The Long Telegram 73 years on

There was nothing particularly special about Joseph Stalin’s “campaign speech” on February 9th, 1946. It hit all of the usual points: self-congratulation for the winning the war against fascism, a call for renewed peacetime industrial growth, and a warning about the warlike tendencies of capitalism. The election was for show only and the results were predetermined. Indeed, Stalin had made dozens of speeches just like it since taking power several decades before. Most Russia watchers wrote the speech off as simply more of the same. In Washington, however, Stalin’s speech struck a surprisingly discordant note. Already flummoxed by the Stalin’s rejection of economic aid at the Bretton-Woods conference and alarmed by evidence of Soviet penetration of the United State’s nuclear program, President Harry Truman took Stalin’s speech as the final piece of evidence that the Soviet Union was simply not a credible negotiating partner. Confused by the lack of analysis from the State Department and the American embassy in Moscow, the White House put out a call out for a better explanation of the Soviet Union’s intransigence and seeming aggression.

The State Department turned to George Kennan, the eccentric deputy head of mission in Moscow and a marked critic of Roosevelt and Truman’s attempts to treat the Soviet Union as a partner in building the post-war peace. Kennan had been warning his superiors in Washington about the Soviet Union’s stance towards the United States for months. He had already sent off an extensive explanation of the Soviet Union’s stance on Bretton Woods several weeks earlier. Sick and eagerly anticipating the end of his time in Moscow, Kennan began to dictate what would become one of the most famous — and longest — cables in the history of the State Department to his secretary Dorothy Hessman. Later that evening, Kennan would send the report via telegram, apologizing for its unprecedented length. Renowned Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis reasons in his biography of Kennan that the lengthy analysis would not have been noticed at all were it not for the unorthodox manner of its delivery. Lengthy missives like Kennan’s were more often filed by mail in a pouched dispatch that could take days to reach Washington, if it wasn’t buried on someone’s desk along the way (as many of Kennan’s earlier warnings were). Known better now as the “Long Telegram,” Kennan’s wire is considered one of the classic documents of Cold War history. It is also one of the many ironies of history in that it was neither Kennan’s first nor his most prepared explanation of the Soviet Union’s behavior. Nor was it provoked by any event that anyone who was in the Soviet Union — let alone Kennan — would have considered consequential.

The first page of George Kennan’s Long Telegram, sent seventy-three years ago today. Digital copy made available through the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

The Long Telegram, like Kennan himself, is often misunderstood. More known now for his criticism of American efforts to woo Stalin directly after World War II than his later more nuanced stances on Cold War strategy, the Long Telegram is too often interpreted as the first iteration of what would become Truman’s aggressive response to the Soviet Union. The actual text of the Long Telegram however spends much of its length analyzing Soviet politics and foreign policy, and Kennan confines his suggestions on American policy to the last fifth of his wire. Even within those suggestions, Kennan emphasizes that the best approach to dealing with the Soviet Union is to increase the resiliency of the United States and Western allies, negotiate with Moscow from a position of military strength, and depend on what Kennan viewed as the Western World’s superior internal integrity. As he wrote in 1946, “gauged against Western World as a whole, Soviets are still by far the weaker force. Thus, their success will really depend on degree of cohesion, firmness, and vigor which Western World can muster. And this is factor which it is within our power to influence” (pg. 9).

Kennan never viewed the Soviet Union as a particularly reliable ally of the United States during World War II nor as a credible partner in its aftermath. He never viewed the Soviet Union as a particularly credible threat to the Western World either. In Kennan’s view, both the Soviet Union’s aggression towards the United States and its adoption of a particularly virulent form of Marxism were emblematic of traditional Russian historical insecurities and the Soviet regime’s inherently brittle nature. Russia under Soviet rule would never consider the United States or any other Western state to be anything but a threat and would seize any apparent opportunities to exploit Western weaknesses. But nor would the Soviet Union ever feel secure or strong enough to pursue the same path of world domination on which Nazi Germany and Japan had embarked a decade and a half earlier. The Long Telegram emphasized that Soviet aggression stemmed from paranoia and weakness, not strength and will for conquest. Kennan argued in the Long Telegram that American policy towards the Soviet Union should be based on a careful and realistic understanding of the its regime, history, and people, unblinded by prior assumptions.

Kennan would later develop his views on the Soviet Union and the Cold War into the strategy of containment, a middle way between the Roosevelt’s friendly policy towards the Soviet Union and the hardline anti-communism of the later years of the Truman administration. Containment emphasized maintaining control of several strategic regions in the world while waiting for the Soviet Union to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Kennan himself would become influential, but his strategy was never adopted by any administration. In yet another stroke of irony, he was criticized in both the later Truman administration and Eisenhower administration for being too weak on Moscow. Washington had perhaps overlearned Kennan’s warning about Stalin and Soviet Communism, and neglected Kennan’s analysis of the Soviet Union’s weakness. As we now know, Kennan’s predictions on how the Cold War would end came true just over forty years later in spite of the fact that the United States adopted a far more aggressive, forward, and costly policy than containment.

Kennan filed the Long Telegram on February 22nd, 1946, seventy-three years ago today. Kennan was very much a man of his time, and I do not know what he would make of the state of Russo-American relations in the 21st century. The world is a very different place now than it was when Kennan filed his report. There are however some striking similarities between our time and his. Now, as then, we stand at a pivotal moment in Russo-American relations. There are serious questions about Moscow’s reliability as a partner on the world stage and how the United States ought to respond to seeming Russian aggression in Europe and the Middle East, and interference in our elections. While Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is hardly as oppressive as Stalin’s regime, it is similarly brittle, prone to paranoia, and worryingly reliant on factually dubious dogma. Now, as then, American opinion is divided between factions that either argue that the United States has done far too little to bring Moscow into the Western fold or that we have done far too much. Both sides solipsistically spend more time dissecting American policy rather than analyszing Russia. In rereading the Long Telegram some three-quarters of a century later though, I am struck by how much of his analysis focused explicitly on understanding the Soviet Union rather than being couched in terms of how the United States ought to react to the Soviet Union. We would do well to consider Kennan’s approach today.

Writer on international politics. Occasional political consultant. Travel, history, and food. Misc and random pieces filed here. Twitter: @AdamMPontius