75th Anniversary of “The Long Telegram”: Was George F. Kennan’s Assessment of the Soviet Union Accurate?

75th Anniversary of “The Long Telegram”: Was George F. Kennan’s Assessment of the Soviet Union Accurate?

Natylie Baldwin

March 15, 2021

February 22nd marks 75 years since George F. Kennan sent his famous “Long Telegram” to the State Department in which he provided an assessment of the Soviet Union that led to the U.S. containment policy of the Cold War. The Cold War, in turn, saw various conflicts, scores of covert operations, regime changes, and a nuclear arms race. 

Conventional wisdom generally has it that Kennan’s assessment of the Soviet government was accurate.  But was it?  And if it wasn’t accurate, why has it been treated as a brilliant analysis that underpinned a policy still characterized as an inevitable necessity?

In order to answer those questions, it is necessary to look at who George F. Kennan was, what the main points of his analysis were and how they have held up to the historical facts, as well as the political context in which his assessment was received.

Originally published at “Natylie’s Place: Understanding Russia” on February 21, 2021

Who Was George F. Kennan and What Shaped His Thinking?

George Frost Kennan graduated in 1926 from Princeton University with a degree in history.  With an interest in international relations and a knack for picking up languages, he entered the Foreign Service.  The State Department eventually offered to pay for graduate study of Chinese, Arabic or Russian.  Opting for the latter – partly due to his famous namesake cousin’s travels and writings in Siberia – he enrolled in a new program for the study of Eastern European Affairs. Subsequently, he was stationed in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) for a period. By 1929, he was taking Russian history at the University of Berlin and learning the language from a combination of private tutoring and autodidact studies. 

Kennan was a keen observer with an eye for detail, contributing to his writing prowess, which he developed early in his diplomatic career. He also had a sensitive disposition that sometimes tended toward the dramatic as can be seen from some of his letters and diary entries. He was plagued with ulcers throughout most of his adult life, along with other ailments, which prompted many months of recuperation away from his assigned locales at various times. 

In the early years of his study of Russia, he leaned toward an Orientalist view of his subject, making sweeping generalizations even to the point of caricature about the nature of Russia, the Asiatic influence and its alien aspects. During the war, he even admitted to trying to subject Russian history and culture to Freudian psychoanalysis. Though he would temper this somewhat over the years, this tendency toward oversimplification would still be seen in his Long Telegram. 

By the early 1930’s, Kennan’s growing expertise had gotten the attention of others in the State Department.  When the Roosevelt administration decided to officially recognize the Soviet Union – the result of pressure from the business community as the U.S. had become its importer – ambassador William Bullitt lobbied hard for Kennan to be appointed to set up a new embassy in Moscow.   Despite misgivings about his perceived inexperience, Kennan was given the green light for the job. 

Throughout his tenure in the Soviet Union in the 1930’s, Kennan admittedly had limited contact with average Russians.  However, for most of 1934, Kennan noted a relatively relaxed atmosphere in Moscow.  Upon his return to the country in November of 1935, after months away on medical leave, he discovered many of his American colleagues had left and most of the Russians he had built relations of some kind with were no longer around.  There was also more supervision from Soviet authorities along with an influx of spies at the embassy. 

From 1936 to 1938, Kennan personally observed many of the show trials that were part of Stalin’s violent purges, often serving as US ambassador Joseph Davies’ translator and assistant. This solidified  Kennan’s inclination toward viewing the Soviet government as morally repugnant and would contribute to his hardline views during and right after World War II. 

Davies – a corporate lawyer, friend of Roosevelt and a contributor to his campaign – was viewed by Kennan and several others in the State Department as a dangerous dilettante who whitewashed Stalin and the Soviet government, reinforcing the president’s misguided policy of engagement with the Soviet dictator. According to diplomatic historian John Lukacs, who corresponded years later with Kennan about the background of his thinking in the lead up to the Long Telegram, Kennan stated that Roosevelt was naïve for thinking Stalin being treated as an equal would lead to a reasonable post-war arrangement.  Kennan believed that pursuing this policy at the expense of Churchill, whom Roosevelt sometimes gave a cold shoulder to in order to curry favour with Stalin, was a serious mistake and allowed Stalin to triangulate with his wartime allies. 

