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American Foreign Policy of Containment - Blundering to Success

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Containment: Blundering to Victory

        Containment, as applied by the United States throughout the Cold War, is often credited with a cause-effect relationship to the consequent American victory, but upon closer inspection, the Soviet-powered spread of communism was halted in spite of the policy’s poorly-defined goals and crucial strategic flaws. Gabriel Kolko accurately acknowledges its failures, whereas Paul Nitze seems blind to them.

The first formal outline of containment, written in 1946 by U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan,[1] revealed a crucial lack of understanding of how Soviet leaders might respond to American intervention in its satellites and national interests. Its initially-narrow scope – limited almost exclusively to Western Europe – allowed Soviet influence to begin to permeate through Southeast Asia. Containment’s overarching goal of stopping the spread of communism had no foreseeable conclusion as the policy itself involved no effort to stop it at the source, and its intermediary goals varied along with each new administration, resulting in the failure to maintain a consistent foreign policy approach. Most evidently at the time, attempts at containment in Southeast Asia caused an enormous American death toll, showing only modest results in Korea and a complete failure in Vietnam, as well as the perpetually-heightening threat of nuclear war and mutually-assured destruction. Containment’s record during the Cold War must be evaluated in full context; not simply through the rosy lens of America’s ensuing victory.

Failure to Anticipate the Soviet Response

        Greece and Turkey were the first to be met with Soviet aggression following the conclusion of World War II. Both nations were highly susceptible at the time with the former in the midst of civil war and the latter plagued by the Turkish Straits Crisis.[2] Recognizing that both would likely fall to Soviet pressure if they did not receive foreign aid, President Truman successfully persuaded Congress to accept the Truman Doctrine in 1947, sending $400 million in aid to the area[3] and laying the groundwork for the long-term Cold War philosophy of supporting nations threatened by communist imposition.

The cases of Greece and Turkey are two of only a select few examples of containment from which the consequences did not prove to be disastrous – money was lost rather than the lives of thousands of American ground troops. However, this first implementation of the Truman Doctrine proved significant in that the United States drew a symbolic border around the Soviet Union to deter expansion and formally condemned the Soviet spread of communism to neighboring nations. Although Cold War post-revisionists will argue that tensions were already mulishly high between the United States and the Soviet Union as a result of their often-antagonistic relationship during and after World War II, the sudden U.S. disruption of Soviet interests in Eastern Europe was viewed as a concerted, hostile effort to contain and stifle Russia’s national interests.[4]

In 1949, in an attempt to further deter communist expansion, the United States became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with Greece and Turkey joining in 1952. Yet, the Soviets remained undeterred and responded in 1955 with a counter-affront: the Warsaw Pact, a collective security alliance of eight communist member states in which the USSR had centralized authority. The United States failed to anticipate a reciprocal Soviet action after establishing NATO and refusing the USSR membership in 1954. Through the Warsaw Pact, Soviet influence spread rapidly into Europe, exacerbating the United States’ fear of the continuing communist domino effect.

Kennan’s Narrow Approach

From the policy’s outset, Kennan and President Truman intended to be selective in defending nations from communism, primarily applying containment to only Western Europe. However, this narrow limitation soon exposed a conceptual flaw in the policy: attempting to be selective in fortifying against a force like communism that is pervasive and by nature expands in all directions is comparable to selectively plugging holes in a sinking boat. One hole might be plugged, but the fluid and persistent nature of the force will move to the hole of least resistance. Sure enough, the Soviets were able to take advantage of the growing communist sentiment in Asia after the Chinese Communist Revolution of the late 1940s.[5] The People’s Republic of China equipped North Korea (which had been given to the USSR after WWII) and had the regime invade South Korea.

For containment to have been effective against communism, policymakers should have committed enough resources to protect all likely Soviet-targeted frontiers in both Europe and Asia. Kennan’s idea of containment could not be effective with such a conservative, politically-balanced approach; at what point did Kennan imagine his ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to Soviet containment would end? Was the expectation that Stalin would simply become exasperated and eventually give up? Perhaps the USSR would deplete its resources in a battle of attrition between superpowers. If this was the expectation, it did not happen before the USSR gained nuclear parity with the United States, which in and of itself represents a massive failure of containment. The Truman administration should have committed fully to containment or to an entirely different approach, and because of the failure to do so early on, the Soviet Union altered the world’s political landscape and eventually achieved nuclear parity with America.

Inconsistent and Ineffective Goals

Beyond this dubious overarching goal, the intermediary goals and focuses of containment seemed to vary with each new administration, failing to maintain a consistent approach to effectively halt the spread of communism through Europe and Asia. President Truman espoused the original approach as presented by George Kennan in the 1946 Long Telegram, which, as I have detailed, provided a limited scope and a variety of problems in Asia. However, Kennan’s interpretation of containment was soon pushed aside in favor of the more aggressive approach recommended by the top-secret National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68),[6] increasing its scope beyond previous geographical limitations.4 



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