Continuing the Inquiry

“X” Leads the Way

OVER THE NEXT WINTER, an aspiring but weary American Foreign Service officer spent a sabbatical year at the National War College, recovering from his tours of duty in the Baltic states when they were first independent, in prewar Germany, and finally in Stalin’s Moscow. George Kennan was irrepressible in his thinking, gifted with the grace of a writer, and troubled by the dilemmas of his conflicting ideas. Through December, he later recalled, he sat “hacking away at my typewriter there in the northwest corner of the War College building.”5

Kennan shared his intellectual concerns with a small Council study group in January 1947. Among the participants was George Franklin, who rushed to brief Hamilton Fish Armstrong the next morning about the discussion. Armstrong, ever alert to talent and a good article, promptly invited the little-known diplomat to adapt his presentation for the Council’s journal. Kennan was diffident; he doubted that he, as a government employee, could contribute “anything of value” under his own name. Armstrong persisted, Kennan succumbed. An article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” appeared in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. The author was identified only as “X.”

From the pages of Foreign Affairs, George F. Kennan (left) introduced “containment” into the American strategic lexicon. As a young policymaker/diplomat, and (seated in photograph below, left)—no longer anonymous—celebrating his ninetieth birthday with U.S. Representative to the United Nations Madeleine K. Albright and other Council friends at the Harold Pratt House.

Perhaps no single essay of the twentieth century can match the X article for its impact upon the intellectual curiosity of a confused nation, upon the mindset of equally confused policymakers and scholars, upon national policy in at least seven presidential administrations to come.* It ran only 17 pages; its tone was scholarly, elegant but practical; only three sentences used the magic word that came to define American policy for half a century.

“Containment” entered the political lexicon. Walter Lippmann, at the height of his influence as a nationally respected commentator, devoted no fewer than 13 consecutive newspaper columns to a dissection of X’s thinking. “Thirteen essays in criticism of one magazine article by a not very anonymous career man in the State Department seems a little out of proportion,” wrote Council director Leffingwell to a friend. “Well, Walter gave Ham’s magazine some very valuable free publicity.”

Kennan’s anonymity as X did not survive long, and for the rest of his illustrious career, as an ambassador and intellectual conscience to diplomats and scholars alike, he tried to explain away the “serious deficiencies…the misunderstanding almost tragic in its dimensions” that followed from the notion of “containing” Soviet communism. “I should have explained that I didn’t suspect [the Russians] of any desire to launch an attack on us,*rdquo; Kennan told an American television audience nearly 40 years later. “This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn’t think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it.”

At the time of its publication, no modifications were forthcoming from the halls of government. What X wrote, and the way it was commonly interpreted, fit naturally with the foreign policy developing within the Truman administration. The same month as X’s publication, Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered the commencement address at Harvard. He proposed an unprecedented engagement of the United States in the growth and organization of democratic society in Europe. The so-called Marshall Plan and the ensuing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defined the role of the United States in world politics for the rest of the century.

Historians and officers of the Council on Foreign Relations are properly reticent about claiming institutional credit for the genesis of the Marshall Plan, despite all the institution’s record of interest in economic affairs. “I do not believe that anything organized by the Council played any significant role in framing the Plan itself,” wrote William Bundy, although he went on to credit Council study groups with “at least general contributions to the framework of thinking that underlay the Marshall Plan and NATO.”

Once out of the starting gate, however, containment, the Marshall Plan, and American commitment to the economic recovery and democratic institutions of Europe became the Council’s new interest. Armstrong convened a study group in December 1947 to analyze the political conditions that would make the program of American economic aid most effective. High on the list of worries was the forthcoming election in Italy, where the Communist Party stood a good chance of winning. Council members discussed whether the United States could “give the Italians something”—a battleship or colony or something, as John Sloan Dickey, president of Dartmouth, put it in the sardonic shorthand of experts in after-dinner conversation.

The campaign of public lobbying for this new American outreach was stimulated by countless discussions at the Harold Pratt House, though given the longstanding concern for institutional nonpartisanship on policy the Council would not permit its name to be invoked. Council Director Allen Dulles went so far as to write a full-fledged book arguing for the Marshall Plan, but by the time he completed the manuscript, the cause had already been won; it was published only in 1993, as a footnote to history.

The Council on Foreign Relations functioned at the core of the public institution-building of the early Cold War, but only behind the scenes. As a forum providing intellectual stimulation and energy, it enabled well-placed members to convey cutting-edge thinking to the public—but without portraying the Council as the font from which the ideas rose. Newly named to the post of undersecretary of state in May 1947, Robert A. Lovett, who had first become a member 20 years before, asked for a briefing from Council members and staff before assuming his diplomatic responsibilities. The membership grew toward 1,000, as foreign policy became a public interest far more compelling than the founding luminaries ever imagined.

