Kennan, Lippmann, Burnham, and the Great Strategy Debate in the Early Cold War Years
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, in response to repeated Soviet encroachments in the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran, Central Europe, and the Far East, the United States gradually formulated and implemented the policy of containment that guided U.S. national security policy throughout much of the Cold War. Containment received its most authoritative exposition in George F. Kennan’s article in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan, who was then the State Department’s Director of the Policy Planning Staff, sought in the article to explain the motives and goals of Soviet leaders, portray the nature of the Soviet threat to the West, and suggest the most prudent and effective policies to counter that threat.
Kennan’s article in Foreign Affairs received widespread praise among policymakers in Washington, but also generated critical responses from influential observers of U.S. foreign policy, including most prominently Walter Lippmann and James Burnham. Lippmann, who was then perhaps the most influential journalist in the country, responded with twelve newspaper columns that dissected Kennan’s article and proposed alternative policies. Those columns were soon collected into a book entitled The Cold War. Burnham, who had worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and later as a consultant for the new Central Intelligence Agency, and who had already authored two books on the Cold War, wrote a book in 1952 entitled Containment or Liberation?, which identified the weaknesses of containment as set forth in Kennan’s article, and proposed a detailed alternative policy which Burnham called “liberation.”
Thus, in the early stages of the post-World War II struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, a great theoretical debate about American grand strategy emerged and was manifest in the aforementioned writings of Kennan, Lippmann, and Burnham. What follows is a brief summary of the lives and careers of Kennan, Lippmann, and Burnham, an analysis of the three works noted above, and a discussion of how they shaped the debate over U.S. grand strategy throughout much of the forty-five-year Cold War struggle.
Kennan, perhaps the best known of the three, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1904. He joined the Foreign Service in 1926, being successively posted to Geneva, Hamburg, Berlin, Tallinn, Riga, Berlin again, and Riga again in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1933, after the United States formally recognized the Soviet government, Kennan was brought to Moscow by Ambassador William Bullitt and worked at the U.S. Embassy there until 1937. After a brief stint in the State Department in Washington in 1937-38, Kennan was assigned to Prague at the height of the Czech crisis. As war clouds gathered over Europe, he was sent to Berlin, and after Hitler declared war on the United States, Kennan and other Embassy staffers were interned for six months at a hotel in Bad Nauheim, Germany.
In February 1946, Kennan wrote a five-thousand-word telegram, known thereafter as the “Long Telegram,” that warned U.S. policymakers about Soviet expansionist tendencies and urged resistance to Soviet aggression. A year later, he was named by Secretary of State George Marshall as Director of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State. It was while serving in that position that Kennan wrote “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” which appeared in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” Not long after the article appeared, word leaked to the Washington press corps that Kennan was its author.
Kennan played a major role in devising the Marshall Plan, but his influence over policy diminished thereafter. When Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, incoming Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had publicly criticized containment, informed Kennan that he would not be kept on at the State Department. Kennan returned to the Institute of Advanced Study where he researched, wrote, and lectured about history and foreign policy, work interrupted only by a brief stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the Kennedy Administration. His books included Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, Russia Leaves the War, The Decision to Intervene, The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order, and The Fateful Alliance.
In all, Kennan wrote twenty books, hundreds of articles and essays, and kept a voluminous diary (portions of which were recently published in book form), and continued to comment on the Cold War and post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy almost until the day he died in 2005 at age 101.
Lippmann was born in New York City in 1889. He attended Harvard University and graduated in 1910 in a class that included John Reed and T. S. Eliot. He began writing articles for socialist journals, including the International and Masses. In 1913, he wrote his first book, A Preface to Politics, which brought him to the attention of former President Theodore Roosevelt and writer Herbert Croly, who was starting a new journal of opinion called The New Republic. The next year, Lippmann wrote his second book, Drift and Mastery, and joined the staff of The New Republic.
The outbreak of the First World War turned Lippmann’s attention overseas. He wrote articles on the world crisis and in 1915 published a book entitled The Stakes of Diplomacy, which analyzed European power rivalries and the nature of imperialism, and suggested that the United States could not remain isolationist. In subsequent articles in The New Republic, Lippmann urged the formation of an Anglo-American alliance to promote world stability.
During the 1916 election, Lippmann strongly supported President Wilson, even writing campaign speeches for the president. After Wilson was reelected, Lippmann personally urged the president to enter the war on the side of Britain and France, and wrote editorials in The New Republic promoting U.S. intervention in the war.
