History,  State Department

George Kennan’s Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia

Source: Truman Library, Acheson Papers, Box 27, Correspondence Under Secretary 1945-1947

It is a pity that our press plays up our diplomatic relations like a ball game, stressing victories and defeats. Good diplomacy results in satisfaction for both sides as far as possible; if one side really feels defeated, they try to make up for it later, and thus relations deteriorate. In general the daily press and commentators dramatize short-term conflicts at the expense of long-term prospects for achieving a stable balance.

— Draft on Information Policy on Relations with Russia by George Kennan, July 22, 1946.

George Kennan was one of America’s first real expert on Russia.* He was the draftsman for our containment policy with Russia, which was not what the military containment that the ‘architects’ later built. In 1946, the relationship with Russia was deteriorating as they ramped up propaganda programs to distort the intentions of the West, whitewash the activities of Moscow, while shutting down media to control information flows wherever they could. Members of Congress were still able to visit Eastern Europe and Russia, which they did for a variety of reasons. But the private media was already feeling the pressure as the relative openness and freedom of foreign media to collect and report in Moscow during the war was quickly disappearing. Overall, the ‘interchange of knowledge and information’ was collapsing because of the realities they exposed to the people under Soviet rule and occupation.

Six months before George Marshall started as Secretary of State and eleven months before the European Recovery Program was announced, Kennan penned a draft information policy to understand and deal with Russia. Some of the passages below (the citations are the sections the text was drawn from) are readily transferable to modern documents, while others may seem quaint but became the basic operating principle of America’s counter to Soviet propaganda.

“The government has a distinct personality all its own, very different from that of the people. The rulers are fanatics in the sense that you can talk to but not with them. … They will take advantage of every weakness; this is considered merely good sport, no particular offense. So they are quite apt to poke up one or another of their puppet states in order to feel out our weaknesses indirectly. …

Russian treatment of brief visitors is responsible for considerable misunderstanding of the problem of dealing with the Russian Government. When a distinguished American turns up for a week or so, the Russians are ingratiating, respond to every request and accompany it with sales talk about how we have so much in common, ought to get along easily, etc. He goes away intoxicated with this revelation of good fellowship, but without any specific commitments from the Russians. If later he should reproach them for not following through along cooperative lines, they insinuate that it’s all the fault of the career diplomats: if only he were ambassador, all would be well. Probably nobody goes to Russia without feeling that his particular personality holds the secret of winning Russian friendship, but only those who stay for a good while and have to do business son a day-today basic learn how tough the problem is.”

— ‘Soviet Rulers, Government’

“The government has a distinct personality all its own, very different from that of the people. The rulers are fanatics in the sense that you can talk to but not with them. … They will take advantage of every weakness; this is considered merely good sport, no particular offense. So they are quite apt to poke up one or another of their puppet states in order to feel out our weaknesses indirectly. …

Russian treatment of brief visitors is responsible for considerable misunderstanding of the problem of dealing with the Russian Government. When a distinguished American turns up for a week or so, the Russians are ingratiating, respond to every request and accompany it with sales talk about how we have so much in common, ought to get along easily, etc. He goes away intoxicated with this revelation of good fellowship, but without any specific commitments from the Russians. If later he should reproach them for not following through along cooperative lines, they insinuate that it’s all the fault of the career diplomats: if only he were ambassador, all would be well. Probably nobody goes to Russia without feeling that his particular personality holds the secret of winning Russian friendship, but only those who stay for a good while and have to do business son a day-today basic learn how tough the problem is.”

— ‘Soviet People’

“Motto from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard: Love thy neighbor but keep thy fences mended. … We should keep the door open to all forms of cultural and economic collaboration, but not irritate the Russians by pressing for these against their will. Some of our efforts toward mutual understanding they undoubtedly feel to be tactless prying. They can hardly accept American students in their institutions because of the embarrassing contrast in standards of living. Similarly, if Russian students come to America, they would return dissatisfied with Russian life. There is little chance of the ‘iron curtain’ being lifted in the near future. The Soviets run an internal propaganda machine which can work only in a vacuum. …

On communist infiltration: best avoid making martyrs; use the spotlight of publicity to expose them and their motives; let them discredit themselves if possible. But if they should become a serious threat in Latin America, for example, it would constitute just as much a violation of the Monroe Doctrine as any other, and should be treated accordingly. In general, since our policy looks toward a peaceful and prosperous world, we are in a favorable position to counter their subversive tactics with constructive measures. Our best counter to the psychological war against ‘capitalism’ is the unvarnished truth about the standards of living and conditions of liberty in Russia, including their labor ‘unions’. News correspondents only tell the full picture off the record, even when they return to the U.S., for fear of losing their Russian visas.”

— ‘Cur[rent] Best Course’