After containment

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale and the authorized biographer of the recently deceased George Kennan. Not coincidentally, Gaddis is also the preeminent historian of the grand strategy of containment. As the author of the famous cable and related Foreign Affairs essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” by “X,” Kennan was the intellectual father of containment. The April 25 issue of The New Republic carried Gaddis’s superb essay “After Containment” (subscribers only), a consideration of Kennan’s legacy in relation to the war on terrorism. Here are a few paragraphs:

When Kennan returned to Washington in the spring of 1946, having riveted the attention of the United States government with the longest telegram ever sent from its embassy in Moscow, his first job was to design a course on strategy and policy at the National War College. “We found ourselves thrown back,” he recalled, “on the European thinkers of other ages and generations: on Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Gallieni–even Lawrence of Arabia.” Total war in a nuclear age would be “suicidal,” but there was no American tradition of limited war. So it was necessary to explore other traditions: Montesquieu’s view that “nations ought to do one another in peace the most good, in war–the least possible evil,” or Gibbon’s claim that the “temperate and indecisive conflicts” of the eighteenth century had been a strength rather than a weakness of that era.
Kennan was relying here on the principle of transferability: that grand strategies from the past could suggest what to emulate and what to avoid in shaping grand strategies for the future.
It seems fair enough, then, to apply that standard to the strategy that Kennan himself devised after moving to the State Department early in 1947. To what extent might containment work in other periods, places, and sets of circumstances? Not at all, he seemed to suggest during the Vietnam War: “I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance.” The possibility that there could be strategies of containment–that his own strategy could spawn mutations of which he disapproved–left Kennan frustrated, apologetic, and often angry. The sensation, he recalled, was that of having “inadvertently loosened a large boulder from the top of a cliff and now helplessly witness[ing] its path of destruction in the valley below, shuddering and wincing at each successive glimpse of disaster.”
By the end of the Cold War, however, the successes of containment had clearly outweighed its failures. There was no war with the Soviet Union, as there had been twice with Germany and once with Japan between 1914 and 1945. There was no appeasement either, as there had been in the years between the two world wars. Whatever the miscalculations, whatever the costs, the United States and its allies sustained a strategy that was far more consistent, effective, and morally justifiable than anything their adversaries were able to manage. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any peacetime grand strategy in which the results produced in the end corresponded more closely with the objectives specified at the beginning.
Students of strategy will therefore be studying containment for decades, even centuries, to come. Leaders will be applying its lessons in periods, places, and circumstances that nobody can now foresee. Transferability, however much Kennan resisted the notion, is unavoidable. But because the context can never again be that of the Cold War, not all aspects of that strategy are likely to transfer equally well.

Foreign Affairs has set up a Kennan memorial page and included Gaddis’s 1977 essay “Containment: A reassessment.” The author’s tag on The New Republic essay by Gaddis notes that the revised edition of Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment will be published this summer. Gaddis respectfully deliberates over the historical roots of the Bush Doctrine in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience.


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