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George F. Kennan was the chief architect of the policy of containment and one of the most influential figures of the Cold War. Trained as a diplomat, Kennan began his career in Moscow in 1933. He served there off and on for the next three decades. In Moscow in 1946, he drafted his famous "Long Telegram," a document that sounded the alarm over Soviet expansionism and became a prescient warning about the coming Cold War. He was interviewed for the "Cold War" series in May and June of 1996.
On being dispatched by FDR to open diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933:
One has to remember that we had been, I think for 16 years, without any representation in Russia. No relations between the two governments. And FDR was the one who decided to try to break that logjam and get through.
I just had to guess at his motives, but one of the main ones was that he was worried about Japanese incursions into China. And he hoped that by [establishing relations] we could enlist the help of the Russians against Japanese operations on the mainland. The Japanese, you remember, were very far advanced at that time into China: they had occupied a large part of it. And that's the one motive which I think has not been brought out so much historically.
On FDR and Stalin:
President Franklin Roosevelt rarely betrayed all of his reasons for doing anything to other people. I think that his hopes about Russia were largely unrealistic during the wartime period. I don't think FDR was capable of conceiving of a man of such profound iniquity, coupled with enormous strategic cleverness, as Stalin. He had never met such a creature. And Stalin was an excellent actor, and when he did meet with leading people at these various conferences, he was magnificent: quiet, affable, reasonable. He sent them all away thinking, "This really is a great leader." And yes, but behind that there lay something entirely different.
Charles Bohlen, my colleague who succeeded me as ambassador there, was present at the Yalta and the Potsdam conferences. He told me that he saw only on one or two occasions when the assistants to Stalin had said or done something of which he didn't approve, when he turned on them and then the yellow eyes lit up -- you suddenly realized what sort of an animal you had by the tail there.
He was very controlled, very polite. He got up from the table and shook hands with his guests, invited them to sit down, listened very patiently to what they had said and often responded outwardly quite reasonably to it.
You must remember one thing, that Stalin was distrustful, in a pathological way, of anyone who professed friendship or fidelity to him. Those abnormal reactions did not affect the foreign statesmen who came to see him. They had never said that they were partisans of his, and then he couldn't punish them anyway. So he treated them in quite a different way than he did his own people, and some of them fell for this and they were really influenced by it; and I think a number of people came out saying, "Well, this is quite a reasonable man."
On how the Cold War affected Stalin's domestic agenda:
Stalin felt that in order to get public support for the things he was doing -- which were very harsh policies -- he had to convince a great many of the people, the common people and the party members, that Russia was confronted with a conspiracy on the part of the major capitalist powers: especially England, but Germany too. That they were confronted with efforts by these people to undermine the Soviet government by espionage, by trying to paralyze Russian industry through sabotage, things of that sort. There wasn't any truth in this, but he didn't care: he saw the safety of his own regime being endangered if he could not make people believe that Russia was a threatened country.
And so he did conduct these various trials: the Shakhty trial, the trial of the German engineers, the one in which the British appeared as the danger spot. And in doing this, he was deliberately sacrificing, to some extent, the possibility of good relations with these countries, because they were furious about this. This was not compatible with the idea of agreeable diplomatic relations.
On the 1937 Soviet purge trials:
I attended only one of the three trials. I realized after attending this one and looking over the record which they put out of the three trials, that in these three trials Stalin tried ... to get rid of the people within his own movement who he felt were secretly opposing him.
I had enough experience in Russia to know what must have been happening to these men [at the purge trials] who were placed on the dock. I could see them there, and their pale faces, their twitching lips, their evasive eyes. These were the faces of men who had been, if not tortured, then terrified in many ways, and often by threats to take it out on their families if they didn't confess. But they had been through hell, and they knew that these were likely to be their last hours. They were indeed: The same men that we saw standing up there, by the time the darkness fell they were no longer in this world.
It was a terrible spectacle. To any of us who knew Russia, we knew that this was a whole contrived event. This was not the trial. The trial had gone on behind the scenes, in party circles and in police circles long before these people appeared on the docket. It is regrettable that the other foreign advisers there -- foreign visitors who were invited to that trial -- that not all of them even understood this.
