Kennan and Containment, 1947

George F. Kennan, a career Foreign Service Officer, formulated the policy of “containment,” the basic United States strategy for fighting the cold war (1947–1989) with the Soviet Union.

Kennan’s ideas, which became the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy, first came to public attention in 1947 in the form of an anonymous contribution to the journal Foreign Affairs, the so-called “X-Article.” “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through 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.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”

Kennan’s policy was controversial from the very beginning. Columnist Walter Lippmann attacked the X-Article for failing to differentiate between vital and peripheral interests. The United States, Kennan’s article implied, should face down the Soviet Union and its Communist allies whenever and wherever they posed a risk of gaining influence. In fact, Kennan advocated defending above all else the world’s major centers of industrial power against Soviet expansion: Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. Others criticized Kennan’s policy for being too defensive. Most notably, John Foster Dulles declared during the 1952 election campaign that the United States’ policy should not be containment, but the “rollback” of Soviet power and the eventual “liberation” of Eastern Europe. Even within the Truman administration there was a rift over containment between Kennan and Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as director of the Policy Planning Staff. Nitze, who saw the Soviet threat primarily in military terms, interpreted Kennan’s call for “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” to mean the use of military power. In contrast, Kennan, who considered the Soviet threat to be primarily political, advocated above all else economic assistance (e.g., the Marshall Plan) and “psychological warfare” (overt propaganda and covert operations) to counter the spread of Soviet influence. In 1950, Nitze’s conception of containment won out over Kennan’s. NSC 68, a policy document prepared by the National Security Council and signed by Truman, called for a drastic expansion of the U.S. military budget. The paper also expanded containment’s scope beyond the defense of major centers of industrial power to encompass the entire world. “In the context of the present polarization of power,” it read, “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”

Despite all the criticisms and the various policy defeats that Kennan suffered in the early 1950’s, containment in the more general sense of blocking the expansion of Soviet influence remained the basic strategy of the United States throughout the cold war. On the one hand, the United States did not withdraw into isolationism; on the other, it did not move to “roll back” Soviet power, as John Foster Dulles briefly advocated. It is possible to say that each succeeding administration after Truman’s, until the collapse of communism in 1989, adopted a variation of Kennan’s containment policy and made it their own.