University of Oxford

The George Kennan X Article

Introduction

George Kennan assessed the Soviet Union adequately; through the ‘X’ article, he was able to sum up the major weaknesses in the Soviet state, their threat to the western world and he also outlined a possible strategy which the United States should follow in dealing with this Soviet threat. The essay shall look at Kennan’s analysis in detail and opinions given on whether this was actually good advice for dealing with the Soviet threat.

Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet Union

Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet Union is found in a telegram which he sent from Moscow in response to a request made by the United States Treasury which sought to find out explanations about The Soviet Union’s recent behavior. Kennan decided to respond to this request in a lengthy article called ‘The Sources of the Soviet Conduct’. The telegram was eventually published in a journal know as Foreign Affairs. However, Kennan’s name was not revealed and he posed as an anonymous author called ‘X’. However, with time, information leaked to the public that the person who actually wrote the article was a government official. This eventual affected the future of foreign policy in the United States. (Pleshakov and Vladislav, 1996)

In the article, Kennan explained that the United States’ stance on ideologies between itself and the Soviet Union were ill placed. Kennan felt that the Soviet Union’s ideology of Socialism was very different from social democracy. This was a relatively new concept because many US government officials actually thought that these were sister ideologies and that there was actually a relationship between them.

Besides differing ideologies, Kennan was also able to highlight the driving force behind the Soviet Union government. He did this by explaining the fact that they were not able to perceive occurrences within their own country and in the external world objectively

Kennan also brought out the fact that the Russian government was not driven by rational thought. By looking at the history of the Russian state, Kennan highlighted a pattern of paranoia and xenophobia. This usually occurred regardless of prevailing economic conditions.

Kennan explained that the Soviet Union’s power was largely driven by its communist ideology. Consequently, its power came from seeking an alliance with other powers in the world that supported Marxist ideologists. These allies did not necessarily have to emanate from communist states alone, as matter of fact, their greatest power laid with allies from capitalist states.

Kennan asserted that The Soviet Union thought of its ideologies as the ultimate truth. Consequently, any other opposing ideologies were thought to be false and had to be dealt away with. This was the reason why the Soviet thought that it was at war with capitalism as an ideology. (Gaddis, 1982)

Kennan began his assessment of the Soviet Union by expanding the basis upon which the latter government was formed. He claimed that the Russian government revolved around communism. However, Communism itself was propelled by a number of factors. By explaining the root cause of these issues Kennan was able to offer a sensible explanation as to why the Russian government behaved the way it did and this explanation can then be treated as a satisfactory one.

In the article X, Kennan explains that Communism emanated from the Russian revolutionaries who were looking for a vehicle that would assist them in meeting their selfish needs for power. This assertion is actually sensible owing to the fact that Communist leaders usually have absolute powers. Additionally, communism, was also founded on an ideological basis where it was seen as the solution to capitalism. According to this author, he believed that Capitalism had inherent weaknesses. It oppressed the working class and prevented distribution of the means of production equally. Consequently, capitalism resulted in so many discontentments among the proletariat that it would necessitate the use of revolutionary force for elimination.

In light of the latter fact, communists felt that they were instituting justice by fighting the evils of capitalism. They believed that one had to conduct a revolution in order to eliminate capitalism and this was the major propelling force in the Soviet Union government. Such an assertion by Kennan was fairly accurate given the fact that many Russian leaders regarded capitalists as their ultimate enemies. As a matter of fact, a huge chunk of the communist cause was based on the overthrow and elimination of such forces. (Gaddis, 1982)

In Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet Union, the author attempts to explain the absolutist nature of the Russian government. His assessment was an informed one because it brings out an inherent part of the human nature. He explains that the Russian revolutionists had a choice of deciding to support their ideologies or become dictators. They eventually chose to pursue the latter. In the minds of the Russian government, any form of organization outside the Communist party was perceived as threat. This is because if there were mechanisms which could help their people organize themselves, then they would begin questioning the Russian approach and this would eventually undermine their cause. This was the major reason why there were no other parties allowed in the Soviet Union. Also, no religious organizations or collective movements were allowed because the Soviet government believed that these groups could act as sources of influence. The Russian government believed that they had to oppress all other groups so that they could have absolute power.

