Containment is a geopolitical strategy to stop the expansion of an enemy. It is best known as a Cold War foreign policy of the United States and its allies to prevent the spread of communism. As a component of the Cold War, this foreign policy was a response to a series of moves by the Soviet Union to increase communist influence in Eastern Bloc, China, Korea, Africa, Vietnam, and Latin America. Containment represented a middle-ground position between detente and rollback.
The basis of the doctrine was articulated in a Long Telegram by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan during the post-World War II administration of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. 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, which was later used in a magazine article. It is a translation of the French term cordon sanitaire, which was used to describe Western policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
The Federal government would surround the south with free states, free territories, and free waters, building what they called a 'cordon of freedom' around slavery, hemming it in until the system's own internal weaknesses forced the slave states one by one to abandon slavery.
Between 1873 and 1877, Germany repeatedly intervened in the internal affairs of France's neighbors. In Belgium, Spain, and Italy, Bismarck exerted strong and sustained political pressure to support the election or appointment of liberal, anticlerical governments. This was part of an integrated strategy to promote republicanism in France by strategically and ideologically isolating the clerical-monarchist regime of President Patrice de Mac-Mahon. It was hoped that by ringing France with a number of liberal states, French republicans could defeat MacMahon and his reactionary supporters. The modern concept of containment provides a useful model for understanding the dynamics of this policy.James Stone, "Bismarck and the Containment of France, 1873–1877," Canadian Journal of History (1994) 29#2 pp 281–304 online
Following the 1917 Bolshevik 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, a ring of non-communist states, to isolate the Soviet Union. Translating that phrase, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called for a "quarantine." Both phrases compare communism to a contagious disease.
The World War I Allies launched an incursion into Russia, ostensibly to create an eastern front against Germany. In reality, the policy was anti-Bolshevik as well, and its economic warfare took a major toll on all of Russia. By 1919, the intervention was entirely anti-communist, although the unpopularity of the assault led it to be gradually withdrawn. The US simultaneously engaged in covert action against the new Soviet government, involving the work of a young Allen Dulles. While the campaigns were officially pro-democracy, they often supported the White Terror of former Tsarist generals like GM Semenov and Alexander Kolchak.
The U.S. initially refused to recognize the Soviet Union, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed the policy in 1933 in the hope to expand American export markets.
The Munich Agreement of 1938 was a failed attempt to contain Nazi expansion in Europe. The U.S. tried to contain Japanese expansion in Asia in 1937 to 1941, and Japan reacted with its attack on Pearl Harbor.Sidney Pash, "Containment, Rollback and the Onset of the Pacific War, 1933-1941" in G. Kurt Piehler and Sidney Pash, eds. The United States and the Second World War: New Perspectives on Diplomacy, War, and the Home Front (2010) pp 38-67
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 during World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union found themselves allied against Germany and used rollback to defeat the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan.
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 X Article:John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011) pp 201-24
According to Kennan:
Kennan's cable was hailed in the State Department as "the appreciation of the situation that had long been needed."Larson, p. 28. Kennan himself attributed the enthusiastic reception to timing: "Six months earlier the message would probably have been received in the State Department with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later, it would probably have sounded redundant." 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 January 1947, Kennan drafted an essay entitled "X Article." Navy Secretary James V. Forrestal gave permission for the report to be published in the journal Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym "X."Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (2011) pp 249-75. Biographer Douglas Brinkley has dubbed Forrestal "godfather of containment" on account of his work in distributing Kennan's writing." Driven Patriot: The Life And Times Of James Forrestal" The use of the word "containment" originates from this so-called "X Article": "In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."
Kennan later turned against the containment policy and noted several deficiencies in his X Article. He later said that by containment he meant not the containment of Soviet Power "by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat." George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950 P. 358 Second, Kennan admitted a failure in the article to specify the geographical scope of "containment", and that containment was not something he believed the United States could necessarily achieve everywhere successfully.George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1925-1950 P. 359
Truman's motives on that occasion have been the subject of considerable scholarship and several schools of interpretation. In the orthodox explanation of Herbert Feis, a series of aggressive Soviet actions in 1945–47 in Poland, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere awakened the American public to the new danger to freedom to which Truman responded.Larsen, Deborah Welch, Origins of Containment, p. 9. In the revisionist view of William Appleman Williams, Truman's speech was an expression of longstanding American expansionism. In the realpolitik view of Lynn E. Davis, Truman was a naive idealist who unnecessarily provoked the Soviets by couching disputes in terms like democracy and freedom that were alien to the Communist vision.Larson, p. 15.
According to psychological analysis by Deborah Larson, Truman felt a need to prove his decisiveness and feared that aides would make unfavorable comparisons between him and his predecessor, Roosevelt.Larson, p. 147. "I am here to make decisions, and whether they prove right or wrong I am going to take them," he once said.Larson, pp 145-46.
