Sources of Soviet Conduct by X (George F. Kennan)

Abstract

The USA fought the Cold War following the theoretical framework postulated by George Kennan in this highly influential article. It is justifiably called as a founding document in American foreign policy for the post WW2. Confirming their fears about the USSR’s hegemonic designs, it tried to provide an intellectual underpinning to American response of the containment of the USSR, which was already in the making on similar lines.

This article summarises the gist of his ideas along with the its context and its implications

Introduction

George Kennan was one of the most influential post-WW2 visionaries whose ideas were instrumental in shaping the American foreign policy in the post-WW2 Cold War. And by default, global politics due to the pre-eminence of the USA in the world.

An American diplomat to the Soviet Union, he began his career by closely following the socio-political and economic developments since the Russian Civil War in the second decade of the 20th century. By the time he assumed his appointment as the chief of mission and Ambassador Averell Harriman’s consultant in the mid-1940s, he was considered as the expert on USSR, fluent in the Russian language and its affairs. He had witnessed collectivization and the atrocities committed by the successive Russian leaders on the people in the name of communism.

In early 1946, the United States government asked its Embassy in Moscow the reasons why the Soviets were not supporting the newly created World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In reply, Kennan wrote the now-famous The Long Telegram outlining his views about Soviet Russia and a set of guidelines to counter its rise as a global power. The essence of Kennan’s telegram was published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 as The Sources of Soviet Conduct and circulated everywhere. The article was signed by “X” although everyone knew that it was authored by Kennan.

According to George F. Kennan, the political personality of Soviet power was the product of ideology and circumstances. Regarding the first, he mentioned the following as the “outstanding features of Communist thought as it existed in 1916”;

  • that the central factor in the life of man, the factor which determines the character of public life and the “physiognomy of society,” is the system by which material goods are produced and exchanged;
  • that the capitalist system of production is a nefarious one which inevitably leads to the exploitation of the working class by the capital-owning class and is incapable of developing adequately the economic resources of society or of distributing fairly the material good produced by human labour;
  • that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and must, given the inability of the capital-owning class to adjust itself to economic change, result eventually and inescapably in a revolutionary transfer of power to the working class; and
  • that imperialism, the final phase of capitalism, leads directly to war and revolution”.

Based on these, he opined, the Soviet leadership believed that the “Unevenness of economic and political development is the inflexible law of capitalism. It follows from this that the victory of Socialism may come originally in a few capitalist countries or even in a single capitalist country. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and having organized Socialist production at home, would rise against the remaining capitalist world, drawing to itself in the process the oppressed classes of other countries.” For 50 years before the outbreak of the Revolution, this pattern of thought had exercised a great fascination for the members of the Russian revolutionary movement who were frustrated, discontented, hopeless of finding self-expression in the confining limits of the Tsarist political system, found in Marxist theory a highly convenient rationalization for their own instinctive desires.

Regarding circumstances which were instrumental in the Soviet conduct of their internal and external policies, George F Kennan maintained that

  • The circumstances of the immediate post-revolution period — the existence in Russia of civil war and foreign intervention, together with the obvious fact that the Communists represented only a tiny minority of the Russian people — made the establishment of dictatorial power a necessity
  • Their particular brand of fanaticism, unmodified by any of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of compromise, was too fierce and too jealous to envisage any permanent sharing of power. From the Russian-Asiatic world out of which they had emerged they carried with them a skepticism as to the possibilities of permanent and peaceful coexistence of rival forces. Easily persuaded of their own doctrinaire “rightness,” they insisted on the submission or destruction of all competing power.
  • Since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.
  • But there is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

After outlining the reasons for the Soviet conduct, Kennon advised the USA that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. Kennan advocated the superiority of the Western way of life over the collective ideals of Soviet Communists which needed to be countered by force and contained by anti-Soviet Union alliances. For him, the Cold War gave the United States its historic opportunity to assume leadership of what would eventually be described as the “free world.

Critique of Article X

These views of Kennon became the foundation blocks of the post-WW2 phase of the Cold War strategy of the USA. In fact, the USA fought the Cold War following the theoretical framework postulated by George Kennan in this highly influential article. It is justifiably called as a founding document in American foreign policy for its seminal contribution to the understanding of post-World War 2 Soviet behaviour by the leadership and the policymakers in the USA. Confirming their fears about the USSR’s hegemonic designs, it tried to provide an intellectual underpinning to American response which was already in the making on similar lines.

President Truman tasked one of his senior advisers, Clark Clifford to prepare a policy document regarding USA-USSR relations. He and his colleagues used the inputs provided in the Long Telegram, the precursor of the Article X, and submitted a comprehensive report entitled American Relations with the Soviet Union, which suggested confinement and containment of USSR as the cornerstone of USA policy towards USSR. This policy remained in operation till USSR collapsed under its own weight.

Interestingly, his Long Telegram and its print version in the form of the above essay, exercised profound influence because of its timing. Shortly before, Winston Churchill delivered a very scathing speech against USSR in March 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, stating that an ‘iron curtain’ had descended across the centre of post-war Europe. Soon came the Long Telegram wherein Kennan used extremely emotional prose consisting of a mixture of hyperbolic adjectives, scientific jargon, historical analogies, and specific evidence to sway his readers. This was music to a receptive American public and the policymakers

Together, these two texts were a lethal combination, used by the anti-USSR lobby to convince the American administration to shun the notions of cooperation with the USSR and to challenge the Soviets in Eastern Europe, pointing bluntly to the reality of Russian expansionism if the West would not react.

Within four months of its transmission, Kennan returned to Washington, headed the new Policy Planning office, and left no stone unturned in the task of converting containment from concept to policy. Because of this intense activity came all manner of large initiatives: the Marshall Plan, NATO, and early experiments with covert dirty tricks for which CIA is known all over the world.

Tailpiece

Soon after the Long Telegram was sent by the American Ambassador in the USSR to his headquarters in the USA, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Nikolai Novikov, sent a similar telegram in September 1946 to Moscow. Stressing the dangers of possible U.S. economic and military domination worldwide, Novikov, in this telegram known as Novikov Telegram, attempted to interpret U.S. foreign policy for his superiors, much the same way George F. Kennan had done in his “Long Telegram. it portrayed the US as being in the grip of monopoly capitalists who were building up military capability “to prepare the conditions for winning world supremacy in a new war”.

From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1

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