Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank





INTERVIEWER: Professor Kennan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for the Cold War documentary project. I'd like to begin by asking a question about the beginnings of Soviet-American relations in 1933, to which you were an eye-witness. What were the hopes that lay behind the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1933 and what were your own first impressions of the Soviet Union when you saw it... when you went to open up the American Embassy in Moscow?

GEORGE KENNAN: Well, I was serving in Riga of course at the time that FDR took the decision to ask for talks with the Soviet government. Remember that one has to remember that we had been, I think for sixteen years, without any representation in Russia, no relations between the two governments and FDR was the one who decided to try to break that log-jam and get through and I didn't know him at that time. I'd never met him, I was not living at home and I wasn't very... I just had to guess at his motives, but one of the main ones was that he was worried about Japanese incursions into China and he hoped that by doing this, we could enlist the help of the Russians, against Japanese operations on the mainland. The Japanese, you remember, were very far advanced at that time into China, they had occupied a large part of it. And that's the one motive, which I think has not been brought out so much historically. There were a couple of other things to his buoyant disposition. He was not inclined to worry too much about things, but also the influence of Bill Bullitt, who had dealt with the Soviet government just after the Revolution and was convinced that you could do business with them if you only buttered them up properly.

INT: Well, you had spent...

....First impressions of arriving in Moscow, late in 1933?

GK: Yes, I accompanied our first ambassador to Moscow, went in on the train with him and served as his interpreter and his principal aide during all the ceremonies of concluding relations with the Russians. I had had several years of training including two years at the university of Berlin but I had also served in the Baltic states for I think a couple of years, and all of this was preparatory to going into Russia. So I was enormously excited and was encouraged about the prospects of a positive and helpful relationship between the two governments. You must remember that this was a year before the Kirov murder, a year of relative liberalism in Russia, there were still people around from the very early period of the revolution who did take quite a fair view of the United States. So there were reasons to be hopeful at that time. To me it was simply enormously exciting to be in a country for which I had put in four or five years of preparation.

INT: So you would see the Kirov murder as a turning point?

GK: Yes it wasn't the murder alone, the murder was a response to something that happened I believe in the Party gathering that took place in the late summer, I believe of 1934, and in which Stalin was made to realise that there was a real chance of his being voted out of office by the Central Committee. And he being the brilliant tactician that he was, met this head on, when he realised what was going on and said in effect to them: 'Well you know of course there are people who think it's time that I left. And if that's the view of the body here why I'd be happy to consider that.' Well he threw terror into all these people because everyone of them realised that if he along got up and said I think we should take Stalin at his word and let him go, and the others didn't support him, it would mean his head. So Stalin rode out this, but he didn't get over the shock of it. And the Kirov murder had something to do with it.

INT: Could you talk about how the new mood manifested itself? The new mood of chillier relations which followed the Kirov murder.

GK: Well there was a tightening in every respect, a tightening for us in the diplomatic corps on our contacts with Russians, on our social life in Moscow but much more important than that was a whole great wave of consternation and uncertainty and fear that swept through the Russian public. Because they sensed that there was something very strange going on at the top.

INT: Would you still argue as you did in the 1940s that all of this reflected a tendency on Stalin's part to need enemies? And would it be fair to say later on that the Cold War itself was a kind of extension into international relations of the same thing which was manifesting itself in the domestic realm?

GK: Well as for the extent to which the Soviet government really needed something like the Cold War, this was a complicated problem but there's an element of truth in that suggestion. Stalin felt that in order to get public support of the things he was doing which were very harsh policies, he had to convince a great many of the people, the common people and the Party members, Russia was confronted with a conspiracy on the part of the major capitalist powers especially England; but Germany too that they were confronted with efforts by these people to undermine the Soviet government by espionage, by trying to paralyze Russian industry, through sabotage, things of that sort. There wasn't any truth in this but he, he didn't care, he saw the safety of his own regime being endangered if he could not make people believe that Russia was a threatened country. And so the did conduct these various trials, The Shakhty trial, the trial of the German engineers, the one in which the British appeared as the danger spot. And there was at that... in doing this, he was deliberately sacrificing to some extent the possibility of good relations with these countries, because they were furious about this. This was not compatible with the idea of agreeable diplomatic relations.

INT: You've often said, if I can move up to the period of World War Two, when you were back in Moscow, you've often said that you saw the Warsaw uprising of 1944 as the point at which the United States and Britain should have stopped making further concessions to Stalin. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, particularly with reference to the centrality of the whole Polish issue in the breakdown of wartime co-operation?

GK: There was always a question at what point should American policy toward the Soviet Union during the War, at what point should our wartime policy have changed and I thought that the period of the Polish uprising, an uprising by the Polish Freedom Fighters, who fought from under the surface, through the sewers and everything else, against the continuing German occupation and were literally abandoned by the Russians, who were sitting with their forces across the river, and could easily have gone into help them, I thought for various reasons that that was the point at which American policy should have changed. But that's a long story and you have to remember what our policy had been during the wartime period when we had tried, as a matter of principle, to give the Russians everything they wanted and to support them in everything, no matter how great our doubts about what they were doing. And it's said, which I think should have changed with the Warsaw uprising, because by this time, the Russians had freed their own territory, there was no longer any question of our establishing a second front, they were already in Germany, so were we, and the whole wartime situation had changed. And that I thought was the moment at which we got... should have got into business with them.