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REC NSIDERATI NS •
John O. Iatrides is professor emeritus of international politics at Southern Connecticut State University.

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment


The Greek Test Case
John O. Iatrides

Historians disagree on the causes of the critics alike. Thus, for John L. Gaddis, his-
Cold War and differ widely in their assess- torian of the Cold War and Kennan’s biog-
ment of the significance of particular actions rapher-designate, the “long telegram” re-
and policy pronouncements of its principal mains “to this day the single most influen-
U.S. protagonists. However, when it comes tial explanation of postwar Soviet behavior,
to the origins of America’s decision to con- and one which powerfully reinforced the
front the Soviet Union in the aftermath of growing tendency within the United States
the Second World War, they invariably fo- to interpret Moscow’s actions in a sinister
cus on the strategy of containment and its light.”1 Elsewhere Gaddis writes that Ken-
generally acknowledged author, George F. nan’s telegram “would shape American pol-
Kennan, the almost legendary career diplo- icy over the next half century more pro-
mat, historian, and respected authority on foundly than his distant relative’s denuncia-
Russia who died earlier this year at the age tions of tsarist authoritarianism had influ-
of 101. Rarely has a middle-level profes- enced it during the preceding one.”2 For
sional bureaucrat—as was Kennan in the Walter L. Hixson, the University of Akron
late 1940s—received so much acclaim as scholar, Kennan is “one of the most brilliant
this “architect” of a foreign policy strategy and respected diplomats in U.S. history,”
that was to dominate American government and “one of the principal architects of US
perceptions and actions for almost 50 years. foreign policy strategy during the Cold
Best known for his “long telegram” sent War.”3 The presidential adviser Clark Clif-
from Moscow on February 22, 1946, and ford also characterizes Kennan as “brilliant”
its elaboration in the “X” article in Foreign and his famous telegram as “probably the
Affairs of July 1947, Kennan also played a most important, and influential, message
key role in drafting the Marshall Plan and ever sent to Washington by an American
was involved in a variety of major decisions diplomat....”4 Charles E. Bohlen, a fellow
regarding the North Atlantic Treaty, the diplomat, Soviet expert, and friend of long
Korean conflict, the German question, Ra- standing, considered Kennan “the outstand-
dio Free Europe, political warfare, and the ing individual” in the Moscow embassy dur-
East-West arms race. Following short tours ing his earlier tour of duty there, and one
as ambassador to Moscow (1952) and Bel- who “went on to become a brilliant policy
grade (1961–63), he retired to the Institute planner.”5 Forrest C. Pogue, George C.
of Advanced Studies in Princeton to write Marshall’s biographer, refers to Kennan’s
his memoirs and award-winning history “...enormous influence at various levels of
books, lecture on a variety of political top- the administration” and regards him as a
ics, and offer commentary on American for- “prime mover in policy planning” under
eign policy and world affairs. Secretary of State Marshall.6 Daniel Yergin,
Kennan’s impact on early postwar U.S. one of the earliest “revisionist” historians,
foreign policy is recognized by admirers and considered Kennan the “chief ideologue” of

126 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


the rigidly anti-Soviet group of American country [will] be insured against any even-
diplomats, his “long telegram” the “bible tuality.” Stalin also proclaimed that social-
for American policymakers,” and the “X” ism and capitalism were incompatible, that
article “arguably the single most famous wars between the two systems were in-
magazine article in American history.”7 evitable, and that socialism’s eventual vic-
Dean Acheson, Marshall’s successor as secre- tory was assured. Washington officials had
tary of state, who often disregarded Ken- found the speech isolationist and bellicose;
nan’s views, nevertheless wrote of his “pene- Justice William O. Douglas considered it a
trating dispatches from Moscow in 1946 “Declaration of World War III.”10 Moscow’s
(which) attracted so much attention among refusal to join the newly established World
the higher officials in the Administration,” Bank and International Monetary Fund rein-
and of the Policy Planning Staff which un- forced such alarmist reactions and prompted
der Kennan (and later Paul Nitze) “was of the Department of State to ask Kennan,
inestimable value as the stimulator, and of- then serving at the U.S. embassy in Moscow,
ten deviser, of the most basic policies.” On to provide “an interpretive analysis of what
the other hand, Acheson found that Ken- we may expect in the way of future imple-
nan’s “long telegram” recommendations, “to mentation of these announced policies.”11
be of good heart, to look to our own social Having for months bombarded the depart-
and economic health, to present a good face ment with just such reports only to find
to the world, all of which the government that it was “like talking to a stone,” Kennan
was trying to do—were of no help; his his- eagerly complied. As he explained later,
torical analysis might or might not have “[N]othing but the truth would do. They
been sound, but his predictions and warn- had asked for it. Now by God, they would
ings could not have been better. We re- have it.”12 In Washington, Kennan’s tele-
sponded to them slowly....”8 The view of gram of about 8,000 words was distributed
the small minority of skeptics was best ex- to hundreds of civilian and military offi-
pressed by George Elsey, Clifford’s assistant cials, and many viewed it as the much-
in the Truman White House: the “long needed key to the riddle of Moscow’s hos-
telegram,” Elsey remarked years later, tile behavior.
“didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already Concerning Stalin’s recent pronounce-
know....”9 Walter Lippmann’s far more bit- ments, Kennan argued that “the Soviet par-
ing critique of the “X” article will receive ty line is not based on any objective analysis
special mention below. of the situation beyond Russia’s borders;
that it has, indeed, little to do with condi-
The “Long Telegram” and the “X” Article tions outside of Russia; that it arises mainly
The circumstances surrounding Kennan’s from basic inner Russian necessities which
telegram of late February 1946 to the De- existed before the recent war and exist to-
partment of State are well known. In a day.” In his comprehensive, sophisticated,
speech delivered on February 9, Stalin had and tightly argued analysis of the root
declared the Soviet Union’s determination to causes of Soviet conduct, he stressed the
manage on its own its postwar reconstruc- legacy of history (“at the bottom of the
tion (a request for a large American loan had Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is
brought no response) and to concentrate on the traditional and instinctive Russian sense
heavy industry, presumably facilitating re- of insecurity”); a dogmatic belief in the in-
militarization. Specifically, he claimed that evitability of conflict between socialism and
rapid industrialization had made possible capitalism, and in socialism’s eventual tri-
the defeat of Germany and that, thanks to umph; the Soviet leaders’ lust for absolute
the proposed new Five-Year Plans, “our power and their total commitment “to the