According to historian Susan Butler in her book, Roosevelt & Stalin:  Portrait of a Partnership, Roosevelt was playing the long game, motivated to win Stalin’s trust in order to get him to support the United Nations (UN).  After winning the war itself, Roosevelt’s priority was to prevent the devastation of a third world war. Of course, this was meant to happen within the context of a U.S.-dominated global order. The UN was the vehicle through which that goal was to be pursued. 

Kennan actively opposed Davies and his agenda, now writing from his position in the European Division of the State Department in Washington. This was after Kennan left Moscow in early 1937 due to mutual antipathy between the two men.  His reports on the Soviet Union were designed to “balance out” Davies’ “overly optimistic” reports to the president.  Eventually, Stalin became aware of Kennan’s writings and perceived them to be attempts to “turn Roosevelt personally against” the Soviet Union. 

After Roosevelt’s death in April of 1945, Ambassador Averell Harriman rushed to Washington to brief Harry Truman on matters relating to the Soviet Union. He advised the new president that Stalin viewed U.S. restraint as weakness and therefore believed he could operate with a free hand, fearing few consequences from Washington. Truman, a foreign policy novice, was also taking advice from his friend and anti-Soviet hardliner, James Byrnes. Truman would ultimately make Byrnes his Secretary of State. 

Kennan, for his part, began sending a steady stream of dispatches to the State Department in a Cassandra-like mission to convince top officials of the true nature of the Soviet Union and the implications for how the U.S. should conduct relations with it. 

In May, he wrote a lengthy essay titled “Russia’s Position at the Close of the War with Germany,” in which he acknowledged the challenges the Soviet Union would be facing in the post-war environment. These included the fact that a significant portion of the country had been destroyed, over-extension if they attempted to take over too much territory in Europe, the logistical difficulties of administering countries with different languages and customs and which felt resentment at the brutal treatment they’d been subjected to during wartime occupation. But Kennan insisted the Soviet Union had expansionist ambitions and would implicitly have to be contained rather than negotiated with, at least for a period of time. This theme would appear again in the Long Telegram. 

By late summer of 1945, Kennan was expressing his displeasure with post-war settlement talks, pooh-poohing any concessions to the Soviets. For example, he opposed U.S. withdrawal of troops from western Czechoslovakia – despite the fact Washington was treaty-bound to do so – arguing that it would show U.S. weakness. He characterized any economic assistance to the Soviets as simply funds that would be channeled to their defense industry. In a foreshadowing of the McCarthy era hysteria, he warned of the Soviets potentially cultivating western citizens who could be “trained like pets ‘to heel without being on the leash.’”

By February of 1946, Kennan had reiterated to the State Department his desire to resign.  His intent was to go into academia and perhaps write a book.  The dispatch that would become known as the Long Telegram was his last-ditch effort to make his case about the Soviet Union.

The Long Telegram

The Telegram was precipitated, not by a Treasury Department request for an explanation as to Soviet non-cooperation with the World Bank and IMF as Kennan had claimed, but was a request for an assessment of a speech given by Stalin on February 9th that had alarmed some in Washington.  The speech itself, delivered at Bolshoi Theater on the eve of elections for the Supreme Soviet, was initially not considered by Kennan to be more than a fairly typical propaganda speech by the Soviet dictator.  But it represented an opportunity for Kennan to push his strident perspective once again.   

Kennan’s Telegram ran approximately 5,000 words and was divided into 5 sections – like a sermon, as Kennan himself admitted.  It is also riddled with generalizations about Russian hostility toward the outside world, Asiatic despotism, irrationality, etc. For example, in Part 2 of the Telegram, Kennan states: 

“Without [Soviet sacrifice of all ethics] they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [the] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.”

