Kennan's Long Telegram and nsc-68: a comparative Analysis

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Fakiolas, Efstathios T., "Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis," East European Quarterly, Vol. 31, no. 4, January 1998


George Kennan discussed in his telegram three issues: the principal motivating factors behind Soviet foreign policy, and the historical and ideological background of the post-war Soviet perception of international relations; its attainment on both the official and the unofficial level; and, finally, the far-reaching repercussions for the US foreign policy.

The analysis began with the thesis that the Soviet leadership conceived of world politics as a split into capitalist and socialist societies, in which the "USSR still lives in an antagonistic capitalist encirclement" with which there could not be a "permanent peaceful coexistence."(5) The Soviet leaders' great suspiciousness of outside world, did not emanate from any "scientifically" objective scrutiny of the conditions beyond Soviet Union's borders, but, instead, stemmed from "inner-Russian necessities," which, in turn, gave birth to a "neurotic view of world affairs." The fundamental root cause was the "traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity." The latter was the outgrowth of two prime determinants: first, from Russia's long and deeply-rooted agricultural past, and second, from the fear of contact with the economically developed and socially advanced West. The second sort of determinant of insecurity especially reinforced the Kremlin's antipathy for the West, because its "rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with the political systems of western countries." In this respect, Marxist-Leninist ideology had become the "perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity" of the Bolshevist regime, in the sense that it provided a very convincing "justification for [its] instinctive fear of outside world."(6)

Kennan came to the conclusion that Soviet policy aimed primarily at strengthening the relative power of USSR in the international environment. Of far greater importance, the Soviet rulers would attempt to accomplish their goals through the "total destruction of rival power." To this end, they would use every direct or indirect means, and they would do everything in their power, so as to undermine and infiltrate the political, social and moral edifice of western states, by exploiting the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system.(7)

Kennan painted a very bleak picture of the Soviet Union. In summing up his view, at the beginning of the fifth and last section of Telegram, he underlined emphatically and in quite alarmist language that the US had to confront "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."(8) Under these extraordinarily urgent circumstances, the most overriding task of the US grand strategy, Kennan argued, should be the stopping of Soviet expansion.(9)

Nevertheless, closing his telegram and recommending a general outline of instructions rather than some straightforwardly applicable steps for action, Kennan cautioned that in dealing with the Soviet Union, American officials should approach it with objectivity, thoroughness and calmness. He was convinced that it was within the capabilities of the US to solve the problem without direct confrontation, or a "general military conflict" for two basic reasons: first, the Soviet leaders, unlike Hitler, were "neither schematic nor adventurist," in the sense that they were extremely "sensitive to the logic of force" and, therefore, they could readily withdraw, when strong counter-force and sufficient resistance was blocked up at any point; second, the Soviet Union continued to lag economically far away behind the West.(10)

As a consequence, the interests of the US, Kennan went on in his argument, could best be served by building a healthy and vigorous American society, on the one hand, and by conceiving and "exporting" to other free nations its "positive and constructive" image of the world, on the other.(11)



NSC-68 was intended to elaborate the overriding objectives of the US national security policy. It began with an assessment of the physiology of the world crisis, adopting two basic assumptions in respect to the global distribution of power: first, following the defeat of Germany and Japan and the collapse of British and French Empires, the international system was bipolar with the US and the Soviet Union representing the two centers of power; secondly, the Soviet Union had fundamentally antithetical objectives compared to those of US and, driven by a "fanatic faith," sought to "impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." Behind this bipolarized reality stood the inherently irreconcilable struggle between the free and the slave society or, in other words, between "the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the Kremlin." The Cold War was substantially a "real war in which the survival of the free world" was in serious danger.(32)

The document went on to specify the major tasks of Soviet leaders, which were twofold: first, the maintenance and consolidation of their "absolute power" both in the Soviet Union and in the regions under their hold and control; second, the complete elimination of the resistance of any opposing center of power to their will and the dynamic worldwide expansion of Soviet authority.(33)