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 127


belief that with US there can be no perma- in February 1946 concrete evidence of fur-
nent modus vivendi; that it is desirable and ther Soviet expansionism inimical to Ameri-
necessary that the internal harmony of our can interests was scant at best. Moreover, as-
society be destroyed, the international au- suming he was correct about the Soviet
thority of our state be broken, if Soviet menace, Kennan’s prescription concerning a
power is to be secure.” Moreover, foreign proper American response struck many offi-
Communist parties would be harnessed to cials in Washington as impractical and inef-
Moscow’s expansionist ambitions. fective, as Acheson’s comment quoted above
While portraying the Soviet Union as a indicates.
menacing monolith, Kennan maintained It is thus tempting to conclude that
that Stalin’s regime was too weak to pursue Kennan’s succinct explanation for growing
its goals through war: the threat it posed to U.S.-Soviet tensions was the lightning bolt
the United States and Europe was basically that woke American policymakers to the
political rather than military. Accordingly, dangerous storm that was fast approaching.
to counter such a threat he advocated the In reality, long before Kennan’s telegram
strengthening of American ideals and insti- had been read, a yet-to-be-defined strategy
tutions at home and their effective projec- of a more “muscular” response to perceived
tion abroad so as to demonstrate to the Soviet challenges was already taking shape
world the clear superiority of the American under the personal direction of the new
way. Kennan was urging reliance on what president. On April 22, 1945, at a less than
many years later the Harvard political scien- cordial meeting with Soviet foreign minister
tist Joseph Nye would label America’s “soft V. M. Molotov, President Truman used
power”: “A country may obtain the out- “sharp” language (his own characterization)
comes it wants in world politics because to demand that the Soviet Union carry out
other countries want to follow it, admiring the Yalta agreements concerning Poland.
its values, emulating its example, aspiring According to the president’s account, Molo-
to its level of prosperity and openness.... It tov complained that “I have never been
is the ability to entice and attract. Soft pow- talked to like that in my life.”15 On May 10,
er arises in large part from our values.”13 the Truman administration abruptly termi-
The “long telegram” demonstrated its nated the wartime Lend-Lease assistance to
author’s deep knowledge of Russian history the Soviet Union, a decision that Stalin
and political culture, and of the Kremlin called “unfortunate and brutal.”16 And one
leaders’ rigid mindset, especially their ten- does not have to endorse in its entirety the
dency to view others through a narrowly political scientist Gar Alperovitz’s thesis
ideological Russian-Soviet perspective. It al- concerning “atomic diplomacy” to concede
so revealed Kennan’s deep-seated antipathy that in the summer of 1945, the Truman
toward the Soviet regime, developed over administration’s decision to use nuclear
many years of diplomatic service in the pre- weapons against Japanese cities was moti-
war Baltics and in Moscow. In effect, his vated in part by concerns that, if allowed to
analysis begins with the categorical assertion occupy Manchuria in pursuit of Japanese
that the Soviet Union is by its very nature forces, the Soviet Union was likely to be-
aggressive, and then proceeds to marshal come as aggressively expansionist in the Far
those arguments that support such an asser- East as it had shown itself to be in East-
tion. It assumes that sinister Soviet postwar Central Europe.17 In January 1946, Presi-
intentions were already obvious and needed dent Truman wrote to his secretary of state,
no recounting.14 In retrospect, it is clear that James Byrnes, that Soviet behavior in Ger-
despite many disagreements and points of many, the Baltics, Poland, and Iran was an
friction between Washington and Moscow, “outrage,” that the Soviet Union was plan-

128 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


ning to seize the Turkish straits, and that he rated almost every one of his suggestions in
was tired of “babying” Moscow’s leaders the final report.” In addition, Kennan was
who understood only an “iron fist.” The his- given the opportunity to review the final re-
torian Arnold A. Offner does not overstate port, and he expressed his full satisfaction.
the case when he argues that “the President The report’s principal recommendation was
had made his personal declaration of Cold that the United States “should be prepared,
War.”18 On February 28, 1946, Secretary of while scrupulously avoiding any act which
the Navy James Forrestal and Secretary of would be an excuse for the Soviets to begin
State Byrnes agreed that the U.S. Navy a war, to resist vigorously and successfully
should prepare a task force for the Mediter- any efforts [at expansion by] the U.S.S.R....
ranean to escort the battleship Missouri on It must be made apparent to the Soviet
its impending visit to Istanbul (where it was Government that our strength will be suffi-
to deliver the ashes of the Turkish ambassa- cient to repel any attack and sufficient to
dor, who had died in Washington).19 Clearly defeat the U.S.S.R. decisively if a war
intended as a signal to Moscow, the naval should start.” Truman found the report
task force was to become permanently based “very valuable” but also incendiary, as he ex-
in the Mediterranean. In short, in his “long plained to Clifford: “[I]f it leaked it would
telegram” Kennan was preaching his “Prot- blow the roof off the White House, it would
estant sermon” (as he called it)20 largely to blow the roof off the Kremlin.”21 In short, it
officials who were already fervent believers can be presumed that, at the very least,
in its message. Kennan’s views on Soviet behavior fortified
If the “long telegram” did not actually the president’s own predisposition to get
give birth to the strategy of containment, it tough with Moscow.
was nevertheless very important. Its wide Thus the “long telegram” arrived at
circulation among top-level government of- the perfect moment to encapsulate and
ficials, and the near-universal high praise it bolster the views of key officials who had
received, turned it into something of a ban- reached similar conclusions on their own.
ner under which various U.S. decision mak- In particular, it reinforced their belief that
ers and their advisers could rally to formu- negotiating with the Kremlin in search of
late policy. It provided an authoritative, co- genuine compromise was not only point-
herent, and convincing explanation for the less but dangerous and that Soviet leaders
rising friction in U.S.-Soviet relations for would not be receptive to balance of power
which, the telegram made clear, Moscow offers. Specifically, Kennan’s analysis dis-
was to blame. And while it is not possible missed out of hand any possibility of nego-
to measure with any degree of accuracy the tiating spheres of influence arrangements
impact of the “long telegram” on particular in Europe as the basis for coexistence. His
officials, there is evidence that the impact portrayal of indigenous Communist parties
was considerable at the highest levels of as Moscow’s willing pawns helped strength-
government. Thus, the Clifford-Elsey report en simplistic perceptions that were oblivi-
of August 1946 on the U.S.-Soviet contre- ous to the powerful forces of nationalism
temps, which Truman commissioned possi- in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, and else-
bly after having read the “long telegram,” where, and distorted Washington’s view of
was based in large measure on Kennan’s the causes of the growing Communist insur-
views concerning the Soviet Union’s aggres- gency in Greece. Similarly, his emphasis
sive expansionism. on the Soviet leaders’ “neurotic view of the
According to Clifford, Kennan’s com- world” obscured the fact that Stalin could
ments, “covering six single-spaced pages, be cautious, pragmatic, and, above all,
were particularly helpful, and we incorpo- opportunistic.

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 129


While attracting the favorable atten- and accommodates itself to them.” Accord-
tion of top government officials, the “long ingly, the Soviet menace could be success-
telegram” remained a secret document. fully confronted by the “patient but firm
Soon, however, Kennan’s interpretation of and vigilant containment of Russian expan-
Soviet behavior was to become public. Even sive tendencies...[and] the adroit applica-
before reading the “long telegram,” Secre- tion of counterforce at a series of constantly
tary of the Navy Forrestal was convinced shifting geographical and political points,
that “we are dealing not only with Russia as corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers
a national entity but with the expanding of Soviet policy.” Confident that such a
power of Russia under Peter the Great plus long-term strategy would prove effective,
the additional missionary force of a reli- Kennan predicted that such “counterforce”
gion.”22 Taking a personal interest in Ken- would “promote tendencies which must
nan’s thinking, Forrestal solicited the diplo- eventually find their outlet in either the
mat’s comments on an academic’s recent pa- breakup or the gradually mellowing of
per that treated Marxist ideology as the Soviet power.”
driving force behind the Kremlin’s policies. The “X” article served as the rationali-
Instead of comments, Kennan responded zation for the postwar strategy of contain-
with an essay titled “The Psychological ment, providing the appearance of strength,
Background of Soviet Foreign Policy,” and consistency, and continuity to American for-
in January 1947 he spoke at the Council on eign policy for decades to come. At the
Foreign Relations on the same topic. When same time, Kennan’s less than precise defi-
the editor of Foreign Affairs, Hamilton Fish nition of “counterforce,” and of the “geo-
Armstrong, inquired if he had a text on the graphical and political points” where it was
subject that he could publish, Kennan gave to be applied, as well as his criticism of the
him the essay he had written for Forrestal. Truman Doctrine, sparked endless debate as
Cleared by the Department of State, it was to what in fact he had advocated. His own
published anonymously in the journal’s July subsequent lament that the article was seri-
1947 issue under the title “The Sources of ously flawed is endearing but does not end
Soviet Conduct,” its author’s name given as the dispute over its impact: “So egregious
“X.” As Kennan, who was almost immedi- were those errors that I must confess to re-
ately identified as the author, recalled, “It sponsibility for the greatest and most unfor-
was a literary extrapolation of the thoughts tunate of the misunderstandings to which
which had been maturing in my mind, and they led.”24 Having to face Secretary Mar-
which I had been expressing in private com- shall’s wrath for violating the cardinal rule
munications and speeches, for at least two that “planners don’t talk,” Kennan would
years into the past.”23 recall: “Feeling like one who has inadver-
Much along the lines of the analysis tently loosened a large boulder from the top
presented in the “long telegram,” the “X” of a cliff and now helplessly witnesses its
article stressed the role of history, ideology, path of destruction in the valley below,
and the pursuit of absolute power as the shuddering and wincing at each successive
forces driving Soviet foreign relations. The glimpse of disaster, I absorbed the bom-
result “is a fluid stream which moves con- bardment of press comment that now set
stantly, wherever it is permitted to move, in. I had not meant to do anything of this
toward a given goal. Its main concern is to sort....”25
make sure that it has filled every nook and The “bombardment of press comment”
cranny available to it in the basin of world included blistering fire from a formidable
power. But if it finds unassailable barriers critic: the eminent foreign affairs colum-
in its path, it accepts these philosophically nist Walter Lippmann. In a series of 12

