How to deal with Russia: U.S. diplomat’s 5,000-word telegram still resonates 75 years later

They’ve expelled diplomats. Imposed sanctions. Fought proxy wars. Their war of words never really ends. But despite the often thorny relationship between the U.S. and Russia — and notwithstanding the brief “recall” of ambassadors that ended with a Biden-Putin summit last week — the last American ambassador to Moscow to be declared “persona non grata” and expelled by Russia was George F. Kennan in 1952. 

It was the Soviet Union back then, and Joseph Stalin was in charge. 

And yet that isn’t the reason Kennan is still remembered in the corridors of power in Washington — and Moscow. Kennan’s most consequential contribution to the relationship between the two countries came years earlier in 1946, when he authored a secret document about Russia that would eventually help launch the Cold War. 

Washington had become increasingly bewildered as its wartime pact with the U.S.S.R. began to unravel, and State Department officials prompted Kennan for an opinion on Stalin’s behaviour, especially after a speech at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1946 in which the dictator seemed to be saying that war between communism and the capitalist world was inevitable.

Kennan’s response was a telegram of more than 5,000 words, sent in five parts from Moscow to Washington. It was the longest the U.S. State Department had ever received, and it became known as the Long Telegram.

The document consolidated Kennan’s repeated warnings as a mid-level diplomat about the Soviet Union’s expansionist and antagonistic intentions, and his recommendations on “how to deal with Russia.”

U.S. diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, left, is sworn in as Ambassador to the Soviet Union by Raymond Muir in 1952, as Kennan’s wife and daughter look on. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“It was composed in a moment of complete frustration and impatience,” said John Lewis Gaddis, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Kennan entitled George F. Kennan: An American Life. Frustration because Kennan had repeatedly sent long, eloquent documents to Washington by diplomatic pouch (a method of securely mailing documents from embassies), that few seemed to have read.

In the book, Gaddis described the Long Telegram as a kind of X-Ray.

“It came at just the right time and the right format to attract attention. … And so it immediately went viral within Washington before that term had been invented.”  

Inspiring foreign policy

Kennan’s advice, updated a year later in a public version of the telegram published in the Foreign Affairs journal, counselled containment of the U.S.S.R. using economic or political means: a “third way” to contain the influence of the U.S.S.R. that avoided either appeasement, or all-out war. 

Just over a year later, then U.S. president Harry S. Truman delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress that effectively marked the start of the Cold War — a speech in which he requested assistance for Greece and Turkey in an apparent effort to counter the influence of the Soviets and stop the spread of communism. 

That Kennan’s thinking inspired the Truman Doctrine was clear.

“I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” said Truman.

A selection of American newspaper headlines about then U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s announcement on Sept. 24, 1949, that the Soviet Union had conducted its first nuclear weapons test. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

Kennan became known as the “author of containment,” though he increasingly became uncomfortable with Washington’s growing interventionist and militaristic interpretations of his advice, and became a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy as a result. 

His critiques included grave concerns about the foundation of NATO in 1949 and its later expansion into former Soviet territory, his opposition to the Vietnam war, and  even speaking out — at age 98 — against a possible U.S. war in Iraq in 2003. He also opposed nuclear proliferation.

Kennan’s words still matter

While the official policy of containment ended with the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War in 1991, Kennan’s words still matter.

Barely one month after Joe Biden was sworn in as U.S. president, a Kremlin spokesperson said the policies inspired by Kennan 75 years ago still govern how Russia is treated today.

“Unfortunately, these are not the relations of friendship and partnership,” said Dmitry Peskov, as quoted by Tass, a Russian state news agency.

“No matter what happens, regardless of resetting and rebooting, regardless of some periods of romanticism in our relations, this ideology of Kennan and [Winston] Churchill has always dominated. And we have felt it and continue feeling it,” Peskov said. 

From left, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin shake hands in the summer of 1945 during the Potsdam Conference, to negotiate the future of Germany and Europe after the Second World War. (AFP via Getty Images)

Kennan’s analysis of the conduct of Soviet leadership is also still relevant for observers of today’s Russia, says Gaddis. In the Long Telegram, Kennan wrote that Soviet leadership believed there could be no “peaceful coexistence” between Russia and the capitalist world, and that at the bottom of the “Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs” is a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.”

He went on to say that Soviet leaders were driven to paint the outside world as “evil, hostile and menacing, but as bearing within itself germs of creeping disease and destined to be wracked with growing internal convulsions until it is given final coup de grace by rising power of socialism and yields to new and better world.” 

“That is exactly Putin today,” said Gaddis in an interview with CBC Radio’s Ideas. “Putin is still subject to the same authoritarian weaknesses that Kennan identified.”

What would Kennan do today? 

Kennan, says Gaddis, would likely approve of U.S. President Joe Biden’s apparent approach with Putin: engagement, while maintaining a tough line.

“What Kennan would also do would have been to try to explain that Putin is a very popular leader,” said Gaddis, noting he would also try to explain Russia’s authoritarian tradition.

“He would plead with us to understand those circumstances,” said Gaddis, to “put ourselves in those positions, and above all else, avoid arrogance, avoid trying to tell other countries what to do and how to live their lives and what’s good for them.”

According to John Lewis Gaddis, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography George F. Kennan: An American Life, Kennan was trying to convey the warning that countries could not expect to make friends with the Russians or continue to co-operate with them. (Eliza Valk)

In the Long Telegram, Kennan concludes by counselling the U.S. to begin by fixing its own house to prevail over communism.

“Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués,” Kennan concluded in the Long Telegram. 

“If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit.”
 


* This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed, with Melissa Gismondi.



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