While Russia indeed had a thousand-year history of autocratic governance, Kennan’s treatment of Russian history ignored the complexities within that history, making it sound like Ivan the Terrible and Stalin were the only leaders Russia had ever had. He ignored the enlightened rule of Prince Vladimir, the reforms of Alexander II, as well as the difference in the mindset of many modern officials who served under Nicholas II which contributed to his overthrow. He ignored the fact that the thinking of those who led the February 1917 Revolution (generally more of a social democratic nature) were different than those of the Bolsheviks who supplanted them. 

In the next paragraph, Kennan states: 

“The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth – indeed, their disbelief in its existence – leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another.”

This statement of crude bigotry speaks for itself.  Kennan goes on in the next sentence to suggest Stalin did not have reliable sources of information about the outside world: 

“There is good reason to suspect that this government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of [the] outside world.”

It’s unclear why Kennan thinks being a brutal dictator necessarily precludes intellectual ability – something that had been remarked upon by westerners who had dealt personally and professionally with Stalin – or having a sophisticated diplomatic staff or competent intelligence services.

Professor of history Geoffrey Roberts, in his book Stalin’s Wars: From World War to Cold War, 1939-1953, demonstrates that Stalin did in fact have sufficient sources to provide him with a pretty good picture of what was going on in the world. While his ideology did play a role in his interpretation of events and priorities, he was more than capable of taking a realist approach to international affairs when confronted with limitations on his ability to get what he wanted. 

In Section 3, Kennan warns readers to watch out for a list of actions by the Soviets that could potentially be threatening to the west, including:

“Internal policy devoted to increasing in every way strength and prestige of Soviet state: intensive-military industrialization; maximum development of armed forces…”

It’s interesting to note that this did indeed happen – in the late 1940’s, after relations between the Soviets and the West broke down and the Cold War was underway.  The Soviet Union had begun demobilizing its military in 1945 when the war ended which Kennan, being the expert, surely should have known.

As an historian, Kennan should have also known that there were plenty of historical examples of Russia pursuing a realist, balance of power approach to foreign policy, regardless of its domestic policies. For a man with such a supposedly brilliant grasp of his subject, not considering the aforementioned nuances about Russia’s past and its leadership would seem to reveal a significant lack of insight. 

But perhaps one could argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin represented something fundamentally different when it came to formulating foreign policy.  Kennan seemed to think so, arguing in absolutist terms in Section 4:

“In general, all Soviet efforts on unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources strength beyond reach of Soviet control. This is only in line with basic Soviet instinct that there could be no compromise with rival power and that constructive work can start only when Communist power is [dominant].”

In Section 5, he reiterates the point that the Soviet Union is irrational and implicitly cannot be reasoned with via negotiations:

“Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force.”

Obviously, this would provide a convenient justification for U.S. military hegemony and keeping high military budgets.  This approach was also likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy as the Soviets would predictably view such a buildup as an excuse to justify their own, particularly in light of their recent history of invasion and the death and destruction that accompanied it. 

Kennan was advocating a hard line on the Soviet Union, suggesting the Russians were incapable of honesty or meaningful negotiation and only understood force. As previously mentioned, Kennan’s experience with Stalin’s show trials during the Great Terror of the mid-’30s contributed to this harsh thinking.  Another factor that reinforced this view was Stalin’s decisions during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. That event hardened Kennan’s position that the Soviets were worthy only of the military aid necessary to defeat the Nazis but not a full political alliance during the war, much less afterwards. 

As early as 1941, he suggested a political alliance with the Soviets would be equivalent to condoning the Soviet invasion of Finland and the division of Poland, stating that the Soviets would have to accept the consequences of having collaborated with Hitler and deserved no western sympathy. Interestingly, Kennan never mentions the events that led up to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which included Stalin strenuously but unsuccessfully attempting to pursue a military alliance with France and Britain to counter Germany’s stampede through Europe.  Moreover, much of the west had failed to act honorably, appeasing or enabling Hitler’s aggressive ambitions at various points.  One doesn’t have to agree with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but an historian should certainly be aware of and consider the context of this event. 

Kennan also admitted he had no patience for considering the sensibilities of domestic opinion on the conduct of foreign policy, which would have complicated his stance of military aid to the Soviets without an alliance.

