Containment was a strategy to limit and prevent Soviet expansionism. It was a theory that said that communism was like water and would trickle into countries that were weak and unstable. In response, the US had to bolster the strength of other nations around the world in order to defend democracy and the open market. Truman made this his doctrine in 1947, as justification for intervention in the Greek Civil War (where the Soviets were believed to be involved in aiding the leftist rebellion) and aid to Turkey (which the Soviet Union was pressuring for concessions). Containment was presented as a policy option by George Kennan. In describing the USSR's expansionist tendencies, he concluded that ``Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power." (575) He called for ``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." (581) Kennan wanted the US to determine its spheres of interest and to defend only those interests which were most vital. For Kennan, that meant centers of military-industrial power, meaning Western Europe and Japan. He also emphasized that containment did not mean backing the Soviets into a corner; they should always be left an honourable way out.
Kennan had analyzed Soviet society and government and had concluded that it could not continue indefinitely as it stood. Since there was no mechanism for real change, the regime would eventually have to fall. He said that if anything happened that disrupted ``the unity and efficacy of the party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies."
The ultimate objectives of containment were to prevent the expansion of Soviet power. This was an essentially contested concept, however, since there was no firm agreement on the limits. Major problems arose when one considered the psychological consequences of losing peripheral interests; hence, the transformation of containment as a limited, realistic appraisal to the lines of NSC-68. This document claimed that the Soviets were aggressively expansionist and had to be countered wherever they attempted to do so; a policy of crusading activism was called for in the face of overwhelming Soviet power. More importantly, NSC-68 also recognized that force was all that could be used because that was all that the Soviets would understand; diplomacy and negotiations were useless and could only serve to reaffirm US superiority. NSC-68 said that the US should massively increase its military power and cut its social spending in order to do so; 50% of the GNP could be viably used for the military, if necessary, the paper said. This came out in 1950 as a policy response to the Korean War. Thus were Kennan's originally limited proposals turned into an open-ended policy of containment everywhere. His prescriptions were from a realist's perspective; although he recognized the vast ideological chasm between the two societies, he did not countenance simply going to war with the Soviets, or even engaging them everywhere. American idealists grasped only part of his arguments, and developed a policy with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Soviet regime. This was spoken most specifically by Ronald Reagan, and he did indeed see this end result.
From the idealist standpoint, this strategy was a success in its day, and if it were not for Nixon's attempts at détente, it would have worked out better, and sooner. The realists, such as George Kennan, found the strategy flawed; it went far beyond any possible national interest and committed the US to innumerable conflicts where the US had no interest. The radicals, such as Fred Block, found the strategy to be a simple push for capitalist and Western world domination; the Marshall Plan for aid to Europe was simply to provide money that the Europeans could use to buy US goods. This was said similarly for the NSC-68 plans for the military buildup, that it was simply to feed the US capitalist economy.
The strategy can be deemed a success in the long run, since it is almost accepted wisdom that it was the Soviets' forays into empire that drained away its power; that competing with the US wore it out completely. Examined from Kennan's standpoint, one would more likely conclude that containment was in fact a very dangerous policy, which placed the world on the brink of nuclear holocaust over non-essential interests. It also spawned an unrealistic American policy to the rest of the world, making it support brutal dictatorships simply because they were anti-communist. The risks and costs of the implemented policy of containment were far too high compared to the relative gains.
Various domestic effects resulted from the strategy of containment. First of all, the government expanded. More bureaucracies were created to deal with a larger perception of the world, and new organizations and positions were created such as the National Security Agency. As well, this expansion saw the movement away from professional diplomats toward more political appointments. Second of all, there was the creation of the Iron Triangle, or the military-industrial complex. This was the cooperation between members of congress, the Pentagon, and business; they were all in need of each other to survive, so that it became a growing, self-perpetuating cycle of cooperation in allocating government funds in Congress for the military to buy weapons that it would contract businesses to build, which would create more jobs, making the Congress more popular, and electable. This was warned against by Eisenhower, in his farewell address. A third effect was the anti-communist hysteria. The fifties saw the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the nation in bashing leftists, blacklisting innocent people, and calling for a tougher foreign policy. Thus were many of the aforementioned professional diplomats weeded out of the foreign service as suspected reds. A final effect was inside the universities. The social sciences received grants to develop new strategies, such as game theory, and new strategic-study think tanks, such as the RAND corporation, were developed. In addition, the universities were contracted to develop new weaponry. As well, the new development discipline was established in order to better understand the Third World.
- "ideology... taught them (Soviets) that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders." (569)
- Keenan on Soviet weakness: If anything happened that disrupted ``the unity and efficacy of the party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies."
- "Its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power." (575)
- "the main element of any US policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies." (575)
- this must mean more than rhetoric (bluster is worthless, if not counterproductive, since it shows your weakness emotionally).
- the US "should remain at all times cool and collected... its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige." (576)
- "Soviet policies will reflect... a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power." (580-1)
- "a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Rusians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world." (581)
Return to Howard Fienberg's home page