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


An attempt is made in this paper to examine in comparative perspective two official documents of great historic value from the point of their influence both on the onset of the Cold War, and on the shaping of the United States (US) grand strategy in the post-war era: the "Long Telegram" written by George Kennan, charge d'affaires in Moscow, in February 22, 1946, and the "National Security Memorandum No. 68" (NSC-68) on "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security" written by a Joint State-Defense Department Committee, under the supervision of Paul Nitze, Director of the Policy Planning Staff, in April 14, 1950.

Before proceeding to some methodological remarks, we should recall that the Long Telegram was sent to Washington shortly after Stalin's speech about the inevitability of conflict with the capitalist powers, and the capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union; this should be added to the Iranian and Greek crises, as well as to refusal of the Soviet Union to enter the newly established International Monetary Fund and World Bank. NSC-68 was drafted following the explosion of a Soviet atomic device and the "loss" of China.

Additionally, we should be cognizant of three theoretical strands that have been developed in regard to the origins of the Cold War. The traditional or orthodox view, which assigns primary responsibility to endemic Soviet expansionism; the revisionist school of thought, which focuses on the aggressiveness of American policy against the Soviet Union; and the post-revisionist version, which questions the monolithic approach of the preceding arguments, suggesting a more "synthetic" approach.(1)

With respect to how we go about our study that is, the methodological approach to the subject matter, our inquiry resides in the theoretical method. As compared to a conceptual treatment or to a conventional historical analysis, the theoretical approach, when favored as a broad-gauge, general research method, allows scholars to gain a more focused understanding of developments and, thereby, to provide more comprehensive explanations of connections between variables. This is not to say that historical or conceptual methods are atheoretical. We merely mean that theory can be treated as a separate type of method to analysis.

The evolution of paper's argument rests on the narrow, specialised method of structured, focused comparison of the Long Telegram and NSC-68,(2) which are taken as separate case studies. The comparative investigation of the two official reports on the basis of the controlled comparison method is the very substantive core of this paper. We purport to focus, through the lens of a certain theoretical framework, both on examining and explaining the real perspective of each document.

In this context, we make explicit use of the disciplined-configurative mode of analysis, which bears many resemblances to the interpretative case study.(3) This type of controlled comparison of case studies applies some established theoretical hypotheses and generalisations for the purposes of description and explanation. Alternatively, we analyse the two reports in terms of theoretically relevant propositions so as to shed light on, describe and explain the perspective that each of them was intended to set forward. Our attempt is by no means purely descriptive in the traditionally historical sense; nor does it move entirely in a theoretical vacuum. Instead, it is indeed guided by a theoretical setting with the aim of capturing the richness and explaining the major elements of the historical reality. The principal motivation behind our study is a theory exercise and application in order that a focused understanding of the perspective of each document might result. Thus, some useful dividends about the origins of the Cold War might be produced.

We select realism to highlight the Long Telegram and NSC-68. We regard it as the most appropriate theoretical tool so as the theoretical research method to be carried out. The choice of realism is dictated by a combination of several reasons: first, not only was, in general, this type of explanation, and especially its classical or traditional variant, the predominant way of thinking at the time that both documents had been written, but it has, in particular, achieved since then widespread currency in the discipline of international relations; secondly, the policy-makers of both texts took for granted the notions of national interest, distribution of power, and of international anarchy as the key determinants of states' behaviour; last, but not least, the authors' primary task was to calculate the costs and benefits of alternative courses of actions, and to recommend policies intending to safeguard the US security interests; a function that properly fits the realist assumption of the state as a rational-unitary actor.

Realism is a large school of thought, which consists of a diverse literature in the realm of theory. It includes a significant number of different perspectives, the proponents and advocates of which criticise each other. These perspectives can rather be located into two categories: the classical or traditional realism and the structural realism.

For the purposes of our analysis, we prefer classical or traditional realism to the structural realism. Our choice is due to the fact that the former is more prescriptive than the latter. More specifically, structural realism overwhelmingly draws attention to the strong influence of systemic constraints and incentives on the behaviour of all states and, therefore, analyses the capacity of states to use or to threaten the use of their power to get others to do what they want. In this respect, structural realism is quite descriptive rather than prescriptive.