130 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


newspaper articles, which appeared in the One may or may not be satisfied with
New York Herald Tribune and were soon Kennan’s subsequent explanation that his
published in a volume titled The Cold War apparent disagreement with Lippmann was
(and coining that much-used term), Lipp- based on a misunderstanding, and that
mann challenged the validity of Kennan’s Lippmann “mistook me for the author of
analysis of Soviet foreign policy motives precisely those features of the Truman Doc-
and labeled containment a “strategic mon- trine which I had most vigorously opposed
strosity.”26 In Lippmann’s view, Soviet con- —an assumption to which, I must say, I
trol of East-Central Europe was motivated had led squarely with my chin in the care-
not by open-ended aggressive expansionism less and indiscriminate language of the X-
but by limited (and historically justified) Article.”28 Until much more is known about
security considerations. Moreover, U.S.- official Soviet perceptions, fears, and aspira-
Soviet agreement on a political settlement tions in the immediate postwar period, it
for Europe (a division of spheres of influ- would be impossible to say with any degree
ence) was possible, even if unattractive. of certainty whether a purely nonmilitary
He castigated Kennan: “For a diplomat to American opposition to Soviet policies or an
think that rival and unfriendly powers can- attempt at settlement in Europe could have
not be brought to a settlement is to forget averted the East-West conflict. What can be
what diplomacy is all about. There would said at present is that, after 1946, the poli-
be little for diplomats to do if the world cies of the United States commonly referred
consisted of partners, enjoying political to as containment were consistent with what
intimacy, and responding to common ap- key decision makers, including President
peals.” Some 20 years later, Lippmann’s Truman, believed that Kennan had advo-
prophetic condemnation of containment cated in the “long telegram” and reiterated
was effectively summarized by his biogra- in the “X” article. Needless to say, his supe-
pher, Ronald Steel: riors were entirely free to draw their own
conclusions and implement whatever poli-
It could be attempted only by “re- cies they thought were appropriate and
cruiting, subsidizing and supporting likely to succeed.
a heterogeneous array of satellites,
clients, dependents and puppets.” The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan
Propping up anticommunist re- Alarmed by the continuing deterioration
gimes around the periphery of the in its relations with Moscow, accused by
Soviet Union would require unend- Republican leaders of being soft on inter-
ing American intervention. Because national communism, and spurred by
many of these regimes were dictato- Britain’s sudden decision to end its sup-
rial they would be prey to insurrec- port to Greece and Turkey, in mid-Febru-
tion, which they would beseech the ary 1947 the Truman administration de-
United States to quell in the name cided to launch a policy designed to block
of anticommunism. Confronted with further Soviet expansionist moves. The im-
such demands the United States mediate objective was to provide assistance
would either have to “disown our to Greece and Turkey, both perceived to be
puppets, which would be tanta- targets of Moscow’s aggression. However,
mount to appeasement and defeat the “Truman Doctrine” speech was purpose-
and the loss of face,” or else support fully bolder and more ambitious in its
them “at an incalculable cost on an scope. This was partly for reasons of domes-
unintended, unforeseen and perhaps tic politics: Republican leaders had made it
undesirable issue.”27 clear that they would support a program of

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 131


massive assistance to Greece and Turkey To say that he found objections to
only if it was “linked to the survival of it is to put it mildly. He objected
the Western world.” In addition, Truman strongly both to the tone of the
was urged by his own advisers to “rally message and the specific action pro-
American support for a new policy along posed. He was in favor of economic
the lines of our September 1946 [Clifford- aid to Greece, but he had hoped that
Elsey] report.”29 After many drafts and military aid to Greece would be
some bickering between the Department kept small, and he was opposed to
of State and the White House staff on lan- aid of any kind to Turkey. It was
guage and content, the president’s speech nevertheless to the tone and ideolog-
(to a joint session of Congress on March 12, ical content of the message, the por-
1947) depicted the world as divided into traying of two opposing ways of life,
two camps, one free and the other under to- and the open-end commitment to
talitarian rule, and committed the United aid free peoples that he objected
States to go to the aid of free nations that most. The Russians might even re-
were threatened by foreign aggression or in- ply by declaring war! Kennan voiced
ternal subversion. Within the context of his objections to a number of peo-
such a global contest the administration re- ple, including, finally, Acheson.
quested $400 million for aid to Greece and It was too late. The decisions had
Turkey.30 already been taken and widely
Kennan, then lecturing at the National approved.32
War College in Washington, was not in-
volved in the drafting of the Truman Doc- Given Kennan’s view that the Soviet
trine speech. However, he chaired one meet- threat to Greece was real, if not imminent,
ing in the Department of State at which his reservations about military assistance to
there was full agreement that Greece would that country, where a Communist insur-
be given “extraordinary economic and mili- gency was by early 1947 definitely gaining
tary aid.” According to one participant momentum, are hard to fathom. Nor was
whose account of those events Kennan cites his fear that Moscow might respond to the
with approval, those present “were quite Truman Doctrine by declaring war consis-
openly elated over the possibility that the tent with his assessment, expressed in his
United States might now take action on a lectures at the National War College and
broad enough scale to prevent the Soviet recorded in his memoirs, that the Soviet
Union from breaking through the Greece- Union was weak and that its threat was
Turkey-Iran barrier into the Middle East, largely political rather than military.33 Simi-
South Asia, and North Africa. They had larly, his statement at the National War
long felt themselves virtually unarmed in College that the Soviet regime lacked the
trying to deal with this problem, which was material and human resources to “rehabili-
to them as real as the walls about them and tate” the economy of Greece shows little un-
held frightful potentialities for the security derstanding of Moscow’s methods of har-
of the United States and the future of the nessing the economies of its satellites to its
world.” Curiously, according to the same au- own central plan.34 In his own memoirs,
thoritative account, “the problem of aid to Kennan disparages “the congenital aversion
Turkey, being of secondary urgency, was of Americans to taking specific decisions on
hardly discussed.”31 specific problems, and by their persistent
Yet, when Kennan was shown the draft urge to seek universal formulae or doctrines in
of the president’s speech, he was anything which to clothe and justify particular ac-
but pleased: tions...[and] to attribute a universal signifi-

