The Canadian Long Telegram

 

Who would have known that an 8,000 word essay, sent by a middle-aged midwesterner stationed in Moscow in March 1946, would provide a conceptual framework for America’s foreign policy toward a chief adversary for several decades?

George Kennan’s “long telegram” needs no introduction. Kennan’s analysis of the Soviet state and its aims helped to forge the United States’ Cold War policy of containment.

Kennan wrote in an era in which diplomatic reporting really could influence foreign policy. Ambassadors wielded the power of the pen, and strove to shape their home government’s foreign relations through perceptive analyses, sent from the on-the-ground.

Kennan’s was not the only long-winded exposition of the foreign policy of a super power at the dawn of the Cold War. You’re probably already thinking of the Russian counterpart to Kennan’s long telegram: the Novikov cable, written from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, also in 1946.

There were others. Canada’s ambassador to Moscow during the twilight of World War II, L.D. Wilgress, also dispatched a lengthy analysis of Soviet foreign policy to his Secretary of State. Not quite as wordy as Kennan, Wilgress still managed to assemble a nine-page report clocking in at 23 paragraphs of text. He sent his cable in November 1944.

This is what I sarcastically call the “Canadian long telegram,” because, like Kennan, it is clear that Wilgress hoped his cable would carry weight back home.

Wilgress’ assessment was both well-written and thorough. The Canadian ambassador described the Soviet Union’s bottom lines in Eastern Europe as well as its goals in places as far flung as Iran, Afghanistan, and Western China. He described what he thought the Soviet Union would do in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and in newly created international institutions such as the UN. He strove to be utterly comprehensive and to put forth a wager on nearly every area of interest to the USSR.

So why do we remember the Kennan long telegram and the Novikov cable, but not this Canadian counterpart?

Probably because Wilgress was a little too optimistic. Despite laying out all of the problem areas in the Soviet Union’s relations with the West and recognizing Moscow’s often aggressive foreign policy, Wilgress still maintained that he “fully believe[d] the Soviet Government are desirous of co-operating fully with the other great powers.” Or, as he wrote in the conclusion, “the Soviet Union will throw its full weight behind the forces working for peace and security.”

Had a debate been waged in public, George Kennan certainly would have taken Wilgress to task. Compare Wilgress’ optimism to Kennan’s more sobering conclusion: “we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken.”

The Source: W.L. Mackenzie King Papers, 1944, Correspondence, Primary Series (M.G. 26, J1, Volume 376: 328371-328379), Library and Archives Canada, accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/134122.

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