On the other hand, the classical or traditional realism focuses on how the unique features of international anarchy that is, the systemic imperatives and impetus, along with the particular characteristics of individual states may lead them to specific behaviour. From this point of view, the classical or traditional realism is prescriptive in the sense that it suggests policies which are likely to help states deal successfully with the international anarchy to which are continually subject. In turn, the classical or traditional realism encompasses disputes among its proponents. On running the risk of oversimplification, we can make two basic classifications: the billiard ball perspective and the tectonic plates model. The fundamentals of these postulates have best been framed by Stephen Krasner.(4) The principal argument of the billiard ball perspective is that the international system is composed solely of egoistic sovereign states interested in maximizing their relative power capabilities at the expense of others; world politics is a "zero-sum" game in which national security conceived of in military and territorial terms is the one and only states' national objective. On the other hand, the main assertion of the tectonic plates model is that even though states are the most important protagonists in world politics, there exist many other non-state actors; the distribution of power determines the outcomes in many fields of international system to the extent that the interaction of states structures varying patterns of behavior; for the world is not "zero-sum," and the opportunity for mutual cooperation is most often present.

The paper's thesis is that the analysis offered by Kennan's Long Telegram reflected the tectonic plates model of the realist school, while that offered by Nitze's NSC-68 represented the billiard ball perspective. At least to the best of our knowledge, no single paper has so far investigated the content of both documents and set down, through a comparative critique, the key analytical and theoretical differences between them. After all, the competitive use of the two strands of classical or traditional realism has rarely been employed in this way that is, to theoretically conceive in comparison of two documents. We hope that by doing so here, we are liable to sharpen more our understanding of the perspective of the Long Telegram and NSC-68.



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

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

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

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

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

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


What is uniquely interesting about the Long Telegram is that it neither elaborated nor provided a concrete definition of the concept of containment for which Kennan became widely known. The definition of containment by Kennan was presented in a subsequent article, published in Foreign Affairs.(12)

The Long Telegram did not constitute the first attempt made by Kennan to discuss the nature of the Bolshevist political regime.(13) Nevertheless, it was not so clear-cut a piece of work; rather, it was full of ambiguities. For it has given birth to divergent interpretations over an array of issues.

The foremost ambivalent question relates to the Kennan's view of the post-war Soviet outlook of world politics. The thesis could admittedly be borne out by the Long Telegram that Kennan was strongly convinced that the Soviet leaders dogmatically adhered to the perception of the lethal capitalist-socialist struggle. As a result, and because of the insecurity of Bolshevist regime, the West could do nothing to safeguard Soviet confidence for mutually beneficial cooperation. By contrast, the Soviets were determined to strengthen their position as an international actor, on the one hand, and to work systematically to weaken and ultimately totally destroy the West, on the other.

This analysis, however, deserves more critical scrutiny. It has been aptly observed that the chief problem is the simple application of an interpretive model to the Soviet Union: its endemically aggressive foreign policy stemmed, by and large, from internal needs and imperatives, drawing, in this way, inadequate attention to the constraints placed by the international strategic environment and, in particular, by the conduct of US as contributing factors of the Soviet behavior.(14) Kennan disregarded or discounted any reference to the security interests and national objectives of the Soviet Union itself, which were likely to be pursued regardless of the ideological or specific political features of the ruling regime in Moscow.(15) Likewise, although Kennan acknowledged the economic weaknesses of the Soviet Union, he turned out to exaggerate the Soviet Union's capabilities and overestimate the ability of Soviet leadership to infiltrate the West.

Of equally great importance is the question of what precisely is the role Kennan assigned to the communist ideology as determinant of the Soviet foreign policy. It has been asserted that Kennan's analysis tended towards a monolithic and mechanistic view of Soviet behavior by placing overwhelming emphasis on Marxist dogma and, thereby, ignoring to focus on the influence of Realpolitik in the formation of Soviet policy.(16) The main remark we should make about this argument is that it has no real basis in Kennan's Long Telegram. Nowhere in it did Kennan appear to place a great deal of emphasis on the Marxist ideas as formative factors of Soviet policy. He asserted that Marxism did not establish the basic goals of Soviet foreign policy.

According to Anders Stephanson, Kennan's analysis of Soviet ideology was insufficient(17) and, consequently, Kennan never gave great importance to the role of ideology in the Soviet policy.(18) It has been rightly pointed out that Kennan conceived of ideology as a justification for action rather than as a reliable guide with which to project Soviet behavior.(19) The Marxist-Leninist dogma both provided the appropriate means of legitimizing Soviet policy and reinforced the Soviet leaders' hostility to outside world.(20) We could agree with the thesis that what Kennan tried to illustrate was that the Soviet behavior was determined by a peculiar messianic amalgam of the communist ideology and the Russian aggressive nationalism.

