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

<i> 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</i>

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.

One must also remember that during that war, and to some extent into the post-hostilities period as well, our government had tried to win the confidence and the good disposition of the Soviet government by fairly extensive concessions to Soviet demands with respect, first, to the manner in which the war fought, and then to the prospects for the postwar international order. We had raised no serious objection to the extension of the Soviet borders to the west. We had continued to extend military aid to the Soviet Union even when its troops were overrunning most of the rest of Eastern Europe. We had complacently allowed Soviet forces to take Prague and Berlin and surrounding areas even when there was a possibility that we could, if we had wanted to, arrive there just as soon as they did. They were refusing to give us even a look-in in their zone of occupation in Germany but were demanding a voice in the administration and reconstruction of the Ruhr industrial region in Western Germany. Now there seemed to be a danger that Communist parties subservient to Moscow might seize power in some of the major Western Europe countries, notably Italy and France, and possibly in Japan. And what was meant by the use of the word “containment” in the article in question was simply this: “Don’t make any more unnecessary concessions to these people. Make it clear to them that they are not going to be allowed to establish any dominant influence in Western Europe and in Japan if there is anything we can do to prevent it. When we have stabilized the situation in this way, then perhaps we will be able to talk with them about some sort of a general political settlement and military disengagement in Europe and in the Far East--not before.” This was what was meant, at that time, by the thought of “containing communism.”

One may wish to compare that situation with the one we face today, and to take account of the full dimensions of the contrast between them. For neither of the two main features of the situation we were confronting in 1946 prevails today; on the contrary, the situation is almost exactly the reverse.

One saw at that time, as just stated, a political-ideological threat emanating from Moscow. No comparable ideological-political threat emanating from Moscow is visible now. The Leninist-Stalinist ideology has almost totally lost appeal everywhere outside the Soviet orbit, and partially within that orbit as well. The situation in Western Europe and Japan has now been stabilized beyond anything we at that time were even able to foresee. Whatever other dangers may today confront those societies, a takeover, politically, by their respective Communist parties is simply not in the cards.


One may say: yes, but look at Soviet positions in such places as Ethiopia or Angola. Fair enough. Let us look at them, but not exaggerate them. Aside from the fact that these places are mostly remote from our own defensive interests, what are the Soviets doing there? With the exception of Afghanistan, where their involvement goes much farther, they are mainly engaged in selling arms and sending military advisers--procedures not too different from many of our own. Can they translate those operations into ideological enthusiasm or political loyalty on the part of the recipient Third World regimes? The answer, surely, is: no more than we can. These governments will take what they can get from Moscow--take it cynically and without gratitude, as they do from us. And they will do lip service to a political affinity with Moscow precisely as long as it suits their interest to do it and not a moment longer. Where the Soviets acquire bases or other substantial military facilities, this has, of course, greater military significance. But it is not an ideological threat.

On the other hand, whereas in 1946 the military aspect of our relationship to the Soviet Union hardly seemed to come into question at all, today that aspect is of course of prime importance. But here, lest the reader be left with a misunderstanding, a caveat must be voiced.

When I say that this military factor is now of prime importance, this is not because I see the Soviet Union as threatening us or our allies with armed force. It is entirely clear to me that Soviet leaders do not want a war with us and are not planning to initiate one. In particular, I have never believed that they have seen it as in their interests to overrun Western Europe militarily, or would have launched an attack on that region in these postwar decades even if the so-called “nuclear deterrent” had not existed. But the sheer size of their armed force Establishment is a disquieting factor for many of our allies. And, more important still, I see the weapons race in which we and they are now involved as a serious threat in its own right, not because of aggressive intentions on either side but because of the compulsions, the suspicions, the anxieties such a competition engenders, and the serious dangers it carries with it of unintended complications--by error, computer failure, misread signals or mischief deliberately perpetrated by third parties.

So there is now indeed a military aspect to the problem of containment as there was not in 1946; but what most needs to be contained is not so much the Soviet Union as the weapons race itself. And this danger does not even arise primarily from political causes. One must remember that while there are indeed serious political disagreements between the two countries, there is no political issue outstanding between them which could conceivably be worth a Soviet-American war or which could be solved, for that matter, by any great military conflict of that nature.

Nor is the weapons race all there is in this imperfect world that needs to be contained. There are many other sources of instability and trouble. There are local danger spots scattered about in the Third World. There is the dreadful situation in Southern Africa. There is the grim phenomenon of a rise in several parts of the world of a fanatical and wildly destructive religious fundamentalism, and there is the terrorism in which that sort of fundamentalism so often expresses itself. There is the world-wide environmental crisis; the rapid depletion of the world’s non-renewable energy resources; the steady pollution of its atmosphere and its waters. There is the general deterioration of its environment as a support system for civilized living.

And finally, there is much in our own life, here in this country, that needs early containment. It could, in fact, be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness; our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster; our apparent inability to reduce a devastating budgetary deficit; our comparable inability to control the immigration into our midst of great masses of people of wholly different cultural and political tradition.

In short, if we are going to talk about containment in the context of 1985, then we can no longer apply that term just to the Soviet Union alone, and particularly not to a view of the Soviet Union drawn too extensively from the image of the Stalin era, or, in some instances, from the even more misleading image of our Nazi opponents in the last great war.


If we are going to relate that term to the Soviet Union of today, we are going to have to learn to take as the basis for our calculations a much more penetrating and sophisticated view of that particular country than the one that has become embedded in much of our public rhetoric. But beyond that, we are going to have to recognize that a large proportion of the sources of our troubles and dangers lies outside the Soviet challenge, such as it is, and some of it even within ourselves.

And for this reason we are going to have to develop a wider concept of what containment means--a concept more closely linked to the totality of the problems of Western civilization at this juncture in world history--a concept, in other words, more responsive to the problem of our own time--than the one brought forward in the so-called X-article in 1946.