A Telegram That Couldn't Be Contained

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today is the 70th anniversary of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” (pdf), one of the most influential documents of the 20th century. On February 22, 1946, Kennan—then stationed at the U.S. embassy in Moscow—responded to a query from Washington as to why the Soviets were not supporting the newly created World Bank and IMF. In the preface to his 8,000-word reply, Kennan “apologize[d] in advance for this burdening of telegraphic channel”:

Answer to Dept’s 284, Feb. 3,13 involves questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be a dangerous degree of oversimplification.

He would have hated Twitter. (Kennan died just a year before the company was founded in 2006.) The Long Telegram, outlined here, was expanded into a July 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs and became the foundation for the “containment” strategy that would guide U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. In April 1989, about six months before the Berlin Wall came down, The Atlantic ran a cover story on Kennan’s soon-to-be-published diaries. From the editor’s note to “The Last Wise Man”:

Through most of his time in public life, Kennan has been known as farsighted—almost as a seer. During the early forties, when many Americans, including our President, had warm feelings toward the Soviets, Kennan repeatedly warned his superiors in the government that this outlook was based on wishful thinking and on a total misunderstanding of Russian politics, Russian intentions, and Russian history. Soon after the nation finally heeded his warnings, he began to warn against seeing containment solely in military terms, and against extending it beyond the prudent task of protecting American vital interests into a grandiose promise to police the world. ...

America has never known quite what to make of this prophet, especially because he cannot be placed securely on either the right or the left of the political spectrum in the making of foreign policy.

The left’s desire to save the world by good works and the right’s desire to save it by military adventure are, in Kennan’s view, just two versions of an ill-informed, ahistorical, and doomed romanticism. Saving the world is beyond America’s capacities, and is likely to harm both us and those we are trying to save, he says. Weariness and exasperation mark his descriptions of American policymaking.

“One stands stupefied at the frivolity and irresponsibility reflected in this response. . .” “We would do well... to avoid histrionics and over-reaction.” One should avoid “the abundant pitfalls of attempting to strike noble poses with relation to a situation one did not create, cannot remove, and understands very poorly.” “I had been struck by the contrast between the lucid and realistic thinking of early American statesmen of the Federalist period and the cloudy bombast of their successors of later decades.” And so on.

Continued here. For more Kennan in the Atlantic archives, see “Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience,” published in May 1959.