At this point a very crucial question arises directly associated both with Kennan's definition of the American national interests, and with his recommendations for action. In fact, this is the most problematic of our debate, if we take into account, first, Kennan himself, who subsequently complained in his memoirs that he had been misunderstood(21); secondly, the deep impressions Kennan's analysis in the Long Telegram left on some politicians of his era and, in particular, on Dean Acheson, who later commented that "his recommendations were of no help; his historical analysis might or might not have been sound; but his predictions and warning could not have been better."(22)

We should argue that Kennan failed to clarify precisely what he was talking about when he described the principal characteristics of the Soviet outlook to make directly clear in political or military terms the nature of the Soviet challenge. In this respect, the way is indicative in which some scholars have interpreted Kennan's arguments. According to Nathan and Oliver, Kennan believed that what the Soviets actually acknowledged was force and that the only remedy to the Soviet challenge was unrelenting struggle and confrontation.(23) Likewise, in Kennan's thinking, it is regarded, the negotiations with Soviets were of limited utility, since it would be enormously difficult, if not impossible, to reach a reliable diplomatic settlement of the conflict with the Soviet Union.(24)

With all due skepticism, a careful reading and dispassionate interpretation of the Long Telegram, and especially of the last section of it, would help us not lose sight of the fact that Kennan stressed the obsolescence of war as an effective means in dealing with the Soviet power. The following lines, though drawn from a subsequent piece of work by Kennan, highlights more persuasively this argument: "it is not Russian military power which is threatening us, it is Russian political power [...], the threat lay in the terrible truths which the Russians have discovered about the vulnerability of liberal democratic society [...], it is not entirely a military threat, I doubt that it can be effectively met entirely by military means."(25) We could contend that Kennan was in favor of negotiations with the Soviet Union, but only if two basic conditions were to be met: first, a community of aims between the two countries; and second, the initiative should be come at least 50 percent by the Soviets.(26)

It is true, however, that Kennan did not make explicit these points in his telegram. For the latter justifiably gave birth to much confusion as regards both the nature and the ways of coping with the Soviet threat. For example, one scholar has pointed out that although Kennan was committed to the view that the Soviets did not represent any military challenge, he ultimately implied that the threat was military and should be confronted on the basis of the US military power.(27)

The great difficulty with Kennan's analysis is that he gave excessive thought to the intentions of the Soviet leadership, paying little attention to the real capabilities of the Soviet Union.(28) Furthermore, taking the view that the Soviet foreign policy was exclusively determined by domestic factors for granted, he then logically concluded that the US had no opportunity to strive for any improvement of the relationship with the Soviet Union. So, what rationally remained for the US to do was to wait for internal changes within the Soviet Union, and to stand up to Soviet penetration and influence.(29)

As far as the latter task is concerned, Kennan suggested that the best policy was to build healthy societies, and to install a sense of self-confidence in the Western world. We believe that the following lines pertaining to the case of Japan shed further light to what Kennan was trying to say: "the emphasis in Japanese occupation should lie in the achievement of maximum stability of Japanese society, in order that Japan may best be able to stand on her own feet when the protecting hand is withdrawn."(30)

We could agree with the essence of the argument that Kennan's recommendations for action were rested on psychology.(31) However, the use of this term is not the most appropriate to identify Kennan's thinking. We are going to develop this point in greater depth at the last section of this study. But, let us now turn to NSC-68.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The principal thesis that governed NSC-68 was that the chief motive behind the Soviet foreign policy was its strong political will both to become the single dominant world power, and to remake the international society in the image of the communist model of political system. What uniquely marked NSC-68 was twofold: first, the definition of the Soviet threat almost exclusively in military terms and, second, the perception that the confrontation between US and the Soviet Union was an uncompromisingly total, persistent "zero-sum" game.

It has been rightly pointed out that in NSC-68 the Soviet Union was portrayed as an "ideal-type aggressor."(44) Paul Nitze, the Director of the study-group of NSC-68, has asserted that Soviet behavior had been considered as indicative of an intended aggressive effort to place the Soviet Union in the first rank.(45) In fact, NSC-68's "zero-sum" perception of the Soviet-American conflict and its excessive weight to the military dimension resulted both in the extreme exaggeration of the Soviet threat, and in the complete rejection of the possibility of peaceful settlement through diplomatic arrangements and negotiations, unless the Soviet Union changed its political and ideological attitudes.