On the Soviet slide into Stalinist terror:
It wasn't the [Kirov] murder alone; the murder was a response to something that happened, I believe, in the party gathering that took place in the late summer, I believe, of 1934, in which Stalin was made to realize that there was a real chance of his being voted out of office by the Central Committee. And he, being the brilliant tactician that he was, met this head on, when he realized what was going on and said in effect to them: "Well, you know of course there are people who think it's time that I left. And if that's the view of the body here, why I'd be happy to consider that." Well, he threw terror into all these people because every one of them realized that if he alone got up and said, "I think we should take Stalin at his word and let him go," and the others didn't support him, it would mean his head. So Stalin rode out this, but he didn't get over the shock of it.
On U.S. Soviet policy during World War II:
These years had been a strain for me nearly all the way through, because I watched our government making concession after concession to the Soviet government for wartime reasons, largely because the military said, "Well, we don't care, promise them anything, do anything you can to please them. ..." The military were fearful that Stalin would make a separate agreement with Hitler. I don't think that was a very realistic fear and I didn't have this [view] at all.
But in any case, in obedience to that injunction, we did behave in what I thought was an undignified, ingratiating way toward Stalin and toward the whole Soviet bureaucracy.
On his famous "long telegram" warning about Soviet intransigence:
Washington [had] asked [me], "How do you explain the motivation of the Soviet government here?" Well, then I had to go right back to page one and to try to tell them things that I felt they'd forgotten during the war. This all hangs together with this whole question that this was the same group of people who had dealt with Hitler, had tried to deal with Hitler at our expense, and never had changed their views about us.
I was sometimes surprised and shocked at the enthusiasm with which this telegram was received and the things that I had to say generally -- not just in the telegram -- were received in Washington. And I realize there was a real danger there. I'm sorry that in the telegram I did not more emphasize that this did not mean that we would have to have a war with Russia, but we would have to find a way of dealing with them which was quite different from that which had been going on.
On whether there was ever a possibility of dealing with Stalin:
We know today, of course, a great deal more than we knew at that time about Stalin, and we know now how deeply defensively minded he was. He was a very cautious man, and one of the great points of disagreement, I think, between myself and the whole American right-wing and militaristic part of our political spectrum was over this fact, because they viewed him as committed to military aggression.
I think this was a very serious and inexcusable error of policy, of thinking, on the part of people in our government. For goodness sake, at that time, Russia was a ruined country, about half of it had been destroyed by the Germans; everything: buildings, railways, highways, everything. They were in no position to fight a new war, nor did they want to. And people have never realized that Stalin was a smart enough man to know that merely to occupy territory was not the end of your problem: it was only the beginning, that you had to look at the long-term.
I can remember one of our generals saying to me right after the war, "Well, you must understand that we're so weak the Russians could walk to the Channel in five or six days." And [he] thought that the Russians wanted to do that. Stalin didn't want to do this. He knew that it would bring another 40 million Germans under his authority, [and] he didn't have the people to handle the administrative tasks that this would mean.
On why the United States viewed the Soviet Union as an enemy after World War II:
We had accustomed ourselves, through our wartime experience, to having a great enemy before us who had to be considered capable and desirous of doing everything that was evil and bad for us. And as our attention shifted then from Hitler's Germany to what was now the other greatest military power in Europe, we began to attach these sort of extremist views to Russia, too.
We like to have our enemies in the singular, our friends, if you will, multiple. But the enemy must always be a center, he must be totally evil, he must wish all the terrible things that could happen to us -- whether [that] made sense from his standpoint or not. ... Carrying wartime extremisms into a period which was nominally one of peace ... is one of the great fundamental causes of the Cold War.
On the end of the Cold War:
I think historical forces were a greater faction in the [end of] the Cold War than were the actions of any individuals. But if you have to find two individuals who contributed greatly to this, I would put first of all Gorbachev... but also Ronald Reagan, who was, in his own inimitable way, probably not even quite aware of what he was really doing! He did what few other people would have been able to do in breaking this logjam.
On whether he feels satisfied in the success of the policy of containment, of which he was one of the principal architects:
Yes, I do, because if the alternative was to have a great military conflagration, I could see no good coming out of this. Regardless of who considered himself to be the victor. You must remember my view of warfare: that everybody is a defeated power with modern warfare, with modern weapons. I don't know any more to say about that. My thoughts about containment were of course distorted by the people who understood it and pursued it exclusively as a military concept; and I think that that, as much as any other cause, led to [the] 40 years of unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process of the Cold War.