795.00/7—3052: Telegram

The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Department of State1

top secret

208. Kentel. Deptel 101, July 29.2 Immed sitn Korea is, of course, for Russia two-edged sword. Advantages to them as means of tying up our forces and draining our strength are obvious. But it has disadvantages as well. Holds Amer forces in undesirable proximity to Vladivostok. Gives excuse for our maintaining larger forces in vicinity Japan than wld otherwise be necessary. Diverts Chi Commies from Formosa and other objectives. Continues to build up Chi claim to future voice in Kor affairs, which can scarcely be agreeable to Moscow. Finally has given major boost to US rearmament.

However, we must assume sitn of past few months has been on balance satis to Sov interests, or at least sufficiently so that it has not been worth their while as yet to put major pressure on Chi to come to agrmt about armistice. After all, if what Russians were worried about one year ago was that momentum of our mil operation might carry us again into north of peninsula, the sitn that has existed in past year of fruitless negots, marked as it has been by virtual standstill of land operations, has probably suited them just as well as actual cease-fire by agrmt, if not better. Only way we cld have contrived to keep Sovs interested in success of negots wld have been to keep pushing Commies periodically in such way as to threaten renewed UN advance. Fact that operation actually came to near standstill and Chi and North Koreans were successful meanwhile in increasing their strength probably made it unnecessary on balance for Sovs to press for actual agrmt. However, balance must be for Sovs a fairly close one, and present sitn cld change at any moment.

Sovs are probably less interested in formal armistice than in polit arrangement which wld cause both Amers and Chi to leave Korea. Their desire for such solution is surely aimed at Chi no less than US. Think it possible Sovs might be inclined to help US in pressing for any agrmt which wld provide for gen removal of fon troops. But mere armistice agrmt itself probably does not serve Russian interests any better—indeed may be thought by them to serve them worse—than continuation of present sitn. It wld get neither Amers nor Chi immed out of Korea and wld merely mean that we cld presumably do with somewhat fewer forces there and wld suffer less bleeding.

As for POW question, Sov leaders have no reason to be pleased with our position. If impression were to become established that POWs are not to be forced by US to return to country of origin upon completion [Page 431] hostilities, considerable portion of Sov Armed Forces might become unreliable in event future war.

This is particularly sensitive point with Sov Secret Police who lost face and suffered major defeat in their own special purposes by defections from Red Army in recent war. They wld like to see it demonstrated in Korean War that Amers do return prisoners of war by force. They wld then see to it this became widely known in Sov Army where it wld serve as an excellent protection not only against defection but even against failure of troops to fight to bitter end in possible future war.

Cannot see that there shld be any reason for Sovs to help US out in Kor armistice beyond limit already dictated to them by their own analysis of their own interest. If reason had already existed for Sov influence to be exercised in major way, this wld presumably already have been done. An approach from US adds nothing to their assessment of their own interest and only serves to make them suspicious. Wld have been easier for Sovs to use their influence and make it effective if not approached overtly by US, than after being so approached. If approach is made and becomes known, they cannot exert influence successfully on Chi without (1) appearing to yield to Western pressure, which they wld regard as demonstration of weakness, and (2) giving impression that Chinese were yielding to Sov pressure, impression neither Chi nor Sovs wld care to give. Thus overt Amer approach on dipl level wld probably damage, rather than improve, possibility for exertion of Sov influence to bring about cease-fire.

To enhance Sov interest in promoting cease-fire at this time it would be necessary to find some means for convincing them failure achieve cease-fire wld again jeopardize their interests. Space does not permit exhaustive discussion this point here, nor am I in position to weigh all factors involved, but my personal opinion is best line of approach to creation such sitn wld be measures designed make it evident that if cease-fire not soon achieved we wld consider failure of Chi to agree cease-fire, added to their original offense in entering Korea and their shameless spreading malicious falsehoods through their propaganda machine, as evidence of intolerably hostile and provocative attitude toward US, freeing our hands for whatever action against them we might find it desirable to take. Movement in this direction wld involve a number of progressive steps. These wld have to be so ordered and determined as to preserve due flexibility and make it possible to halt process if and when Russians concluded cease-fire desirable and began to use their influence accordingly. Important avoid abrupt overt mil steps on our part, particularly in Manchurian area, which cld bring about invocation Chi-Sov alliance. What I have in mind are steps in nature of blockading and harassing operations along China coast, hit-and-run raids, gradual introduction of selective strategic bombing in [Page 432] central and southern areas, etc. Also these shld be carefully coordinated, designed to weary Chi, to throw them off balance, over-strain their economy and transport. All shld be accomplished in such manner as to avoid (1) unhealthy polit commitments to Chiang, (2) suffering to Chi civilian population as direct effect our action, and (3) any unwise attempts at penetration on land which cld result in getting finger caught in door.

