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The term containment is used most often in an historical context to describe the United States’ policy toward the spread of USSR influence during the latter half of the twentieth century. The policy led to U.S. involvement in the Cold War, which included armed conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
A policy aimed at containing, or restricting, a hostile or potentially hostile power through use of diplomacy and possibly force is referred to as containment. Historical examples of containment include the coalitions designed to contain French power in Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, or Chinese attempts to contain Vietnamese and Soviet influence in Southeast Asia after 1975. Containment can also be seen in the actions of Britain on the eve of World War II. During the mid-to-late 1930s the British government pursued a diplomatic strategy known as appeasement in dealing with Nazi Germany. However, Hitler proved unappeasable and uninterested in long-term peaceful solutions. The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939 meant the end of appeasement. Instead the British resorted to containment by issuing a series of territorial guarantees to countries in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. According to the guarantee, should Poland find itself attacked by Germany, Britain would come to its defense. In this manner, the British were attempting to contain German power in Europe. The Germans attacked Poland on 1 September 1939 and Britain declared war on Germany two days later. The term “containment” has many historical examples but is usually associated with the policy followed by the United States toward the USSR during the Cold War.
Origins of Cold War Containment
The months immediately following the end of the World War II saw deterioration in relations between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, who had formerly been allies in the war against the Axis states. British and American statesmen watched in alarm as the Soviets solidified their control over Eastern Europe. The Soviets seemed to be threatening Turkey and Iran, while a Communist insurgency in Greece steadily gained force. The Americans and British also blamed the Soviets for the slow pace of talks over the future of occupied Germany. An atmosphere of mistrust and unease settled over East–West relations.
George Kennan and Containment
On 22 February 1946, George Kennan (1904–2005), a staff member of the American embassy in Moscow, and longtime Soviet expert, sent a document analyzing Soviet policy to his superiors in Moscow. Kennan’s analysis became known as the “Long Telegram,” and was published in 1947 in the influential American Journal of Foreign Affairs. The journal editors attributed the article to “Mr. X,” even though it was generally known that “Mr. X” was actually George Kennan. Kennan’s analysis of Soviet foreign policy found widespread support in Washington and soon became the theoretical basis of containment.
Kennan believed that the USSR, for ideological and historic reasons, was an inherently expansionist power. In order to justify their tyranny, Kennan argued, the Soviet leaders had to convince their people that the USSR was threatened by hostile capitalist powers. The Soviets would seek to expand territorially because that had been the pattern of Russian history. Surrounded by hostile nomadic tribes, living on an open, vulnerable plain, Russian rulers had found security in conquest. As well, Communist ideology demanded that workers in foreign countries be “liberated.” Kennan noted that if the Soviets were confronted at one point they would simply retreat and seek to expand somewhere else. Kennan thought that the Soviets could not be trusted in negotiations. They might agree to tactical concessions but would never give up on their historic mission. However, Kennan did not believe that the Soviets wanted war, since they took a long-term view and were content to wait for historical trends to play themselves out. Since the collapse of capitalism was inevitable, according to Communist theory, there was no need to take dangerous risks. Kennan recommended that the United States pursue “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world” (Kennan 1947, 581). Kennan speculated that if the USSR were unable to expand then long-term internal pressures would force drastic changes in the Soviet system.
Critics of Containment
Kennan’s views, although popular in the government, provoked some criticism when made public. Walter Lippmann, a popular syndicated newspaper columnist and foreign affairs commentator of the time, wrote that containment would involve the United States in numerous conflicts around the globe. The resources of the United States would be overextended and worn down. Others on the political left criticized containment on the grounds that they opposed any confrontation with the USSR. Henry Wallace, a member of Truman’s cabinet and a former vice president under Roosevelt, publicly broke with Truman and said that Soviet policy was driven not by expansionism but rather by fear. Containment would only worsen the situation. In 1948 Wallace ran against Truman in the presidential election, but finished a poor fourth.
Kennan’s views provided the basis for many American policies toward the USSR in the years to come. Early in 1947 the British government informed Washington that it would be unable to continue aid to the government of Greece, which was then fighting a bitter civil war against the Greek Communists. Since it was assumed that the Soviets were supporting the Greek Communists, Washington feared that the fall of the Greek government would bring Soviet power to the shores of the Mediterranean. On 12 March 1947, President Harry Truman, in a bid to gain Congressional support for a $400 million aid package to Greece and Turkey, proclaimed what has come to be known as the Truman Doctrine. Truman said that he believed that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way” (Dunbabin 1994, 83). Truman added that American help should focus on economic and financial aid.