NSC-68 asserted that Soviet leadership regarded the US as the "only major threat" and as the "principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another" in order its "fundamental design" to be accomplished. To this end, Soviet economy, though far behind, as a percentage and value of Gross National Product (GNP), from that of US, was operating "on a near maximum production basis" so as not just to contribute generally to the strengthening of Soviet power, but largely to increase the "war-capacity" of the Soviet Union. Military capabilities were being exclusively developed to support the design of Soviet leadership for world domination. It was estimated that by 1954 the Soviets would have had a stockpile of approximately 200 atomic bombs and a sufficient number of aircraft to deliver them; in this case they could probably inflict serious damage to the US by a surprise strategic attack. This atomic capability, coupled with the possession of the thermonuclear bomb, and in conjunction with the already excessive conventional forces stationed in the Eastern Europe, would rank the Soviet Union in a extremely favorable position to carry out simultaneously the following courses of military actions: "to overrun Western Europe [...], to launch air attacks against the British Isles" and "to attack selected targets with atomic weapons."(34) In moving to a final assessment of Soviet intentions, the document argued that Moscow sought to employ the "methods of the Cold War" and the techniques of "infiltration and intimidation" in order both to overthrow Western institutions, and to establish its world domination.(35)

NSC-68 regarded that the principal task of the US national security should be the assurance of the "integrity and vitality" of its society. Given that American integrity was "in greater jeopardy than ever before," the document rejected explicitly the preceding policy of isolationism and called for a "positive participation in the world community." The US, as "the center of power in the free world," should undertake the "responsibility of world leadership" in order to organize and consolidate a global environment in which the American society would be able to "survive and flourish." To this end, US foreign policy should include two closely interlinked strategies: the first was the development of a "healthy international community," which had already been actually in force through the economic activities of the US throughout the world; the other was the containment of the "Soviet system."(36)

As for the containment strategy, NSC-68 defined the concept of containment as "a policy of calculated and gradual coercion," which purported: (1) to stand up to "further expansion of Soviet power," (2) to reveal the "falsities of Soviet pretensions," (3) to bring about "retraction of the Kremlin's control and influence," and (4) to reinforce the "seeds of destruction within the Soviet system" so as to induce a fundamental change to Soviet behavior to a point to "conform to generally accepted international standards."(37) The ultimate objective was to compel the Soviet Union to be persuaded of both the falsity of its ideology and the misdirection of its course, and in this way to adjust by its will progressively to the free Western society.(38)

Having adopted such a definition of containment, NSC-68 called for a rapid and maximum building of the political, economic and military power of the "free world." It also stated that it was urgent for the US to "possess superior overall power" either in itself or "in dependable combination with other like-minded nations."(39) Far away from being ignorant of the significance of the economic foreign policy, the document endorsed emphatically the view that the most important constituent of power was the military one. Without "superior aggregate military strength, in being readily mobilizable," the strategy of containment would be "no more than a policy of bluff."(40) NSC-68 advocated not only the vigorous development of the American nuclear capability, but also, the production and maintenance of a sufficient stockpile of thermonuclear weapons. It cautioned that it was urgent for the US to increase its air, ground, sea and civilian defense power so as not to be militarily so "heavily dependent on atomic weapons."(41)

Beyond this, the report went one step further to reject explicitly the possibility of negotiating with the Soviets, unless they fundamentally modified their attitudes and intentions. Equally, it refused to denounce the first use of atomic weapons. Nevertheless, it pointed out that the role of military force was deterrent and should be used "only if" the need for doing so was "clear and compelling."(42)

Finally, NSC-68 was committed to the conviction that the attainment of these objectives was within the political, economic and military capabilities of the US, and that the whole success was, by and large, dependent on the will of the American Administration and the American people, as well as of all free peoples.(43)


What is actually indisputable is that both documents recognized the existence of the Soviet threat and the pressing necessity for the US to resist it effectively, decisively and swiftly. Nevertheless, they interpreted the challenge posed by the Soviet Union in different terms, while adopting quite divergent proposals for action.