After Congress declared war on Germany, Lippmann became an assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and was assigned to work on war propaganda and a secret committee to plan for a postwar peace. A document produced by Lippmann and others on the secret committee was subsequently transformed by Wilson into the “Fourteen Points.”
After the war, Lippmann criticized the terms of the Versailles Treaty, left The New Republic, and began writing editorials for the World, which gave him a much wider popular audience. In 1920s, he wrote three more books, Public Opinion, The Phantom Public, and A Preface to Morals.
In the 1930s, Lippmann left the World and signed on to the editorial staff of the New York Herald Tribune, where he wrote a regular column entitled “Today and Tomorrow” until 1967. Lippmann initially supported Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, but gradually became a fierce critic of the president and his domestic policies. In 1937, he authored a book entitled The Good Society, a scathing critique of government planning and collectivism, and a defense of economic and individual liberty.
During the Second World War, Lippmann wrote two books, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic and U.S. War Aims, both calling for the United States to conduct a hardheaded, realistic foreign policy based on geopolitical realities in the postwar world. When George Kennan’s article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” appeared in July 1947, Lippmann responded with a series of twelve columns that were subsequently collected in The Cold War.
Lippmann continued towrite his “Today and Tomorrow” column during the 1950s and most of the 1960s. He later wrote a regular column for Newsweek until January 1971. Three years later, he died at the age of 85.
Burnham was born in Chicago in 1905. Like Kennan, he studied at Princeton University in the 1920s where he graduated first in his class. Burnham did post-graduate work at Balliol College at Oxford and subsequently joined the faculty of New York University, where he taught until the early 1950s. With the onset of the Great Depression, Burnham turned to Marxism for solutions and became a founder and leading theoretician of the Socialist Worker’s Party which looked to Soviet exile Leon Trotsky for political inspiration. After the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, Burnham broke with the international communist movement and began writing for Partisan Review, a leading journal of the non-communist Left. In 1941, he wrote The Managerial Revolution, a book that predicted that a “new class” of rulers—the managers—would replace communists and capitalists in many parts of the industrialized world. In that book, Burnham also envisioned a post-World War II struggle between superpowers based in key geographic regions containing sufficient population and industrial power. Two years later, Burnham wrote The Machiavellians, a study—based on the writings of Machiavelli, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Georges Sorel, and Gaetano Mosca—of how political leaders gain and wield power.
During the war, Burnham worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where in the spring of 1944 he wrote an analysis of Soviet postwar goals that foreshadowed the emerging Cold War conflict. In January 1945, he wrote an essay in Partisan Review entitled “Lenin’s Heir,” which warned that Stalin, from his control of what the great British geographer Halford Mackinder called the “Heartland,” sought to dominate the Eurasian landmass and thereby establish a geopolitical base for a world empire.
In 1947, Burnham wrote The Struggle for the World, which was published the same week that President Truman announced the aid package to Greece and Turkey known as the “Truman Doctrine.” In the Struggle for the World, Burnham, using Mackinder’s geopolitical concepts, analyzed the Soviet threat and called upon U.S. policymakers to wage political warfare against the Soviet empire. Two years later, he wrote a sequel to The Struggle for the World entitled The Coming Defeat of Communism, which updated and refined the analysis and argument of the earlier book.
In the early 1950s, Burnham resigned from the masthead of Partisan Review over the issue of how to deal with domestic communism and the political firestorm created by congressional investigations of communist infiltration of the U.S. government during and after the Second World War. In 1954, he wrote a book about that subject entitled The Web of Subversion. He began writing for The American Mercury and The Freeman, and in 1955 found a permanent home as a writer and editor for William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. There, for the next twenty-three years, he wrote a column on the Cold War. He also wrote two more books: Congress and the American Tradition (1959), a brilliant analysis of the intellectual and structural foundations of the U.S. political system and Congress’ essential role in that system; and Suicide of the West (1964), a devastating critique of modern American liberalism.
Burnham continued to write for National Review but suffered a series of strokes in the late 1970s and early 1980s that effectively ended his writing career. He died in 1987 at the age of 82.
There were, to be sure, other observers and foreign policy theorists who contributed to the debate about U.S. grand strategy in the early Cold War years. Kennan, Lippmann, and Burnham and the their respective writings—“The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” The Cold War, and Containment or Liberation?—stand apart, however, for their erudition, insight, and persuasiveness in proposing alternative policies to meet Stalin’s challenge to the West.
