Web Exclusives: PawPlus

April 20, 2005:


By Fletcher M. Burton *88

The announcement of George Kennan ’25’s death reopens the question of his legacy. He achieved much of his policy impact with the “Long Telegram.” And it really is long. At last year’s conference celebrating Kennan’s one-hundredth birthday, the Firestone Library at Princeton displayed the document in a glass case that went on for yards. His magnum opus is now a magna charta.


Princeton’s curators treated the telegram, written in February 1946 when Kennan was Charge in Moscow, as a founding document in American foreign policy. Historians of the Cold War rank it as a seminal contribution to Washington’s understanding of Soviet behaviour. Speaking at the conference, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell hailed the cable as “justly famous.” Professor Robert Tucker also spoke at the conference and reminisced on its composition. (Tucker was serving at the embassy in Moscow in 1946 and helped Kennan with research.) He called it an “act of leadership” in that it not only called attention to Stalin’s hostility, but also clarified the wellsprings of Soviet policy and outlined a Washington response.

Kennan composed the piece in response to inquiries from the state and treasury departments about Stalin’s truculence. But rather than merely answering the mail, Kennan mailed the answer. He submitted the first draft of what became the doctrine of containment. Historians have dubbed it “the most influential cable in the history of the American Foreign Service” (Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas in The Wise Men).

The word “containment” does not appear in the telegram. It would come a year later in Kennan’s article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The Long Telegram did not mint a doctrine, but it did change a paradigm. It helped disabuse Washington of hopes for continued collaboration with Stalin. It was a bugle call in the transition from the Cold Peace to the Cold War.


And yet, for all its significance, it seems odd to today’s readers and Foreign Service Officers (FSOs). Its tone seems more related to documents from the 18th century – say, the Federalist Papers – than to contemporary cables. In his memoirs, Kennan wrote that he looked back on the language of the Long Telegram “with horrified amusement.” In that spirit, we should attempt a contemporary reassessment.

This short critique of the Long Telegram is not the first of its kind. Kennan did as much in his memoirs: “Much of it reads exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.”

Another short critique comes from Dean Acheson, who was under secretary of state when the Long Telegram landed on his desk on Washington’s birthday in 1946. Acheson later wrote: “His recommendations – to be of good heart, to look to our own social and economic health, to present a good face to the world, all of which the Government was trying to do – were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not have been sound, but his predictions and warnings could not have been better.” A mixed assessment based on a close read.


Yes, the Long Telegram does go on. Modern cables from the field are much shorter. FSOs prize brevity. Kennan himself admitted it was “outrageously long.” To suggest a contrast, this piece on the Long Telegram is far less than half as long as the original.

And yet Kennan’s piece is not as long as he pegged it in his memoirs. It is not 8,000 words, as claimed in his memoirs and repeated in some obituaries. It is closer to 5,400. Why the confusion? Perhaps because his later elaboration of its main themes, “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” swelled to almost 7,000 words. Perhaps because he saw its influence as a function of its length – say, along the lines of Mao’s Long March.

Kennan divided his piece into five sections, which he compared to an 18th-century Protestant sermon. Today an FSO would probably submit each section separately, each a part of a series.


Its structure is unfamiliar. It has no subject line, summary or comment – the basic elements of modern cable composition. Its style is unusual. It bears no resemblance to the punchy prose favored today. (One of my Foreign Service bosses urged me “to write like the Economist magazine,” with its snappy analysis.) It would fit better in The New Yorker than the Economist. It is a style that later won Kennan two Pulitzer Prizes.

The analysis of the Long Telegram is based on history and psychology. There is little from social science. For instance, not a single statistic appears in the piece. And Kennan did not couch his thesis as “Russian hostility is correlated with, but not caused by, Marxist ideology.”

The Long Telegram resonates with oral cadences. Consider the first sentence: “… questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment. …” Indeed, he dictated the whole piece from his sickbed that fateful day in 1946. Dorothy Hessman took it down. We know her name from his memoirs, where he honors her as “long suffering and able” (emphasis added).

Kennan includes the Long Telegram as an annex in his memoirs. It is followed by another piece he wrote at roughly the same time, but then never sent. It offers 10 rules for dealing with Soviet officials. For the modern reader, it jumps off the page. It seems a cable from our own day, especially with its punchy style and practical observations. Alas, history has forgotten it. The Centennial Conference in Princeton never mentioned it. It is the Long Lost Telegram.


The Centennial Conference gave the Long Telegram its historical due. We also could consider several lessons for cable writers of today.

First, timing can be everything. For months before the Long Telegram, Kennan had been sounding the same message. Finally, in February of 1946, Washington was in receive mode. The question came up at the Centennial Conference: Would a Long Telegram be possible today? Jack Matlock, the former American ambassador in Moscow and thus a Kennan successor, replied that a truly influential cable is rare. It has to arrive at just the right time; it has to appear when leaders are questioning the course of policy, as was the case in early 1946. Indeed, Kennan’s piece is remembered for its length, but exercised its influence because of its timing. We could also call it the Timely Telegram.

Second, follow-up can also be decisive. Kennan did not submit his telegram and then retire to his farm. Rather, within four months of its transmission, he returned to Washington, and within one year, he headed the new Policy Planning office. Throughout the subsequent years he continued to explain his thesis. A critic once said of Eric Remarque that he suddenly appeared in the 1920s as the forceful author of All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but then failed to show up as a forceful person to explain the book. Nothing could be further from Kennan.

Third, Acheson’s emphasis in cable writing on practical policy advice remains valid. The section heading at the end of the Long Telegram is striking for the contemporary FSO: “Practical deductions from standpoint of U.S. policy.” And yet it delivers more along the lines of shrewd insights than practical deductions. And compare the concluding thoughts of the Long Telegram and “Sources”: In the latter, Kennan has jumped to an even more lofty level in advising policy-makers. Kissinger called the concluding lines of “Sources” a “philosophy of history” (surely Kissinger’s highest tribute). But the cables of today are more apt to be practical than philosophical, and thus win more laurels from Acheson than Kissinger.


As noted, the Long Telegram does not have a subject line. That may explain its fate of being interpreted in varying ways, often to Kennan’s chagrin. That may explain its curious, empty designation as the Long Telegram. Using language from Kennan’s memoirs, I wish to propose a subject line. It would do justice to his central thesis of the need to dismiss illusions of an alliance with the Soviet Union while not embracing militaristic confrontation with Moscow: SUBJECT: HOLDING A MIDDLE GROUND OF POLITICAL RESISTANCE

Fletcher M. Burton *88 is American consul general in Leipzig, German. He reports that he joined the Foreign Service “thanks to Kennan.”