|Author: Petr Mares|
THE LONG TELEGRAM: IMPULSES, RAMIFICATIONS, CONSEQUENCES
However specious reasoning this may seem now, the first years in the wake of the Second World War were marked by a widespread belief that the future course of world events was still in large measure to be determined in Europe. Yet, the prospects of Europe seemed rather bleak at best at the time. The deprived and homeless wandered aimlessly around the continent; as much some wanted to go home, others dreaded their possible return, fearing repression and persecution in their home countries. European cities were left in ruins with housing, industry and transportation mostly wiped out. Bracing for the first post-war winter, Europeans found themselves in a short supply of all the basic necessities needed to ride through it. Unsurprisingly, the mood in Europe was a far cry from the jubilant times following the liberation. Even in countries where democracy had enjoyed wide spread support, such as those in Western and Northern Europe, the extreme left was on the rise. Even more so, the part of Europe that the Red Army had liberated was going through even more turbulent developments. With the help of Soviet authorities, the pro-Soviet forces with clear disdain for political arrangements agreed upon by former war-time allies seemed unstoppable in their quest for power.
As stipulated in the Yalta’s Declaration on Liberated Europe, liberated countries should hold free and fair elections to lay down the future foundations of Europe. However, it was obvious that with the looming super-power conflagration on the cards, Eastern Europe in particular witnessed very little democracy in practice. Freedom of press was increasingly trampled on, and other democratic provisions were slowly removed. Launching large scale expropriation campaigns, vast industrial assets as well as livestock disappeared in the Soviet Union along with thousands of citizens of Central and Eastern European countries to little opposition from their governments either out of disregard or helplessness.
Cooperation between former victorious powers took a sharp turn for the worse, and mutual declarations promising post-war cooperation appeared not worthy the paper they were printed on. The Council of Foreign Ministers Conference in London in September, 1945, and the subsequent Big Three foreign ministers’ meeting in Moscow (December, 1945) were nothing short of an outright failure. As a result, key postwar institutions were paralyzed either by ranging disputes between superpowers (e.g. the UN Security Council) or Soviet Union’s absence from them (e.g. the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank). At the same time, Moscow sought to consolidate its grip on the territories controlled by the Red Army while ostensibly gearing up for possible further expansion. What followed clearly demonstrated the aggressive nature of the Soviet policy: Moscow made it clear that it would not withdraw its troops from Iran despite the assurances given during the war. Similarly, Soviet diplomacy was putting heavy pressure on Turkey to secede territories bordering the Armenian and Georgian Socialist Soviet Republics. Objections from Western Allies were met only with Moscow’s growing indignation. The Russian word “nyet” became easily understood by Western diplomats with no need for an interpreter.
Deterioration in relations with Moscow presented Western Europe with a grave challenge and made its leaders constantly preoccupied with how to counter a resurgent Soviet Union. Yet, it was beyond anybody’s doubt that due to the new economic and military realities the key to the safety of Europe was held on the other side of the Atlantic. New American President Harry Truman, who succeeded a late Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, put the painted glass sign on his table at the Oval Office that read: “The Buck Stops Here.” It goes without saying that this maxim proves its worth even in the world of international politics; and Truman, despite all intents and purposes, was bold enough to put it to the test. However, Truman and his administration had a hard time seeing the whole picture of the rapidly changing world, which was so different from the one his predecessor had long dreamed of and schemed for. The vision of the post-war world order passed onto Truman from Roosevelt was never meant to work under these new circumstances. In fact, Roosevelt had staunchly advocated for a full inclusion of Soviet Russia in the new universalistic world order, come what may. This ideological offspring of the Big Three conferences gave the new president very little leeway to implement, however.