132 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


cance to decisions we have already found it will be reasonably necessary and (b) Unless
necessary, for limited and parochial reasons, our best intelligence indicates that such a
to take.”35 However, beyond his objection to move will not precipitate overt action by
the language of the “doctrine” one suspects Soviet satellites or USSR forces, since nei-
that, for Kennan, Greece and Turkey simply ther the geographical position and terrain of
did not fall into the category of states whose Greece nor our over-all military strategy
defense against Communist aggression was justify commitment to major operations in
of vital importance to the United States. that country....” One more stipulation was
Kennan’s direct involvement in the added for good measure: “Unless we have
administration of American assistance to determined that we do not need nor intend
Greece occurred in late 1947, when officials to undertake military action elsewhere with
in Washington gave serious consideration to our currently weak forces.”36 In the end, the
the need to send combat troops to fight greatly improved performance of the Greek
alongside the faltering Athens government armed forces and Britain’s decision not to
forces. In the Department of State itself, the withdraw from Greece all of its own troops,
Division of Near Eastern Affairs favored which had remained in that country since
sending troops as a logical extension of the 1945, obviated the need to send American
support already committed; it was argued combat forces to fight in the Greek civil
that “an extremely firm stand in Greece” war.
would contribute to the success of American In retrospect, as of spring 1947, the
policy in Europe. However, Kennan spoke Truman Doctrine represented a new and im-
forcefully against the participation of Amer- portant, if vague, commitment to take ac-
ican combat forces in the Greek conflict. He tion—as needed—to prevent further gains
reasoned that although it might be easy to by the Soviet Union and international com-
“go in,” it “does not appear very clear as to munism. Although the Truman administra-
when and how we would get out.” Further, tion’s immediate goals were specific and
that the United States might have to estab- limited, the president’s pronouncement did
lish “occupation or military government,” set the stage for the Marshall Plan, the
a prospect he clearly dreaded. Finally, he North Atlantic Treaty, and (in due course)
thought that sending American troops to the American response to the Korean con-
Greece would raise the question of the need flict. Despite his subsequent disclaimers and
to take similar action elsewhere in the Mid- objections, Kennan’s “long telegram” and
dle East and the Mediterranean. In the “X” article, combined with his well-earned
event, while diplomats debated the issue, reputation as an authority on Russia, helped
any decision had to have the endorsement of to mold and rationalize the strategy of con-
the military authorities. At first, the Joint tainment as the pillar of American foreign
Chiefs of Staff appeared to favor sending and security policy in the Cold War. His
troops to Greece, claiming that it would pithy analysis of the root causes of U.S.-
serve as “tangible evidence of U.S. determi- Soviet friction was accepted with alacrity
nation to uphold its policy by military ac- by decision makers who proceeded to put
tion if necessary.” However, after careful in place a strategy of containment that re-
study of the practical requirements and ram- flected their own notions of what was
ifications of the contemplated action, the needed under the circumstances.
military leadership concluded (on April 1, If Kennan’s role in the formulation of
1948) that the dispatch of American troops the Truman Doctrine was marginal, he was
to Greece would be “militarily unsound”: the principal architect of containment’s next
“(a) Unless it is known that we are ready phase: the Marshall Plan. In late April
and able to back them up to any extent that 1947, Secretary Marshall returned from the

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 133


Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in hallmark of the Marshall Plan. First, “that
Moscow alarmed by the devastation he had the Europeans should themselves take the
seen across Western Europe and the possi- initiative in drawing up a program and
bility that the Soviet Union might take ad- should assume central responsibility for its
vantage of the situation to expand its influ- terms.” As Kennan recorded later, “[W]e
ence across the continent. He instructed hoped to force the Europeans to begin to
Kennan to assemble and chair the State De- think like Europeans, and not like national-
partment’s newly created Policy Planning ists, in their approach to the economic prob-
Staff (PPS) and prepare a program of Ameri- lems of the continent.” Implicit in this stip-
can assistance for Europe’s economic recov- ulation was the requirement that participat-
ery. It was at once an exciting and daunting ing countries would maintain free and com-
assignment: petitive markets and that the means of pro-
duction would remain largely in private
I was supposed to review the whole hands. In addition, it was to be made clear
great problem of European recovery that the United States would fund the pro-
in all its complexity, to tap those gram on a one-time basis. Secondly, that the
various sources of outside advice program would be offered “to all of Eu-
which we would never be forgiven rope—that if anyone was to divide the Eu-
for not tapping, to draw up and ropean continent, it should be the Russians,
present to the Secretary these recom- with their response, not we with our of-
mendations he wanted, and be pre- fer....” And finally, that “decisive emphasis
pared to defend these recommenda- [be] placed on the rehabilitation of the Ger-
tions against all governmental crit- man economy and the introduction of the
ics, including ones who could be ex- concept of German recovery as a vital com-
pected to show no charity or mercy ponent of the recovery of Europe as a
toward a man who came as an in- whole.” Indeed, the proposed plan would
vader of their hitherto private bu- make no distinction between victors and
reaucratic premises.37 vanquished. This last principle was espe-
cially important in view of Moscow’s refusal
At times, discussions in the Policy Planning to cooperate with the United States, Britain,
Staff were a bit too heated for Kennan: “I and France in restoring Germany’s economy
can recall one occasion, in late evening, under four-power direction.39
when I, to recover my composure, left the In June 1949, the ambassadors of coun-
room and walked, weeping, around the en- tries participating in the recovery program
tire building.”38 But the work was done, and gave a dinner in Washington in honor of the
on schedule. To be sure, all major recom- president and his secretary of state. Re-
mendations were submitted to higher au- sponding to one of the many toasts, Mar-
thority for review and approval. In the end, shall, a taciturn man who had once admon-
however, the comprehensive report and rec- ished Kennan to “avoid trivia,” raised his
ommendations that Kennan wrote and pre- glass to Kennan, who was deeply moved by
sented to Secretary Marshall on May 23, the gesture. Marshall had every reason to
1947, served as the core of Marshall’s com- appreciate Kennan’s skills. A few days after
mencement speech at Harvard University his speech at Harvard University, Marshall
the following month and the blueprint for worried that the offer he had just extended
the administration’s remarkable program for to the Europeans might be accepted by
Europe’s economic recovery. Moscow, thus destroying the purpose of the
Kennan’s own contributions included plan. On the other hand, openly excluding
the key principles that would become the the Russians would be seen as hostile to

134 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


Moscow and make the United States appear War, as both the Athens government and
responsible for Europe’s division. When he the insurgents sought and received assis-
confided his concerns to Kennan, he re- tance from the protagonists in the East-
ceived the reassurance he needed. According West conflict.
to Charles Bohlen, who was present, “Ken- The fighting took place in three dis-
nan and I looked at each other and said we tinct but interconnected phases or “rounds.”
were convinced that the Soviet Union could The “first round” occurred in the fall of
not accept the plan if it retained its original 1943, during the occupation, and was
form, because the basis of self-help and the caused by attempts of the Communist-
fact that the United States was to have a controlled resistance army, ELAS, to destroy
voice with the receiving country as to how rival resistance bands. Although ELAS was
the aid was used would make it quite im- largely successful in at least marginalizing
possible for the Soviet Union to accept, its rivals, this early phase of the civil war
given the nature of the Soviet structure, and ended inconclusively as British officers
particularly because of the political control clandestinely attached to the major resis-
which they were establishing over the coun- tance groups managed to arrange a truce.
tries of Eastern Europe.”40 Anticipating more violence, the British au-
As every student of the Cold War thorities placed all resistance bands under
knows, Kennan was right. Once the require- nominal British command and ordered
ments of participation in the recovery pro- ELAS to remain away from the capital at the
gram had been made clear, Moscow with- moment of liberation, which came in mid-
drew from the negotiations, forcing its Eu- October 1944. The “second round” occurred
ropean satellites to do the same. The author in the greater Athens area during December
of the “long telegram” and the “X” article 1944–January 1945, when the KKE refused
had succeeded in building into the Marshall to have ELAS disarmed in anticipation of
Plan his own brand of containment. the formation of a new national army. Now
an insurgent force, ELAS fought against the
Containment: The Greek Test Case government’s security contingents and
If the Marshall Plan proved to be Kennan’s British troops that were rushed to the capi-
true pride and joy as a policymaker—“de- tal from Italy. This round ended with the
militarized containment,” if you wish—the defeat and disbandment of ELAS, but the
Greek “test case” turned out to be a far KKE’s political organization and its under-
more complicated business. ground network remained in place. The
The Greek civil war that without any “third (and final) round” took place in
doubt helped trigger the Truman Doctrine, 1946–49, when the KKE fielded its “Demo-
and which in turn put to the test (during cratic Army of Greece” and launched a
the years 1947–49) Kennan’s initial formu- full-scale insurrection with assistance from
lation of the policy of containment, was a Soviet-bloc countries. It was defeated by
long and intermittent domestic conflict, the national forces supplied, equipped, and
result of bitter political quarrels that had trained first by Britain and, after 1947,
festered for decades. In the course of the by the United States. Until 1945, the
Second World War, a new catalyst was KKE leadership had been confident that it
added: a powerful Greek Communist Party could seize power on its own, relying on
(KKE) that succeeded in fielding the largest its populist appeal and the strength of ELAS.
network of resistance organizations and as- After its defeat in the “second round,” the
pired to seize power on the heels of the re- KKE realized that it could not succeed
treating Axis occupation forces. The Greek without substantial support from the
conflict was also briefly a battle in the Cold Soviet bloc.

