How Long is the “The Long Telegram?”

How Long is the “The Long Telegram?”

By Dan Linke

In Cold War history, many cite George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” as its epistolary beginning.  Composed while serving as chargé d’affaires in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in February 1946, he wrote the telegram to explain to his State Department colleagues why the Soviets–who had been our ally against the Nazis during the recently won Second World War–would not cooperate with the United States in the post-war world.  It was circulated widely in Washington policy circles and ultimately led to Kennan’s recognition as one of the “wise men” of foreign policy during the Truman administration.

Photo of "incoming telegram"
First page of George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” February 22, 1946. George F. Kennan Papers (MC076), Box 163, Folder 45.
“The Life and Times of George F. Kennan: A Centennial Exhibition” featuring the “Long Telegram” on display in an 18-foot case, ca. 2004. Photo courtesy Princeton University Office of Communications.

However, in an age when a telegram was typically short and expensive to send, Kennan’s opus was indeed massive–so long that Kennan himself called it an “outrageous encumberment of the telegraphic process.” In his memoirs, he stated that it totaled more than 8,000 words, a number that has appeared in many places since then. 

But this number is not accurate.  After the 2004 Kennan Centennial exhibition when I was preparing an article about it for the Princeton University Library Chronicle, my draft used the 8,000-word count.  However, an article by career diplomat Fletcher M. Burton *88 appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly  around then that noted a shorter length.  Following the Russian proverb favored by Ronald Reagan of “Trust, but Verify,” I found the full text of the Long Telegram online, then using the copy and paste function, I dropped the text into a Word document and looked at the word count:  around 5,300 words.  Over time, the correct number has begun to appear in various places, including Wikipedia, thereby ensuring that high school students will find the correct figure.  Both recent Kennan biographies use the right number as well.

But this reduction of the word count by no means diminishes Kennan or his work.  The Long Telegram is an integral part of Cold War history as it–and the published article Kennan wrote soon thereafter that expanded upon its themes–provided the United States with the philosophical  framework for “containment,” the basis of US foreign policy with the Soviet Union for the next several decades. A recent Netflix series on the Cold War even featured it prominently in an episode. As for the inflated number, Burton speculated that Kennan confused the word count of the telegram with his published article that in its final form totaled almost 7,000 words.

At a time when a typical telegram would not exceed two or three dozen words at most, 5,000 words–equivalent to 17-and-a-half pages–is still a *long* telegram.  Burton, who said that he joined the Foreign Service “thanks to Kennan,” told me that in the modern diplomatic corps everyone wanted to emulate Kennan, but were only rewarded for “short emails,” thus insuring Kennan’s telegram will hold its place as one of the longest ever sent in State Department history.

Thanks to an NHPRC digitization grant awarded over ten years ago, you can read it along with much of Kennan’s papers online.

For further reading

Costigliola, Frank. Kennan: A Life Between Worlds. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2023. 

Gaddis, John Lewis. George F. Kennan: An American Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 

Kennan, George F. Memoirs. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967. 

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.