George Kennan (X), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” July 1947

Formally titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” the X-Article appeared in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Shortly thereafter, the identity of the author, “X,” was revealed as George Frost Kennan, then the new Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Historians consider this article the most significant public explanation of America’s emerging policy of “containment” toward the Soviet Union.

Born in February 1904 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Kennan evidenced several characteristics during childhood that later defined his diplomatic career:  keen intelligence, driving ambition, and a remote personality.  After graduating from Princeton in 1925, he decided to join the newly reshaped and expanded Foreign Service.  From 1927-1933, Kennan served in a variety of European posts until late 1933, when he accepted an assignment to the American mission (later embassy) in Moscow; he remained there until he was transferred to Washington DC in 1937.  Kennan did not return to the Soviet Union until July 1944, when he was appointed the minister-counselor of the U.S. embassy.

From Moscow, Kennan watched US-Soviet relations deteriorate as World War II drew to a close, and he became increasingly vexed by the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to delay a showdown in hopes of salvaging the wartime alliance.  Eager to weigh in on Soviet policy, Kennan seized the opportunity provided in February 1946, when Moscow’s more militaristic rhetoric and refusal to participate in the World Bank and IMF prompted State Department officials to ask Kennan to assess the motives and assumptions underlying Soviet policymaking.   From his sickbed, Kennan dictated a lengthy telegram to Washington that depicted the leaders in the Kremlin as “neurotic” and “insecure” individuals who, despite their professed devotion to Marxism-Leninism, were likely to behave like the autocratic Russian Tsars that preceded them.

The aptly named “Long Telegram” both strengthened the hand of policymakers advocating a harder line toward the USSR and established Kennan’s credentials as a Soviet expert.  Kennan used his new prestige to secure a transfer to Washington, where he accepted a teaching assignment at the newly established National War College (April 1946-May 1947) and appeared frequently on the national lecture circuit promoting his ideas on containing Soviet power.

At the behest of Navy Secretary James Forrestal, Kennan agreed in December 1946 to write a new essay on Soviet policy.  An early presentation of the essay before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) favorably impressed Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of the CFR journal Foreign Affairs, and when Armstrong offered to publish the essay Kennan readily agreed provided the paper be published anonymously.  After obtaining the required clearances from State, Foreign Affairs published the essay, now entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, in July 1947.  Within the month, the mass circulation magazine Life published excerpts of the X-Article, and Reader’s Digest followed suit in October with a condensed version under a new title: “The Only Way to Deal with Russia.”

Despite dedicating an entire career to public service, Kennan was ambivalent about American democracy.  Convinced that most Americans were incapable of grasping the complexities of diplomacy, Kennan believed that important affairs of state were best left in the hands of an elite corps of professional experts.  Ironically, Kennan’s influence upon policymaking, at its peak in the late 1940s, subsequently faded, and he devoted much of his later career criticizing U.S. Cold War policies and claiming that his earlier writings had been misinterpreted.

Using the X-Article in Teaching

Although there are ample opportunities for comparison when assigning the X-Article, the length of the essay has led me to explore other ways of using the document.  The following suggestions use the article to address why Americans came to identify the Soviet Union in the late 1940s as a feared and hated enemy rather than a troublesome, but manageable opponent or rival.

I begin by asking students to identify and consider Kennan’s specific arguments and definitions, such as his views on the extent to which ideology informed Soviet policy, his assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet government, and his assumptions about democracy.  Just as important, if not more so, I encourage them to pay careful attention to Kennan’s prose, taking note of how he uses adjectives, scientific terms and jargon, historical analogies, and specific evidence to sway his readers.  A good way of generating discussion about the power of language is to have students come up with short lists on one or more of the aforementioned categories, list them on the board, and then run a class discussion that develops some conclusions on the manner and extent to which Kennan relied on scientific terms and emotional prose to deliver his arguments.

Another way to approach the article is first to have students condense it to a two to three page excerpt that retains the key arguments, and then compare some examples and ask students why they included or omitted specific paragraphs.  By demonstrating that editing requires active, conscious decisions, the exercise effectively reinforces the importance of figures of speech and language in constructing an argument.  Alternatively, one might show or assign the Life or Reader’s Digest versions of the X-Article and ask students to comment on the decisions of the editors in regard to content, arrangement, and supplemental additions such as titles, photographs, captions, etc., and to what extent, if any, these decisions altered the tone of the article.  The ensuing discussion provides an excellent opportunity to discuss how Foreign Affairs, Life, and Reader’s Digest, by addressing different audiences, reveal how policymakers employed different mediums to disseminate policies to different groups of audiences.  The exercise thus helps to hone critical thinking skills as well as to illustrate the complexity of Cold War strategies.

M. Loayza, Minnesota State University, Mankato

SHAFR acknowledges with appreciation permission from the Council on Foreign Relations to post this copy of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct." For more information about the council, please visit its website.

Bibliography:

Costigliola, Frank.  “’Unceasing Pressure for Penetration’: Gender, Pathology, and Emotion in George Kennan's Formation of the Cold War,” Journal of American History, Vol.83, No. 4 (March 1997), 1309-1339.

Hixson, Walter L.  George F. Kennan: Cold War Iconoclast. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. 

Kennan, George F.  Memoirs, 1925-1950. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.

Lippmann, Walter.  The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy.  New York: Harper, 1947.

Miscamble, Wilson D.  George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. 

“The Only Way to Deal with Russia,”Reader’s Digest, October 1947, 25-31.

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Life, July 28, 1947, 53-63.

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