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 135


Before the final Soviet victories at Stal- Stalin notorious “percentages agreement”
ingrad in January 1943, Britain’s policy in on Southeastern Europe of October 1944.
Greece was to foment armed resistance Britain’s military intervention during the
against the Axis occupation and (at the same “second round” was severely criticized by
time) support the Greek government in ex- American officials, and there was an attempt
ile based in Cairo. After Stalingrad, as the to deny the use of American transport ves-
eventual victory of the Allies became virtu- sels for the supply of British troops in
ally certain, Britain’s involvement in Greek Athens. An American proposal that the
matters changed dramatically. London’s new problems of Greece be handled by a tripar-
objective was to prevent the Communists tite American-British-Soviet mission was
from seizing power and delivering Greece to dropped when Churchill counterproposed a
Moscow’s orbit, a development that would purely Anglo-American effort.42 The United
endanger Britain’s traditional interests in States, Britain, and France supervised the
the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near Greek parliamentary elections of March
East. This was to be achieved by installing 1946 (the Soviet Union refused to send ob-
and supporting an anticommunist coalition servers, and the KKE abstained), and small-
government and returning King George (a scale American economic assistance was pro-
Churchill protégé) to the throne despite his vided through the United Nations Relief
questionable democratic credentials. In the and Rehabilitation Administration. Other-
first two “rounds” of the civil war, British wise, the United States showed no intention
intervention succeeded in foiling the KKE’s of becoming involved in Greece. Until sum-
attempts to eliminate its opponents; British mer 1946, the American ambassador in
officials advised succeeding Greek govern- Athens, Lincoln MacVeagh, attributed the
ments on all aspects of the country’s post- continuing instability and violence in that
liberation difficulties. Following the “sec- country largely to traditional political divi-
ond round,” several thousand British troops sions aggravated by the ravages of war and
remained in Greece to train and augment highhanded British meddling.43 In July,
the country’s newly formed security forces. MacVeagh dismissed as a “psychological ele-
However, as noted above, in February 1947 ment in the situation” British claims that
the Labor government informed the United KKE’s tactics and funds “stem from Russian
States that it could no longer afford to pro- sources,” and concluded: “Possibly the Rus-
vide economic and military support to sians, who are showing themselves in these
Greece and Turkey. Britain’s decision to days to be supreme realists, do not feel it
withdraw from the two Mediterranean necessary, in order to keep the leftist pot
countries had, in fact, been anticipated in here boiling merrily, to do more than fan
Washington, and American officials had the flames with a sympathetic press and
been preparing to deal with the resulting radio and keep the local communists in a
situation.41 constant state of hopeful expectation of
During the Second World War, the at- more definite assistance to come.”44
titude of the United States toward Greek However, in Washington a radically dif-
political issues was one of deliberate non- ferent view began to surface, based on devel-
involvement coupled with sporadic criticism opments largely unrelated to the situation
of Britain’s interventionist tactics. In par- in Greece. Growing friction with Moscow
ticular, the State Department objected to over Germany, East-Central Europe, Iran,
British efforts to control the resistance Korea, and various international organiza-
bands, restore the Greek monarchy, and tions lent credence to the perception that
reimpose a British sphere of influence in the Soviet Union was aggressively pursuing
Athens—all in the wake of the Churchill- expansionist policies along a broad front. In

136 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


March 1946, as Kennan’s “long telegram” the Soviet military mission at Tito’s head-
was circulating, a Department of State in- quarters to provide a mission and military
ternal document concluded that “Greece fits assistance to ELAS and sent a letter to Stalin
into Russia’s plans for expansion into the requesting military and diplomatic support
Middle East and toward the Mediterranean to counter the projected British intervention
and Indian Ocean.... It is in Greece and in Athens.48 Although a team of Soviet offi-
Turkey...that the Western system has the cers did arrive at ELAS headquarters, they of-
opportunity of presenting the strongest fered no real support; instead they scorned
front to the outward and downward exten- suggestions that the Greek Communists
sion of Soviet methods and influence.”45 In were ready to seize power and advised the
late August, MacVeagh reported new intel- KKE to join the newly formed government of
ligence indicating that the KKE was con- national unity. Probably in response to the
trolled by Moscow.46 In September, with the letter to Stalin, Georgi Dimitrov, the vet-
KKE this time boycotting the plebiscite on eran Bulgarian Communist leader and the
the monarchy, King George was returned to Kremlin’s top expert on the Balkans, sent
his throne to the delight of the Right and word to the Greek Communists that “they
Center-Right. By December 1946, Ameri- are to resolve the questions they raised
can officials had become convinced that the themselves.”49
Soviet Union and its Balkan satellites were In mid-September 1944, with the Ger-
fomenting the new Greek crisis. In February man withdrawal from Greece under way, the
1947, in light of Britain’s decision to dis- KKE leadership welcomed reports that Bul-
continue its support to Greece and Turkey, a garian troops in Greek Macedonia, now
Department of State memorandum pro- under Soviet command, would take part in
nounced the situation in Greece “critical” operations against the retreating Germans.
and added: “The capitulation of Greece to In late September, about 250 Soviet officers
Soviet domination...might eventually result entered several towns in Northern Greece,
in the loss of the whole Near and Middle apparently in anticipation of the arrival of
East and Northern Africa....”47 Within their units in full strength. There were re-
weeks, President Truman would announce ports that Soviet troops would soon liberate
to Congress, and the American public, a Thessaloniki.50 However, several weeks later
program of assistance to Greece and Tur- Soviet personnel in Greece were quietly
key as the first step in the new strategy of withdrawn, presumably on orders from
blocking further Soviet expansion. Moscow—where Churchill and Stalin had
In the early 1920s, Moscow had played just concluded, on October 9, their “per-
a crucial role in the establishment of the centages agreement” on Southern Europe,
KKE, and in 1931 had dispatched Nikos Za- consigning Greece to Britain’s zone of
hariadis, who had been trained and groomed responsibility.
in the Soviet Union, to become the party’s In early December 1944, as fighting in
secretary general. However, during the Sec- Athens between ELAS and the British inten-
ond World War, officials in Moscow re- sified, the KKE sent Dimitrov an urgent re-
mained passive observers of developments in quest for assistance. The response was nega-
Greece, including the first two rounds of tive: “[I]n the current situation our Greek
civil war, and made no attempt to establish friends will not be able to count on active
direct communication with the KKE. This intervention and assistance from here....”51
despite urgent requests from KKE leaders for And, following the defeat of ELAS, Stalin
guidance and assistance. Specifically, in June commented to Dimitrov: “I advised not
1944, when the liberation of Greece ap- starting this fighting in Greece.... The ELAS
peared imminent, the KKE asked the head of people...have taken on more than they can