As late as spring 1945 at the Potsdam conference, Truman was still determined to continue on Roosevelt’s path. Soon after, however, his enthusiasm for Roosevelt’s policy was beginning to wane. As far as Truman was concerned, the Russians had simply refused to play by the rules; they would not take any part in any endeavor unless they kept the upper hand. Half a year after his return from Berlin, the president was under no illusion that his cooperation with the Soviets was doomed to fail. When he first attempted to articulate what he saw wrong about the current US foreign policy, Truman stated, “There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Russia intends an invasion of the Black Sea Straits to the Mediterranean. Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making.” His brief appraisal ended with the following words: “I’m tired babying the Soviets.”1
As one might have expected from an American Midwest politician, Truman summed up his views on the Soviet Union in a rather straight forward fashion. By that time, a number of politicians, diplomats and soldiers had come to agree in principle with the essence of president’s words, which were essentially born out of their experience with direct dealings with the Soviets at various levels, as was the case with the president. Nevertheless, the US appeared to be a long way from devising a genuinely new Russian policy. First and foremost, there was an urgent need for a thorough appraisal of the Soviet Union on the international stage, including the country’s foreign policy-making process, its guiding principles, and its profiling of foreign policy-makers. Why would Kremlin want to refuse to work with the West on the basis of what Western leaders sincerely believed was to be mutually beneficial for both parties? Why was Moscow not satisfied with the concessions made by the US? Why were the Soviets not honoring their commitments? Why was the USSR actively building up a spy network in Canada and perhaps even in the US? Why was Kremlin demanding complete subjugation of its Eastern Europeans neighbors rather than simply allying itself with them? It appeared that the Soviet challenge was gaining urgency. Come the end of February 1946, the worries of a Soviet menace reached the floor of the US Senate. It was the leader of the emerging bipartisan platform for new foreign policy, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg who declared, “We ask it in Manchuria. We ask it in Eastern Europe and the Dardanelles. We ask it in Italy where Russia, speaking for Yugoslavia, has already initiated attention to the Polish Legions. We ask it in Iran. We ask it in Tripolitania. We ask it in the Baltic and we ask it in the Balkans. We ask it in Poland. We ask it in the capital of Canada. We ask it in Japan. We ask it sometimes even in connection with events in our own United States. What is Russia up to now? ... it is a question which must be met and answered before it is too late.” 2
When the Michigan Senator was in his rather dull voice asking those critically important questions, the answers to many of them had been already found. A couple of days earlier the State Department had received a dispatch from Moscow which could have easily found one of Vandeberg’s questions, “What is Russia up to now?” as its title3 . The telegram was drafted by an elite expert on Russia - one of only a handful of experts on this country available to the State Department at that time. His name was George F. Kennan and he was a number two at the US Embassy in Moscow. Going through a particularly bad case of fever and frustrated by unforthcoming superiors who did not share his view on the Soviet Union, Kennan was contemplating quitting his job. Incidentally, he was only about to learn about the coming earthquake in the US foreign policy, in fact, he harbored no illusion that things might ever get better. When he was dictating his secretary the text of what would later become his highly-revered Long Telegram, Kennan thought of it as a last desperate attempt to change Washington’s mindset. His message was radical: In Russia, nothing is as usual.
Given his academic and expert background, Kennan’s assertion that the US policy-makers should have taken his work seriously was not beside the point. Kennan belonged to the first wave of American experts on the Soviet Union and he was among a handful of graduates from the prestigious universities in the “roaring 20’s” who began to climb the career ladder during the “troubled 30’s”. Apart from Princeton, Kennan studied history, political science and most importantly Russian language at the Oriental Institute of Berlin University. His brief stint at the US Consulate in Riga gave him the best possible exposure to the Soviet Union at that time, since there was no US diplomatic representation to the USSR. By the time Roosevelt’s administration established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union he was one of the only three real experts (the other two were Charles “Chip” Bohlen and Loy W. Henderson) who were dispatched to serve at the newly opened US Embassy in Moscow. Shortly after experiencing a brief spell of liberalization under the NEP policy, Kennan was confronted with the horrors of Stalin’s reign of terror. Later he left Moscow for Prague, where he arrived at the day of the signing of the Munich Agreement. Then he went to work in Berlin and Lisbon, only for him to return to Moscow in June 1944 in his new capacity as a minister-counselor. He worked under an ever itinerant diplomat W. Averell Harriman, then the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Kennan came across as a particularly talented and devoted student of Russia and the Soviet Union, which was the subject of his life-time fascination. It is probably fair to say that Kennan was one of those many foreigners desperately struggling to understand the proverbial Russian spirit. However, the following words by Kennan exemplify his struggle to understand Russia and its people, “The Russian tends to deal only in extremes, and he is not particularly concerned to reconcile them. To him, contradiction is a familiar thing. It is the essence of Russia. West and East, Pacific and Atlantic, Arctic and tropics, extreme cold and extreme heat, prolonged sloth and sudden feats of energy, exaggerated cruelty and exaggerated kindness, ostentatious wealth and dismal squalor, violent xenophobia and uncontrollable yearning for contact with the foreign world, vast power and the most abject slavery, simultaneous love and hate for the same objects: these are only some of the contradictions which dominate the life of the Russian people. The Russian does not reject these contradictions. He has learned to live with them, and in them. To him, they are the spice of the life.” 4 For the rest of his life Russia was for Kennan to remain „...mysterious country which I had spent so many years trying to understand.” 5
This quotation comes from “Russia – Seven Years Later”, the first major analytical piece written by Kennan after his return to Moscow. Arguably, this unique take on Russia could be considered a precursor to the Long Telegram. With a first draft written, Kennan decided to present it to Ambassador Harriman, who to Kennan’s consternation, as he notes in his Memoirs, took little notice of it and without uttering a single word handed it back. In fact, Harriman sent large portions of Kennan’s text to Washington for consideration but did not bother to tell Kennan in the first place. 6 Thus, this was the onset of a three-year period filled with personal and professional worries for Kennan as he was trying to sway the US policy toward Russia.