More concretely, NSC-68 seemed to establish its assumptions of the Soviet military threat on the following correlations: Soviet military capacity and political design, Soviet ideology and behavior, and domestic oligarchism and international expansionism.(46) A most questionable point was the equation of capabilities with the intentions and the equation of domestic politics with international behavior as well. Without making any distinction between different forms of power, and in defining the Soviet threat solely in military terms, it exaggerated the military capacity of the Soviet Union to a point where the latter was pictured as capable of launching a comprehensive strategic plan of occupying almost the entire Europe and carrying out selective atomic attacks on various regions of the world.

It has been observed that the Western perception of the Soviet threat was more theoretical than real, because the Soviet Union suffered significant economic and military weaknesses.(47) In fact American intelligence acknowledged that the Soviet Union could never win a war against the US.(48) However, a recent study based on Western intelligence documents has advocated that the perception of the Soviet military threat was convincingly rested on reality.(49) This position tends to be confirmed by Nitze's note that the study-group of NSC-68 largely relied upon Intelligence's information.(50)

All in all, it was impossible for American political and military officials to disregard the tremendous challenge posed by the Soviet military conventional and atomic forces. Given that the American military services had been concerned with Soviet capabilities since the end of World War II, and that by 1949 the US was firmly in favor of defensive nuclear strategy, the root cause for the exaggeration of the Soviet threat should also be traced within the structure and autonomous dynamics of decision-making bodies and their influence upon the formation of national security policy.(51)

As regards the insistence of NSC-68 on not to reject the first use of nuclear weapons, we consider that it was absolutely logical, insofar as it referred to a crucial matter of credibility of the American military will and readiness. US was committed to the development of nuclear weapons before the drafting of NSC-68. What the document rejected explicitly was the possibility of launching a preventive war, though leaving room for the use of the preemption strategy.(52)

Generally speaking, many scholars have characterized NSC-68 as a profoundly "flawed" report.(53) Others have held that it might be the "appropriate response" to the Soviet challenge.(54) However, we absolutely agree with the point made by Nitze that NSC-68 "was very much a product of its time."(55) We think that we cannot criticize its assumptions and analytical weaknesses in isolation from its historical context.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


(1.) See, among others, Melvyn P. Leffler and David P. Painter (eds.), Origins of the Cold War. An International History (London and New York, Routledge, 1994); John Lewis Gaddis, "The Emerging Post-Revisionist Synthesis on the Origins of the Cold War," Diplomatic History, 7, No. 3 (Summer 1983), pp. 171-190; Michael Cox, "From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Superpower Detente: The Rise and Fall of the Cold War," Journal of Peace Research, 27, No. 1 (1990), pp. 25-41; J.L. Richardson, "Cold-War Revisionism. A Critique," World Politics, XXIV, No. 4 (July 1972), pp. 579-612; Michael Leigh, "Is There a Revisionist Thesis on the Origins of the Cold War?," Political Science Quarterly, 89, No. 1 (March 1974), pp. 101-116.

(2.) See George L. Alexander, "Case Studies and Theory Development: The Method of Structured, Focused Comparison," in Paul Gordon Lauren (ed.), Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory and Policy (London: The Free Press, 1979), pp. 43-68.

(3.) See Arend Lijphart, "Comparative Politics and the Comparative Method," American Political Science Review, LXV (September 1971), pp. 682-693.

(4.) Stephen D. Krasner, "Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables," International Organization, 36, No. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 497-510.

(5.) George Kennan, "The Long Telegram," February 22, 1946, classified in Thomas Etzold and John Lewis Gaddis, Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950 (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1978), pp. 50-63: p. 51 [hereafter cited Long Telegram].

(6.) Long Telegram, p. 53-54

(7.) Ibid. pp. 52, 54 and 55-60.

(8.) Ibid. p. 61. It is characteristically indicative how Nathan and Oliver formulate Kennan's postulate: "Kennan pointed out that the US had to deal with a multidimensional threat which put in danger nothing less than Western civilization." James Nathan and James Oliver United States Foreign Policy and World Order 3rd edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1985), p. 54. In addition, Acheson's account was that "Kennan tried to prove that any modus vivendi with Moscow would be chimerical." Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, (New York and London: Norton, 1987), p. 151. See also C. Kegley, American Foreign Policy. Patterns and Process 3rd edition (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 56ff.

(9.) Long Telegram, p. 61.

(10.) Ibid.. p. 61.

(11.) Ibid., p. 63.

