Kennan’s 'Measures Short of War' Applied to U.S.-China Cold War

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Before George F. Kennan was appointed Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 1947, he lectured at the National War College in Washington, D.C. The National War College had been established after World War II and was located on the grounds of an army post that became Ft. McNair, a short distance from policymakers in the nation’s capital. Kennan’s lectures predated the publication of his seminal “X” article in Foreign Affairs that explained the policy of containment, but he wrote that essay while lecturing and living at the college. Kennan had attained prominence in Washington as a result of the “Long Telegram” he dispatched from Moscow in February 1946.

The lectures at the National War College were attended by high ranking admirals and generals, members of Congress, and Truman administration cabinet members. Kennan lectured there from September 1946 to July 1947. He became director of the Policy Planning Staff in April 1947, so there was some overlap in these positions. Giles Harlow and George Maerz noted in their Introduction to a collection of the lectures that Kennan “became involved in the study of Clausewitz, Mackinder and . . . classical military strategists.” While at the War College, Kennan also became acquainted with some of the founders of nuclear strategy, such as Bernard Brodie.

In preparation for designing the curriculum at the National War College, Kennan read a book of essays edited by Brodie entitled The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, and Edward Mead Earle’s Makers of Modern Strategy (which included essays on Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, and Mackinderesque geopolitics). After reading Earle’s book, Kennan jotted down the following note: “Our task is to plan and execute our strategic dispositions in such a way as to compel Sov. Govt. either to accept combat under unfavorable conditions (which it will never do), or withdraw. In this way, we can contain Soviet power until Russians tire of the game.” Kennan’s best biographer John Lewis Gaddis noted that this was the first use by Kennan “of the verb that became associated with his name.”

Kennan’s lectures collected in Measures Short of War are relevant to today’s new Cold War between the United States and China.

Kennan began his first lecture by noting that the state of U.S.-Soviet relations stemmed from “the conflict of interests between great centers of power and ideology in this world.” The great powers utilize “measures short of war” to exert pressure to achieve their goals. Kennan rejected the idea that the Soviet totalitarian state would settle its affairs with us on the basis of international law, and he quoted Soviet sources to support his view. For totalitarian powers, “there are no rules of the game . . . They can do anything that they think is in their interests.” He then listed measures that communists are capable of taking: “persuasion, intimidation, deceit, corruption, penetration, subversion, horse-trading, bluffing, psychological pressure, economic pressure, seduction, blackmail, theft, fraud, rape, battle, murder, and sudden death.” Communist governments, Kennan continued, “are restrained by no moral inhibitions, by no domestic public opinion to speak of, and not even by serious considerations of consistency and intellectual dignity.” The communists’ choice “is limited by . . .their own estimate of the consequences to themselves.” What Kennan wrote then about Russian communists accurately describes the conduct of today’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Kennan then discussed the measures short of war that democratic states can use to resist totalitarian pressure: psychological (information warfare, propaganda); economic (sanctions, restraint of trade); political (alliances with like-minded nations); and diplomatic (severing or limiting diplomatic ties). For such measures to work, however, Kennan stated that it was essential for the United States and its allies to “keep up at all times a preponderance of strength in the world.” Kennan explained that this included military, political, economic, and moral strength–and most importantly, “our internal strength; the health and sanity of our own society.” What Kennan called the “root of our society” must be strong.

And that strength, including military strength, to be effective must include our “readiness to use it” when necessary. “There is nothing that can equal or replace strength in international relations,” Kennan said, . . . and the greater your strength, the less likely you are ever going to use it.”

The conflict with the Soviet Union, Kennan continued, necessitates the formulation and implementation of a “grand strategy.” Today, the U.S. conflict with China similarly requires formulating and implementing a grand strategy and internal cohesion within the United States.

Kennan’s second lecture focused on the structure and internal power in the Soviet Union. The key feature here was control by the Communist Party. The Party, he wrote, dominates the government apparatus, the military, labor unions, all organized groups, and the secret police. Kennan described its Leninist foundations. The Communist Party is, Kennan wrote, “a fanatically disciplined organization.” The totalitarian state, he noted further, “has in its possession modern weapons and is ruthlessly and consistently determined to use them if necessary.” Today’s CCP, under the tight control of President Xi Jinping, is Leninist to its core.

Kennan also explained that the Soviet regime also has roots in Russian culture and tradition. U.S. policymakers also must understand that the CCP has roots in China’s history and traditions–it is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Foreshadowing his containment paper, Kennan advised against trying to destroy the Soviet regime and recommended pursuing policies that would alter Soviet behavior.

In his next lecture, Kennan described Soviet diplomatic behavior and goals. He emphasized that the communist leadership was “impervious to all attempts to influence their conduct by personal cordiality or by appeals for individual sympathy and confidence.” The principal objective of the Soviet government, Kennan said, “is the relative increase in the power of the Soviet Union as compared with the power of the states abroad not under Soviet influence.” The Kremlin pursues this goal, Kennan explained, with “great fluidity and flexibility.” And their methods include deceit and dissimulation. They simultaneously look to strengthen their own power and weaken the power of their adversaries. Today’s CCP has the objective of replacing the United States as the leader of the global order and altering the nature of that world order to align with the CCP’s autocratic regime.

In his next lecture, Kennan discussed potential Soviet weaknesses that a consistent and firm U.S. policy could exploit. But he also noted our own weaknesses and internal divisions, which the Soviets would seek to exploit. That lecture was followed by a discussion of communist advances in East and Southeast Asia in the wake of the fall of Imperial Japan. Then, Kennan discussed the communist threat to Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East and noted in Mackinderesque language the larger threat of Soviet domination of Western Europe and much of the “Eurasian landmass.” No world power other than the United States was capable of containing Soviet power. That presented, Kennan said,

a tangible goal to our foreign policy, an organic connection between military strength and political action, and a strong hope that our armed establishment may play its true role as a deterrent to aggression and as a nucleus of national and international confidence, rather than the sorry one of the fire department called too late, and with inadequate equipment, to extinguish conflagrations which never should have broken out in the first place. 

China has taken steps to exert control and influence in Central Asia, the Pacific Rim, and Africa through the auspices of the Belt and Road Initiative. This geopolitical approach brings to mind Halford Mackinder’s nightmarish warning of a Eurasian-based world empire.

Kennan next lectured on the importance of the Marshall Plan for Western Europe (which Kennan helped formulate). His final lecture of the academic year in June 1947 dealt with the concept of planning a foreign policy. Here Kennan discussed democracies’ inability to “deal with the subtleties and contradictions of power relationships.” He explained that the Second World War was not a complete victory for the West because “we were forced to ally ourselves” with a power that threatened our existence, the Soviet Union. And our leaders failed to explain the true nature of that alliance of convenience, which left us unprepared for dealing with the postwar Soviet threat. Just as after our Cold War victory over the Soviet Union, our leaders failed to appreciate that the CCP would become our next peer competitor.

In a later lecture delivered after he had assumed the directorship of the Policy and Planning Staff, Kennan told the students that it was useless to talk to the Soviets about “common interests or common aims.” The best way to influence the communist leadership, he said, “is through the way you marshal all the forces at your disposal on the world chessboard”–political and military. It was essential, Kennan continued, to “build up counter-pressures when dealing with the Russians.” Just as today, it is essential to build up counter-pressures when dealing with the CCP.


Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, 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.