Kennan also gave an explanation for the Soviet’s Union’s governments’ paranoia. This government was directed by the latter concept because they were always on the look out for any form of control among the people. Kennan’s assertion can be supported by the fact that Russian youth had never witnessed any system of collective action and that they had no idea what their effects could be if they came together as a unified force. The USSR’s negative perceptions were further taken into the international scene. Most of them felt that capitalists could not be trusted. They were always plotting something evil and one could no be sure whether these are trustworthy groups. ( Kennan, 1947)

An important part of Kennan’s assessment was the issue of external capitalists as sworn enemies of the Russian states. The latter author in his article explained the Soviet government perceived non-Russian countries as enemies to their cause because they needed a scapegoat for maintaining absolute power or a dictatorial element. Soviet Authorities wanted absolute power in any way they could get it. In order to ensure this, they had to create enemies that would be used to convince ordinary citizens of the need to use dictatorial force in the government. At that moment, they chose to accuse all existing capitalists that still existed in Russia. They claimed that these capitalists had the potential to change the state and hence destroy it and this could not be acceptable. In this sense, the Soviet government asserted that the capitalists were the target that had to be eliminated in order to restore justice in the Russian society. However, after the capitalists had been eliminated, there was a need to look for ways in which they could support their dictatorial system. They thus identified the international community as a potential threat. The Russian government believed that all capitalist states had ill intentions for them. Consequently, Russia had to be on the look out for these impeding external forces by strengthening their own communist system. There was no room for cracks or weaknesses because the Soviets convinced the proletariat that they were fighting against the rest of the world. This explanation by Kennan is accurate because all the organs of absolutism were maintained in Russia while those ones that seemed to oppose these opinions were eliminated. By and large, Soviet rulers used the army and the police as organs of suppression. They were streamlined to fall in line with Russian ideologies. Another reason why this particular assessment was correct was that Kennan has considered an age old approach that numerous dictators use; a fictional story for maintenance of their power. Many dictators around the world have managed to garner support from their citizenry regardless of the excesses of their powers because they have an ideology or an explanation to fall back on. Human beings have the capacity to tolerate great injustices all in the name of just cause. The Soviet government had managed to identify this fictional explanation or ‘just case’; it was the international arena. The Russians created in their citizenry a need to assist in the process of eliminating their enemies-the capitalists. This was to ascertain that no future occurrences would affect them again. In light of the latter facts, the Russians began perceiving the rest of the world as a misguided one and that they had to stand firm and vigilant against these forces. (Gaddis, 1982)

Kennan’s article X also provides a platform for understanding the inconsistent nature of the Russian government. Sometimes, the Russian government would sign contracts that seemed contrary to other documents signed in the past. Additionally, they seemed inconsistent and frequently changed their stance on a number of foreign issues. Kennan asserted that this was as a result of their definition of ‘honor’. The Soviet government was driven by an antagonism between capitalists and themselves. This government felt that they were the ultimate determinants of the truth and that all other ideologies (capitalists) were in fact dishonorable. By describing capitalists so negatively, the Soviet Union was justified in employing all means to counter their enemies. They felt that it was sometimes necessary to change the truth so that it could fit a certain situation or so that it could give them an advantage over their enemies. This is the reason why the Russian government was very inconsistent in their foreign policy. The latter had no definition of what the truth was and changed it frequently to suit their prevailing circumstances. Kennan’s assessment enables the reader to see the relationship between the Russian ideology and their inconsistency in foreign policy. Since there is link between cause and effect, then one can assert that this assessment is accurate. (Pleshakov and Vladislav, 1996)

Kennan addressed the reasons why the Soviet Union was very negative in their administration of justice. In Russia, the Kremlin were the sole determinants of the truth. These groups were the only ones with a capacity to decide the ultimate truth. All other groups that organized themselves along the basis of seeking for legitimacy would undermine the effect of the Kremlin and would therefore ruin their powers. The Soviet dictatorial government was based on the existence of followers who advanced their cause without question. This explains the fact that the Kremlin never listened to popular sentiments. To them, the only thing that mattered was their opinion

An assessment of Kennan’s advice on dealing with the Soviet Union threat

Kennan gave good advice to the United States because he proposed a long term strategy. This approach was quite appropriate given the fact that Soviet’s strategy itself was also a long term one.  Kennan argued that Russia was actually weak in comparison to a united capitalist world. This was true because of the nature of the communist state’s internal structure; it was weak and would eventually collapse if external forces acted as “the straw that would break the camel’s back”. He also brought out the fact that the Russian system of government was based on negative propaganda and if the United States could look for mechanisms of highlighting their positive traits while eliminating their negative ones, then this would go long way in dealing with the Russian threat.

