George Kennan's "Long Telegram"

Grant Calder reflects on the relevance of Kennan's message today

In 1946, just after World War II, an American foreign service officer stationed in Moscow sent a telegram to his bosses in the State Department. Seventy-six years later the document deserves to be required reading as the Biden administration considers its moves in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

My U.S. History class just read George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” and we were all struck by the currency of Kennan’s observations. In those early days of the Cold War, Kennan wanted President Truman and his administration to better understand their adversaries whose self-image and worldview were, as he put it, “so strange to our form of thought” that it required a “long” explanation.

George Kennan

According to Kennan, the Soviets believed the “capitalist world [was] beset with internal conflicts, inherent in the nature of capitalist society.” Just a few weeks ago, Vladimir Putin seems to have bought his own propaganda and dramatically underestimated the willingness of the U.S. and EU countries to come together, as they have, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Soviet government, Kennan noted, was prone to making exaggerated statements about how any “intervention” against them would be “disastrous to those who undertook it,” a tone reminiscent of Putin’s comments to the effect that the west would face “consequences you have never seen” for interfering with its “special operation” in Ukraine.

The Soviets felt that “no opportunity must be missed to reduce the strength and influence of capitalist powers,” a position reflected more recently in Putin’s military aid to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Russian cyber attacks and efforts to undermine western elections.

Kennan wanted the U.S. government to understand that “at the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs [was] a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” and a fear of “antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’” The country has suffered a history of repeated invasions. The expansion of NATO to its borders fuels that sense of being surrounded. Conversely, the Soviets believed there were “great possibilities for advancement of the[ir]… cause, particularly if the USSR remain[ed] militarily powerful, ideologically monolithic and faithful to its… brilliant leadership.”

These views provided “justification for that increase of military and police power of the Russian state… for that fluid and constant pressure to extend the limits of Russian police power which [were] together the natural and instinctive urges of Russian rulers.” Sounds awfully familiar.

In responding to Russian expansionism, Kennan continued, “Much depends upon the health and vigor of our own [institutions]… We must have the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”

Kennan ended his Long Telegram with the following admonition, “The greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism [or Putin’s Russia] is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” Soon after Putin ordered the Russian army into Ukraine a couple of U.S. Congressmen suggested that the U.S. government kick out all Russian students attending American colleges and universities. Far better to heed Kennan’s advice, resist some of our more reactionary tendencies and make sure Russian students in the U.S. continue to feel welcome. They did not order the invasion of Ukraine.

Americans can sometimes seem uniquely uninterested in the history of other societies, not to mention their own. They are future-oriented and easily entranced by the next big thing. And yet, we are all products of our respective histories. Reading Kennan at this moment in time helped the class understand that knowing more about the past doesn’t necessarily answer all our questions about the future, it just reduces the number of surprises. And in these dangerous times that could spell the difference between compromise and catastrophic escalation.

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