Policy Planning Staff Files

Draft Memorandum by the Counselor ( Kennan ) to the Secretary of State 1

top secret

Mr. Secretary: In the light of the current demands in the Congress and the press for some sort of a review of our foreign policy in its entirety, I think that as your senior advisor on policy formulation I should, before leaving for South America,2 let you have the following résumé of my own views on this subject.


There is little justification for the impression that the “cold war”, by virtue of events outside of our control, has suddenly taken some drastic turn to our disadvantage.

Recent events in the Far East have been the culmination of processes which have long been apparent. The implications of these processes were correctly analyzed, and their results reasonably accurately predicted, long ago by our advisors in this field. The likelihood of these recent developments was known at the time when our present policies toward the Soviet Union were evolved. This prospect was not considered valid justification either for failing to do things in Europe which promised to be useful, or for doing certain things in the Far East which promised to be useless. Mao’s3 protracted stay in Moscow4 is good evidence that our own experts were right not only in their analysis of the weakness of the National Government but also in their conviction that the Russians would have difficulty establishing the same sort of relationship with a successful Chinese Communist movement [Page 161] that they have established with some of their eastern European satellites. Events have borne out of their view that the projection of Moscow’s political power over further parts of Asia would encounter impediments, resident in the nature of the area, which would be not only not of our making but would actually be apt to be weakened by any attempts on our part to intervene directly. These impediments are now obviously operating—to date more rapidly than we had dared to hope. Elsewhere in the Far East—in Indonesia and Indo-China in particular—things are also no worse today than we would have thought likely two years ago.

Thus the over-all situation in that area, while serious, is neither unexpected nor necessarily catastrophic.

The demonstration of an “atomic capability” on the part of the U.S.S.R. likewise adds no new fundamental element to the picture.5 While certain features of our original position were influenced by the fact or our temporary monopoly, the assertions that the present U.N. majority proposals were predicated on such a monopoly are simply nonsense. The probability of the eventual development of the weapon by others was not only one of the basic postulates of the original U.S. position but actually its entire motivation. Had this postulate not existed, security could easily have been achieved by our simply hugging our secret to ourselves. The whole rationale of an international control system lay in the assumption that the alternative was a dangerous atomic rivalry. The fact that this state of affairs became a reality year or two before it was generally expected is of no fundamental significance.

The H-bomb is admittedly a severe complication, of the difficult and dangerous situation which has prevailed ever since the recent war. It gives new intensity, and a heightened grimness, to our existing problems. But it is we ourselves who have started the discussion about this weapon and announced the intention to develop it. The Russians have remained generally silent of the subject. They have said nothing about developing the weapon or using it against others, just as they have been scrupulously careful in general to deplore the very idea of the utilization of the mass destruction weapons in warfare. The idea of their threatening people with the H-bomb and bidding them “sign on the dotted line or else” is thus far solely of our own manufacture. And there are no grounds for concluding that the Russians, who do [Page 162] not require the mass destruction weapons for the establishment of an adequate military posture, are necessarily insincere in their stated desire to see them effectively proscribed from the conduct of warfare.

This is not to say that our international situation is secure, or is one that could justify complacency. As stated above, it is both difficult and dangerous. But its basic elements are ones which were established largely by the final outcome of hostilities in 1945. Nothing that recently occurred has altered these essential elements; and in so far as we feel ourselves in any heightened trouble at the present moment, that feeling is largely of our own making.


This being the case, the question remains as to the adequacy of our present policy approach in the face of this situation.

This approach, as I understand it, could be described as follows:

We recognize that the outcome of the recent war left military ascendancy on the Eurasian land-mass in the hands of a single power, irrevocably hostile to that part of the international community which does not recognize its authority, and committed to its eventual subjugation or destruction. It also placed this power in direct military control of roughly half of Europe.

