The Ambassador in the Soviet Union
Dear Mr. President: When I called on you2 before coming to Moscow you were good enough to say that you would be glad if I would write you from time to time about my impressions here.
I have now been here three months and I have had a chance to pick up something of the atmosphere of the place again and to make comparisons with the times when I was here before, and I thought it might interest you to have a word from me about the main impressions I have gathered.
The thing that strikes me hardest here is the extent to which the Soviet Government has lost contact with the west. There simply is no real channel for any exchange of views; and while we maintain a big embassy here in the middle of Moscow, we are so cut off and hemmed in with restrictions and ignored by the Soviet Government that it is as though no diplomatic relations existed at all. In three months service here I have not yet had a single bit of business to take up with the Soviet Government, except minor housekeeping [Page 1036] matters surrounding our attempt to operate an embassy in this city, and the Soviets have shown no inclination to discuss anything with me or to take advantage of my presence in any way.
I attribute this state of affairs primarily to a mood of arrogance and over-confidence which I think came over these people about five years ago and has caused them to feel that they had no need to pay any attention to the views or the feelings of the western governments—a belief that the development of the international situation was going to bring them out on top and in a position to dictate their terms to other people. What they were depending on was not any idea of launching a great military onslaught against the west and defeating everybody in a single military encounter, but rather a long process of development in international life, in the course of which they figured the western side would be weakened by various factors, such as economic difficulties and break-up of colonial relationships. They thought there were good chances that eventually, with the use of their enormous propaganda machine and the sharp tactics of their disciplined parties abroad, they would be able to sow bewilderment and anxiety throughout the western countries, to seize power in some countries, in others to cause people to lose faith in themselves and in us, and eventually reduce us all to a state of relative helplessness. I do not think that they hoped for any early rise of communist strength in the United States; but they did think they could separate our allies from us, leave us an isolated nation with our international position and foreign trade seriously undermined, and thus cause our people to lose faith in their own leadership and their own political institutions and to begin to waste their strength in domestic quarrels and disorders. This, they figured, would mean the end of American influence and power in the world, and would provide some muddy waters in which the American communists might find good fishing.
Today, I think some people here are beginning to have serious doubts as to whether this has been a good policy for the Kremlin to follow and whether it would not have been better to have tried to maintain some sort of polite and decent relations with ourselves and other western governments. But these feelings are still only in the stage of uneasy doubts, and as far as I can see they have not yet caused the regime to alter its attitude. I do not look for any change before our elections, and even then everything will depend on what happens in the international situation. If, for example, communist elements should come out on top in Iran or in Egypt and succeed in disrupting the Middle East and shaking the position of the Atlantic Pact group there—or if things should go badly for us in Western Europe and the Germans and the French fight too bitterly about the Saar,—or if the Soviet and East German authorities [Page 1037] should succeed in weakening the position of the western powers in Berlin and in causing the West Berliners to wonder whether they hadn’t been wrong in resisting communist pressures so bravely all this time—if things like this should occur in the next few months, then people here may well conclude that the attitude they have adopted in recent years has been right all along, and they only have to hold on tight and carry on and all will be well for them. But if these things do not happen, and if we can continue to demonstrate to them, as we have done in several recent situations, that we can stand up to them and that they are not going to get anywhere until they stop placing their main hopes in these attempts at sowing subversion and disunity elsewhere and begin to show a desire to treat us decently and talk to us respectfully, then I think we may begin to see changes in their attitude. Then it may become possible to do business with them, slowly and painfully, and perhaps to make some progress toward the gradual and progressive solution of some of our problems—but only one at a time, as and when conditions are favorable, not in any single package of negotiations.
When and if these people come to the point where they are willing to talk to us in a decent way, we will know it: we will see it in their behavior and many things they do. Until they come to that point I think we should leave them strictly alone and not show any signs of weakness or lack of confidence in our own position. And when we get to the point where they indicate they want to have better relations with us, then I would force them to deal with us decently at all levels where we have contact with them: that is, in the dealings between this embassy and the foreign office, between our people and the Soviet people in Berlin and Vienna, in the UN, etc. We will be playing their game if we let them insist that nothing can ever be gotten out of them unless we talk to Stalin. What we need are not rare and intermittent conversations with Stalin, interspersed with long periods in which no Soviet official will yield on anything, but orders from Stalin to his officials which will make all of them treat us with greater politeness and circumspection and respect.
I think the first things we should insist upon, as prerequisites to any improvements of our relations, are a cease-fire in Korea and a termination of the violent and dirty anti-American propaganda being put out daily here in Moscow. I have taken the liberty of telling everyone here in Moscow that I think these things are indispensable if we are to begin to reduce tensions and improve our relations with the Soviet Union, and I hope this meets with your approval.[Page 1038]
In both of these things, it is the Soviets that must make the first move. But if they ever do make it, I think it is important then that the American press, too, show some sense of responsibility and stop the more extreme types of attack against the Kremlin. In general, I wish our press could be induced even now to lay off the subject of war and avoid publishing material that seems to indicate we regard a third world war as inevitable, since this just plays into the hands of the Soviet “peace” propaganda and frightens our friends more than it reassures them.
With best personal regards.
Very respectfully yours,
Transmitted to the Department of State under cover of the following letter from Ambassador Kennan to Secretary Acheson, also dated Aug. 11:
“I enclose a letter to the President which I would like you to see before it goes to him.
“I would appreciate it if it might be sent on to the President if you see no objection. Should there be anything in it which you might feel had better not be said in such a communication, I would be grateful if I might be informed and given a chance to revise the letter accordingly.”
A memorandum of Aug. 27 from Bonbright to Secretary Acheson, attached to the source text, reads as follows:
“EUR has no objection to the attached letter from Mr. Kennan to the President and suggests that you allow it to go forward.
“I am not particularly happy about the final paragraph, which I don’t regard as particularly realistic. Nor do I believe that there is as much talk in the press about the inevitability of war as this paragraph would suggest. I don’t think this point is sufficiently important however to warrant an effort to get Mr. Kennan to change it.”
The memorandum is endorsed by Acheson “OK DA.”
The signed copy of this letter was forwarded to the White House by the Executive Secretariat of the Department of State. On Sept. 3, President Truman sent the following brief acknowledgement of Kennan’s letter:
“Thanks very much for your letter of August eleventh about the present condition of our relationship with the Soviet Union.
“Your letter was most interesting and informative and I appreciate your taking the time to send it to me.” (Truman Library, Truman papers, PSF Subject file—Soviet Union)↩
- Regarding Kennan’s call upon President Truman on Apr. 1, see Document 496.↩