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China Remembers George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan, the American diplomat who conceived the Cold War policy of containment, died on March 17 at the age of 101. A number of Chinese newspapers carried the news in prominent positions, although it did not hit the headlines of major American papers. Many Chinese, diplomat and layperson alike, are familiar with the former ambassador to Moscow and winner of two Pulitzer prizes from school textbooks on international relations.


My study of and correspondence with Kennan


Dr. Zhang Xiaoming is a professor at the International Relations School of Peking University.


My study of the eminent strategist and historian Kennan began about 20 years ago, which has enabled me gradually to develop an understanding of the "Father of the Containment Policy" and America's "No. One Russian Hand."


Kennan was the author of numerous books, two of which were awarded Pulitzer prizes. What impressed me most were the study reports, speeches and telegraphs Kennan wrote when he worked as the director of Policy Planning Staff, State Department. I read many of these masterpieces in the US National Archives and Princeton University when I was studying in the US and I was enthralled by his well-organized writing and analyses.


I was preparing my PhD dissertation in 1991 when it occurred to me that I could write to Kennan to ask him directly what he really meant by "force," a term that recurs many times in his writings. I did not expect a prompt reply but Kennan, who was in his 90s at the time, wrote to me on December 20 of the same year. He answered all my questions, carefully explaining that the "force" in his articles refers to political force.


I was studying in the US at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1994. In March that year I received an urgent notice from the publishing house that was handling my dissertation, A Study of George F. Kennan and His Containment Theory, telling me that they needed a photo of him for the book's front cover. I wrote to Kennan again and he replied within the month, enclosing a black-and-white photograph of himself.


I received a third letter from Kennan in June 1994, when he received my book, which I had sent to him at Princeton. He thanked me and said that he believed the book would be useful in helping Chinese readers better understand Chinese-American relations during Cold War period.


A true thinker and intellectual, Kennan gained my eternal respect.


Kennan's grand strategy


Professor Shi Yinhong teaches international relations at Renmin University of China and is director of the university's Center for US Study.


I believe Kennan's greatest contribution to international relations theory was his grasp of the "grand strategy," a comprehensive plan of action based on the calculated relationship of means to large ends. The grand strategy requires constant reassessment and adjustment, and flexibility is key.


Based on this concept, Kennan held that US interests abroad must be limited because its capability was limited. Interests must be divided into those that are urgent and those that are not, and the ways and means to pursue interests should be determined by this definition.


Actually, it was neither the famous 8,000-word cable, known as the "Long Telegram" nor the article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" he wrote for Foreign Affairs in 1947 under the pseudonym "X," that embodied Kennan's strategic thought. The genuine cream of his thinking was contained in the voluminous government reports and documents he produced when working as director of policy planning at the State Department from 1947 to 1949.


The fact is that most of the strategies of the Truman Administration were based on Kennan's suggestions, or at least tallied with his thought. The main deciding factor in foreign policymaking at that time was the need for America to concentrate its forces on areas of primary importance because of its limitations. Kennan's thought, as practiced by the Truman Administration, resulted in the famous Marshall Plan, the greatest success of America in postwar foreign policy history.


Ironically, Kennan later disagreed with the Truman Doctrine and the establishment of NATO, believing his containment concept was misapplied. He was especially critical of the decision to bring the US into military engagements in the Korea Peninsula and Vietnam and the eastern expansion of NATO, as he believed that all those actions violated the tenets of the grand strategy.


The real meaning of containment


Xie Fang is a senior research fellow with the Academy of Social Sciences of Beijing. An international relations graduate from Peking University, she has written extensively on American politics.


Although the Cold War is long over, Kennan, the so-called "father of the Cold War," and his theory of containment will remain forever a part of the history of international relations.


The theory was first mentioned in his anonymously written article "The Sources of the Soviet Conduct" for Foreign Policy in 1947, in which he wrote, "The Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy. . . ." Kennan did not explain clearly what he meant by "counter-force." As a result, the majority of listeners and followers of his views, including the famous journalist Walter Lippman, believed that it referred to military force.


Kennan's comments on public misunderstandings of his theory came 20 years later. He wrote in his first memoir that everyone, including Lippman, misunderstood him: "Counter-force" was meant to be political rather than military.


Kennan believed that the West should maintain the advantages of its social and political system. It should sow discord in the socialist regime by taking advantage of the disparity between the former Soviet Union and its allies, and help to bring about "peaceful evolution" within the Soviet regime as internal developments occurred.


Obviously, containment is by no means an outmoded concept as its target has been shifted to China now. This new campaign is based on the so-called "China threat." Kennan was right in emphasizing internal development. China should accelerate its economic and social development, giving full attention to improving people's lives and human rights. A well-developed and rapidly progressing society is apparently immune to containment by any means.


Kennan's paradox


Wu Yan is in her second year of study for a master's degree at Beijing's University of International Relations.


Kennan led a dramatic life. He led a long life to the age of 101, but he enjoyed a short period of career glory as a diplomat. His success as a diplomat was in sending home "the most important telegram in US diplomatic history," but he was also such a failure as a diplomat that he was declared persona non grata by the foreign country where he worked and forced to leave. He conceived the theory of containment, which shaped international diplomacy for decades, but he later believed that the theory was widely and commonly misunderstood.


One might describe Kennan is a playwright who wrote the famous play called "Cold War." However, he had to give his script to President Harry Truman and others to direct. The directors went astray, changing the scenarios according to their ideas, but Kennan could do nothing to stop them. Like it or not, Kennan had to applaud with the directors because the play was believed to be a success.


A hand from Kennan


Guo Youxin teaches international relations at Jinan University in Guangdong.


Five years ago, when I was interviewing for a teaching position at Jinan University after finishing my PhD, I gave a mock lecture to 10 professors and assistant professors titled, "The Origin of the Cold War." I was very nervous. The leading examiner commented, "You made the topic very dull." But another examiner said, "There was an exception. He impressed me deeply when talking about Kennan and the 'Long Telegram.' He made the Cold War era, the frozen period, and Kennan, the Cold Warrior, into a vivid story."


Yes, Kennan did help me. In the end I got the teaching position and am still teaching the theory of international relations now. Kennan and his containment strategy are, of course, important parts of my course. But I have never liked to call him the "Cold Warrior."


(China.org.cn by Wandi Jiang, April 19, 2005)


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