It has been clear since the termination of hostilities that if this power broke out militarily and attacked the remainder of its former allies in Europe the result, whatever its chance for permanency, would obviously be in the immediate sense a major catastrophe, comparable to that which would have occurred had the Nazis won their war in Europe and forced England’s surrender. This had to be avoided, if possible. But equally dangerous would have been a similar further extension of Soviet power by political means; i.e., by intimidation, deceit, infiltration and subversion. This also had to be countered to the extent of our ability.

There was a good possibility that the Russians themselves, recognizing that this had serious disadvantages and dangers from their own standpoint, had no intention of launching a military attack on the rest of Europe at this juncture, and that they were planning to base their action on means short of war.6 Our best hope of avoiding catastrophe lay in exploiting this possibility and in concentrating on the strengthening of the resistance of other countries to Soviet political aggression.

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Why was this?

First, because if the Russians, contrary to expectations, didattack militarily, there was really little that we or anyone else could do about it. We had decided to demobilize. Strength adequate for real military containment in Europe and Asia could not conceivably be built up without reviving the military power of Germany and Japan, which we were not prepared to do. We might do some things to make such an attack less likely; but we were not the Russians’ keepers—we had no real control over their motives or their conduct—and if they grasped for the sword, there was no way we could really prevent the results from being a new sort of shambles for European civilization.

Secondly, because there was a chance that with our encouragement sufficient forces of resistance could be mobilized in the non-communist world to prevent communist political pressure from having successes of catastrophic dimensions at this juncture. As for the more distant future, no one was wise enough to tell. But if five or ten years of peace could be gained, there was always a possibility that by that time something would have happened to diminish the intensity of the communist threat and that the world might then somehow work its way through, without catastrophe, to an international order of greater stability and security.

This, at any rate, was the best chance. War was no acceptable alternative. Nor was the idea of some overall agreement with the Soviet leaders. A patient and wary policy of reinforcing resistance to Soviet political pressures, wherever there was anything to reinforce, and by whatever means we had of doing this, was dictated by the limits of the possible. It was not guaranteed to work. But it was the only thing that held out any real possibility of working.

The implications of such a policy, from the standpoint of the actual conduct of our affairs, were profound and varied. To understand the logical inter-relationships of the various phases of diplomatic action which it demanded called for considerable subtlety and breadth of understanding. Not all the elements of our public opinion, or even of our government personnel, possessed these qualities. Because the Russian attack, ideologically speaking, was a global one, challenging the ultimate validity of the entire non-communist outlook on life, predicting its failure, and playing on the force of that prediction as a main device in the conduct of the cold war, it could be countered only by a movement on our part equally comprehensive, designed to prove the validity of liberal institutions, to confound the predictions of their failure, to prove that a society not beholden to Russian communism could still “work”. In this way, the task of combatting communism became as broad as the whole great range of our responsibilities [Page 164] as a world power, and came to embrace all those things which would have had to be done anyway—even in the absence of a communist threat—to assure the preservation and advance of civilization. That Moscow might be refuted, it was necessary that something else should succeed. Thus Moscow’s threat gave great urgency to the solution of all those bitter problems of adjustment which in any event would have plagued and tested the countries of the non-communist world in the wake of these two tremendous and destructive world conflicts. And it was not enough, in the face of this fact, to treat the communist attack as purely an outside one, to be dealt with only by direct counter-action. Such an approach was sometimes necessary; but primarily communism had to be viewed as a crisis of our own civilization, and the principal antidote lay in overcoming the weaknesses of our own institutions.

The principal antidote, I repeat, not the only one. Since military intimidation was another of the cold war weapons used by the Kremlin, direct action had to be taken to combat this, too. Hence our own armed establishment, the Atlantic Pact and the Arms Program. These measures threw many people off. They were not part of a policy of military containment; but they looked like it. They served their purpose in Europe; but they misled many people there and here into a false concept of what it was we were doing: into a tendency to view the Russian threat as just a military problem rather than as a part of a broad political offensive. (This error has had a great part in producing the present restlessness with our policy; for through these distorted lenses the atomic energy problems, and many other things, take on quite misleading aspects.)


