The 'Long Telegram'

The Charge in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State


Moscow, February 22, 1946--9 pm [Received February 22-3: 52 pm]
511. Answer to Dept's 284, Feb 3 [13]



The Question,   Soviet Ideology,   Historical Fear of the West,  

Kennan's Prophecies:   1 Soviet Foreign Policy,   2 'Reds under the Bed',   3 Conflict is inevitable,  

4 Cold War,   5 The USSR is weaker,   6 Containment,   7 Marshall Plan



Text of the actual telegram

Interview with George Kennan

Article on Keenan




In February 1946, the State Department cabled the US Moscow Embassy, and asked for an analysis of the Soviet position, viz,:


(1) Basic features of post-war Soviet outlook.

(2) Background of this outlook

(3) Its projection in practical policy on official level.

(4) Its projection on unofficial level.

(5) Practical deductions from standpoint of US policy.


They received back an 8,000-word telegram from George Kennan, an Embassy official.   This has become known as 'the Long Telegram', and it said exactly what the American government wanted it to. 


Kennan hated Communism and the Soviet government.   However, he had lived in Moscow since 1933 and knew what he was talking about.   His telegram was re-written as a paper entitled: The Sources of Soviet Conduct, and read by many Americans.   It formed the basis of American policy towards Russia for the next quarter of a century.  



The Question

Kennan’s telegram has been criticised by some historians for not giving enough weight to Soviet belief in Communism.   This is not strictly true.   Kennan wrote:


Soviet purposes must always be solemnly clothed in trappings of Marxism, and no one should underrate importance of dogma in Soviet affairs.


However, he saw Soviet ideology as being layered over the top of more ancient Russian values - the desire to exclude the foreign world and destroy it:


At bottom of Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity … they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within.   And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.


Communism, said Kennan, had just strengthened Russian fear of the West, and given Russia ’s rulers the excuse to wipe out all opposition:


In this dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand. In the name of Marxism they sacrificed every single ethical value in their methods and tactics. Today they cannot dispense with it.


Soviet ideology

The USSR , said Kennan, was essentially afraid of the effect that Western capitalism and freedom would have on its people.  Because of this fear, he argued, Russia ’s leaders represented the West as evil and corrupt – as Russia ’s enemies:


The USSR still lives in antagonistic "capitalist encirclement" with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence

Soviet leaders are driven [by?] necessities of their own past and present position to put forward which [apparent omission] outside world as evil, hostile and menacing, but as bearing within itself germs of creeping disease and destined to be wracked with growing internal convulsions until it is finally killed by rising power of socialism and yields to new and better world.   This thesis provides justification for that increase of military and police power of Russian state, for that isolation of Russian population from outside world, and for that fluid and constant pressure to extend limits of Russian police power which are together the natural and instinctive urges of Russian rulers.


The result was, Kennan argued, a Russia which was determined ‘to advance relative strength of USSR as factor in international society’, to weaken and the capitalist powers, and to wage a ‘relentless battle’ against western leaders, even if this meant an "imperialist" war.



Historical fear of the West

Therefore, Kennan prophecies (with remarkable accuracy) the Soviet Union could be expected to pursue the following kinds of policies:


(a) Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state: intensive military-industrialization; maximum development of armed forces; great displays to impress outsiders; continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weaknesses and to keep opponents in dark.

(b) Wherever it is considered timely and promising, efforts will be made to advance official limits of Soviet power. …

(c) Russians will participate officially in international organizations where they see opportunity of extending Soviet power or of inhibiting or diluting power of others.    Moscow sees in UNO not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest and aims of all nations, but an arena in which aims just mentioned can be favorably pursued. …

(d) Toward colonial areas and backward or dependent peoples, Soviet policy will be directed toward weakening of power and influence and contacts of Western nations, …

(e) Russians will strive energetically to develop Soviet representation in, and official ties with, countries in which they sense Strong possibilities of opposition to Western centers of power.   This applies to such widely separated points as Germany , Argentina , Middle Eastern countries, etc.

(f) In international economic matters, Soviet policy will really be dominated by pursuit of autarchy for Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated adjacent areas taken together. …


In fact, ALL these policies were pursued by the Soviet Union long into the 1980s.


Kennan's Prophecies:

1 Soviet Foreign Policy

Kennan also prophesied, less accurately, that the Soviet Union would conspire with pro-Soviet elements in capitalist countries to undermine their governments:


(a) Efforts will be made in such countries to disrupt national self confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity.…

(e) Everything possible will be done to set major Western Powers against each other. …

(f) In general, all Soviet efforts on unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources of strength beyond reach of Soviet control. …


Although America in particular, and Britain to a degree, both feared Communist infiltration, and there were regular spy-scares, in fact, Communism never managed to undermine Western governments in the way that Kennan feared.


2 'Reds under the Bed'

Part 5: [Practical Deductions From Standpoint of US Policy]

The most important part of Kennan’s document is his conclusion, in which he outlined beliefs which were to become the basis of American policy for the next twenty years.


Firstly, he started by stating that the Communist threat was huge and that there could be no accommodation with the Soviets – the US could never work with a Soviet government, because the Soviet government was intractably determined to destroy America:


In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [way of living together] that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.   This political force has complete power of disposition over energies of one of world's greatest peoples and resources of world's richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism.   In addition, it has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history.

Finally, it is seemingly inaccessible to considerations of reality in its basic reactions. …

Problem of how to cope with this force in [is] undoubtedly greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face….







3 Conflict is inevitable

However, Kennan believed that the Soviet threat could be defeated, and also defeated without a world war.   In this way, Kennan can be considered the prophet of the Cold War:


But I would like to record my conviction that problem is within our power to solve -- and that without recourse to any general military conflict.


4 Cold War

Kennan considered that, despite the danger, ‘Gauged against Western World as a whole, Soviets are still by far the weaker force.’   Also, in a remarkable prophecy, he suggested that the Soviet system of government would eventually collapse:


Success of Soviet system, as form of internal power, is not yet finally proven.   It has yet to be demonstrated that it can survive … internal soundness and permanence of movement need not yet be regarded as assured.


5 The USSR is weaker

Above all, Kennan stated that the Soviets – although they might take every possible opportunity to extend Soviet power where allowed, and to test Western resolve where they were opposed – WOULD back down against a show of force.   This idea, developed by the American government, eventually turned into the Truman Doctrine, and the policy of containment:


Soviet power … does not work by fixed plans.   It does not take unnecessary risks.    Impervious to logic of reason, it is highly sensitive to logic of force. ….


6 Containment

Kennan therefore stated his belief that, if the US had the ‘courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society’, and if ‘our public is educated to realities of Russian situation’, the menace of Soviet Communism could be resisted.   This would best happen, he said, by making sure that people were wealthy, happy and secure, and waging a propaganda war to make sure that they were aware of the benefits of Western Freedoms.   This became the basis of the Marshall Plan:


Much depends on health and vigor of our own society.   World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue  Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow

We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past.   It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own.   Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened by experiences of past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security.   They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities.   We should be better able than Russians to give them this.   And unless we do, Russians certainly will.


7 Marshall Plan