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 137


handle. They were evidently counting on city gradually, to avoid an untimely armed
the Red Army’s coming down to the Ae- intervention by the British, and in the di-
gean. We cannot do that. We cannot send rection of searching for a compromise.”54
our troops into Greece either. The Greeks Stalin’s concluding admonition sug-
have acted stupidly.”52 gests that, in early 1946, the Soviet leader
assumed that the crisis in Greece could
The “Third Round” still be resolved through a negotiated settle-
In the months before the all-important ment by the parties directly involved.
March 1946 Greek elections, the KKE, However, Zahariadis interpreted Stalin’s
whose followers—in the aftermath of the admonitions to imply approval and even
“second round”—had become targets of encouragement of an armed insurrection,
widespread and persistent right-wing perse- presumably in the event that compromise
cution, once again sought to secure a com- proved to be impossible.55 Yet the KKE’s
mitment of Soviet support for armed revolu- preconditions for peaceful settlement and
tion. A high-level delegation traveled to national reconciliation were totally unac-
Moscow to present the party’s case for bold- ceptable to its domestic opponents and all
er action. Specifically, the Greek Commu- but precluded the possibility of compro-
nists inquired whether they should prepare mise. These demands included the with-
for armed insurrection or concentrate their drawal of British forces from Greece, a
efforts on self-defense measures combined neutralist foreign policy in the emerging
with political mass mobilization. Soviet offi- East-West conflict, the punishment of
cials advised them to participate in the up- wartime collaborators (most of whom were
coming elections and afterward, “in accor- fanatical anticommunists), and the end of
dance with the way the situation develops, the persecution of leftists. Interspersed
the center of gravity may move as necessary, with the KKE’s demands were insinuations
either to legal methods or to armed strug- that the Communists were prepared to re-
gle.”53 Ignoring Soviet recommendations, sort to armed force again. Thus, although
the KKE boycotted the elections (thus con- deeply divided among themselves, so long
tributing to the victory of its adversaries) as they could count on outside support,
and opted for armed insurrection. Thus, the anticommunist politicians were bound to
civil war’s third and most important round reject what amounted to capitulation to
was launched by the KKE on its own, with the KKE.
no encouragement from Moscow and, in- In the absence of meaningful political
deed, against Soviet advice. dialogue and as acrimony intensified, the
In March or April 1946, Zahariadis new insurrection continued to escalate and
traveled secretly and alone to Moscow and spread. Following Zahariadis’ March-April
was received by Stalin, V. M. Molotov, and visit to the Soviet Union, the KKE sent to
A. A. Zdanov; he then reportedly had an- Moscow a long list of its needs in weapons
other meeting with Stalin in the Crimea. and supplies and noted that “we are not in
The Soviet leaders criticized the KKE’S boy- a position by ourselves to cope with the
cott of the elections, which had resulted in demands of partisan struggle.” Yet the re-
the formation of a staunchly anticommunist sponse, delivered through Dimitrov, was
government and the continued persecution anything but encouraging: “At the present
of leftists. Yet they “agreed as concerns the time you should not count on the help you
prospects for the armed struggle,” and Sta- requested, and you should wait.” The KKE
lin reportedly told Zahariadis to “work out was urged to continue its political struggle
the final details with Tito.” Furthermore, but to avoid exposing its cadres to the dan-
“You will advance from the village to the gers of guerrilla warfare.56

138 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


In January 1947, ignoring Moscow’s “navy” consisted of few small wooden ves-
views, Zahariadis wrote to Stalin that the sels. As for the main objective of Operation
KKE could achieve victory but added: “We Limnes, on February 10, 1948, a large band
beg you to help us and to meet our most se- of insurgents approached the outskirts of
rious needs.” In an obvious reference to the Thessaloniki and fired a number of artillery
problems faced by Stalin and his comrades and mortar rounds into the city. Following
in the early days of the Bolshevik revolu- some confusion, government forces killed or
tion, he added: “You understand the impor- captured most of the attackers.60
tance in this struggle of the lack of adequate In May 1947, Zahariadis had again trav-
financial resources....” Within weeks the eled to Moscow and presented Soviet offi-
KKE learned that it would soon receive cials with two memoranda in which he re-
$33,000 from several foreign Communist peated the claim that the Democratic Army
parties, including the American, but there could expand to 50,000 and added that So-
was no hint of military support.57 Yet, in viet assistance would ensure victory. The
April—one month after the proclamation of KKE’s objective, he said, was the establish-
the Truman Doctrine—the KKE’s Central ment of a “peoples’ democracy.” He also had
Committee ordered the command of its a private meeting with Stalin on May 20 at
newly formed Democratic Army of Greece, which “war materials and diplomatic back-
to prepare to seize all of northern Greece. ing were guaranteed by Moscow.”61 The
The codename for this major operation KKE was encouraged to submit a “wish list”
that was to be launched in early 1948 was of needed matériel. Shipments of weapons
“Limnes,” and its original plan (now in the and supplies from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia
KKE archives in Athens) was written in to the Greek insurgents increased in vol-
Russian, presumably so that it could be read ume, and the fighting in northern Greece
abroad. According to the directive, “to de- intensified as the government troops were
feat the enemy’s plans the Democratic Army initially unable to do much more than de-
must transform guerrilla tactics into con- fend large towns that came under attack.
ventional warfare and establish free areas not The tide would change only gradually, dur-
only in the mountains but also in areas that ing the second half of 1948, as the govern-
are essential from the political as well as the ment forces improved in numbers, morale,
military perspective.” More specifically, “the effectiveness, and firepower, thanks in large
basic target of the Democratic Army must measure to American military assistance,
be the occupation of Thessaloniki, which which had begun to arrive in October 1947,
will result in the decisive transformation of and to operational advice and direction pro-
the situation....”58 In Belgrade, Zahariadis vided by a U.S. military mission—under the
boasted to Tito that the strength of the terms of the Truman Doctrine. The mission,
Democratic Army would soon reach 50,000 headed by Gen. James Van Fleet, helped
and could establish a viable “Free Greece” in plan operations, supervised their execution,
Macedonia and Thrace, with Thessaloniki as and pressured for better results. At the same
its capital. The insurgents were to acquire time, American civilian advisers were as-
heavy artillery, airplanes, and ships. Yet Za- signed to most Athens ministries and as-
hariadis also admitted that the supply of sumed extraordinary authority over various
weapons continued to be inadequate for the agencies of the Greek state. As already
task.59 Parenthetically, although a small noted, sending American combat troops to
landing strip was prepared in the Prespa Greece was briefly considered but proved
area (near the border with Albania and Yu- unnecessary.
goslavia), there were to be no airplanes or In early 1948, while the insurgents still
heavy artillery for the insurgents, and their appeared to be gaining momentum, their

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 139


most important foreign patron sounded any- are favorable conditions for continuing the
thing but confident of their eventual vic- struggle. Our help will be necessary in the
tory. Significantly, the KKE was not invited future.”63 Indeed, despite Stalin’s recurring
to join the Cominform, which was estab- doubts and reservations, on September 8,
lished by Soviet authorities in September 1948, officials of the Communist parties of
1947 to serve as the directorate of interna- the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Roma-
tional communism. On February 10, 1948, nia, and Czechoslovakia met in Warsaw and
at a meeting in Moscow of Soviet, Yugoslav, formed a commission to coordinate efforts to
and Bulgarian leaders, Stalin angrily dis- fulfill “their duty to meet the needs of the
missed the Tito-Dimitrov scheme for a Democratic Army of Greece.” At subse-
Communist “Balkan federation” that was to quent meetings, the commission discussed
include Greece. He also spoke critically, and problems encountered, especially the failure
at some length, about the Greek insurgency: of member countries to contribute to the es-
timated $30–$40 million needed by the in-
Recently I started to doubt that the surgents.64 On the other hand, supplies of
partisans could win. If you are not every kind continued to flow toward the
sure that the partisans would win, Greek border, transported by rail or cargo
the partisan movement should be ships to Bulgaria and Albania, and from
restricted. The Americans and the there to insurgents’ units in Greece. Bulgar-
British have a very strong interest in ian and Yugoslav documents now available
the Mediterranean. They would like show impressive quantities and varieties of
to have their bases in Greece. They weapons and ammunition, communications
would use all possible means to sup- equipment, clothing and footwear, medical
port a government that would be supplies, food, articles of personal hygiene,
obedient. This is an international is- and money (in U.S. dollars) sent to the
sue of great importance. If the parti- Democratic Army. Recently declassified
san movement is halted, they would Polish army documents contain detailed
have no excuse to attack you. It is lists of shipments of nearly 45,000 tons of
not so easy to start a war now, when military and food supplies transported by
they lack the pretext that you are or- Polish-registry vessels between November
ganizing civil war in Greece. If you 1948 and November 1949.65
are confident that the partisans have It is impossible to determine what per-
good chances of winning, that is a centage of these shipments actually reached
different matter. But I have some the insurgents’ fighting units. There is good
doubts about this.... reason to believe that problems in organi-
zation, coordination, and transportation
Later in the same conversation, Stalin said: plagued the effort to assemble and deliver
“Of course, the partisans should be support- supplies where they were needed. As a re-
ed. But if the prospects for the success of a sult, in the crucial battles of early 1949 the
partisan movement in a certain country are Democratic Army suffered from serious
declining, it is better to postpone the strug- shortages and deficiencies that could not be
gle until a more favorable time....”62 overcome. Equally important, and despite
In June 1948, just as the Stalin-Tito Zahariadis’ boasts, the insurgents’ combat
split was surfacing and the Greek govern- strength peaked at about 28,000 in May
ment forces prepared to launch new coun- 1948, and by January 1949 it had dropped
teroffensives against the Democratic Army, to about 24,000. Increasingly, the Democra-
Zahariadis went to Belgrade and presented tic Army resorted to forced recruitment,
his case to Dimitrov, who recorded: “There with women eventually representing about

