Kennan and the Pitfalls of Containment

Courting new great power conflict in the twenty-first century involves the same dangers that it involved four decades ago when Kennan issued his warning.

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Fredrik Logevall reviews Frank Costigliola’s forthcoming biography of George Kennan:

Costigliola’s unmatched familiarity with the diaries is on full display, and although he does not shy away from quoting from some of their more unsavory parts, his overall assessment is sympathetic, especially vis-à-vis the “second” Kennan, the one who decried the militarization of containment and pushed for U.S.-Soviet negotiations. Kennan, he writes, was a “largely unsung hero” for his diligent efforts to ease the Cold War.

Intriguingly, as Costigliola shows but could have developed more fully, these efforts were already underway in the late 1940s, while the superpower conflict was still in its infancy. This transformation in Kennan’s thinking is especially resonant today, in an era that many analysts are calling the early stages of yet another cold war, with U.S.-Russian relations in a deep freeze and China playing the role of an assertive Soviet Union. If the analogy is correct, then it bears asking: How did Kennan’s thinking change? And does his evolution hold lessons for his successors as they forge policy for a new era of conflict?

One of the problems with containment doctrine from the start was that it could be interpreted in so many different ways, some of which flatly contradicted each other. It could be interpreted narrowly, as Kennan would have preferred, and limited primarily to Europe, or it could be interpreted as broadly as possible to apply to every corner of the globe and to serve as a warrant for massive military buildups and arms races. As Ali Wyne has written in America’s Great Power Opportunity, “A framework that is at once widely accepted and highly elastic is vulnerable to misappropriation.” Containment was both widely accepted and highly elastic, and so it was misappropriated in record time. Kennan is often called the author of containment, but as subsequent events showed he lacked the authority to define and enforce his version of what containment should be.

Logevall’s discussion of the dispute between Walter Lippmann and Kennan caught my attention because I had just been listening to John Delury and Van Jackson talk about this very thing in a recent podcast about Delury’s new book, Agents of Subversion. Delury and Jackson were talking about Kennan in the context of the early Cold War and how Kennan believed Lippmann misunderstood his views on containment (discussion starts around the 25:00 mark). Jackson said:

[Kennan] understood what he was advocating as a form of restraint….This is the limit, this is the outer bound of what our foreign policy should be trying to push. In that sense, it was an alternative to global domination, it was an alternative to preventive nuclear war, which was on the table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the ‘50s. Even though that’s the case, containment did not get implemented the way that he imagined it at all. The way Kennan saw containment was not how Lippmann interpreted Kennan.

The reality was that Kennan largely agreed with Lippmann’s objections to a more expansive and ambitious form of containment, but Lippmann didn’t recognize this. Logevall concurs:

More than that, he found himself agreeing with much of Lipp­mann’s interpretation, including with respect to Moscow’s defensive orientation and the need for U.S. strategists to distinguish between core and peripheral areas.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Kennan and the Pitfalls of Containment”

  1. Containment (in the minds of U.S. administrations) = Dominance in all forms; economic, military

  2. December 27, 2022 “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” Man cannot say “No, I’m not going to war!”, he must follow.

    Unfortunately, humanity is unable to banish this age-old evil from the world. Power-political, economic and social reasons constantly feed the spirit of violence and lead to destructive wars. In view of the immense human and material sacrifices reported in the history of war, the exhortation of high-minded people who proclaimed the ideal of a peaceful world arose from time to time. The idea of eternal peace is surely as old as humanity itself.×397.jpg

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