An overview of Kennan’s analyses over the course of his service in the State Department, as well as some of his correspondence, shows that he clearly struggled between moralist and realist impulses.  While it is understandable that Kennan (along with Ambassador Harriman), on a human level, felt disgust by the Soviet response to the Warsaw Uprising, the calculations that went into Stalin’s decision turned out to be a bit more complicated than how it was perceived by Kennan and others. 

According to Kennan, considering that Soviet territory had been liberated by this time and the western allies had opened up the long-desired second front, Stalin’s decision to refuse the use of airfields in Ukraine for U.S. and British planes in support of the Warsaw insurgents in mid-August represented a callous and self-satisfied prioritization of the post-war division of Europe to the Soviet Union’s benefit.

However, according to historian Roberts, the backstory to Stalin’s decision was that the Soviet Union had parachuted a liaison officer into Warsaw days before to facilitate the dropping of supplies, but he was captured and killed by the Germans.  This incident had reinforced Stalin’s growing scepticism about the wisdom of the uprising, which had been organized by the Polish Home Army – a wing of the Polish government-in-exile in London (aka AK).  Furthermore, western media had reported the Soviets had encouraged the uprising and then cynically abandoned it. 

Again the reality is more complicated than this narrative.  When the uprising began on August 1st, Stalin thought it may have a chance of success due to the weakening of the German army.  However, as events unfolded, Stalin began to express doubts about its feasibility.  On August 5th, Stalin replied to a message from Churchill about British plans to drop 60 tons of equipment and ammunition to the insurgents.  Stalin told Churchill it was unlikely the insurgents could take over the city in light of the Germans’ four defensive divisions. 

In a meeting with the leader of the Polish government-in-exile on August 9th, Stalin told his interlocutor that he saw the uprising as not “a realistic affair when the insurgents had no guns whereas the Germans in the Praga area alone had three tank divisions, not to speak of infantry.  The Germans will simply kill all the Poles.”

While it became apparent that there were anti-Soviet elements within the uprising, there is no evidence Stalin or the leadership of the Red Army did not make every realistic effort to try to take Warsaw as soon as possible, as some have tried to assert.  After the Germans reinforced their positions in Poland, it became much more difficult for the Soviets to capture Warsaw as quickly as they had originally anticipated.  According to Roberts:

“The uprising did reinforce Stalin’s inclination to capture the city; the problem was that he was unable to do so.  Stalin could, of course, have ordered the Red Army to concentrate all its available strength on the capture of Warsaw.  Even so, it is doubtful  that the city would have fallen very quickly given the time it would have taken to redeploy forces from other fronts and such action would have jeopardized other operational goals that were considered by Moscow as important as storming Warsaw.”

Just prior to the Warsaw Uprising, Kennan wrote a long essay intended for Harriman in which he acknowledged that with the coming defeat of Germany, the Soviet Union would – for better or worse – occupy the most significant place in Europe. In this essay, “Russia – Seven Years Later”, Kennan stated that there was no stable basis for understanding reality in the Soviet Union and few Americans would ever understand this mystery. 

This underscores the main problem with Kennan and his analyses of the time.  He implies here that he is one of a very few or perhaps even the only one smart enough to discern the ugly puzzle that is the Soviet Union.  Kennan, not necessarily through any fault of his own, had limitations on his access to the Soviet government and Stalin’s thinking. He also lacked access to information that would later become available to historians, not only about Stalin’s thinking but about those in his own government. It is therefore inevitable that Kennan’s analyses and conclusions would likewise suffer from these limitations. These limitations can be forgiven, but he never seems to acknowledge his necessarily restricted perspective. Instead, he is cocksure in his proclamations, lacking the humility to offer caveats that may have been in order and to prevent his proclamations from being used by militant cold war ideologues – something which he later complained of when attempting to clarify that his containment policy was meant to focus on the political and diplomatic rather than the military. 