At the same time concern in Washington over the growth and popularity of West European Communist parties led to the conclusion that a slow economic recovery from the war was contributing to the appeal of the Communists. Accordingly, on 5 June 1947, United States secretary of state George Marshall announced a program of extensive economic aid to European states in need. Formally known as the European Recovery Plan, it is more popularly remembered as the Marshall Plan. The USSR and its satellite states refused to participate, stating that they were not about to open their economies and societies to U.S. trade and U.S. auditors. Over the next four years most Western European states requested Marshall Plan assistance, with totals reaching more than $17 billion. The Marshall Plan was fundamental to the West European economic recovery of the postwar era, although Communist parties in France and Italy remained popular for many years.
Although Kennan had emphasized nonmilitary economic and diplomatic strategies for containment, and had participated in the drawing up of the Marshall Plan, the intensification of the Cold War meant that military containment came to the fore. In August 1949 the USSR successfully tested an atomic bomb, breaking the United States monopoly on atomic weapons. In October 1949 the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, came to power in China. Finally, on 25 June 1950 the armies of Communist North Korea invaded South Korea. Although South Korea had never previously been seen as vital to United States strategic interests, Truman decided that he could not stand by. The United States entered the war on the side of the South Koreans and soon became bogged down in a bloody three-year stalemate.
Earlier in 1950 the United States government had undertaken a comprehensive review of its global defense strategies. The review, completed by September, was obviously influenced by the events of 1949 and the Korean War. Known as NSG-68, the review recommended a massive buildup of American atomic and conventional defense forces. The document almost certainly marked a turn toward a military emphasis in containment. Kennan later protested that by “counter force” he had meant more than just military force, but such distinctions were quickly lost in the heated atmosphere of the Cold War.
Truman did not run in the 1952 presidential election, which was won by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the campaign the Republicans bitterly criticized containment for abandoning the people of Eastern Europe to a tyrannical political system. John Foster Dulles, soon to be Eisenhower’s secretary of state, promised to “roll back” Soviet influence in Eastern Europe. But Dulles recoiled from the idea of war, and so could do little more than continue containment after 1952. Dulles knew that a direct attempt to intervene in the Soviet Eastern bloc would provoke full-scale war. Instead, Dulles assumed, especially after Stalin died in 1953, that forces of nationalism in Eastern Europe would do the job in bringing down the Soviet system. Yet another review of American defense strategy, carried out in 1953, came to the same conclusion. However, the Americans did escalate the propaganda war by improving the broadcast capabilities of Radio Free Europe.
Containment after Korea
The Korean War also posed continuing serious questions about what exactly containment meant. Was the United States to become involved in every single conflict around the globe where Communism was perceived to be a threat? Were some areas of the globe more valuable to the United States than others? Some commentators, such as Henry Kissinger, have pointed out that containment was essentially a defensive, reactive policy that conceded the initiative to the other side. Others have argued that proponents of containment grossly overrated the Soviet military threat, which in the early 1950s was still minimal in terms of atomic weapons. Containment was also said to have underestimated the usefulness of long-term negotiations in solving East-West problems.
During the 1950s supporters of containment conjured up the metaphor of a row of dominoes to illustrate what might happen if containment failed in any given area. The successful toppling of the first domino means the whole row will fall. A successful Communist takeover in any one country might prompt a whole series of takeovers, resulting in an eventual direct threat to the United States itself. The logic of containment resulted at least partially in American involvement in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. Some feared that the loss of South Vietnam would topple other Southeast Asian states, so the United States became involved in a second major land war in Asia since 1945. The result was a costly and bitter conflict, deep social division in the United States, and the eventual military defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.
With military containment discredited, U.S. presidents still had to struggle with how to respond to perceived Soviet gains in what was seen as the zerosum nature of the Cold War. In Angola and southern Africa in the late 1970s, and in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s, Washington relied on proxy forces to combat Soviet influence. The United States found dissident groups and organizations opposed to Soviet-backed Marxist states. Such organizations were then armed and supported by the U.S. Examples include the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, the mujahideen resistance factions in Afghanistan, and the UNITA movement in Angola.
The obvious decline of the USSR in the late 1980s prompted much retrospection on Kennan’s original ideas and the ways in which they had been used, or misused. In 1987 Foreign Affairs reprinted Kennan’s article in its entirety. Some saw Kennan as a farsighted and perceptive observer of the USSR, while others decried what they felt was the distortion of his ideas and the high cost of military containment over the years.
Historically containment, in the context of the Cold War, will be remembered as a doctrine that did much to define the ‘battle lines’ of the Cold War. The wars fought under the banner of containment had a tremendous impact of the peoples of Asia and Africa. However, containment will also remain an important diplomatic tool in the new century and in the near future will most likely be applied to perceived ‘rogue’ states.
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