June 1998

George F. Kennan and the Origins of Containment (1944-1946): The Kennan-Lukacs Correspondence.  By George F. Kennan and John Lukacs. University of Missouri Press. 85 pages. $9.95.

This book represents that rarest and most wonderful of ventures for the historian, an interview with a chief protagonist from an epochal period. The period was the close of the Second World War and the initial stages of the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The interview takes place a half century later, and the protagonist, George F. Kennan, is still strikingly in possession of those qualities that cast him in a pivotal role in that era. The historian is John Lukacs, one of our most eminent historians, and the interview takes the form of an exchange of letters.

This correspondence attempts to answer the revisionist historians who have been bent on portraying the U.S. as largely responsible for the Cold War. Precisely because this small book is so truthful, it will probably be largely ignored in what passes nowadays for American academia.

Kennan was the author of the famous “Long Telegram,” an 8,000-word telegram that began to change official Washington’s attitude toward the Soviet Union shortly after the war. Through this venue, Kennan, as minister-counselor in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1944, provided the U.S. government with an unvarnished and highly accurate portrait of the nature of the government of the Soviet Union and its intentions in central and eastern Europe. In the upheaval that followed over the next several years, he was assigned to help shape U.S. responses to the Soviet Union as Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department. It was during that time that he originated the “containment” concept in his famous X article in the journal Foreign Affairs. This article, along with the Long Telegram, solidified much of the official thinking that was to become the Western response to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Kennan makes clear in his correspondence with Lukacs that many of the U.S. wartime and immediate post-war policies promoted by the U.S. news media, the academic community, and governmental institutions originated in all too rosy assessments of the motives and goals of the Soviet Union and the character of Josef Stalin. Kennan had been leery of the official American expectations of and attitudes toward the Soviet Union during the war because of what he had learned during previous postings to Russia, and he was determined to try to change those attitudes. He was largely successful, thanks to his Long Telegram and the X article.

- David Denton





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