How to deal with Russia: US diplomat’s 5,000-word telegram still echoes 75 years later

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They kicked out diplomats. Penalties imposed. Fought proxy wars. Their war of words never really ends. But despite the often thorny relationship between the United States and Russia – and despite the brief “recall” of ambassadors that ended with a Biden-Putin summit last week – the last American ambassador to Moscow has been declared “persona non grata “and expelled by Russia. was George F. Kennan in 1952.

It was the Soviet Union at the time, and Joseph Stalin was in charge.

And yet, that’s not why Kennan is still remembered in the halls of power in Washington – and Moscow. Kennan’s most significant contribution to relations between the two countries came years earlier, in 1946, when he wrote a secret document on Russia that would eventually help start the Cold War.

Washington had become increasingly perplexed as its war pact with the USSR began to unravel, and State Department officials urged Kennan to speak out on Stalin’s behavior, especially after a speech at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1946 in which the dictator seemed to say that war between communism and the capitalist world was inevitable.

Kennan’s response was a telegram of over 5,000 words, sent in five parts from Moscow to Washington. It was the longest that the US State Department had ever received, and it became known as the Long Telegram.

The document consolidated Kennan’s repeated warnings as a mid-level diplomat about the expansionist and antagonistic intentions of the Soviet Union, and his recommendations on “how to deal with Russia.”

American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, left, is sworn in as ambassador to the Soviet Union by Raymond Muir in 1952, watched by Kennan’s wife and daughter. (Hulton Archives / Getty Images)

“It was composed in a moment of utter frustration and impatience,” said John Lewis Gaddis, author of a biography of Pulitzer Prize-winning Kennan titled George F. Kennan: An American Life. Frustration because Kennan had repeatedly sent long and eloquent documents to Washington via diplomatic bag (a method of securely sending documents from embassies), which few seemed to have read.

In the book, Gaddis described the Long Telegram as a kind of X-ray.

“It happened just at the right time and in the right format to grab attention.… And so it immediately went viral in Washington before that term was coined.”

Inspire foreign policy

Kennan’s opinion, updated a year later in a public version of the telegram published in the journal Foreign Affairs, called for containment of the USSR by economic or political means: a “third way” to contain influence. of the USSR which avoided either appeasement or total war.

A little over a year later, then-US President Harry S. Truman was delivering a speech at a joint session of Congress that effectively marked the start of the Cold War – a speech in which he called for aid to Greece and Turkey in an apparent effort to combat Soviet influence and stop the spread of communism.

That Kennan’s thought inspired the Truman Doctrine was clear.

“I think it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who resist attempts at subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure,” Truman said.

A selection of US newspaper headlines about the announcement by then US President Harry S. Truman on September 24, 1949, that the Soviet Union had carried out its first nuclear weapons test. (Keystone / Hulton Archives / Getty Images)

Kennan became known as the “author of containment,” although he grew increasingly uncomfortable with Washington’s growing interventionist and militaristic interpretations of his advice, and became a vocal critic of politics. American foreigner.

His criticisms included serious concerns about the founding of NATO in 1949 and its subsequent expansion into former Soviet territory, its opposition to the Vietnam War and even speaking out – at age 98 – against a possible war of states- United in Iraq in 2003. He also opposed nuclear proliferation.

Kennan’s words still matter

While the official policy of containment ended with the breakup of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in 1991, Kennan’s words still count.

Barely a month after Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States, a Kremlin spokesman said the policies Kennan inspired 75 years ago still govern how Russia is treated today. hui.

“Unfortunately, these are not relations of friendship and partnership,” said Dmitry Peskov, quoted by Tass, a Russian state news agency.

“No matter what happens, regardless of the reset and reboot, regardless of some periods of romance in our relationships, this ideology of Kennan and [Winston] Churchill has always dominated. And we felt it and continue to feel it, ”Peskov said.

From left to right, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin shake hands in the summer of 1945 at the Potsdam Conference, to negotiate the future of Germany and Europe after the Second World War. (AFP via Getty Images)

Kennan’s analysis of the conduct of Soviet leaders is also still relevant to observers of Russia today, Gaddis says. In the Long Telegram, Kennan wrote that Soviet leaders believed that there could be no “peaceful coexistence” between Russia and the capitalist world, and that at the bottom of “the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs” lies a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.”

He went on to say that the Soviet leadership was pressured to portray the outside world as “evil, hostile and threatening, but as carrying within itself the germs of rampant disease and doomed to be shaken by increasing internal convulsions until such time. that it receive the final coup de grace by the rise of socialism and give way to a new and better world. ”

“That’s exactly Putin today,” Gaddis said in an interview with CBC Radio Ideas. “Putin is still subject to the same authoritarian weaknesses that Kennan identified.”

What would Kennan do today?

Kennan, Gaddis says, would likely approve of US President Joe Biden’s apparent approach to Putin: engagement, while maintaining a hard line.

“What Kennan would also have done would have been trying to explain that Putin is a very popular leader,” Gaddis said, noting that he would also try to explain Russia’s authoritarian tradition.

“He was begging us to understand these circumstances,” said Gaddis, “to put ourselves in these positions, and above all, to avoid arrogance, to avoid trying to tell other countries what to do and how to live their lives. and what is good for them. “

According to John Lewis Gaddis, author of the biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life, Pulitzer Prize winner, Kennan was trying to pass the warning that countries could not hope to befriend the Russians or continue to cooperate. with them. (Eliza Valk)

In the Long Telegram, Kennan concludes by advising the United States to begin by repairing their own house to prevail over communism.

“Every courageous and incisive step to solve the internal problems of our own society, to improve the self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint releases, ”Kennan concluded. in the long telegram.

“If we cannot let go of fatalism and indifference to the deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will benefit.”


* This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed, with Melissa Gismondi.


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