Kennan, in his Foreign Affairs article, theorized that what he called the “political personality of Soviet power” resulted from a combination of Marxist-Leninist ideology and Russian history. He acknowledged the difficulty in trying to trace the interaction of those two forces on Soviet behavior, but concluded that “the attempt must be made if that conduct is to be understood and effectively countered.”
Communist ideology taught Soviet rulers that conflict between the socialist and capitalist powers was inevitable. Their ideology “taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty to overthrow political forces beyond their borders.” The menace of capitalism abroad, he explained, justified “the retention of the dictatorship” in Russia. In Stalin’s worldview, “all internal opposition forces in Russia … [are] agents of foreign forces of reaction antagonistic to Soviet power.” “[T]he pursuit of unlimited authority domestically,” wrote Kennan, “accompanied by the cultivation of the semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility, has gone far to shape the actual machinery of Soviet power as we know it today.”
What that meant, according to Kennan, was that “there can never be on Moscow’s side any sincere assumption of a community of aims between the Soviet Union and powers which are regarded as capitalism.” Soviet leaders may sometimes offer tactical accommodations to the capitalist powers, but the fundamental antagonism will remain “until the internal nature of Soviet power is changed.”
Kennan hastened to point out that this did not mean that the Soviets will “embark upon a do-or-die program to overthrow our society by a given date.” Soviet leaders are not in a hurry to deliver “the final coup de grace.” “Thus,” he concluded, “the Kremlin has no compunction about retreating in the face of superior force.” Kennan explained further:
Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them. The main thing is that there should always be pressure, increasing constant pressure, toward the desired goal.
Soviet Russia, he wrote, “can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only by intelligent long-range policies …”
Therefore, Kennan famously opined, “it is clear that 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.” He cautioned, however, that such a policy should avoid “threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness.’” The rulers in the Kremlin, he continued, like all governments, are subject to “considerations of prestige” and can be placed “by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where [they] cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by … realism.”
In perhaps the most quoted passage of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan wrote that “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 …” He suggested that if the West can find “the strength and resourcefulness to contain Soviet power over a period of ten to fifteen years,” the economic and political vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the Soviet system could result in disunity among the Party elite, changing Soviet Russia overnight “from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.” There is a strong possibility, he wrote, “that Soviet power … bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.”
Soviet Russia, he continued, is far weaker than the Western world and “may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential.” Containment, Kennan explained, is not limited to “holding the line and hoping for the best.” “It is entirely possible,” he continued, “for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international Communist movement …”
A policy of “firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world,” he concluded, will “increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate,” and “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
Walter Lippmann in The Cold War began by praising Kennan’s article as “manifestly the work of a man who had observed the Soviet regime closely with a trained eye and educated mind …” Lippmann agreed with Kennan that “Soviet power will expand unless it is prevented from expanding because it is confronted with power, primarily American power, that it must respect.” It was Kennan’s proposed “strategical conception and plan” that Lippmann believed was “fundamentally unsound” and would cause the United States to “squander our substance and our prestige.”
The United States, Lippmann argued, should not base its grand strategy on Kennan’s optimistic assumption that Soviet power is “inherently weak and impermanent.” Lippmann did not discount the possibility that Kennan was right, but a sound grand strategy, he wrote, should be based on worst-case scenarios, not “wishful thinking.”
Kennan’s wishful thinking, Lippmann wrote, was not limited to his analysis of Soviet power but also applied to his estimate of America’s ability to implement and execute his proposed policy of containment. “[T]here are weighty reasons for thinking,” Lippmann explained, “that the kind of strength we have and the kind of resourcefulness we are capable of showing are peculiarly unsuited to operating a policy of containment.” Kennan’s proposed policy, he continued, “is not suited to the American system of government” nor to the American economy. The United States, unlike the Soviet Union, does not have a planned economy directed by government officials. Kennan is mistaken, Lippmann wrote, if he thinks that he and his State Department planners can direct a free economy to conduct political and diplomatic warfare “at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points” against a planned, centrally directed economy. Kennan is “proposing to meet the Soviet challenge on the ground which is most favorable to the Soviets, and with the very instruments, procedures, and weapons in which they have a manifest superiority.”
Lippmann called Kennan’s proposed policy a “strategic monstrosity.” “The Eurasian continent,” he explained, “is a big place, and the military power of the United States, though it is very great, has certain limitations which must be borne in mind if it is to be used effectively.” We are an island power, he continued, and we command the oceans with our powerful navy, but our ability to project unalterable counter-force in the interior of the Eurasian continent at a series of shifting geographical points is limited. U.S. military power, according to Lippmann, “is peculiarly unsuited to a policy of containment” and is not designed to hold positions indefinitely. “It is not designed for, or adapted to,” he wrote, “a strategy of containing, waiting, countering, blocking, with no more specific objective than the eventual ‘frustration’ of the opponent.” Lippmann predicted that Americans would likely become frustrated by containment long before the Soviet regime would.