It is noteworthy that Kennan’s views had been constantly evolving. The suppression of the Warsaw Uprising by Soviet troops was instrumental in making Kennan conclude that for the coming years Russia could be hardly considered a trustworthy partner anymore. In a letter to his friend Charles Bohlen, who served as Roosevelt’s personal interpreter and later as his advisor, Kennan argued that the US had in fact only two options in its dealings with Stalin’s Russia: either it would oppose Russia’s attempts at the subjugation of Eastern Europe with all Washington could muster to this end, or else it would accept the Soviet dominance over this part of the world. No matter what, he asserted, the Soviet Union was likely to continue its expansionist policy in Europe and would not stop until it reached the shores of the Atlantic. Only then could in Kennan’s view the Soviet’s deep-seated sense of insecurity be ameliorated. Since one might expect that the US would not have enough will to oppose directly and with full strength the Soviet expansionist policy, Kennan elaborated further, there was no other way than to drop the much cherished foreign policy goal of establishing a universalistic world order. The magnanimous project of the United Nations – a body through which free people would manage world affairs under the benign supervision of world powers - a backbone of American WWII foreign policy, was to be forgotten. In contrast to Roosevelt’s brain chill, Kennan promulgated his vision for the world in sharply different terms: Kennan argued that were the US to preserve democracy in at least part of the Continent it would have to strike a bargain with Stalin on the division of Europe into two hermetically sealed off spheres of influence – one Soviet and the other Anglo-American. 7
In the run up to the Yalta conference, which Roosevelt hoped would definitely give a green light to his UN project, Kennan’s line of argument stood little chance of being heard. However, Kennan remained steadfast and persistent in arguing for a different course in US-Soviet relations. As an eloquent and immensely productive writer, Kennan wasted no time to restate his case time and again, not only in regular dispatches to the State Department but also he continued perfecting his analytical work in which he sought to determine the sources of the Soviet’s conduct. Even though fully versed with the peculiar nature of the Soviet system, he had gradually come to believe that in order to explain current trends in the Russian foreign policy thinking one has to dig much deeper into Russia’s past. Discussing Russia’s sense of geopolitical insecurity, Kennan noted, “... the age-old sense of insecurity of a sedentary people reared on an exposed plain in the neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples.” 8 Centuries of instability and insecurity made it possible for the principle of unlimited autocracy to infest the Russian psyche and become a rallying principle in Russian society. 9 Despite numerous attempts to uproot these Russian idiosyncrasies, even the Bolsheviks with their revolutionary zeal failed on this count. Also in the Soviet period the forces deeply rooted in the Russian history were at play. Besides a strong sense of autocratic power it was “... the Byzantine scholasticism of political thought, the exclusive self-segregation from the Western world, and even the mystic dreams of becoming the world’s Third Rome.” 10
With this in mind, Kennan argued that it was absolutely essential for the US to come to recognize the full scope of Russian peculiarities in order to at least have a normal conversation with the Soviets in the language they understood, not to mention being able to reach a compromise with them. There was only one alternative, and that was a serious misunderstanding affair with the Soviets. In Kennan’s opinion, it was where the US diplomacy was running. His boss, Ambassador Harriman, deliberately withheld from him all details concerning the Yalta conference. Kennan became even more suspicious. He was afraid (and rightly so) that during the Big Three meeting the US had continued its flawed policy of cajoling the Soviets while trying to reach a mutual understanding and eventually work toward some sort of a grand agreement, however unrealistic that was. As for the Potsdam Conference, Kennan appeared to be briefed much more, however, this appeared to be a small comfort for him. In Memoirs he notes, “I cannot recall any political document the reading of which filled me with greater sense of depression than the communiqu? to which President Truman set his name at the conclusion... The use in an agreement with the Russians of general language – such words as ‘democratic,’ ‘peaceful,’ and ‘justice’ – went directly counter to everything I had learned... Anyone in Moscow could have told our negotiators what it was that the Soviet leaders had in mind when they used the term ‘democratic parties.’” 11
