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The Sources of Soviet Conduct (1947), George F. Kennan

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George F. Kennan was a career diplomat with extensive service abroad as well as in Washington. In 1947 he had been tapped to head the State Department's new policy planning staff, which was to provide long-range analyses and plans for the conduct of American foreign relations. This article was a distillation of a long cable message that Kennan had prepared a year before while serving in the American embassy in Moscow. Published in the July 1947 issue of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "Mr. X," it offered an unofficial summary of administration assessments of the Soviet threat. As he himself later admitted, Kennan failed to specify what he meant by containment—economic? political? military? Kennan's vague language also implied a global commitment to contain Communism militarily anywhere and everywhere in the world. Policymakers in later years would fail to distinguish between areas vital to American interests and regions of less significance.


The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is the product of ideology and circumstances: ideology inherited by the present Soviet leaders from the movement in which they had their political origin, and circumstances of the power which they have exercised for nearly three decades in Russia. . . . The main concern [of the Kremlin] 1 is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them. The main thing is that there should always be pressure, increasing constant pressure, toward the desired goal. There is no trace of any feeling in Soviet psychology that the goal must be reached at any given time.

These considerations make Soviet diplomacy at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power.

On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only by intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia's adversaries—policies no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union itself.

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward "toughness." . . . The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is the sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.

In the light of the above, it will be clearly seen that the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence. The Russians look forward to a duel of infinite duration, and they see that already they have scored great successes. . . .

It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.

Balanced against this are the facts that Russia, as opposed to the Western world in general, is still by far the weaker party, that Soviet policy is highly flexible, and that Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential. This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world. . . .

It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. . . .


1. Editorial insertion.
[Reprinted by permission of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 566-82. Copyright 1947 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.]

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