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
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.
LONG INDEED …
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
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.
… AND DIFFERENT
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,
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
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
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
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