(12.) There Kennan wrote: "the main element of any United States Policy toward the Soviet Union Must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" July 1947, classified in Etzold/Gaddis, Containment. Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950, pp. 84-90: p. 87

(13.) As Kennan himself confessed in his memoirs, he had crystallized his view of the Soviet policy under the influence of the impressions of a journey within the Soviet Union made almost after the end of World War II; since then and for eighteen months, he had repeatedly tried to become American officials aware of the basic features of Soviet foreign policy, but the latter were unwilling to hear what he said. George Kennan, My Memoirs, 1925-1950 (London: Hutchinson of London, 1967), pp. 271-297.

(14.) See Thomas Patterson, Meeting the Communist Threat. Truman to Reagan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 128 and 132.

(15.) See D. Fleming, The Cold War and its Origins, 1917-1960 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961), p. 464.

(16.) See Patterson, Meeting the Communist Threat. Truman to Reagan, p. 114 and 128; S. Ashton, In Search of Detente. The Politics of East-West Relations Since 1945 (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 12: Martin McCauley, The Origins of the Cold War, (London and New York: Longman, 1983), p. 12.

(17.) Anders Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 50.

(18.) See Melvyn P. Leffler, "Was the Cold War Necessary?," Diplomatic History, 15, No. 2 (Spring 1991), pp. 265-275: p. 265.

(19.) See John Lewis Gaddis. "The Strategy of Containment," in Etzold/Gaddis, Containment: Documents on American Policy and Strategy, 1945-1950, pp. 25-37: p. 29; by the same author, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 34 and 96. Kennan in a piece of work written in January 1947 noted that "ideology is a product and not a determinant of social and political reality." Quoted in Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, p. 34.

(20.) See Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, p. 33; Gaddis, "The Strategy of Containment," pp. 28-29; Stephanson, Kennan and the Art of Foreign Policy. p. 48; Patterson. Meeting the Communist Threat. Truman to Reagan, p. 115: Walter Lafeber, America. Russia and the Cold War, 1945-1980, 4th edition (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1980), p. 64.

(21.) Kennan, My Memoirs, 1925-1950, p. 357

(22.) Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department. p.

(23.) See Nathan/Oliver, United States Foreign Policy and World Order. p. 154.

(24.) Ibid. and Fleming. The Cold War and its Origins, 1917-1900. pp. 464-465.

(25.) Quoted in Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, pp. 335 and 40.

(26.) See Kennan, My Memoirs, 1925-1950, p. 291.

(27.) Stephen Ambrose, Rise to Globalism. American Foreign Policy Since 1938 (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 97-98.

(28.) See Gaddis. "The Strategy of Containment." p. 35

(29.) See John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (New York and London: Columbia University Press. 1972). p. 303.

(30.) Quoted in Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, p. 42.

(31.) Ibid., pp. 35-36 and Gaddis, "The Strategy of Containment," p. 34.

(32.) NSC-68, "United States Objectives and Programs for National Security," April 14, 1950, classified in Etzold/Gaddis, op. cit., pp. 385-442: p. 384-385, 387, 389 and 442 [hereafter cited NSC-68].

(33.) Ibid., pp. 386-387, 393 and 394.

(34.) Ibid., pp. 387, 397-401, 415 and 438.

(35.) Ibid., p 413.

(36.) Ibid., pp. 386, 389-390, 392, 401, 412 and 441-442.

(37.) Ibid., pp. 401-402 and 439-440.

(38.) Ibid., pp. 389-390 and 441-442.

(39.) Ibid., pp. 401, 422, 440 and 442.

(40.) Ibid. p. 402.

(41.) Ibid. pp. 416-418 and 438-440.

(42.) Ibid., pp. 392, 417, 418 and 423-426

(43.) Ibid., pp. 402 and 442.

(44.) Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 70.

(45.) Paul Nitze "The Development of NSC-68," International Security, 4, No. 4 (Spring 1980), pp. 170-176: p. 172. Acheson believed that "the threat to Western Europe [was] singularly like that which Islam had posed centuries before, with its combination of ideological zeal and fighting power." Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, p. 376.

(46.) See Jerry Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis (London: Pluto Press, 1983), pp. 29-30.

(47.) See Michael Cox, "Western Intelligence, the Soviet Threat and NSC-68: A Reply to Beatrice Heuser," Review of International Studies, 18, No. 1 (January 1992), pp. 75-83: p. 77; by the same author, "From the Truman Doctrine to the Second Superpower Detente: The Rise and Fall of the Cold War," pp. 24-25; Patterson, Meeting the Communist Threat. From Truman to Reagan, p. 45.