So much for examination of possible approach from standpoint of Korean situation itself. Feel such approach wld also have implications and consequences from gen standpoint Sov-Amer relations and that these cannot be ignored.

Every evidence decisive power exercised today within Sov regime by group heavily committed to policy which has been not only bitterly hostile to all non-Commie govts (this is after all only basic Bolshevik ideology) but has not hesitated to abandon or neglect respectable ties to West on scale never before attempted in Sov practices and to burn bridges over which there might be possible retreat from existing arrogant and provocative tactics in case they shld be unsuccessful. These people have obviously taken position there wld never be another time when Kremlin wld have need even to pretend to deal respectfully with non-Commie regimes abroad, that this was dependable and safe conclusion, and that one cld confidently accept whatever risks might be involved in a totally arrogant and defiant policy, attaching no value to reactions of non-Commie govts themselves, denying Sov Govt had anything either to gain or to fear from their reactions.

In order that this attitude may be understood, two things must be borne in mind. First, Sov policy has consistently been to eliminate every situation by which non-Commie govts cld bring any pressure to bear on Kremlin by any means short of war. This has been largely successful, and too, there is little we cld do to these people short of war that wld make any impression on them. When Molotov was withdrawn as FonMin, relatively powerless and uninformed cut-out inserted in his place, regime of total isolation established over dipl corps and similar adjustments made in other channels of contact with outside world, this amounted in effect to severance dipl relations with major Western countries without Sov Govt having to accept onus for actual break. Attitude of Sov leaders has been that if we chose to continue maintain dipl mission here despite fact that all opportunities for legitimate activity in this city had been withdrawn, they wld not object. This meant in their view mission maintained only for intelligence and espionage purposes, since no other purposes cld be served by its maintenance. Two cld play, they figured, at this game. But this brand of dipl relations means little to them. They are remaining in UN only because peace movement is not yet strong enough, in their view, to provide hopeful competitor to UN. Accordingly, they might be slightly disturbed at any [Page 433] developments or possibilities with respect to dipl relations with Western countries which might threaten their premature expulsion from UN. But anything short of that holds no terrors for them. And they do not think we will break relations, for they consider our thirst for such shreds of intelligence as we can collect by remaining in Moscow sufficient to override any reactions of irritation or resentment we might occasionally feel over their general dipl behavior.

Secondly, they are not afraid of mil threats because they feel our mil plans depend on ripening of our own mil preparations rather than on anything they may do short of actual attack on US. In other words, just as they have made themselves immune to presssure from US by any means short of war, so they assume we also will not be provoked into war until our defense preparations have advanced much further than they have today. And for reasons too extended to go into here, they are not too easily scared with prospect of war generally. They realize many of its dangers and disadvantages and wld like at this time to avoid it. But they do not fear it, particularly in sphere of strategic bombing, as much as we might think they ought to. In any case such fear as they may have, together with their calculation of our intentions, is at present not sufficient to cause them to modify arrogant and defiant policies they have been following in world at large, and we must not over-rate price they wld pay to avoid war, particularly if forced to act under threat.

This, I repeat, appears to me to have been situation prevailing roughly since withdrawal Molotov as FonMin.

Believe major sponsors this line of policy to be Malenkov and Beria, probably with support certain other minor Politburo members. Unquestionably this line has had Stalin’s approval, and suits in most respects his gen temperament and cast of mind. It is based of course on analysis of world situation which portrays Western world as caught up in series of dilemmas and weaknesses which, together with unrelenting pressure that will continue to be brought upon it by Commie Parties and front groups, will weaken it progressively to point where any mil effort it cld eventually put up against Commie forces wld be extensively and significantly undermined.