There is no reason, to date, to doubt the validity of this approach. In fact, any serious deviation from it could easily lead to most appalling consequences. But if it be asked whether our present policies represent the most and the best we can do to implement it, I must say that in my opinion they do not. The main deficiencies appear to me to be these:

1. In the military sphere, we should act at once to get rid of our present dependence, in our war plans, on the atomic Weapon, This is necessary, first of all, in order that we may have a straightforward stance toward the problems of international control. The H-bomb discussion and other events having created such intensity of interest in this subject, a confused and hesitant position on our part becomes a dangerous matter, both domestically and internationally. Secondly, it is necessary because the atomic weapons are already an infirm and questionable element in our military posture, and likely to become more so as time passes. This is true both psychologically and in the literal military sense. Finally, as the power of the mass destruction [Page 165] weapons grows, public opinion will ill support the prospect of a war conducted with such agencies and will tend to lose its sense of perspective and to entertain wild schemes for the settlement of political conflict. The removal of our dependence on the weapon will not alone alleviate this unhealthy preoccupation; but it is a first step toward it. As long as we are determined to use the weapons willy-nilly, the conduct of warfare on that basis is inevitable. Only if we ourselves would be prepared, as a starter, to refrain from their use on a basis of mutuality, could there even be any chance of avoiding atomic warfare in the event of hostilities.

Now it is admittedly a tremendous undertaking on our part to dispense with this dependence on the atomic weapon. I should think it entirely possible that this would require a state of semi-mobilization, involving some form of compulsory military service and drastic measures to reduce the exorbitant costs of national defense. In particular, we must abandon the idea that the armed establishment can and should compete with the civilian economy in pay scales and amenities: that it should operate, in other words, as a function of the civilian economy. That concept rests on a great delusion, and spells impotence.

2. We must face up at once to the dollar gap problem, particularly with relation to the financial situation in the U.K. and sterling area, but also with an eye to our problems with respect to Canada and to Germany and Japan. The British situation is urgent, and will probably be back in our laps in an aggravated form within a year, even if the Congress accedes in full to executive recommendations for ERP aid. A British bankruptcy will have extremely dangerous consequences throughout the entire non-communist world.

We cannot do everything ourselves; but the removal of our tariffs and subsidies would relieve at least a portion of the dollar shortage, and—more important still—would create a sort of clarity which nothing else could create as to the real measure of foreign responsibility for the dollar gap problem.

The situation demands, therefore, a courageous and unhesitating attack on this problem by the executive branch of government, making plain the facts and outlining the course of action to be followed. We should aim at a program of gradual adjustment, perhaps over a period of years and with the Federal Government stepping in to mitigate hardships and injustices to private interests. The end of this period of adjustment should be a complete absence of tariffs and subsidies, except where genuine security considerations intervene; and even in these cases we should treat other members of the Atlantic Pact group as allies rather than potential enemies, and try to spare them from being the victims of security considerations.

3. With respect to the problem of our relations to underdeveloped areas, generally thought of in connection with Point IV, I would say the following.

I think we should fight the assumption that these relations cannot be normal and satisfactory ones unless we are extending some sort of unrequited assistance to the respective peoples.

I think we must also beware of the assumption that it is invariably helpful and desirable that such people should be assisted to a higher stage of technological development. Technology is not a good in itself.

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Living standards are a deceiving measure either of satisfactions people derive from life or of their political stability. In particular, we should beware of the favored stereotype to the effect that low standards of living produce communism and high standards of living do not. This is an unproven thesis, and probably unsound.

Finally, in the areas where we do find it desirable and useful that technological assistance should be extended, I think we will find that many modifications, and perhaps fundamental ones, must be made in the present Point IV concept before it can become fully effective. I fear that as it stands today it imputes to private enterprise an altruism which cannot fairly be demanded of it, and to government a capacity for organization which government does not and cannot possess. It also does not meet entirely the requirement that technological assistance, if it is to be really creditable and effective, must be extended in a balanced context of social and economic development, and not in isolated driblets, related only to fragments of a country’s basic needs. To be effective, in other words, it would have to embrace the TVA principle that life must be looked at in all its aspects if living patterns are to be improved.