140 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


25 percent of the fighting force. But hav- pendent Tito, he was even less likely to
ing abandoned guerrilla tactics in favor of countenance an independent Zahariadis. At
static warfare, the insurgency was doomed. any rate, with American assistance such an
In spring and summer 1949, in the hard- outcome was averted, and the application of
fought battles of Grammos and Vitsi, the a containment policy in Greece appeared to
Democratic Army was badly mauled by have been a success.
government forces, which were by that time
far superior in numbers, leadership, mobili- Epilogue
ty, and firepower. (In November 1948, the A fitting epilogue to the Soviet role in the
government forces numbered about 150,000 Greek civil war was provided years later by
in the army, 50,000 in the national guard, a veteran KKE leader: “From the start the
14,000 in the navy, and 6,500 in the air [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]
force.) viewed with skepticism the outcome of the
In retrospect, it appears that without armed struggle.... [Yet it] could not decide
the expectation that Stalin would in the end to advise us to abandon the armed strug-
give them the support they needed to win, gle.... It only advised us to develop it with
the KKE leaders would have hesitated to caution. We had no objection....”66 For
launch a full-scale insurrection. Most proba- Stalin, the Communist insurrection in
bly the party would have opted to protect Greece was a marginal battle in the emerg-
its cadres from right-wing attacks through ing Cold War that he had not initiated
measures of armed “self-defense,” conserved but that he would have liked to win so
its strength in the mountains, and kept its long as it did not put at risk his newly ac-
options open. A strong showing at the polls quired empire in Eastern Europe. For Tru-
remained a possibility at least until early man and his advisers, the civil war served as
1947, when the Communists’ popularity the first test of a grand strategy—to oppose
plummeted. what they perceived as Soviet expansion—
Initially, the hope for decisive Soviet which they were anxious to launch and de-
support was based on little more than faith termined to win. Thus, although the civil
in the leadership of the international Com- war was largely a Greek conflict, fought by
munist movement, on Zahariadis’ vaunted Greeks on both the winning and losing
access to the Kremlin and to Stalin person- sides, its outcome was determined by out-
ally, and on Moscow’s occasional Delphic siders who were engaged in their own
messages. However, after May 1947, follow- soon-to-be-global confrontation. Even if
ing the announcement of the Truman Doc- not actually fomented by Stalin, a Commu-
trine, certain senior Soviet officials had sig- nist victory in Greece would have been a
naled their approval of the KKE’s resort to major setback for the United States and
open insurrection and were involved in a Western Europe, and a gain for the forces
program, carried out by Moscow’s client of communism.
regimes, to provide assistance to the Demo- In purely military terms, the American
cratic Army. Expecting to receive the sup- experience in Greece did not produce a valu-
port it now so badly needed, the KKE made able precedent or create a model that might
plans to seize northern Greece and establish be applied elsewhere. By the time American
a mini-state that the Soviet bloc might be military advisers arrived on the scene, the
persuaded to recognize. Such an outcome Democratic Army had abandoned guerrilla
would have placed the rest of Greece at tactics in favor of static, conventional war-
the mercy of its Communist neighbors and, fare, which proved to be its downfall. Thus,
ultimately, of Moscow. But we can now see no worthwhile lessons of counterinsurgency
that if Stalin could not tolerate an inde- were learned in Greece.

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 141


The original rationale of the Truman vention, the Department of State worried in
Doctrine and of the Marshall Plan, in which late 1947 that “political strength seems to
Greece participated, was for the United have been passing from center and liberal
States to help its beneficiaries rebuild and groups into hands of totalitarian rightists or
develop their economies and strengthen leftists....” Washington wished that
their democratic institutions so that they
could stand up to Communist pressures, responsible Greek political leaders
whether from within or from the outside. In would have vision, restraint, and
Greece, the American program focused pri- patriotism to form political coalition
marily on the security requirements created which would include those leftist,
by the civil war. Beyond building up the liberal and center groups sufficiently
armed forces and their support services, enlightened and loyal to refuse to
much of the assistance was spent on infra- have any further dealings or associa-
structure: roads, rail service, ports, electric- tions with communists and those
ity, and telecommunications, as well as rightist groups which would be
public health projects. Once the fighting willing loyally to cooperate with all
had stopped, efforts to improve agricultural anti-Communist center and leftist
production also proved reasonably success- groups. Rightist groups unwilling
ful. On the other hand, reforming the civil to cooperate with Greek leftist anti-
service, making taxation more equitable, Communist groups should be con-
and expanding the economy’s industrial base sidered as reactionaries unworthy of
proved to be very difficult given the pres- membership in such coalition and
sures of the civil war and in the face of op- groups prepared to cooperate with
position from various entrenched Greek in- communists should be regarded as
terest groups. Three years after the intro- disloyal, contaminated, or politically
duction of the Truman Doctrine and the immature elements the presence of
Marshall Plan, the head of the American which would be almost certain to
Mission in Greece reported: “Economic and create distrust within the ranks of
political leadership comes mainly from a such a coalition....68
small wealthy class which, with some no-
table exceptions, is indifferent to its social But elaborate American prescriptions for
responsibilities, is resistant to reforms, and good government fell on deaf ears and insta-
is motivated by a mercantilist and rentier bility and stagnation continued, while in
philosophy rather than a production philos- the absence of a general amnesty for those
ophy.... In a climate of distrust and discon- who had supported the insurgency national
tent, political instability is both cause and reconciliation proved impossible in the short
effect....” He concluded: “The relationship term. Finally, efforts to build a broad coali-
of the people to their Government has be- tion of democratic forces were abandoned in
come that of petitioners, and the Govern- favor of stability and vigilance against Com-
ment has become a petitioner to the munist penetration. In July 1950, the head
world....”67 of the U.S. Military Mission sent word to
American officials were also frustrated King Paul (who had succeeded his brother
in their efforts to reform a system of govern- George upon the latter’s death in April
ment that continued to be dominated by 1947) that the current government was not
traditional political oligarchies, highly reliable and that a strong government under
politicized military officers, and the palace. Gen. Alexander Papagos was in Greece’s
It was not for lack of trying. While not best interests. In September, the new Amer-
wishing to appear heavy-handed in its inter- ican ambassador announced that while be-