Believe I see signs that this policy, which after all represents reckless and over-confident commitment to single line of analysis and calculation, has been coming under increasing strain here in Moscow. Strain has set in precisely at point of greatest vulnerability, which is estimate of world situation and degree of capitalist weakness. Logic wld indicate there must be misgiving in Sov circles over very considerable errors that have already become clear in official view of “crisis of capitalism” and over gen implications of any policy so lacking in traditional dialectical ambivalence, so deeply committed to single line of advance, so devoid of strategic flexibility and avenue of retreat. These misgivings [Page 434] must tie in with stubborn remnants pro-Amer feeling in intellectual circles and population at large, of which we see frequent indications. Believe they have also been supported in minor way by my own arrival here, interpreted by critics of present policy as indication that alternative does exist, that Western world wld not hesitate to provide tolerable channels for restoration of overt relations if Kremlin wished to take advantage of them. Believe these sentiments have found support in manful reserve, dignity, and independence of US policy generally in recent months, i.e., by our refraining from attempts at high level approach, by our not doing things which appeared to assume community of aims between ourselves and Sov leaders, by our sticking to our knitting in strengthening Western world while leaving Sov leaders strictly alone. This sort of confident reserve and dignity of bearing is well-qualified to strain nerves of people committed to thesis we are slipping, and to encourage critics of their policy.

One angle which must not be forgotten in this connection is probability that such differences as may exist today over problems fon policy are interfused with struggle for power in Politburo under shadow of coming crisis of succession. Suspect center of disaffection concerning fon pol may today be in entourage Molotov. (It is vitally important, incidentally, there be no talk about this in Western circles that can be traced to reporting from this Embassy, and preferably no talk at all.)

Beria and Malenkov hold between them police and party apparatuses. Molotov has no comparable weapon. Source of his authority and prestige in Politburo during period World War II probably arose from fact of his control over negots with capitalist govts, then considered important to vital Sov interests. With virtual breaking of relations, with West and his withdrawal from Fon Ministry, think it likely he lost large portion of his influence. Suspect he might welcome restoration of overt negots with West as only means of restoring himself to position importance and influence.

Consider it of greatest importance we do nothing this juncture that might affect these possible Sov differences in manner unfavorable to our own interests. To my mind it is plainly essential that men responsible for extreme Sov policies of recent years and for contemptuous attitude toward reactions Western Govts in particular shld be discredited by course of events at this juncture and that hand of those be strengthened who may have misgivings with regard such policies. Last fall Sovs gave Vishinsky warning about unfavorable consequences that wld flow from failure to achieve Korean armistice. Nothing more has been said on that subj. Since my arrival here I have left Sov Govt strictly alone except to make to Vishinsky one serious expression of concern about anti-Amer campaign. Feel instinctively that this reserve on part our govt in gen, and of myself in particular, is having beneficial effects here and shld by all means be continued. In particular, am convinced it [Page 435] has been wise decision our part that I shld not ask for interview with Stalin. We have taken initiative too many times, and he has taken it too few, in such contacts. In my opinion he is not likely to be worth talking to unless and until initiative comes at least half way from him. It is our business to create situation in which it will be in his interests to take such initiative.

If I go down now either to Vishinsky or Stalin with empty-handed appeal for their help re Korea, feel this will surely be seized upon by group now in authority as vindication their policy in general, and of violently anti-Amer line in particular. They will say in effect “You see, it is just as we told you: the Amers do not dare take any of this very seriously; their position is too weak; you can treat them any way you please and they will be back on your doorstep in few months with requests for your help”. This would be particularly unfortunate in present peril of electoral … at home.3 Ruling group here have probably nurtured hopes that in turmoil of elections, or change admin, rifts wld appear in firm structure our policy of which they cld take advantage but if this does not occur, and if we maintain firm attitude of determination and silence until new admin firmly in saddle at home, think there is good reason to hope signs will then begin to appear of more cautious and tractable attitude of Sov regime in its dealings with us. But is precisely this that might be disturbed, and misleading impressions created here, if I were to go to Sov Govt now with any requests to them concerning Korea not backed by tangible means of pressure by which we cld force them to see things our way.

Admittedly, much of above rests on intuition rather than demonstrable proof. But I know no other way in which we are apt to arrive at useful appreciations about major Sov political realities. I think past appreciations founded on intuitive judgments, where these were backed by all we could muster in way of experience and seriousness of interest, have generally proven close enough to realities to warrant us in continuing to treat them with respect.

  1. Copies of this telegram were provided to Matthews, Bohlen, and Barbour.
  2. Not found in Department of State files.
  3. Ellipsis in the source text.