Deja vu in 1946: reinterpreting the origins of containment

Jonathan Barry

Document Type Dissertation/Thesis


For nearly fifty years, mainstream Cold War historians have credited George Kennan with ushering in a new age in foreign policy. Kennan did, after all, send a "Long Telegram" from Moscow on February 22, 1946 that crystallized for the US government a policy of "containing" the Soviet regime. Kennan, a State Department official and expert on Soviet affairs, submitted to Secretary of State James Byrnes an 8,000 word telegram depicting a communist government bent on upholding the expansionist tradition of the Russian czars. He further claimed that "all Soviet efforts on... [an] international plane will be negative and destructive in character" and that the US should counter Soviet expansionism by providing foreign nations with democratic securiry. The telegram was received in Washington with open arms. As Kennan reflected in his memoirs, "With the receipt in Washington of this telegraphic dissertation from Moscow, my official loneliness came to an end. My reputation was made. My voice now carried." Accolades for Kennan's telegram dominate Cold War historiography. In an interpretation of the "Long Telegram's" impact on Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Waller Millis posited in 1951 that Kennan had "analyzed the backgrounds and deeper springs of Soviet policy, its purposes and methods, with a remarkable insight-it was exactly the kind of job for which Forrestal had looked vainly elsewhere in the government." Eric Goldman, in a highly influential account of the early years of the Cold War, wrote that Kennan "proved the scholar-diplomat, if the United States has ever had one ...[his] cable was studied and re-studied in Washington until it was accepted as something of a classic among American diplomatic analyses." In 1967, Louis Halle, a US foreign policy historian and former State Department official, viewed the telegram as the foundation of America's Cold War outlook on the Soviet regime. Halle thought Kennan provided the US government with "new intellectual moorings" and "offered a new and realistic conception" of the Soviet govemments Similarly, in 1972 John Lewis Gaddis saw Kennan's work as the cornerstone of US foreign policy and, concluded that the telegram provided American officials with a varied "intellectual framework they would employ in thinking about communism and Soviet foreign policy for the next two decades. " Robert Donovan, in an analysis on the role the Truman Administration played in the Cold War, concluded that the telegram "aroused Washington indeed and set a pattern then and for years to come for official American thinking about the Soviet problem." In a 1991 analysis of Cold War diplomacy, Kenneth Jensen referred to the telegram as a "landmark document" that "influenced U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for years thereafter..." Finally, in John Spanier's twelfth (and first post-Soviet Union) edition of American Foreign Policy Since World War II, he postulated that Kennan "presented the basis of what was to be a new Ameriean poliey that recognized the hostile characler of the Soviet regime."