142 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


fore the Korean War a center-left govern- 11. Yergin, Shattered Peace, p. 167.
ment might have been appropriate, a center- 12. George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925–1950
right government was now needed. The am- (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 293.
bassador hoped that a right-wing govern- 13. Quoted in Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price
ment would not “become necessary” in the of America’s Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004),
future.69 Two years later, a right-wing gov- p. 19.
ernment under Papagos was in fact elected, 14. By a remarkable coincidence, in March 1946
and was continued by his successor, Con- Kennan’s opposite number in the British embassy,
stantine Karamanlis. Frank K. Roberts, sent to his superiors a series of
In the end, as an agent of major institu- cables explaining Moscow’s hostile behavior toward
tional reform and democratization the Tru- the West in general and Britain in particular. Draw-
man Doctrine was to prove ineffective, if ing conclusions essentially similar to Kennan’s,
not counterproductive. But as a military in- Roberts carefully illustrated his analysis with refer-
strument of sorts, pace George Kennan, it ences to specific Soviet policies and actions. Having
most certainly contributed in keeping described the resulting situation as “alarming,” he
Greece outside the Iron Curtain. • nevertheless concluded: “[I]t is therefore possible,
though difficult, to reconcile British and Soviet in-
Notes terests in any problem with which we are likely
1. John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries to be faced, granted the right mixture of strength
into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford and patience and the avoidance of saber-rattling, or
University Press, 1987), p. 39. the raising of prestige issues....” (Kenneth M. Jensen,
2. John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethink- ed., Origins of the Cold War: The Novikov, Kennan, and
ing Cold War History (New York: Clarendon Press, Roberts “Long Telegrams” of 1946 [Washington: U.S.
1997), p. 20. A cousin of his grandfather, also named Institute of Peace Press, 1993], p. 57).
George Kennan (1845–1924), had written exten- 15. Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions: 1945
sively about Russia. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955), p. 85.
3. Walter L. Hixson, “George Frost Kennan,” 16. Offner, Another Such Victory, p. 45.
Encyclopedia of US Foreign Relations (New York: Ox- 17. Offner, Another Such Victory, pp. 96–98;
ford University Press, 1997), vol. 3, p. 3. Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and
4. Clark Clifford, Counsel to the President: A Potsdam. The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American
Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 4, 102. Confrontation with Soviet Power (London: Secker &
5. Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, Warburg, 1965); David Holloway, Stalin and the
1929–1969 (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 17. Bomb (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994),
6. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: States- pp. 130–33.
man 1945–1959 (New York: Viking, 1987), p. 154. 18. Arnold A. Offner, “The Truman Myth Re-
7. Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of vealed: From Parochial Nationalist to Cold Warrior,”
the Cold War and the National Security State (Boston: unpublished paper, 1988, p. 11.
Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 170, 322. 19. Walter Millis, ed., The Forrestal Diaries: The
8. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Inner History of the Cold War (London: Cassell, 1952),
Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, pp. 46–47.
1969), pp. 151, 214–15. 20. Kennan, Memoirs, p. 293.
9. Arnold A. Offner, Another Such Victory: Presi- 21. Truman demanded to have all copies of the
dent Truman and the Cold War, 1945–1953 (Stanford, report given to him, presumably to be destroyed.
CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 134. In 1966, Arthur Krock of the New York Times ob-
10. Yergin, Shattered Peace, p. 167; John Lewis tained from Clifford a copy of a draft of the report
Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold and two years later published it in his memoirs with-
War 1941–1947 (New York: Columbia University out permission (Clifford, Counsel to the President,
Press, 1972), pp. 299–300. pp. 109–29). See Arthur Krock, Memoirs: Sixty

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 143


Years on the Firing Line (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 43. John O. Iatrides, ed., Ambassador MacVeagh
1968), pp. 476–82. Reports: Greece, 1933–1947 (Princeton: Princeton
22. Millis, ed., Forrestal Diaries, p. 149. University Press, 1980), pp. 659–71.
23. Kennan, Memoirs, p. 355. 44. Department of State Records (hereafter
24. Ibid., p. 359. DSR), MacVeagh dispatch 1282, 868.00/7-445.
25. Ibid., p. 356. 45. DSR, S. W. Rockwell March 11, 1946,
26. Walter Lippmann, The Cold War: A Study “The Soviet Union and Greece,” Lagoudakis papers,
in U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Harper, 1947), Boston University.
p. 11. 46. Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter,
27. Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the FRUS), 1946, vol. 7, p. 227.
American Century (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 47. DSR, 868.00/2047.
pp. 444–45. 48. Vasilis Kontis and Spyridon Sfetas, ed., Em-
28. Kennan, Memoirs, p. 360. fylios polemos: Eggrafa apo ta Yiougoslavika kai Boul-
29. Clifford, Counsel to the President, pp. 130–37. garika archeia [Civil War. Documents from the Yu-
30. Joseph M. Jones, The Fifteen Weeks: February goslav and Bulgarian archives] (Thessaloniki:
21–June 5, 1947 (New York: Viking Press, 1955); Paratiritis, 1999), pp. 12–13.
George Elsey, “Impressions of a Speechwriter,” in The 49. Ivo Banac, ed., The Diary of Georgi Dimitrov
Truman Doctrine of Aid to Greece: A Fifty-Year Retro- (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 327.
spective, ed. Eugene T. Rossides (New York: Academy 50. Kontis and Sfetas, ed., Emfylios polemos,
of Political Science, 1998), pp. 55–59. pp. 19–20.
31. Jones, Fifteen Weeks, pp. 132–33, emphasis 51. Banac, ed., Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, p. 345.
added. 52. Ibid., pp. 352–53.
32. Ibid., p. 155. 53. Artiom Ulunian, “The Soviet Union and
33. Kennan, Memoirs, p. 317. the Greek Question, 1946–53: Problems and Ap-
34. George F. Kennan, “Comments on the praisals,” in The Soviet Union and Europe in the Cold
National Security Problem,” National War War, 1943–53, ed. F. Gori and S. Pons (London:
College, Washington, DC, March 27, 1947 Macmillan, 1996), p. 146.
(unpublished). 54. Lefteris P. Eleftheriou, Synomilies me ton
35. Kennan, Memoirs, pp. 322–23, emphasis Niko Zahariadi. Moska: Martios-Ioulios 1956 [Conver-
added. sations with Nikos Zahariadis: Moscow: March-July
36. Howard Jones, “A Reassessment of the Tru- 1956] (Athens: Kendavros, 1986), p. 35; Kontis and
man Doctrine and Its Impact on Greece and U.S. Sfetas, ed., Emfylios polemos, pp. 22–23, emphasis
Foreign Policy,” in Truman Doctrine of Aid to Greece, added.
ed. Rossides, pp. 31–33; John O. Iatrides, “Civil 55. Filippos Iliou, O ellinikos emfylios polemos.
War, 1945–1949: National and International As- E embloki tou KKE [The Greek Civil War. KKE’s
pects,” in Greece in the 1940s: A Nation in Crisis, ed. Entanglement] (Athens: Themelio-ASKI, 2004),
John O. Iatrides (Hanover: University Press of New pp. 256–57.
England, 1981), p. 215. 56. Ulunian, “Soviet Union and the Greek
37. Kennan, Memoirs, p. 326. Question, 1946–53,” p. 148; Kontis and Sfetas, ed.,
38. Ibid., p. 328. Emfylios polemos, doc. 7.
39. Ibid., pp. 333–38. 57. Iliou, Ellinikos emfylios polemos, pp. 56–57.
40. Charles E. Bohlen, The Transformation of 58. Text of Operation Limnes in Kontis and Sfe-
American Foreign Policy (New York: Norton, 1969), tas, ed. Emfylios polemos, doc. 10; analysis in Iliou,
p. 91. Ellinikos emfylios polemos, pp. 205–11.
41. Clifford, Counsel to the President, pp. 131–32. 59. Kontis and Sfetas, ed., Emfylios polemos,
42. John O. Iatrides, Revolt in Athens: The Greek doc. 11.
Communist “Second Round,” 1944–1945 (Princeton: 60. Archeia Emfyliou Polemou, 1944–1949 VII
Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 200–55. [Archives of the Civil War, 1944–1949, VII]

144 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL • FALL 2005


(Athens: Army General Staff, Historical Office, 66. Mitsos Partsalidis, Dipli apokatastasi tes
1998), pp 271–80. ellinikis antistasis [Double rehabilitation of the Greek
61. Ulunian, “Soviet Union and the Greek resistance] (Thessaloniki: Kodikas, 1978), p. 200.
Question, 1945–53,” p. 150. 67. James C. Warren, Jr., “Origins of the ‘Greek
62. Banac, ed., Diary of Georgi Dimitrov, Economic Miracle’: The Truman Doctrine and Mar-
pp. 442–43. shall Plan Development and Stabilization Program,”
63. Ibid., p. 447. in Rossides, ed., Truman Doctrine of Aid to Greece,
64. Ulunian, “Soviet Union and the Greek pp. 79–80.
Question, 1945–53,” pp. 152–53. 68. FRUS, 1947, vol. 5, p. 10.
65. Institute of National Remembrance, War- 69. John Freeman, et al., Xenocratia (Athens:
saw, military archives (Deuxieme Bureau), file IPN Viper, 1975), pp. 199–205.
352/67.

George F. Kennan and the Birth of Containment 145