How Kennan’s Views Dovetailed with Washington’s New Foreign Policy Consensus

Within weeks of Kennan’s telegram, Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Missouri. Though Churchill acknowledged the bravery and sacrifice of the Soviet people, a particular passage in the speech, in which Churchill speaks of an iron curtain behind which the states of Eastern Europe were not just subject to being in the Soviet sphere of influence but were being increasingly subject to Soviet dictatorial control, captured everyone’s attention. Furthermore, Churchill spoke of growing concerns about communist influence in Western Europe and Soviet tensions at the time with Iran and Turkey.  He also invoked the spectre of Hitler in connection with not allowing a Soviet Union that admired force and disdained weakness to expand indefinitely. 

A year later, President Truman gave a speech in which he introduced what would become known as the Truman Doctrine.  In the speech, Truman stated that every nation in the world had to choose between alternative ways of organizing society – one based on freedom and elected representative government and the other based on repression and rule by a minority.  Consequently, it was the responsibility of the U.S. to support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”  He requested aid for the Greek government in its battle with a communist insurgency and for Turkey which was confronted by Soviet claims in the Turkish Straits. 

At this point hardliners in both the U.S. and Britain had determined that the Soviets were pursuing their interests “unilaterally” without consideration for the interests of the western powers.

However, as WWII drew to a close, Stalin had remained hopeful of maintaining the “Grand Alliance” with the U.S. and Britain, though he was aware of the possibility that the western powers might eventually make an accommodation with Germany against the Soviets. In addition to securing a defensive buffer or “sphere of influence” on the Soviet western border, Stalin’s main foreign policy objective was preventing the re-emergence of Germany as a military power – which he believed could occur within a generation unless it was specifically prevented from doing so. He also initially showed more openness to what he termed “New Democracy” for the Eastern European states.  

New Democracy was an acknowledgment that a dictatorship of the proletariat was not the only way toward socialism.  Instead the Eastern European countries could evolve toward socialism over the long term.  Stalin believed this was a very real possibility in light of all that he was able to achieve in terms of the Soviet Union’s industrial and social development within the decade before the war.   A peaceful Europe would be needed to facilitate this.  Consequently, Stalin advised the Bulgarian Communist Party in September of 1946 to form the equivalent of a Labor Party comprised of workers and other members of the lower classes.  He told representatives of the Czech and Polish left much the same thing that summer.  By 1947-48, however, the New Democracy experiment collapsed as the Communist Party victories seen in some Eastern European countries had resulted largely due to vote rigging and intimidation, revealing that the ideology was not yet strong enough to compete with right-wing and nationalist sentiments. 

Relations between the Soviets and the western powers eventually deteriorated with distrust increasing on both sides. As a result, Stalin pursued a more repressive approach and tighter control over Eastern Europe and implemented a cultural crackdown at home – though it was much milder than the purge of the 1930’s. 

The roots of that deterioration of relations lay partly in the response of the U.S. political class to the events in Europe in 1940.  As detailed by historian Stephen Wertheim in his book, Tomorrow the World, foreign policy planners in the U.S. – led by members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) – were alarmed by the Nazi takeover of France in June.  The idea that Britain could also fall was now seriously entertained. This prompted a major realignment in internationalist thought within the U.S. political class, from a rather restrained hegemony mostly confined to the western hemisphere and support for international law and disarmament, to a world order dominated by U.S. military supremacy. American national security was broadened to incorporate the objective of not allowing the U.S. to be denied action and influence around the world. This included free economic exchange with the acknowledgment that “trade would extend no further than force allowed, but force would be committed as far as trade necessitated.” 

The Soviet Union had largely been ignored in these planners’ thinking until the Soviets began turning the tide on the Germans in 1943. It was then recognized that the Soviet Union would emerge from the war as a significant world power that would have to be accommodated to some degree within the new U.S. global order.  It was initially accepted that the Soviets would have a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.  This was permissible as long as enough economic and political openness was afforded to those countries so as not to undermine newly defined U.S. interests.  Additionally, anti-Soviet hardliners, such as Leslie Groves and James Byrnes now occupied influential positions within the Truman administration. 