Lippmann next pointed out that the geographical borderland in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that containment would apply to includes Czechs, Poles, Finns, Greeks, Austrians, Chinese, Afghans, Kurds, Iranians, Turks, and others, including “disunited, feeble, and immature states.” It would be, he wrote, impossibly difficult to organize a coalition of such states to counter Soviet encroachments. “[T]his borderland in Europe and Asia,” he continued, “around the perimeter of the Soviet Union is not a place where [Kennan’s] ‘unassailable barriers’ can be erected.”
Our natural allies, Lippmann wrote, are the nations of the Atlantic community—“the nations of western Europe and of the Americas.” We are bound to these nations, he explained, by “military and political geography, the common traditions of western Christendom, and … economic, political, legal, and moral institutions which … have a common origin and have been shaped by much the same historicexperience.” This is where U.S. vital interests lie and where the U.S. should devote its limited resources. Concentrating our effort and resources on the geographical borderlands on the periphery of the Soviet Union, as Kennan’s policy sugested, will only result in “dissolving the natural alliance of the Atlantic community” because the nations of Western Europe “realize … that the policy of containment, in the hope that the Soviet power will collapse by frustration, cannot be enforced and cannot be administered successfully, and that it must fail.” The result of Kennan’s proposed policy, Lippmann concluded, will be that “Russia will burst through the barriers which are supposed to contain her, and all Europe will be at her mercy, or at some point and at some time, the diplomatic war will become a full-scale shooting war.”
The heart of the strategic problem confronting the world, Lippmann contended, was not Marxist-Leninist ideology but rather the presence of the Red Army in Central Europe. Kennan’s proposed policy did nothing to eliminate that problem; indeed, it works to perpetuate it. Europe will never be independent until U.S., British, and Soviet military forces are withdrawn from the continent and a different and more stable world balance of power is established. Soviet pressures in the Middle East and Asia, Lippmann wrote, are “secondary and subsidiary to the fact that its armed forces are in the heart of Europe.” Therefore, he continued, it “is to the Red Army in Europe … and not to ideologies, elections, forms of government, to socialism, to communism, to free enterprise, that a correctly conceived and soundly planned policy should be directed.”
Lippmann’s policy alternative to containment, therefore, was to work toward an agreement or settlement between the occupying powers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to evacuate allof their military forces from the heart of Europe. “No state in eastern Europe,” Lippmann wrote, “can be independent of the Kremlin as long as the Red Army is within it and all around it. No state in western Europe is independent while it is in effect in the rear of this military frontier. The presence of these non-European armies in the continent of Europe perpetuates the division of Europe.” The key to such an agreement or settlement, he wrote, was a Germany “neutralized as between Russia and the west.”
A European settlement evacuating U.S., British, and Russian armies from the heart of Europe, not containment, would lead to an independent Europe and a more stable balance of power. “The communists will continue to be communists,” he concluded. “The Russians will continue to be Russians. But if the Red Army is in Russia, and not on the Elbe, the power of the Russian communists and the power of the Russian imperialists to realize their ambitions will have been decisively reduced.”
With our forces removed from Europe, the United States under Lippmann’s plan would effectively act as an offshore balancer, committing its power and influence to maintain the European balance of power in times of peace, and redress the balance of power in times of war.
James Burnham’s response to Kennan’s containment proposal, unlike Lippmann’s, was not immediate. Burnham, therefore, in writing Containment or Liberation? (which appeared in 1952), enjoyed the luxury of a few years’ time in which to directly take aim at Mr. X. He had, of course, written on the general topic of the Cold War at length in his two previous books, but it was in Containment or Liberation? that he endeavored to show that the policy of containment was inadequate to meet Stalin’s geopolitical challenge.
Burnham’s book is divided into three parts: an analysis of Kennan’s containment proposal; a discussion of the geopolitics underlying the U.S.-Soviet conflict; and a proposed alternative policy called “liberation.”
Burnham noted at the outset that since 1947 the foreign policy of the United States has been “the policy first systemized by George Kennan” in his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Kennan’s call in the article to oppose Soviet aggression, Burnham noted, came as a shock to many Americans who, Burnham claimed, “had been drugged by the social workers, fellow travelers, and Soviet agents who penetrated the public opinion industry, and assembled in Washington under the careless scepter of Franklin Roosevelt.” Americans wanted nothing more than to get along with our wartime Soviet ally, but Soviet actions near the end and after the war caused many Americans to “realize that the security of Western Europe and the United States itself was threatened.”
After quoting extensively from Kennan’s article, Burnham summarized its practical meaning. First, although “the international situation is rather bad, there is no emergency and no great rush” to rearm. Second, containment commits the United States to counter Soviet efforts to expand beyond their 1947 borders, but it “does not indicate what to do when a thrust is carried out” by Soviet proxies or “proceeds by political rather then territorial stages.” Third, containment is wholly defensive and reactive; it “excludes and prohibits offensive moves on the part of the United States which would carry across the boundaries of the Soviet sphere …” Fourth, containment eschews serious political warfare against the Soviet Union. It is essentially a strategy of reacting and countering Soviet offensive moves and waiting for the Soviet political system to change or collapse.
For Burnham, the defensive nature of containment was its greatest flaw. By excluding offensive political warfare within the Soviet sphere, containment “means that the Soviet leadership is given a free hand to complete the consolidation of the newly conquered regions,and to promote their economic, social, and political integration into the Soviet system.” Containment signals to Soviet leaders that if they “move into a new territory outside the recognized boundaries of [their] sphere … we will resist, even by arms if necessary.” But if the Soviets “stay at home and cultivate [their] posted acres, … we will not interfere in any way.…” If they “[o]rganize the industry and manpower of [their] great sphere into a colossal war-making machine … [s]o long as [they] keep the Red Army on [their] side of the line, we will neither interfere nor intervene.”
Kennan’s notion or hope that a defensive U.S. strategy would in ten to fifteen years result in the break-up or gradual mellowing of the Soviet system was, Burnham wrote, “the bureaucratic verbalization of a policy of drift. Its inner law is: let history do it. We haven’t got the intelligence, courage, and determination to grapple with the Soviet problem head on. Let’s duck the responsibility … and slip the ball to old mother history.”
One reason why containment was an inadequate response to the Soviet threat, Burnham explained, was that Kennan and other supporters of containment erroneously viewed the Soviet Union as a traditional nation-state, when in fact it is the “headquarters and central base of the world communist enterprise” that “fuses the characteristics of a secular religion, a new kind of army, and a world conspiracy.” (Burnham chided Kennan for using the terms Soviet and Russian interchangeably throughout his article). Containment cannot stop a revolutionary enterprise that conducts a “double-pronged action against the non-communist nations.” “From within,” Burnham explained, the Soviets and their communist allies, fellow travelers, dupes, and front organizations “corrode the internal structure of the [target] nation by propaganda, infiltration, and subversion.” “From without,” he continued, “the Soviet state applies a dizzying mixture of pressure and cajolement, promises and threats, and at the same time secretly feeds and directs the internal subversive apparatus.”
Containment, according to Burnham, would have two additional negative consequences for U.S. security. First, by “renouncing offensive action, containment abandons the satellite (captive) nations to Moscow.” The effect of this abandonment, both inside the Kremlin and within the satellite nations, “helps create a political climate favorable to the consolidation of Moscow’s control over the satellites and their integration into the Soviet system.”
Second, by allowing the consolidation, development, and integration of “the present Soviet sphere as a strategic unit,”—a strategic unit that at the time included the Chinese mainland—containment would enable the Soviet Union to effectively control and organize a geographical region that geopoliticans identified as the “Heartland” of the Eurasian landmass, which could serve as the strategic base of a world empire. Therefore, if “the communists succeed in consolidating what they have already conquered, then their complete world victory is certain.”
In the second part of Containment or Liberation?, Burnham used classical geopolitical concepts to further expose the weaknesses of containment and to support his advocacy of a more offensive policy of “liberation.”
The Soviet Union, Burnham noted, occupies the central strategic “Heartland” of the Eurasian landmass and is, therefore, inaccessible to sea power. The Soviet position enables it to thrust toward Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Asiatic coastlands. “A balance of power does not now exist on the Eurasian continent,” Burnham wrote. Instead, “there is domination or potential domination by the single Soviet system. That this is true becomes obvious if we assume the power influence of the United States to be withdrawn from Eurasia.” Were that to happen, he continued, “[a]t once, probably without fighting, all of the Eurasian nations still outside of the Soviet Empire would have to submit to Soviet control.”
The United States, Burnham wrote, is an island “lying off the shores of the great Eurasian land mass.” It has the same geopolitical relationship to Eurasia that Great Britain had to Europe. “If equilibrium could be reached in Eurasia, Burnham explained, “then America could control at will the inclination of the over-all world balance.” The policy of containment, however, will not achieve that geopolitical equilibrium because the “Soviet Empire is already so big … [and] its resources, population, and strategic position” are such as to “over-balance not only Western Europe but all the rest of uncommunized Eurasia …” “At most,” Burnham wrote, “containment can be a temporary expedient, a transition. As the transition is completed, containment must move toward … liberation.”
Burnham’s proposed policy of liberation, unlike containment, targeted the Soviet sphere as it existed in 1951, and called upon the United States to conduct offensive political warfare against the Soviet Empire. The policy had seven main elements: (1) a build-up of American land, sea, and air forces; (2) providing support to key allies in Western Europe and Asia; (3) a focus on the territories of Central and Eastern Europe; (4) exploiting Soviet economic weaknesses; (5) exploiting ethnic, religious, and national divisions and rivalries within the Soviet Empire; (6) a consistent diplomatic and propaganda offensive against the Soviet regime; and (7) the development and nurturing of resistance forces within Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union itself. The goal of liberation, Burnham wrote, was a “considerable breakup of the Soviet imperial system … [which] is a minimum condition for our own survival.”
The strategic debate between Kennan, Lippmann, and Burnham was intellectually stimulating, brilliantly argued, and, most important, consequential. The analyses and policy proposals in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” The Cold War and Containment or Liberation? affected the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the early Cold War years and beyond. Kennan’s policy of containment, much to his later chagrin, manifested itself in the formation of such global defense alliances as NATO, SEATO, and CENTO, the build-up of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces, the stationing abroad of sizeable U.S. military forces around the periphery of the Soviet Empire, and massive U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War. For the rest of his long life, Kennan repeatedly distanced himself from what he called an overly militaristic interpretation of his proposals in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” He decried the U.S. nuclear build-up and even publicly proposed a “no first use” policy despite our longtime commitment to our NATO allies to defend them with nuclear weapons if necessary. He was also highly critical of President Reagan’s confrontational approach to the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
Lippmann’s proposals for the neutralization of Germany, an independent Europe, and for the United States to act as an offshore balancer of Eurasia were repeatedly rejected during the Cold War. He was never able to convince Washington policymakers that removing U.S. forces from the continent of Europe while Soviet forces moved only a few hundred miles east would result in a more balanced and stable world. Lippmann, like Kennan, opposed U.S. intervention in the war in Southeast Asia because he viewed the region as peripheral, not vital, to U.S. national security. Ironically, Kennan in the course of distancing himself from his original conception in the X article, moved in the direction of Lippmann’s proposed policy. Today, with China on the rise in the Asia-Pacific region and Russia stirring-up trouble in Eastern Europe, some foreign policy thinkershave revived Lippmann’s concept of offshore balancer as the wisest choice for a United States in relative decline.
Burnham’s policy of liberation was put into effect, albeit in a limited capacity, during the early years of the Cold War in what was known as “Operation Rollback,” a series of covert actions designed to infiltrate and disrupt the Soviet Empire. Burnham was a consultant to the CIA at the time but it is not known whether he had any direct involvement in the operation. Ironically, George Kennan was directly involved in this scheme, which is perhaps why in the second volume of his memoirs he called Burnham’s proposed policy of liberation “persuasive.”
A shift in policy from containment to liberation or rollback, although publicly championed by the Eisenhower administration, never materialized as the Korean War ended in a stalemate, and the East German and Hungarian uprisings were forcibly put down by the Soviets without any interference by the United States. Our approach to the Vietnam War and the uprising in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s continued this pattern. Indeed, writing in National Review in the 1970s, Burnham attributed our defeat in Vietnam to the “self-imposed strategic prison” of containment.
Though Kennan’s policy of containment was more influential throughout most of the Cold War, it is arguable that Burnham’s offensive strategy, as manifested in the more confrontational approach of the Reagan administration during the 1980s, played an important role in the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Today’s policymakers, strategists, and foreign policy theorists can learn much from this great debate about how to best meet Stalin’s challenge to the West. Kennan, Lippmann, and Burnham approached the world situation realistically, unsentimentally, historically, geopolitically, and with a commitment to promoting and protecting America’s interests. Our country deserves no less from our contemporary writers and thinkers as we face the many global challenges of the twenty-first century.
Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.