In the weeks following the Potsdam Conference, as far as Kennan was concerned, the process of formulating the US policy toward Russia was not getting any better; in fact, the situation was quite the opposite. The ineptitude of US Russian policy was clearly demonstrated at the end of 1945, at the conference of Big Three foreign ministers in Moscow. Kennan came to believe that then Secretary of State James Byrnes had a very rudimentary knowledge of Russian affairs in particular, and diplomacy and international affairs in general. When Ambassador Harriman left again for Washington and Kennan was put in charge of correspondence with Washington, his chance arrived to influence US foreign policy. Asked by the Department of Finance to explain why the Soviets had refused to sign up to the Bretton-Wood System as well as by the State Department to clarify Stalin’s call for further militarization of the Soviet economy, Kennan did not have to think twice to seize the moment
The way Kennan’s dispatch was received in Washington was unprecedented, indeed. Perhaps no other classified document like that had been circulated so much among so many officials. Not only read throughout the State Department, Secretary of Navy James V. Forrestal tipped by Kennan’s superior Harriman had hundreds of copies made of it and then distributed to the senior military staff and members of the administration. 12 Such was an amazing transformation from a little known expert on Russia into a well-known political analyst who could pick almost any position in the administration. Everybody wanted Kennan to work with them, such was the impact of his Long Telegram. For example, new ambassador to Russia Walter Bedell Smith, who succeeded Harriman, wanted to retain Kennan to serve under him in Moscow. However, Kennan was not supposed to stay in Moscow for long13 – only long enough to accept a new teaching post at the National War Collage giving lectures on Russia for big brass and high-ranking officials of the Administration. Apart from that, Kennan served as an advisor to General Hoyt A. Vandenberg, Director of Central Intelligence Group a direct predecessor to the CIA. His career climb was completed when in April 1947 George C. Marshal appointed Kennan the head of Policy Planning Staff, a newly created body designed to coordinate strategic planning at the State Department. 14
Elevated to the highest echelons of the American foreign policy establishment, Kennan owned much to his Long Telegram. Yet, it is still open to question and subject to much speculation as to what extent he succeeded in impressing his ideas on the US foreign policy. Not everybody is ready to subscribe to the glowing words of Kennan’s long time colleague and later Secretary of Defense in Johnson’s administration Clark Clifford, who described the Long Telegram as “the most important, and influential, message ever sent to Washington by an American diplomat.” 15 Nevertheless, one can hardly dispute the fact that the document proved to be instrumental in adapting US foreign policy to the new Cold War realities. Indeed the timing of the release of the Long Telegram could not have been better. Having no clue of the ongoing heated debate on the US Russian policy in the corridors of power in Washington, Kennan inadvertently pulled this debate in an entirely new direction. Years later he said: “It was one of those moments when official Washington, whose states of receptivity or the opposite are determined by subjective emotional currents as intricately imbedded in the subconscious as those of the most complicated of Sigmund Freud’s erstwhile patients, was ready to receive a given message. ... Six months earlier this message would probably have been received in the Department of State with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later, it would probably have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced“.16
The significance of the Long Telegram was not only confined to the right timing. More importantly, it addressed some of the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day. It was a bold attempt at explaining what many key US decision makers saw as an incomprehensible as well as unpredictable nature of the Soviet foreign policy. While writing his telegram, Kennan was convinced that it was about time to force Truman and his team to change the course in their policy vis-?-vis Russia. In fact, more than pushing for a change, the Long Telegram managed to support Truman in his decision to attempt the change. In Kennan the Americans found an expert who was able to outline in quite lucid terms the motivations behind the Soviet foreign policy conduct. According to him, Kremlin understanding of the world was less shaped by the reality than by its heavily prejudiced visions. That was why there was no way how to acquire the confidence of the Soviet leadership, insisted Kennan. This argument provided desperately needed drug acting on frustration caused by the failed attempts of rapprochement with the Soviets. Last but not least, Kennan gave Washington a way of seeing Soviet actions in the world in completely different light, making them more understandable and even more predictable.