Interestingly, the Soviets had begun to recognize the dynamics at play in U.S. political thinking as reflected in Soviet Ambassador Nikolai Norikov’s diplomatic telegram of September 1946, considered to be the Soviet counterpoint to Kennan’s Telegram.  Norikov opens his dispatch with:

“The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the post-war period by a striving for world supremacy. This is the real meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles: that the United States has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy – the Army, the Air Force, the Navy, industry and science – are enlisted in the service of this foreign policy.”

Despite the communist rhetoric, Norikov was not wrong in his assessment of the general goals of U.S. policy in the post-war world. It should be noted that Norikov’s points were similar to those being made by others in the Soviet leadership and media at the time so they were not touted as special.

Within this backdrop, it is clear that Kennan’s views had been used to justify what was already desired by U.S. supremacists and hardliners in terms of American domination as the Soviet Union was now perceived as a major threat to that agenda. 

The pursuit of this policy had already been decided upon and would have gone ahead with or without Kennan’s assessment, but the Long Telegram provided a convenient intellectual foundation for public rationalization.  Kennan, as it turns out, was not driving the policy with his unique acumen but was being used to justify a predetermined policy by the real drivers who resided farther up the political hierarchy.

In the summer of 1946, Kennan embarked on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of the U.S. to disabuse Americans of any lingering sympathy they may have had for the Soviet Union as an ally during the war. It was around this time that Kennan began to think of himself as a grand strategist, inspired by reading Edward Mead Earl’s Makers of Modern Strategy

Earle was a historian and military strategist with the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.  He was part of the elite northeastern brain trust, which included the CFR planners, which now exerted influence over the State Department. Kennan also read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and attempted to compare it to current events.  Kennan went on to teach at the newly established National War College. He published his X article in Foreign Affairs in July of 1947, warning of a messianic and expansionist Soviet Union. 

As a member of the newly-created National Security Council (NSC) that same year, Kennan encouraged the establishment of covert operations by the newly-formed CIA, but believed those operations should be subjected to NSC review.   

By 1950, Kennan ironically found himself at loggerheads with Secretary of State Dean Acheson over a NSC memorandum known as NSC-68 that had been drafted by a State Department Policy Planning team headed by Paul Nitze. Based on the assumption that the Soviet Union was a messianic and expansionist power that could not be negotiated with, NSC-68 called for a massive buildup of economic and military power to counter it – representing an “active” containment rather than a passive one. The memo was based on greatly exaggerated projections of Soviet power and distorted perceptions of Soviet intent.  Truman initially balked at adopting NSC-68 due to the high cost of implementation but changed his mind after the start of the Korean War. 

Kennan and Acheson also disagreed over Kennan’s support of a no-first-use nuclear policy as NSC-68 called for expansion of not only conventional military power but nuclear as well. He also opposed the re-arming of Germany, acknowledging years later in a letter that the Soviets had been genuinely “spooked” by our intention to re-arm Germany and have them join NATO.  Stalin perceived these moves as evidence of the U.S. desire to undermine Soviet security and deny his country its rightful gains won through blood in WWII.  But Kennan also believed that Stalin should have realized that NATO would not have been able to mobilize enough forces to actually aggress on the Soviet Union.

Kennan would later admit that the Long Telegram read like an alarmist primer designed to “arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy.”

Reflecting how his views had evolved, Kennan told John Lukacs in 1995, regarding the early days of the Cold War: “But the only way to find out whether we could or could not come to some sort of an understanding with [the Soviets] that would reduce the growing military tensions and assure a more peaceful passage of Europe through the postwar period was to test them in reasonably private and realistic negotiations. If no agreement was possible, then that was that; and then we would plainly have to face the consequences. But we would not know whether any such understanding was possible or not until we had talked with them.  And this we were never willing to do.”

It was this that made Kennan unique – his willingness to re-think his views and to develop nuance and complexity in his subject of focus.  Unfortunately, by the time this process was well underway for Kennan his influence in government waned.  And, despite the fact that he was treated as a “wise man” by the cultural elite in the media and academia, his wise counsel on contemporary issues of import – such as his warnings against NATO expansion after the Cold War ended – would conveniently be ignored by those making the decisions. 

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