Elsey, George

Kane, Jim


Lunghi, Hugh

Roberts, Frank


Interview with Professor George F. Kennan


INT: You have said at one point that it was not so much a matter of the Russian presence in Europe, because that was inevitable as a consequence of the defeat of fascism, the defeat of Hitler, it was a matter of what the Russians did to the people whose territory they...

GK: That is absolutely true and of course the great example there was Poland. And it's quite right that people should have seen that as sort of the kernel of the developing conflict between the Russians and the allies at that time in the War. What the Russians did with Poland was absolutely inexcusable. And when we tried to talk with them, and I was an interpreter at those talks, they were concluded simply with the British and American ambassadors and Molotov and I was present. When we tried to talk with them and to suggest a certain moderate... very moderate, liberal Poles that we thought ought to be included in a new Polish government, we discovered that within hours, those people had all been sought down in Warsaw and arrested and thrown into prison. Now this was really an insulting behaviour toward us, and we should have realised right there that we were up against something. What we didn't realise of course that the Russian policy from then on would be greatly influenced by the determination that the shooting of the sixteen thousand or twenty three thousand, I've forgotten which it was, Polish officers, one of the greatest atrocities of the War, their shooting by the Soviet government, that the Soviet government was determined that that should not become known, and be made an issue in any future Polish government and for this reason, they behaved the way they did. That's only one of the reasons, of course.

INT: In the light of that then, how would you now assess Franklin Roosevelt's vision for the post-War world and do you see him on balance as having been realistic, do you see him as having been naive, do you see some combination of both and in particular I wonder if you could comment on the Yalta Conference, as a kind of reflection of FDR's methods of dealing with the Russians?

GK: President Franklin Roosevelt rarely betrayed all of his reasons for doing anything to other people. I think that his hopes about Russia were largely unrealistic during the wartime period. I don't think FDR was capable of conceiving of a man of such profound iniquity, coupled with enormous strategic cleverness as Stalin. He had never met such a creature and Stalin was an excellent actor and when he did meet with leading people at these various conferences, he was magnificent, quiet, affable, reasonable. He sent them all away thinking this really is a great leader. And yes, but behind that there lay something entirely different. And Charles Bohlen, my colleague who succeeded me as ambassador there, was present at the Yalta and the Potsdam Conferences and he told me that he saw only on. one or two occasions when the assistants to Stalin had said or done something of which he didn't approve, when he turned on them and then the yellow eyes lit up and you suddenly realised what sort of an animal you had by the tail there. Well...

INT: Good. Your pessimism about the future of Soviet-American relations at the end of World War Two really contrasted very strikingly with the optimism that most people felt at the time, even Bohlen was more optimistic than you were. I wonder what there was particularly in your experience and what you had witnessed since the time that you had come back to Moscow in 1944 that contributed to this pessimism that was so much at odds with the prevailing optimism that was felt in Washington and elsewhere?

GK: Of course, my view about the prospects for Soviet-American relations during the War was a view that was quite different from that of my government. I had been sent there in 1944, in the middle... in the last year of the War really, or a little more than that, and it was the first time I had been back there for seven years. I had served there twice before. And I was surprised on arriving there in 1944 to be made to realise as soon as I began to look at the situation that the people we were dealing with, Stalin and the men around him, were precisely the same people who had concluded the agreement with the Germans, in 1944, one of the most cynical and terrible, sinister agreements I had ever...

INT: You mean the agreement with the Germans in 193...

GK: 1939, I'm sorry.


INT: In 1939, when you had said that it was clear to you that the people that you met when you came back to Moscow in 1944 were the same people who had been involved in concluding the Nazi- Soviet pact...

GK: The people in the Soviet regime, next to Stalin, this was exactly the same gang and they really betrayed their own hand when they demanded of the Western allies, as they did, they had already done at the time when I came back there , that we should entirely respect the advantages they gained from their deal with Hitler. I think that the Western powers made a great mistake and I thought so at the time, in accepting that. They could perfectly well have gone back. If Stalin said, what are you talking about? Why should we respect an agreement that was made at our expense with Hitler, we regard anything of that sort as quite irrelevant today and we'll talk about this without any reference to that, if you don't mind.

INT: I want to come back to your view of Stalin and particularly to the problem of dealing with Stalin in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. I'm curious as to whether you think there was ever a point at which we could have reached a viable modus vivendi with Stalin or was that simply not on the cards when you're dealing with that character?

GK: Well, nobody can answer that question, because it could only be tested by negotiation with them and we never wanted to negotiate with them. But I will say this, that I think that there were good chances if it had been possible for us to approach him properly for agreement. In the first place, at the time of the ending of the Berlin blockade, at the Council of Foreign Ministers' Meeting which marked the ending of the blockade. I think he had been very much disturbed over our reaction to the blockade and was in a mood really to have talked again; later on, when he said that we were going to militarize our Western part of Germany to occupy it and in particular when he saw that we were even going to move nuclear weapons in there, I think - and I thought at the time and I've said so in the Reith Lectures, which I've delivered in London in 1957 - that you were under-rating what the Russians would pay to get the Americans out of Western Germany. So I think that, theoretically, there was a good possibility that something might have been worked and I thought at the time that we should try it, at least by negotiation, even if we didn't succeed, we didn't have to buy everything that they were demanding. But that was not done. There were, I may say, reasons for our side why it would have been very difficult for us to conduct any explorations of this kind and that's another question.

INT: Just as a follow up: it's often said that Stalin ran one of the most authoritarian governments in history. In the light of the new materials that are available to us, are you really satisfied that Stalin was in charge at every level or were there other important actors in the Soviet system under Stalin? I'm thinking of the role of Molotov and Zhdanov and others. How should we understand that system?

GK: Yes, I think that all of these other people knew, is not to be under-estimated, but they were people to whom felt he had... on whose conduct he felt he had power of control. He didn't have to supervise everything that they said or did, but he watched it very closely and he was a man of absolutely diseased suspiciousness and so he didn't fail to judge them. Well, still, his was the final voice on any question, and woe to him who tried to answer this question before he had judged it and gave the wrong answer. They all learned that...

INT: Cut it right here for just a moment.