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date: 31 March 2020

Abstract and Keywords

George Kennan (1904–2005) was one of the most distinguished American diplomats of the twentieth century, and his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947) is one of the most influential documents in American diplomatic history. As chargé d’affaires in the American embassy in Moscow, he was singularly well placed to observe and assess the Soviet leadership, particularly because he had served in a variety of foreign service positions in Europe since 1927. From 1947 to 1950, he worked in the State Department in high-level planning and advisory roles. He was ambassador to Moscow briefly in 1952. It is hard to overestimate his impact on American Cold War foreign policy. Possessed of a unique combination of knowledge of Russian history, the ability to synthesize and communicate insights based on that knowledge, and the authority within the foreign policy community of the United States to ensure that his opinions would be heard and heeded, Kennan left a deep imprint on America’s view of the Soviet Union.

In “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan elaborated on the ideas that he had addressed in his famous “long telegram” of February 1946. This had come just six months after the surrender of Japan had marked the effective end of World War II. The main purpose of both of Kennan’s documents was to present the essential elements of the Russo-Soviet historical experience, worldview, and political system in order that the United States could formulate effective, well-grounded policies consistent with its own traditions, experiences, and values. His conclusions provided the framework for a set of policies that have become known as “containment,” which shaped American cold war strategy for at least four decades and articulated America’s self-perception in its struggle against the forces of Communism.

X [George F. Kennan], “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs 25 (July 1947): 566–78, 580–82.

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