's influence within the Department waned. When Eisenhower became President, his new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who had criticized containment for being too passive and defensive, informed Kennan that there was no position for him in the administration.

Kennan joined the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton where he researched, wrote, and lectured on history and international relations. Kennan wrote books on both historical and contemporary topics, including American Diplomacy, Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, Russia Leaves the War, The Decision to Intervene, The Decline of Bismarck's European Order, and The Fateful Alliance. Kennan wrote twenty books, hundreds of essays and articles, and kept a voluminous diary (later published in book form).

He served briefly as Ambassador to Yugoslavia in the Kennedy Administration. After that, he was viewed as one of the "wise men" of U.S. foreign policy. He co-authored a controversial article in Foreign Affairs in the early 1980s recommending that the United States adopt a policy of "no first use" of nuclear weapons. He died in 2005 at the age of 101.


Kennan wrote the "Long Telegram" on February 22, 1946, during the early stages of the Cold War. He suggested that Soviet leaders viewed their position in the world as one of "capitalist encirclement" and would look to advance their power position by creating and exploiting divisions among the Western powers. The Soviet approach to the world, he noted, was based on a combination of Russian culture and history, and Marxism-Leninism.

The West could expect the Soviets to exert pressure on nearby countries, such as Turkey, Greece, and Iran, while using communist parties in Western countries to sow divisions within the capitalist world. The Soviets, Kennan wrote, would also seek to lessen Western influence in the colonial world.

He summarized the challenge faced by the West as follows:

[W]e have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure. (Kennan, 1946) Kennan believed that Soviet leaders posed a geopolitical challenge similar to Hitler's, but would be more cautious and risk averse than the German leader:

Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by...

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