TCS Daily

Cold War's No. 1 Lesson: Keep Faith With National Virtues

By James Pinkerton - October 16, 2001 12:00 AM

When the Cold War began in the mid 1940s, few Americans knew much about the Soviet Union. Franklin D. Roosevelt, no bad judge of character, was nevertheless bamboozled by Josef Stalin. If knowledge is power, then U.S. policy in the '40s was weak from ignorance.

As Amherst University's William Taubman observed in his 1981 book Stalin's American Policy: From Entente to D├ętente to Cold War, "The prime American illusion was that Soviet politics were somehow akin to American." That is, President Roosevelt understood that Stalin was a dictator -- although the full horrors of collectivization and purges was only slowly dribbling out -- but nonetheless believed "Uncle Joe" when the Soviet dictator maintained that he was the moderate in the Kremlin. If you aren't nice to me, Stalin would say, those hardliners back home will lose confidence in me, and then you'll have to deal with them. The real truth, of course, was that such apparatchiks as George Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Nikolai Bulganin were interchangeable non-entities; indeed, Stalin sent the wife of Molotov off to Siberia just to remind his foreign minister who was in charge.

Even Winston Churchill, who always had a much dimmer view of Stalin than FDR, showed naivete of a different kind in his dealings with Stalin. In October 1944, as Soviet troops were entering Europe, the British Prime Minister traveled to Moscow and offered Stalin a plan for numerically and precisely dividing up spheres of influence in the war-overrun countries of Eastern Europe; Yugoslavia and Hungary were to be governed 50% by America and Great Britain, 50% by the Soviets, while Romania and Bulgaria were to go 90:10 Soviet. Churchill didn't seem to understand that in Stalin's view, wherever the Red Army went was where the U.S.S.R. meant to stay, ruling totally and solely. And so while Stalin might humor Churchill, as he did Roosevelt, he had no intention of sharing power. And when the Big Three met at Yalta in February 1945, it was clear that the Soviets would have 100% control of their newly conquered domain.

Soviet behavior in the mid 1940s was so bad that the phrases "Cold War" and "Iron Curtain" emerged soon after VE Day. But U.S. policy was adrift; democracies naturally move slowly, and it was hard for Americans to realize that their ally was now an enemy.

What was needed was a persuasive conceptualization of the post-war strategic situation. And one came, courtesy of George F. Kennan, a career foreign service officer. Kennan knew the U.S.S.R. well; he had traveled to Moscow in 1933 as the translator for William C. Bullitt, the first U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Moreover, in his two decades at the State Department, Kennan had continuously watched the U.S.S.R. from Switzerland, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Which is to say, Kennan knew his stuff. Having come to Moscow in 1944 as the top aide to U.S. ambassador Averill Harriman, he was appalled by what he saw; he sent a stream of memos back to Washington, which were mostly ignored by a State Department clotted with Soviet sympathizers such as Alger Hiss and Noel Field. And of course, even loyal Americans at Foggy Bottom couldn't be faulted for wanting to concentrate their energies on defeating Germany and Japan.

But Kennan kept at it, gaining a greater audience after the hot war ended. On Feb. 22, 1946, he sent a long telegram to Washington, some 8,000 words, in which he poured forth what he knew. In that missive, he combined what he knew of the Russian character -- its "traditional and instinctive sense of insecurity" -- with his assessment of the communists: "committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi."

In other words, the U.S.S.R. was not a country in which Stalin had to watch his bureaucratic back, as FDR had thought. Nor was it a country that would sit still for precise protractoring of spheres of influence, as Churchill had thought. It was something as fearful as Mother Russia and as fearsome as the Bolsheviks, and American policy had to adjust accordingly. And now the American government was ready to listen; the "Long Telegram" was, in the words of White House aide and secretary of defense Clark Clifford, "probably the most important, and influential, message ever sent to Washington by an American diplomat."

Kennan was recalled to Washington, where he reworked his thoughts into an article that appeared in July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. Writing as "X," since he was still a State Department employee, Kennan urged his country to adopt "a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world." That was the key word: "containment." Kennan wanted Americans to stand guard at the ramparts of freedom for decades to come, for as long as it took, until Soviet expansionary passions cooled. Containment would make for a cold war indeed.

Yet at the same time, Kennan cautioned against stumbling into a hot war: "It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward 'toughness.'"

Kennan's measured tone put him at odds with many. There were some on the left -- including Henry Wallace, a former vice president of the United States who ran for president on the pro-Soviet American Labor Party ticket in 1948 -- who wanted to uncontain communist expansion. And there were some on the right -- starting with, but not limited to, Gen. George S. Patton -- who wanted "rollback," driving the Reds all the way back to Moscow. And there were many in the middle who were appalled by the prospect of bearing any burden, anywhere. Walter Lippmann, arguably the most influential pundit of the day, devoted 14 columns to attacking Kennan's containment idea, labeling it a "strategic monstrosity" that would overstretch and bankrupt the United States.

Fortunately, President Truman sided with Kennan. The key decisions of the late 1940s were all made with the containment idea in mind: the Marshall Plan, aid to anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey, the Berlin Airlift, the creation of NATO. These policies and programs were not cheap or easy, and they didn't get cheaper or easier in the decades that followed. But they worked; Soviet power was contained, and then it collapsed. Kennan's vision was vindicated.

But now, with the Cold War foe gone, it's time to learn about new foes, to consider what lessons of that past victory can be applied to this new struggle -- which has yet to have a name, let alone an established doctrine.

The search for a winning strategy will be the continuing topic of this column. Because as Kennan wrote, "Not only the studying and writing of history but also the honoring of it both represent affirmations of a certain defiant faith ... in the endurance of this threatened world -- faith in the total essentiality of historical continuity." If Americans can keep faith with the best of its past, measured in courage, ingenuity, and vision, we will win this war, too.

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