Kennan: A Life Between Worlds — Lessons For the Containment of Russia

Amid the discussions that marked the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, another date is worth remembering: the 77th anniversary of the “long telegram” sent by diplomat George Kennan. In February 1946, as the US chargé d’affaires in Moscow, Kennan offered his advice to the Truman administration on how Washington should respond to the Soviet threat.

As we enter a new cold war with Russia, it is important not just to recall Kennan’s lessons, but to remember how he turned against the ways in which they were implemented by Washington. As Frank Costigliola writes in his magisterial new biography Kennan: A Life Between Worlds: “The greatest tragedy in the life of George F Kennan arose from his most famous success.”

In his memo, Kennan — who was also the first head of the policy planning staff at the US state department — set out what became the doctrine of “containment” of the USSR and Soviet communism: that further advances by Moscow should be met with firm resistance, but that there was no need to undertake the horrible risks of actually trying to overthrow the Soviet system. With rare prescience, Kennan argued that the system would collapse of its own accord, under the weight of its accumulated oppressions and economic insanities.

But Kennan came to essentially agree with the journalist Walter Lippman, his most incisive critic of the time, that he had exaggerated the extent of the Soviet threat and helped to empower paranoia, militarism and ideological hysteria within the US. Lippman argued that Kennan had both ruled out the possibility of compromise with Moscow and committed America to go to war to resist Soviet influence in regions that were of no real interest to the US.

Read the full piece in Financial Times.

More from