The drama surrounding the announcement of the Truman Doctrine catered to president's self-image of a strong and decisive leader, but his real decision-making process was more complex and gradual. The timing of the speech was not a response to any particular Soviet action but to the fact that the Republican Party had just gained control of Congress.Larson, p. 302. Truman was little involved in drafting the speech and did not himself adopt the hard-line attitude that it suggested until several months later.Larson, p. xi., p. 303
The British, with their own position weakened by economic distress, urgently called on the U.S. to take over the traditional British role in Greece.Lawrence S. Wittner, American Intervention in Greece, 1943-1949 (1982) Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson took the lead in Washington, warning congressional leaders in late February 1947 that if the United States did not take over from the British, the result most probably would be a "Soviet breakthrough" that "might open three continents to Soviet penetration." Truman was explicit about the challenge of Communism taking control of Greece. He won wide support from both parties as well as experts in foreign policy inside and outside the government. It was strongly opposed by the Left, notably by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential campaign.John M. Schuessler, "Absorbing The First Blow: Truman And The Cold War," White House Studies (2009) 9#3 pp 215-231.
Truman, under the guidance of Acheson, 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 1949 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. 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'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.Efstathios T. Fakiolas, "Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Theoretical Analysis," East European Quarterly (1997) 31#4 pp 415-433. It concluded that a massive military buildup was necessary to deal with the Soviet threat. According to the report, drafted by Paul Nitze and others:
The second policy was continuation of the détente policies that aimed at friendly relationships with the Soviet Union, especially trade. Roosevelt had been the champion of détente, but he was dead, and most of his inner circle had left the government by 1946. The chief proponent of détente was Henry Wallace, a former vice president and the Secretary of Commerce under Truman. Wallace's position was supported by far left elements of the CIO, but they were purged in 1947 and 1948. Wallace ran against Truman on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, but his campaign was increasingly dominated by Communists, which helped to discredit détente.
The third policy was rollback, an aggressive effort to undercut or destroy the Soviet Union itself. Military rollback against the Soviet Union was proposed by James BurnhamDaniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life (2002) p. 155 and other conservative strategists in the late 1940s. After 1954, Burnham and like-minded strategists became editors and regular contributors to William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review magazine.
Truman himself adopted a rollback strategy in the Korean War after the success of the Inchon landings in September 1950, only to reverse himself after the Chinese counterattack two months later and revert to containment. General Douglas MacArthur called on Congress to continue the rollback policy, but Truman fired him for insubordination.James I. Matray, "Truman's Plan for Victory: National Self-Determination and the Thirty-Eighth Parallel Decision in Korea." Journal of American History (1979): 314-333. in JSTOR
Under President Dwight Eisenhower, a rollback strategy was considered against communism in Eastern Europe from 1953 to 1956. Eisenhower agreed to a propaganda campaign to roll back the influence of communism psychologically, but he refused to intervene in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, László Borhi, "Rollback, Liberation, Containment, or Inaction? U.S. Policy and Eastern Europe in the 1950s", Journal of Cold War Studies, 1#3 (1999), pp 67–110 online mainly for fear that it would cause the Third World War. Since 1950, the Soviets had been known to possess nuclear weapons.
Rallies in support of the troops were discouraged for fear that a patriotic response would lead to demands for victory and rollback. Military responsibility was divided among three generals so that no powerful theater commander could emerge to challenge Johnson as MacArthur had challenged Truman.Jensen, p. 182.
Nixon, who replaced Johnson in 1969, referred to his foreign policy as détente, a relaxation of tension. Although it continued to aim at restraining the Soviet Union, it was based on political realism, thinking in terms of national interest, as opposed to crusades against communism or for democracy. Emphasis was placed on talks with the Soviet Union concerning nuclear weapons called the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Nixon reduced U.S. military presence in Vietnam to the minimum required to contain communist advances, in a policy called Vietnamization. As the war continued, it grew less popular. A Democratic Congress forced Nixon, a Republican, to abandon the policy in 1973 by enacting the Case–Church Amendment, which ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and led to successful communist invasions of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
By sending military aid to anti-communist insurgents in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, Reagan confronted existing communist governments and went beyond the limits of containment doctrine. He deployed the Pershing II missile in Europe and promoted research on a Strategic Defense Initiative, called "Star Wars" by its critics, to shoot down missiles fired at the United States.
Reagan's aim was to defeat the Soviets through an expensive arms buildup the Soviets could not match. However, Reagan continued to follow containment in several key areas. He pursued a comprehensive nuclear disarmament initiative called START I and policy toward Europe continued to emphasize a NATO-based defensive approach.