Sources of Soviet Conduct by George F. Kennan: A Critique

Shahid H. Raja
9 min readAug 13, 2023

Abstract

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

This article summarizes the gist of his ideas, along with their context and implications.

Introduction

George Kennan, an American diplomat to the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, is considered one of the most influential post-WW2 visionaries whose ideas were instrumental in shaping American foreign policy in the post-WW2 Cold War. And by default, global politics is due to the preeminence of the USA in the world.

By the time he assumed his appointment as the chief of mission and Ambassador Averell Harriman’s consultant in the mid-1940s, George F. Kennan was considered an expert on the USSR and fluent in the Russian language and its affairs. Consequently, in 1946, when the United States government asked its Embassy in Moscow why the Soviets were not supporting the newly created World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, 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. It is considered one of the most influential memos ever written in the history of international relations for its far-reaching global consequences.

According to George F. Kennan, the mindset of Soviet policymakers was the product of communist ideology and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Regarding the first, he mentioned the following as the outstanding features of Communist thought:

  1. Society’s Character is Determined by Economic Activities: The central factor in the life of man, the factor that determines the character of public life and the “physiognomy of society,” is the system by which material goods are produced and exchanged.
  2. Capitalistic Mode of Production is inherently Exploitative: The capitalist system of production inevitably leads to the exploitation of the working class by the capital-owning class and is incapable of developing the economic resources of society or of fairly distributing the material goods produced by human labour;
  3. Capitalism is doomed for Failure: Consequently, capitalism contains the seeds of its destruction and must, given the inability of the capital-owning class to adjust itself to economic change, eventually and inescapably result in a revolutionary transfer of power to the working class
  4. Imperialism is Capitalism at the Global level; Imperialism IS the final phase of Capitalism and leads directly to war and revolution”.

Based on these, he opined, the Soviet leadership believed that the

  1. The unevenness of economic and political development is an 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.
  2. The victorious proletariat of that country, having expropriated the capitalists and organized Socialist production at home, would rise against the remaining capitalist world, drawing to itself in the process the oppressed classes of other countries.

According to Kennan, 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 with the Tsarist political system, found in Marxist theory a highly convenient rationalization for their instinctive desires.

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

  1. Dictatorship is Essential for the Survival of the Soviet State: 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
  2. Power-sharing is anathema to Soviet Leadership: 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. In the Russian-Asiatic world from which they had emerged, they carried with them a scepticism 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 powers.
  3. Capitalism abroad is an easy Scapegoat. 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.
  4. This Scapegoat is needed to Control Society. 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 a historic opportunity to assume leadership of what would eventually be described as the “free world.

Impact of Kennan’s Article

These views of Kennan became the foundation blocks of the post-WW2 phase of the Cold War strategy of the USA. The USA fought the Cold War following the theoretical framework postulated by George Kennan in this highly influential article. It is justifiably called a founding document in American foreign policy for its seminal contribution to the understanding of post-World War II Soviet behaviour by the leadership and policymakers in the USA. Confirming their fears about the USSR’s hegemonic designs, it tried to provide an intellectual underpinning to the 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 Article X, and submitted a comprehensive report entitled “American Relations with the Soviet Union”, which suggested confinement and containment of the USSR as the cornerstone of the USA's policy towards the USSR. This policy remained in operation until the USSR collapsed under its weight.

Interestingly, his Long Telegram and its print version in the form of the above essay exercised profound influence because of their timing. Shortly before, Winston Churchill delivered a very scathing speech against the 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 policymakers.

Together, these two texts were a lethal combination, used by the anti-USSR lobby to convince the American administration to shun 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 did 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 the CIA is known all over the world.

Critique of Kennan’s Thesis

All great ideas, books, and personalities are invariably controversial, which makes them great. Thus, Article X, soon after its publication, initiated an intense debate about the likely post-World War II scenarios and became a recommended read for anyone interested in understanding international politics. The main strength of Kennan’s thesis was its simplicity and internally consistent framework of analysis, making it easy for the Western political elite to comprehend complex global politics and take action.

And it still rightly occupies a prominent place in this genre of discussion because of its in-depth analysis of the complex situation and the kaleidoscopic reach of his conclusions. Articulating a theoretical framework for analyzing post-Cold War global politics, he provided a strong perspective for taking policy actions by some of the leaders in the world.

With its publication, he not only provided an intellectual basis for the policies adopted by the USA and its allies to deal with post-World War 2 global politics but also cemented the Cold War mentality of the policymakers in these countries.

While George F. Kennan’s article “Sources of Soviet Conduct” played a significant role in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, it is not without its critical flaws and raises significant concerns and limitations that warrant a critical evaluation. In his zeal to postulate a grand general theory of post-World War II international relations, he tried to oversimplify a complex situation by selectively applying facts and figures that he felt substantiated his views.

And it was a logically consistent framework only if one agreed with the assumptions he stated or took for granted. For example, if you believe in his implied assumption that the march of history is unidirectional and is synonymous with that of Western civilization, then there is no point in countering it, at least, on the theoretical plane.

One of the primary criticisms of Kennan’s article is its reductionist view of Soviet behavior. Kennan’s argument revolves around the idea that the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies were a result of an inherent and unchanging ideological drive. This oversimplification ignores the complex factors that shaped Soviet actions, such as historical context, domestic politics, and the influence of individual leaders. By attributing all Soviet behavior to a singular “Soviet character,” Kennan overlooks the nuances of geopolitics and the potential for evolving strategies.

Furthermore, Kennan’s article suffers from a lack of empirical evidence to support his claims. While he asserts that the Soviet Union’s actions are driven by a desire for security and the need to spread its ideology, he fails to present concrete examples or historical instances that directly correlate with his theory. This raises questions about the validity of his arguments and the extent to which his views are grounded in empirical reality rather than subjective interpretation.

Another significant flaw in Kennan’s article is his disregard for the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union. He portrays the Soviet government as a monolithic entity with unchanging objectives, failing to recognize the internal power struggles, ideological shifts, and policy debates that occurred within the Soviet leadership. This oversimplification undermines a comprehensive understanding of Soviet behavior and limits the effectiveness of his proposed policy of containment.

Kennan’s advocacy for a policy of containment also has its drawbacks. While containment may have been successful in preventing the direct expansion of Soviet influence, it led to a series of proxy conflicts and destabilization in various regions around the world. Critics argue that a more nuanced approach that took into account local contexts and sought diplomatic solutions could have yielded better outcomes without the devastating consequences of conflicts like the Vietnam War.

Moreover, Kennan’s article assumes a level of ideological consistency within the United States government that was often lacking in reality. Policymakers frequently interpreted and implemented containment in divergent ways, leading to inconsistent and, at times, contradictory actions. This highlights the impracticality of basing policy solely on a single theoretical framework.

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 dominance worldwide, Novikov, in this telegram known as the 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 my book “International Relations: Basic Concepts and Global Issues”, published by Amazon and available at

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1

--

--