Home   Genealogy   Forums   Search   Contact
MHO Home
MHO Home
 17th Century
 18th Century
 19th Century
 American Civil War
 World War I
 World War II
 20th - 21st Century

 Write for MHO
 Search MHO
 Civil War Genealogy Database
 Privacy Policy

Bruce Brager Articles
Book Review: Operation Paperclip
Book Review: Midnight Rising
Cuban Missile Crisis
Memorials Past and Future
American Way of War
Flip Side of Containment
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
Winter Warfare
The City Point Explosion
A Cold War Retrospective
John Paul Jones & Asymetric Warfare
Early Texas Military History
The Office of Strategic Services
The Battle of St. Etienne

Book Reviews
Security First

Ads by Google

George Kennan: The Flip Side of Containment 
George Kennan: The Flip Side of Containment 
by Bruce L. Brager 

In March 1946, American diplomat George Kennan, serving in Moscow, received a telegram from the State Department asking why the Soviet Union refused to join the World Bank and the International Monetary fund. Keenan's 8,000-word response, so long it was broken up and sent as five telegrams, laid the groundwork for what became known as "containment."

Containment, simplified, stated that the Soviets were actively trying to expand their influence around the world, but that they did not work to set time tables and did not like to take unnecessary risks. Appropriate resistance, and counter pressure, as long as it did not seem to endanger basic Soviet security, would cause them to back off. Eventually the system would collapse due to internal problems. The history of the next 45 years made it clear that Kennan has been right.

In 1947, Kennan wrote, in an article based on his telegram,

"It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could. . . bring out the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which the Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet Power."[1]

The policy Kennan conceived was not just peaceful resistance to Soviet expansion. It included subtle efforts to turn the tide away from Communism. Urging American involvement in the 1948 elections in Italy, Kennan, now heading the Department of State Policy Planning Committee, stated that if the "Communists were to win [the] election there our whole position in [the] Mediterranean, and possibly in Western Europe as well, would probably be undermined."[2]

Funds were secretly given to the non-Communist parties in Italy, particularly the Christian Democrats. Much of this money was spent for similar activities to those of American elections, such as printing pamphlets and posters and paying people to get out the vote. Money was also apparently used to bribe election officials, but details remain sketchy.

A few days before the election a major newspaper in Rome, Tempo, published a story on the so-called Zorin Plan, outlining Soviet Foreign Minister Valerian A. Zorin's program for Italy after a Communist victory. The key portion of the speech called for,

"The immediate conclusion of a military alliance with Russia and Yugoslavia; strict dependence of Italy on Yugoslavia, which would become a pattern for Italian social life, economy, and foreign policy; strict control over the press, radio and movies; and elimination of all priests who do not swear devotion to the Communist state and Communist principles."[3]

Zorin had a reputation for supporting active Soviet efforts to help Communist parties gain power in Western Europe. The "Zorin plan" fit into his pattern, and the pattern of Soviet takeover in Eastern European nations. However, the newspaper never offered details on where it got the information. Its publication, which hurt Communist chances in the election, may have been the direct or indirect result of CIA efforts.

Also in 1948, Kennan proposed that his Policy Planning Committee of the State Department also begin a program of covert action against the Soviets. A less well known part of Kennan's 1947 "X" article called for "counter-force" at shifting points. This was a call for specific action, but, since Kennan did not want to provoke a full-scale war, covert action.

Kennan stated later that it was not "our primary aim to time of peace to set the stage for a war regarded as inevitable [but] admittedly we are aiming at the creation of circumstances and situations which would be difficult for the present Soviet leaders to stomach, and which they would not like. It is possible. . . that they would not be able to retain their power in Russia."[4]

Joseph Stalin began another series of purges around this time, concentrating on the leadership in Eastern Europe rather than on that of the Soviet Union. These purges, which included leadership of the various Eastern European security services, may have at least partly resulted from this active American, and British, covert action. The purges are usually credited to Stalin's paranoid reaction to Yugoslavia's break with the Soviet bloc in 1948 and its pursuit of an independent foreign policy. Soviet failure to chase the West out of West Berlin is considered a secondary cause. The desire to find scapegoats for economic problems is also credit with playing a role.

British and American efforts at infiltration of active saboteurs behind the Iron Curtain were not well done, and were betrayed by Soviet moles within American and British intelligence. The Soviets were quickly able to round up all they knew about. However, it would have been consistent with Stalin's personality for him to have considered that perhaps Soviet moles in the West did not know about all the Western agents in the Soviet bloc. Individuals arrested during the purges were usually denounced in the Communist press as being in league with the West. The United States and its allies, including Britain, were directly denounced. One press article accused the West of using former German intelligence officers and their spy network in Eastern Europe – accurately, as it turned out.

The Western intelligence services were delighted by the purges and the damage they were doing to Soviet bloc leadership. If they did not cause the purges they certainly tried to contribute. September 1949 National Security Council policy papers included the statement that "The propensity of the revolution to devour its own, the suspicions of the Kremlin regarding its agents and the institutions of denunciation, purge and liquidation are grave defects in the Soviet system which have never been adequately exploited."[5]

A recent analysis of the history of American and British anti-Soviet intelligence puts things well in writing that "Stalin's fantastic paranoia was the central factor in the extraordinary wave of arrests and executions that swept over the Eastern block between 1948 and 1953. But the purges had more than one cause and Western intelligence played its part – after 1949 quite intentionally. . ."[6] The purges were targets of opportunity for the Western nations, and they seem to have taken advantage.

George Kennan's major contributions to American foreign policy, making him on of the most important people of the 20th century, were to contribute a range of specific policy recommendations, calling for different ways of responding to the very real Soviet threat. He also contributed a realistic approach to looking at the United States's situation and the world and how best to react to the situation. Neither ideologue nor realpolitic cynic, Kennan's way of thinking is something still worth emulating. After all, it worked.
* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2008 Bruce L. Brager.

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 04/26/2008.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
© 2018, LLC Contact Brian Williams at: