The Kennan Tradition at NWC
Over sixty years ago at the National War College, in a corner office that is today still occupied by the College deputy commandant, the most important U.S. grand strategy of the twentieth century was brought to life in its first and most important public form. Because it was in that office that a still-obscure State Department officer, assigned to the College for seven months during 1946 and 1947, shaped and developed a report he had been asked to draft. The public version would eventually be entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."
It would be published in the journal Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X." The essay described in detail the character of Soviet power, grounded in the nature of the Russian nation. And it outlined a proposed Western response of continual containment of that Soviet power. "It will be clearly seen," the author argued, "that the 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, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence."
The author pointed to inherent weaknesses in the Soviet system and contended that "the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin"-and in fact that "Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay." The long-term U.S. goal, the writer contended, should be to "increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years," with the goal of causing change within the Soviet system-to "promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." Thus containment would lead to reform.
The essay's author was of course George Kennan (whose identity became publicly known shortly after its publication). The doctrine of containment to which he gave conceptual form would guide American foreign policy for the next half-century, and the "X" article essentially foretold the course of the Cold War. Kennan had been temporarily assigned to the War College faculty in 1946 by the State Department-a tradition that continues today in the College's State faculty members, many of senior ambassadorial rank. And although Kennan spent only seven months at the College, he was substantially influenced by the experience and the thinking and writing he did there, and left a significant legacy.
Kennan would write in his memoirs that, although the War College curriculum contained many excellent works on traditional strategy, everyone had the sense that they were embarking on a new strategic age-the nuclear age-and that "all of this, clearly, was going to have to be rethought." As it turned out, the opportunity to think and reflect provided by his year at the College turned out to be "enormously stimulating and interesting. I realize now," he wrote in the 1960s, "that it was at that time-in the background reading, in the attendance at lectures by distinguished outsiders, in the agonizing over my own lectures-that some of the ideas were conceived that have been basic to my views on American policy ever since."
The College was just coming into existence and experimenting with new methods of teaching and learning. "This was in itself exciting," Kennan wrote later. "But our possibilities were not limited to that. We could, through our activities, contribute in a way that no previously institution could to the thinking about problems of national policy that was going on all over Washington in that winter of transition and uncertainty." Kennan argued that for him the "seven months of residence and work at the War College, from September 1946 to May 1947, were the occasion for a veritable outpouring of literary and forensic effort.... I look back today with a slightly horrified wonder on the energies this frenzy reflected."
In the time Kennan spent at NWC, he wrote and delivered seventeen lectures and articles-a total of some eighty-five thousand carefully considered, frequently-redrafted words in thirty-five weeks, in between his other responsibilities. Kennan used these lectures in part to consider the role of military force in American foreign policy, and what he discovered concerned him. He came to two firm conclusions: That warfare would thenceforth have to remain limited, and that the United States should abandon any idea of using nuclear weapons in an offensive or unprovoked manner. From these principles he derived a "concept of the peacetime requirements of our armed force establishment" as well as wider notions of the role of force in world politics that would influence his thinking for decades.
Kennan found, as John Lewis Gaddis explains in his authoritative biography
, that the College provided a unique opportunity for military officers, Foreign Service officers, and other civilian government officials to come to know one another. "This in itself should avoid many of the political-military confusions of the last war," as Gaddis explains Kennan's thinking, "for then there had been no civilian official with 'the prestige and the guts' to challenge the military."
In his final lecture, Kennan told the students and faculty that his experience at the War College had "given me much more than many of you suspect." Gaddis argues that the importance lay in "floating ideas before bright people on a confidential basis without worrying about ... public critiques." For Kennan, the War College had been what it remains today: A place of intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas.
Today's leaders of the War College remind their students that they, like Kennan, have arrived at the College at a moment when well-established theories and assumptions of strategy must be rethought. Like him, the students confront a new era in warfare, and the requirement for U.S. leadership to deal with it. And like George Kennan, they are lucky enough to enjoy the opportunity of a year of reflection at this critical time to sharpen their ideas about strategy for the challenges ahead.