Containment was a United States policy using numerous strategies to prevent the spread of communism abroad. 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. The basis of the doctrine was articulated in a 1946 cable by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan, and the term is a translation of the French cordon sanitaire, used to describe Western policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
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. Further, President Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) cited containment as a justification for his policies in Vietnam, while President Richard Nixon (1969–74), working with his top adviser Henry Kissinger, rejected containment in favor of friendly relations with the Soviet Union and China. This détente, or relaxation of tensions, involved expanded trade and cultural contacts. Central programs under containment, including NATO and nuclear deterrence, remained in effect even after the end of the war.
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. In March 1919, French Premier Georges Clemenceau called for a cordon sanitaire, or ring of non-communist states, to isolate the Soviet Union. Translating this phrase, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called for a "quarantine." Both phrases compare communism to a contagious disease. Nonetheless, during World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union found themselves allied in opposition to the Axis powers.
Key State Department personnel grew increasingly frustrated with and suspicious of the Soviets as the war drew to a close. Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador in Moscow, once a "confirmed optimist" regarding U.S.-Soviet relations, was disillusioned by what he saw as the Soviet betrayal of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as well as by violations of the February 1945 Yalta Agreement concerning Poland. Harriman would later have significant influence in forming Truman's views on the Soviet Union. 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" Figure 2. 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 xenophobia and paranoia;
- The Soviet government's structure prevented objective or accurate pictures of internal and external reality.
Clark Clifford and George Elsey produced a report elaborating on the Long Telegram and proposing concrete policy recommendations based on its analysis. This report, which recommended "restraining and confining" Soviet influence, was presented to Truman on September 24, 1946.
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.
Truman followed up his speech with a series of measures to contain Soviet influence in Europe, including the Marshall Plan, or European Recovery Program, and NATO, a military alliance between the U.S. and Western European nations created in 1949. 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. Truman approved a classified statement of containment policy called NSC 20/4 in November 1948, the first comprehensive statement of security policy ever created by the United States. The Soviet Union 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.
Many Republicans, including John Foster Dulles, concluded that Truman had been too timid. In 1952, Dulles called for rollback and the eventual "liberation" of eastern Europe. Dulles was named Secretary of State by incoming President Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower's decision not to intervene during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 made containment a bipartisan doctrine. President Eisenhower relied on clandestine CIA actions to undermine hostile governments and used economic and military foreign aid to strengthen governments supporting the American position in the Cold War.
Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, challenged containment and asked, "Why not victory?" President Johnson, the Democratic nominee, answered that rollback risked nuclear war. Goldwater lost to Johnson in the general election by a wide margin. 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.