And, living up to its early promise, Foreign Affairs emerged as the authoritative medium for foreign policy discussions by Americans and distinguished foreign leaders, years before television and the Internet allowed for direct communication between statesmen and the public. The roster of Armstrong’s authors was impressive by any measure: Adenauer, Erhard, and Brandt of Germany; Mollet of France; Gaitskell, Eden, and Attlee of Britain; Khrushchev of the Soviet Union; Tito of Yugoslavia; Gomulka of Poland; Nasser of Egypt; Dayan of Israel; Spaak of Belgium and the emerging European Community; Magsaysay of the Philippines; Nkrumah of Ghana; Senghor of Senegal; Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast; Sihanouk of Cambodia. Circulation grew to over 50,000 around the world. A $200,000 donation from Frank Altschul in 1958 underwrote the first expansion of the Council’s 68th Street headquarters into the adjoining townhouse, which became the publishing and editorial offices of Council publications.

The temporarily retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower, serving a brief tour as president of Columbia University, agreed to chair a Council study group to monitor the European aid program. He rarely missed a scheduled meeting, until December 1950, when President Truman called him back on active duty to become the supreme allied commander in Europe. “Whatever General Eisenhower knows about economics,” said one member later, “he has learned at the study group meetings.” Another Council supporter went further to assert that the group “served as a sort of education in foreign affairs for the future president of the United States”—somewhat excessive, perhaps, about an army general who had been deeply engaged with the Allied governments throughout World War II.6 At the least it can be fairly said that the Council meetings gave a career officer a firsthand (and not always pleasant) taste of the free-wheeling and unstructured manners that civilians use in policy discourse.

Europe dominated the foreign policy agenda until the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 and, to a large extent, thereafter as well. The Council had little of note to contribute to the domestic debate about the fall of China to communism. Southeast Asia, however, had attracted the Council’s attentions starting with the War and Peace Studies. Indochina was seen as a French colonial problem; the consensus of the wartime studies was that France could never expect to return to its Southeast Asian colonies in force, and the region would necessarily become a geopolitical concern of the United States as the emerging Pacific power. After the Korean War ended in 1953, the Council returned to a serious examination of Indochina, where France’s restored colonial regime was clashing with the guerrilla forces of a self-described Marxist revolutionary named Ho Chi Minh, whom members of the Inquiry had first encountered as one of the obscure nationality plaintiffs at the Paris Peace Conference more than three decades earlier.

On November 24 a study group heard a political science report from its secretary, William Henderson, more prescient than any of the members could then appreciate. The war was “far larger than anything” the policy thinkers supposed, the group was told. It was wrong to see Ho’s Vietminh forces as simply a forward guard of world communism; nothing in Moscow’s designs could explain the size and violence of the Vietnamese rebels. Marxism “has little to do with the current revolution”; rather, it was pent-up nationalism, pure and simple. With France discredited by its colonial past, the opportunity was opening for the United States to guide Ho’s revolutionaries away from their irrelevant Marxist rhetoric.

Study group members were skeptical, and subsequent speakers from the State Department were far more reserved about discussing any direct American presence in Indochina to fill the political vacuum left by the besieged French. After the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and for the decade following, the Council’s Studies Program often reexd the unfamiliar spectrum of politics in remote Vietnam. But nowhere in the archives for these years is there evidence that the Council had considered inviting an obscure Vietnamese exile, then living just up the Hudson River from New York, named Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem became the American-sponsored president of South Vietnam in 1956, facing a ruinous civil war before his overthrow and execution in 1963.

Concerns that seemed more pressing bore down at the turn of the 1950s. The nation was in danger of succumbing to a red-baiting frenzy, marked by the rise into the headlines of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Not surprisingly, the Council’s membership seemed solidly united in contempt for the Wisconsin demagogue; under his provocative rhetoric, after all, was a thinly veiled attack on the entire East Coast foreign policy establishment, whose members gathered regularly in the closed conference rooms of the Harold Pratt House.**

The most daunting problem of foreign policy in these years was the political significance of nuclear weaponry, by then in the arsenals of both the White House and the Kremlin. Destructive power unimaginable to earlier generations seemed to transform world politics and the nature of war as a continuation of policy by other means. On January 12, 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles delivered a major public address to a Council dinner. (Following the precedent of the Clemenceau meeting in the Council’s first year, the off-the-record status of deliberations was occasionally waived for distinguished speakers.) “There is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty land power of the communist world,” Dulles declared. “Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power.” The policy of the Eisenhower administration was to depend primarily “upon a great capacity to retaliate.”