I think that we must come eventually to the creation of a central corporation for foreign developmental work involving any sort of special assistance; that this corporation must be near enough to government to be amenable to governmental policy direction and yet far enough from it to avoid the paralyzing effects of governmental restrictions on the employment and utilization of personnel. And it should serve as a point at which government, private enterprise, and charity can come together in the projection of our technological capacity beyond our borders in ways which will serve rational political ends.

4. I think it quite essential that we find a new and much more effective approach to the problem of making our policies understood within this Government and among our own people. This relates particularly to those interrelationships of policy which are of a relatively subtle nature and for the understanding of which some knowledge of the theory of foreign relations is essential. Up to this time, it seems to me, we have been quite unsuccessful in this. You still have the most distinguished and influential of our columnists and diplomatic observers making statements which reflect an almost incredible ignorance of basic elements of our foreign policy, to say nothing of the state of mind of Congressional circles.

The first prerequisite for people who are to concern themselves with explaining policy to others is that they themselves should understand it. It is not uncharitable to point out that this qualification is not generally obtained without considerable experience and intellectual discipline. We have gone thus far on the principle that the teachers themselves require no teaching; that they imbibe what they need to know by their mere presence and activity within the institution of the Department of State. This is our first mistake.

Our second is the belief that we can achieve our purposes in this field without real ideological discipline. I think that we must not fear the principle of indoctrination within the government service. The Secretary of State is charged personally by the President with the conduct of foreign affairs, and there is no reason why he should not insist that his views and interpretations be those of the entire [Page 167] official establishment. There is no reason why every responsible officer of the Department and Foreign Service should not be schooled and drilled in the handling of the sort of questions concerning our foreign policy which are raised morning after morning by Lippmann7 and Krock8 and others. What we need here is a section of the Department charged not only with the briefing, but with the training and drilling, of our official personnel on political matters. And this operation should extend beyond the walls of this Department and into other departments closely concerned with foreign policy, particularly the armed services and the Treasury.

The elaboration of a body of policy thought and rationale which can be taught in this manner will do more than anything I can think of not only to improve the quality of political work within the department but also to improve our general impact on press and Congress and public. Without this type of discipline and singleness of purpose, I do not think the problem can be mastered. And unless it is mastered, there seems to me to be serious and urgent danger that our present policy toward the Soviet Union will founder on the lack of popular support.

  1. Circulated in the Policy Planning Staff by Harry H. Schwartz, Executive Secretary, under a memorandum of transmittal of February 17 which read as follows:

    “Attached is a copy of a draft memorandum addressed to the Secretary prepared by Mr. Kennan. This memorandum has not been sent nor is it Mr. Kennan’s intention to send it as he has already exposed the ideas contained therein orally to the Secretary. It is being circulated for the information of the staff and such assistance as it may represent in the current policy review.” (Policy Planning Staff Files)

  2. Kennan departed for Mexico City and South America on February 18; for information on his fact-finding mission, see vol. ii, pp. 589 ff.
  3. Mao Tse-tung, Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
  4. For text of the Sino-Soviet Treaty and two accompanying agreements, signed at Moscow on February 14, 1950, see Margaret Carlyle, ed., Documents on International Affairs, 1949–1950 (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 541–547. For additional documentation on Sino-Soviet relations, see vol. vi, pp. 256 ff.
  5. On January 20, Kennan completed a 79-page memorandum on international control of atomic energy. The study also considered the question of development of thermonuclear weapons and aspects of national strategic planning. For extracts from the memorandum and comments on it by officers of the Department, see pp. 22 ff.
  6. Kennan’s argument against the likelihood of an overt military attack by the Soviet Union is set forth in George F. Kennan, “Is War with Russia Inevitable? Five Solid Arguments for Peace,” Department of State Bulletin, February 20, 1950, pp. 267–271, 303. The article also appeared in the March issue of Reader’s Digest.
  7. Walter Lippmann, author and syndicated newspaper columnist.
  8. Arthur Krock, Washington correspondent of the New York Times.