Policies of Containment
Containment was a U.S. policy that used numerous strategies to prevent the spread of communism abroad. A component of the Cold War, this policy was a response to a series of moves by the Soviet Union to enlarge communist influence in Eastern Europe, China, Korea, and Vietnam. It represented a middle-ground position between détente and rollback.
The basis of the doctrine was articulated in a 1946 cable by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan (Figure 1). As a description of U.S. foreign policy, the word originated in a report Kennan submitted to U.S. Defense Secretary James Forrestal in 1947, a report that was later used in a magazine article.
U.S. Presidents and Containment
The word containment is associated most strongly with the policies of U.S. President Harry Truman (1945–53), including the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense pact.
Although President Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61) toyed with the rival doctrine of rollback, he refused to intervene in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. President Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) cited containment as a justification for his policies in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon (1969–74), working with his top advisor Henry Kissinger, rejected containment in favor of friendly relations (or détente) with the Soviet Union and China.
President Jimmy Carter (1976–81) emphasized human rights rather than anti-communism, but dropped détente and returned to containment when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. President Ronald Reagan (1981–89), denouncing the Soviet state as an "evil empire", escalated the Cold War and promoted rollback. Central programs begun under containment, including NATO and nuclear deterrence, remained in effect even after the end of the war.
Developing the Policy of Containment
Following the 1917 communist revolution in Russia, there were calls by Western leaders to isolate the Bolshevik government, which seemed intent on promoting worldwide revolution. For instance, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called for a "quarantine."
Articulating the Policy (1944–1947)
Key State Department personnel grew increasingly frustrated with and suspicious of the Soviets as the war drew to a close. In February 1946, the U.S. State Department asked George F. Kennan, then at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, why the Russians opposed the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He responded with a wide-ranging analysis of Russian policy now called the Long Telegram, and according to Kennan:
- The Soviets perceived themselves to be in a state of perpetual war with capitalism.
- The Soviets would use controllable Marxists in the capitalist world as allies.
- Soviet aggression was not aligned with the views of the Russian people or with economic reality, but with historic Russian paranoia.
- The Soviet government's structure prevented objective or accurate pictures of internal and external reality.
Other officials proposed concrete policy recommendations based on its analysis. This report, which recommended "restraining and confining" Soviet influence, was presented to Truman.
Containment under Truman (1945–53)
In March 1947, President Truman, a Democrat, asked the Republican-controlled Congress to appropriate $400 million in aid to the Greek and Turkish governments, then fighting Communist subversion. Truman pledged to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This pledge became known as the Truman Doctrine. Portraying the issue as a mighty clash between "totalitarian regimes" and "free peoples," the speech marks the onset of the Cold War and the adoption of containment as official U.S. policy. Congress appropriated the money.
Truman followed up his speech with a series of measures to contain Soviet influence in Europe, including the Marshall Plan and NATO, a military alliance between the U.S. and Western European nations.
Because containment required detailed information about Communist moves, the government relied increasingly on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Established by the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA conducted espionage in foreign lands, some of it visible, more of it secret. The Soviet Union's first nuclear test in 1949 prompted the National Security Council to formulate a revised security doctrine. Completed in April 1950, it became known as NSC 68. It concluded that a massive military buildup was necessary to the deal with the Soviet threat.
Korea, Vietnam, and Détente
The U.S. entered the Korean War to defend South Korea from a communist invasion, that is, following containment doctrine. Similarly, President Johnson adhered closely to containment during the Vietnam War. Nixon, who replaced Johnson in 1969, referred to his foreign policy as détente, or a relaxation of tension. Although it continued to aim at restraining the Soviet Union, it was based on political realism, or thinking in terms of national interest, as opposed to crusades against communism or for democracy. Nixon reduced U.S. military presence in Vietnam to the minimum required to contain communist advances.