No special sensitivity to the language of diplomacy was necessary to comprehend the chilling import of these remarks. The Council convened a discussion group on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, in the year 1954-55. To chronicle the discussions, at the recommendation of Council members Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., McGeorge Bundy, and William Yandell Elliott (covering the range from liberal to hard-line, in public perception) the Council tapped a young scholar named Henry A. Kissinger. Taking leave from the Harvard faculty, Kissinger spent the academic year 1955-56 working at the Harold Pratt House. Reflecting upon the discussions of the group, and guiding them toward conclusions he had reached in his own research, Kissinger published in 1957 the book that earned him a national reputation, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. To the bemusement of his colleagues on 68th Street, the book reached the list of national best-sellers, hardly expected of a publication of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kissinger went on to publish 12 articles in Foreign Affairs before he entered government as President Nixon’s national security adviser in 1969. And over two decades, the Council’s study and discussion groups served as an important breeding ground for the doctrines of strategic stability, mutual deterrence, arms control, and nuclear nonproliferation that guided American foreign policy for the years of the Cold War.

Council members Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry A. Kissinger at the Harold Pratt House in 1965, the year the Council published Brzezinski’s Alternative to Partition. Eight years earlier Kissinger made his mark with the publication of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.

The Council turned in earnest to the problem of communist China early in the 1960s. Various Council publications had started developing the idea of a “two-China” policy—recognition of both the Nationalist government of Taiwan and the communist government on the mainland. This, Council authors suggested, might be the least bad policy direction. Professor A. Doak Barnett published a trail-blazing book for the Council in 1960, Communist China and Asia. A major Council study of relations between the United States and China commenced in 1964, the year China exploded its first nuclear bomb; the group met systematically for the next four years. “Contentment with the present stalemate in relations with the Chinese is not statesmanship,” declared Robert Blum of the Asia Society, the first director of the project. “American impatience and the strong currents of political emotion often make it impossible to plan ahead to manage our policy in a persevering but flexible way.”

This seemed just the sort of political stalemate that the Council on Foreign Relations, free of electoral and partisan constraints, was endowed to repair. Midway through the project, the Council published an analysis of public opinion called The American People and China by A. T. Steele, who reached the unexpected conclusion that Americans were more willing than many of their elected officeholders to forge new relations with China. This study argued that it was only a steady diet of hostile public statements that had made Americans “disposed to believe the worst of communist China and they [the Chinese] the worst of us.” In 1969 the Council summed up the project under the title, The United States and China in World Affairs, publication came just as Richard Nixon, a longtime and outspoken foe of Chinese communism, became president of the United States. (Some months earlier, Nixon himself had chosen Foreign Affairs as his forum for exploring a fresh look at Asia in general, and China in particular.) Tilting at the long-prevailing freeze, the Council’s project defined a two-China policy with careful analysis. It advocated acquiescence in mainland Chinese membership in the United Nations, and argued that America must “abandon its effort to maintain the fiction that the Nationalist regime is the government of China.”

Allen Dulles (right) welcomes to the Pratt House Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his sister Vijaylaxmi Pandit, Indian ambassador to the United Nations, and first female president of the General Assembly.

Kissinger, acting as Nixon’s national security adviser, embarked on a secret mission to Beijing in 1971, to make official, exploratory contact with the communist regime.*** Nixon himself followed in 1972. The delicate process of normalizing diplomatic relations between the United States and China was completed in 1978 by Kissinger’s successor as secretary of state, Cyrus R. Vance, a leading Council officer before and after his government service.


5. George Kennan, “Containment Then and Now,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 65, no. 4 (Spring 1987), p. 890.

6. William Diebold, Jr., an influential economist on the Council staff, discussed the Eisenhower study group in a memorandum of September 4, 1990, now in the Council on Foreign Relations archives.

* Even as this history is being written, I can certify the power of X’s rhetoric and vision among students in the 1990s at a major American university. Wary of the first assignment at a supposedly forward-looking seminar—some old article published 30 years before they were even born—and with only the vaguest awareness of the problems the dog-eared text explored, my undergraduates at Yale came back the next week to pronounce the X article “awesome.”

** One of the most visible targets of the red-baiters, the controversial Alger Hiss, was quietly dropped from Council membership, for successive years’ nonpayment of annual dues. John Temple Swing, executive vice president of the Council until 1993, enjoyed informing new members over the years that the only other prnt figure dropped from the rolls for failing to pay dues was Richard Nixon.

*** Accompanying Kissinger on this momentous flight was his personal aide, Winston Lord, a former Foreign Service officer. Lord, who became president of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1977, possessed a flair for the dramatic under a pose of caution. At the crucial moment in the secret diplomatic flight to Beijing, the young aide strolled to the forward compartment of Kissinger’s aircraft and casually waited there until he was sure they had passed over the ground frontier; with delight undiminished over years to come, Lord proclaimed that he was thus the first American official to cross into communist China.

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