The Long Telegram perceived of the post-war bipolar international system through the lens of the struggle between capitalism and socialism. Although the principal objective of the Soviet leadership was the total destruction of the West, it would not resort to any direct military confrontation to achieve its intentions. Therefore, the Soviet threat was basically political and ideological, since the Soviets would endeavor to overthrow Western institutions and weaken Western social cohesion largely by political methods and ideological means. Additionally, the Telegram made no reference to any armament plan. Instead, it emphasized that the vigour and viability of both the US and other free nations' society were of paramount importance. Flexible forms of diplomacy should be pursued with the clear aim of bringing about significant changes within the Soviet Union. However, it is necessary to underline that the crucial question remained open: how could an ideology and political expansion be dealt with or contained?

On the other hand, NSC-68 looked at the bipolarity geostrategic terms. It endorsed the view that the chief aspiration of the Soviet Union was the complete domination of the world. It led to the conclusion that the Soviets had the military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, to accomplish their ends, and that they were determined to do so by military means. Having accepted eventually the inevitability of the Cold War, it advocated the energetic American intervention into world politics by promoting a national security strategy consisting of two interrelated components: the remaking of the free international community in the American image and the containment of the Soviet Union. For it called for a rapid and large-scale building of economic, political and military power of both the US and the West as a whole. However, it emphatically stressed the military dimension of power to a point where containment resulted in being what could be called "Containment Militarism."(56)

Hence, by interpreting the Soviet threat almost completely in military terms, NSC-68 left no room for negotiations with the Soviets, unless they fundamentally altered their behavior. What it did stress was that the survival of the free world was at stake and, consequently, the confrontation with the Soviet Union was a "zero-sum" game or, in other words, a struggle of "life and death."


In comparing the two documents, Paul Hammond has asserted that "always differences involved matters of degree and proportion."(57) Obviously, their "proportional" divergence lay in their radicalism as far as the level of American participation in world politics was concerned. Although they both rejected "isolationism," we believe that the Long Telegram seemed to be much closer to the premises of Monroe Doctrine, which attempted to reconcile the necessity for intervention to "out of American Continent area" with the deeply-rooted isolationist tradition. NSC-68 turned out to pursue the advancement of the US as a hegemonically dominant global power.

The theoretical differences between the two reports were more profound. They reflected two diametrically opposed perceptions both of the nature of world politics, and of dealing with the security dilemma unfolding in the US-Soviet relations. The Long Telegram and NSC-68 expressed the two alternative perspectives in the classical or traditional realist school of thought: the tectonic plates and the billiard balls metaphors respectively. The Long Telegram was concerned more with the impact of the distribution of power on the US-Soviet relations. It regarded that there would be a possibility of mutual gain from cooperation with the Soviets, since the world politics was not a "zero-sum" game. In this sense, the Long Telegram maintained that the most effective way of controlling the Soviet Union was by exercising indirect, or soft, power(58) both upon the Western nations and the Soviet Union, in order to get them to do what US wanted. In other words, it advocated a strategy in terms of the process of socialization(59) in which the substantive beliefs, norms, values and the vision of the world order of elites and leaders of these countries-including the Soviet Union-were to be reshaped in a way to reflect those of the US.

NSC-68, with its exclusive focus on the military dimension of power, asserted that an enhancement of Soviet strength would inevitably decrease US power and, hence, the US-Soviet conflict was only a "zero-sum" political and military interaction. It seemed to adopt the strategy of socialization as regards solely the free international community. Against the Soviet Union it advocated the use of hard, or command, power, exclusively associated with the manipulation of tangible and material means, such as inducements and threats (the strategy of "carrots" and "sticks"), so as to compel the Soviet Union to acquiesce to the will of US.

What is markedly interesting in NSC-68 was its thesis that "even if there were no Soviet Union we would face the great problem of the free society [...], of reconciling order, security, the need for participation, with requirements of freedom. We would face the fact that in a shrinking world the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable."(60) In this sense, it would be a very useful enterprise to connect this debate with the model of the American Hegemonic Leadership or the Hegemonic Stability theory.(61)

In each case, however, what we wish we have brought out in this study is the suggestion that the tracing of the analytical differences between the Long Telegram and NSC-68 is well worth a more dispassionate approach within the broader context of international relations theory and the origins of the Cold War in particular.

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