(48.) See Cox, "Western Intelligence, the Soviet Threat and NSC-68: A Reply to Beatrice Heuser," p. 82.

(49.) See Beatrice Heuser, "NSC-68 and the Soviet Threat: A New Perspective on Western Threat Perception and Policy Making," Review of International Studies, 17, No. 1 (January 1991), pp. 17-40; by the same author, "A Rejoinder to Michael Cox," Review of International Studies, 18, No. 1 (January 1992), pp. 85-86. For critique, see Cox (1992), op. cit.

(50.) See Nitze, "The Development of NSC-68," p. 173.

(51.) See David Alan Rosenberg, "American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision," Journal of American History, 66, No. 1 (June 1979), pp. 62-87: pp. 63-64, 78 and 85-87.

(52.) See David Alan Rosenberg, "The Origins of Overkill. Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960," International Security, 7, No. 4 (Spring 1983), pp. 3-72; Samuel F. Wells, "The Origins of Massive Retaliation," Political Science Quarterly, 96, No. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 31-53.

(53.) See John Lewis Gaddis, "NSC-68 and the Problem of Ends and Means," International Security, 4, No. 4 (Spring 1980), pp. 164-170: p. 168; Gaddis, Strategies of Containment. A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, p. 106; Patterson, Meeting the Communist Threat. Truman to Reagan, p. 53; Cox, "Western Intelligence, the Soviet Threat and NSC-68: A reply to Beatrice Heuser, pp. 81-83.

(54.) See Heuser, "NSC-68 and the Soviet Threat: A New Perspective on Western Threat Perception and Policy Making," p. 40.

(55.) Nitze, The Development of NSC-68, p. 170.

(56.) Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis, p. 26. According to Combs, NSC-68 endorsed the globalization and militarization of containment. See Jerald A. Combs, "The Compromise That Never Was: George Kennan, Paul Nitze, and the Issue of Conventional Deterrence in Europe, 1949-1952," Diplomatic History, 15, No. 3 (Summer 1991), pp. 347-382: pp. 361-363. For discussion of the impact of NSC-68 upon US foreign policy after 1950, see Ernest R. May, "The Cold War," in Joseph Nye (ed.), The Making of America's Soviet Policy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 209-234: pp. 210ff.; Kegley, American Foreign Policy. Patterns and Process, pp. 47 and 58-59; Seyom Brown, The Faces of Power. Constancy and Change in United States Foreign Policy From Truman to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), pp. 50ff., Michael Cox, "Requiem for a Cold War Critic: The Rise and Fall of George F. Kennan, 1946-1950," Irish Slavonic Studies No. 11 (1991), pp. 1-35: pp. 22ff.; Nathan/Oliver, United Stares Foreign Policy and World Order, pp. 115ff.; Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, pp. 71ff. Heuser, "NSC-68 and the Soviet Threat: A New Perspective on Western Threat Perception and Policy Making," pp. 38ff.; Patterson, Meeting the Communist Threat. From Truman to Reagan, p. 53.

(57.) Paul Y. Hammond, "NSC-68: Prologue to Rearmament," in Walter Schilling (et al.), Strategy, Politics and Defence Budgets (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1962), pp. 274-326: p. 312.

(58.) See Joseph Nye, "Soft Power," Foreign Policy, No. 80 (Fall 1990), pp. 153-171: passim, but especially p. 166; by the same author, "The Changing Nature of World Power," Political Science Quarterly, 105, No. 2 (Summer 1990), pp. 177-192: passim, but especially 181-182.

(59.) See G. John Ikenberry and Charles A. Kupchan, "Socialization and Hegemonic Power," International Organization, 44, No. 3 (Summer 1990), pp. 283-215: passim, but especially 282-285.

(60.) NSC-68, p. 412.

(61.) See, representatively among others, Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), G. John Ikenberry, "A World Economy Restored: Experts Consensus and the Anglo-American Postwar Settlement," International Organization, 46, No. 1 (Winter 1992), pp. 289-321, Susan Strange, "The Persistent Myth of Lost Hegemony," International Organization, 41 No. 4 (Autumn 1987), pp. 551-574, Bruce Russet, "The Mysterious Case of Vanishing Hegemony; or Is Mark Twain Really Dead," International Organization, 39, No 2 (Span" 1985), pp. 207-231; Isabelle Grunberg, "Exploring the Myth of Hegemonic Stability," International Organization, 44, No. 4 (Autumn 1990), pp. 431-476.

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