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Containment Then and Now : What most needs to be contained now is not so much the Soviet Union as the Weapons race itself.

December 29, 1985|George F. Kennan | George F. Kennan is former ambassador to the Soviet Union and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study; this article is based on a lecture he delivered last month at the National Defense University

PRINCETON, N.J. — The word "containment" was of course not new in 1946. What was new, perhaps, was its use with relation to the Soviet Union and Soviet-American relations. What brought it to public attention in this connection was, as many know, its use in an article that appeared in a 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," and was signed with what was supposed to have been an anonymous "X." That piece was not originally written for publication; it was written privately for our first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, who had sent me a paper on communism and asked me to comment. I wrote it in December, 1946, while at the National War College, where I was then serving as a deputy commandant "for foreign affairs." To understand the meaning of "containment," as mentioned in that article, one must try to envisage the situation that existed in that month of December, 1946.

The World War II was only a year and some months in the past. U.S. armed forces were still demobilizing; so, too, though to a smaller extent (because they proposed to retain a much larger peacetime military Establishment) were those of the Soviet Union.

In no way did the Soviet Union appear, at that moment, as a military threat to this country. The Soviet Union was then utterly exhausted by the exertions and sacrifices of the recent war. Something like 25 million of its people had been killed. The physical destruction had been appalling. In a large portion of the territory of European Russia the devastation had to be seen to be believed. Reconstruction alone was obviously going to take several years. The need for peace, and the thirst for peace, among the Russian people was overwhelming. To have mobilized the Soviet armed forces at that time for another war effort, and particularly an aggressive one, would have been unthinkable. The Soviet Union then had no navy to speak of, and virtually no strategic air force. She had never tested a nuclear weapon. It was uncertain when she would test one, and it was even more uncertain when, or whether, she would ever develop the means of long-range delivery of nuclear warheads. The United States had not yet developed such delivery systems.

In these circumstances there was simply no way that the Soviet Union could appear as a military threat. It is true that even then she was credited by some with the capability of overrunning Western Europe with her remaining forces, if she wanted to do it. But I myself regarded those calculations as exaggerated, and was convinced that there was very little danger of anything of that sort. So when I used the word "containment" with respect to that country in 1946, what I had in mind was not at all the averting of the sort of military threat people talk about today.

What I did think I saw--and what explained the use of that term--was what I might call an ideological-political threat. Great parts of the Northern Hemisphere--notably Western Europe and Japan--had just been seriously destabilized, socially, spiritually and politically, by the recent war. Their populations were dazed, shellshocked, uncertain of themselves, fearful of the future, highly vulnerable to the pressures and enticements of communist minorities in their midst. The world communist movement was at that time a unified, disciplined movement, under the total control of the Stalin regime in Moscow. Not only that, but the Soviet Union had emerged from the war with great prestige for its immense and successful war effort. The Kremlin was, for this and other reasons, in a position to manipulate these foreign Communist parties very effectively in its own interests.

As for the intentions of the Stalin regime towards the United States: I had no illusions. I had already served three tours of duty in Stalin's Russia--had in fact just come home from the last of these tours when I came to the War College. I had nothing but suspicion for the attitude of the Stalin regime towards the United States or towards the other recent Western Allies. Stalin and the men around him were far worse--more sinister, more cruel, more devious, more cynically contemptuous of us--than anything we face today. I felt that if Moscow should be successful in taking over any of those major Western countries, or Japan, by ideological-political intrigue and penetration, this would be a defeat for the United States, and a blow to U.S. national security, fully as serious as would have been a German victory in the war.

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