The true extent of the Long Telegram’s impact on particular steps undertaken by the US diplomacy in the coming years is indeed hard to measure. Truman’s Secretary of State, his forth in a row, Dean Acheson, a politician at the birth of NATO, thus in part fulfilling one of the objectives laid down by Kennan in his writing, remarked, “His recommendations – to be of good heart, to look to our own social and economic health, to present a good face to the world, all of which the government was trying to do – were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not been sound, but his predictions and warnings could not have been better.” For the rest of his life, Kennan refused to take any responsibility for the implementation of the containment policy pursued by the US. He was among the critics of the Truman Doctrine, only to give some credit to the Marshal Plan. There is no doubt, however, that Kennan helped initiate an honest and open discussion on the true nature of the Soviet system. Before the Long Telegram hit Washington like a bomb shell, there had been very little said about the Soviet Union in the US foreign policy community. Recalled from Moscow, Kennan became a focal point of the debate on the Soviet Union throughout the administration. Urged by James Forrestal, Kennan published the main theses of his Long Telegram in the Foreign Affairs magazine17 under the pseudonym Mr. X, thus occupying the central stage of the academic debate on Russia for years to come. Ever since then, it has become unthinkable for any scholarly work on the Stalin system not to include a reference of the Kennan’s work. Even though Kennan has probably failed to directly influence any of Truman’s policies or his successors’, the bottom line remains that those policies have not been made without at least some consideration of Kennan’s work.
1 Truman drafted this text as a letter to his Secretary of State James Byrnes with whom the president was lees and less satisfied. However, he never sent it. In fact, there are very many of such unsent letters to be found in Truman’s personal possession. Probably this was a way for the president to channel his anger and streamline his thoughts. (Robert H. Ferrell (ed.), Off the record. The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman. New York, Harper & Row 1980, p. 80)
2 Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr. (ed.), The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company 1952, p.247. The senator referred to the regions where the Soviets seemed to be in breach of their commitments: despite Moscow’s recognition of the nationalist government in China, they kept supplying weapons to his communist rivals in the Manchuria; the Soviets were dragging their feet on the withdrawal of their troops from Iran; the USSR demanded a stake in the administration of the Italian colonies in Northern Africa; in February 1946 the soviet spy network in Canada stealing the secrets if American nuclear program was uncovered; the communist party of Japan was torpedoing American efforts to transform Japan into a democracy, etc.
3 It cannot be ruled out that Vandenberg had already familiarized himself with the Long Telegram as he was a key person for the State Department with an access to classified documents. However, the time span between the arrival of the long telegram at the State Department and senator’s speech was probably simply too short for him to have read it.
4 George F. Kennan, Russia – Seven Years Later. In: Memoirs.1925-1950. Atlantic-Little, Brown 1967, pp. 528-9.
5 Kennan, Sketches From a Life. New York, Pantheon Books 1989, p.84.
6 Wilson D. Miscamble, George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950. Princeton, Princeton University Press 1992, pp.20-21
7 Kennan to Bohlen, 26.1.1945. Congressional Library, Manuscript Division, Papers of Charles Bohlen, Box 5. It is not entirely clear where this dividing line was supposed to cut thorough Europe. Kennan was rather ambiguous about central Europe, for instance. Loosely defined, Anglo-American sphere was to a gathering of nations based on democratic principles. In this sphere one may only assume the Roosevelt’s universalistic visions might have taken roots.
8 Kennan, Russia’s International Position at the Close of the War with Germany. In: Memoirs. 1925-1950. Atlantic-Little, Brown 1967, p. 533.
9 Kennan, Seven Years Later, In: Memoirs, p.504
10 Kennan, Russia’s International Position at the Close of the War with Germany, In: Memoirs, pp.534-5.
11 Kennan, Memoirs, pp. 258-9.
12 Miscamble, George F. Kennan, p. 27.
13 Walter Bedell Smith, My Three Years in Moscow. Philadelphia 1949, p. 47.
14 Miscamble, pp. 30, 33.
15 Clark Clifford and Richard Holbrook, Counsel to the President: A Memoir. New York, Random House 1991, p. 102.
16 Kennan, Memoirs, p.295.
17 X, The Sources of Soviet Conduct. Foreign Affairs, July 1947.