Kennan’s strategic advice encompassed the following;

  • Restoration of US public education
  • Sound appraisal
  • Solving Western internal conflicts
  • Resenting a positive illustration of the US to the Soviet Union

Though Kennan’s proposal’s the US government would be using the same tactics that Communists used to advance their own cause. These strategies were largely economic and social in nature. He explained that Soviet Union rarely used direct force to advance their ideologies; instead, they were tactful and always looked for slow mechanisms of permeating the rest of the world. Therefore, if the United States were to pursue a strategy that involved direct confrontation, then there would be a high risk of loosing. This direct confrontation could never change the aggressive state of the Soviet Union.

The other way which one could look at the Soviet threat is by pursuing some form of peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union. Kennan very explicitly addressed the fact that this was not a plausible course of action because the Soviet Union perceived all the capitalists as unpalatable enemies. Consequently, there was no hope for ever creating a long term association with the Russians. Since the Soviet Union had a tendency to adopt some levels of pretentiousness, then the United States would be misleading themselves if they thought that they could pursue a policy of association with the Soviet Union. ( Kennan, 1947)

All in all, Kennan was advocating for the following elements in the US strategy

  • It must be long term
  • it must be vigilant
  • It must be firm
  • It must encompass containment

Kennan was right in supporting a containment strategy because the Soviet Union was always looking for avenues that would advance their communist cause. In this regard, Russian Kremlin were never asleep. They had the potential to penetrate different parts of the world by looking for any cracks in the international system. This meant that Russian authorities had the capability of advancing their cause at any moment and it was the duty of the United States to prevent this by depicting the successes of their own economic and social successes. (Pleshakov and Vladislav, 1996)

It should be noted here that there was grave misunderstanding of Kennan’s assertions in article X. Many critics blame the article for causing the cold war. However, the cold war was in fact a direct result of the misinterpretation of this article. Kennan claimed that Russian expansive tendencies should be contained in order to deal with the threat. He proposed the use of sound economic and social changes within US borders. However, many readers assumed that Kennan actually meant the use of military force to counter these expansive tendencies. In the process, this caused a lot of tension between Kennan and the US population; this eventually brought problems to him in the end. As a matter of fact, the US government was at a point where they were looking for any possible explanations that could guide their actions against Russia. It should be noted here, that Kennan had not been asked to map out a military strategy on the US-Russian foreign policy. The advice he gave was merely an analysis of his thoughts on the psychological factors that make the Soviet Union behave the way it does. However, when the article was used as a basis for determining US Russian relationship, then this ended up backfiring in the face of the US. ( Kennan, 1947)

Many Kennan critics have argued that if it was not for article X, then the US would not have changed their tactics against the Soviet Union and they would not have maintained their stance in the cold war. In this regard, these critics argue that Kennan was the cause of all the turmoil that came with the cold war and that Kennan gave wrong advice. However, these perceptions are totally wrong. Kennan’s advice was not responsible for the cold war; the cold war represented an opposite approach to what Kennan was advocating. Many readers simply borrowed the words from the Kennan article without examining their context. If these groups had taken the time to understand Kennan’s proposals’ then this would have gone along way in streamlining the Soviet threat.

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Conclusion

Article X was on of the profound documents on US foreign policy because it shaped US perceptions on the Soviet Union. Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet Union and his subsequent suggestions on the way forward were actually accurate and could be supported by existing political, social and economic conditions in the Soviet. However, the meaning behind Kennan’s advice was taken out of context by the US and thus led to the subsequent cold war. Critics who blame Kennan for this, are actually being unfair because he advocated for a change in internal US structures and not military confrontation as was the case in the cold war.

Reference

Gaddis, J. (1982)Strategies of Containment- A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American Security Policy; Oxford University Press

Pleshakov, C. and Vladislav, Z. (1996): Inside the Kremlin cold war. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard             University Press

Kennan, F.  (1947): The Sources of Soviet Conduct; Foreign Affairs, July 1947

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