Containment and the Cold War: Reexaming the Doctrine of Containment as a Grand Strategy Driving US Cold War Interventions

By Moritz A. Pieper
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 1/4 |

Abstract

By retracing shifts in the meaning, usage, and perception of the doctrine of ‘Soviet containment’, this article provides a balanced account of the extent to which US interventions were in fact driven by such a Grand Strategy. It argues that the US strategically sought to uphold spheres of influence and a global network of regional proxies out of essentially pragmatic politico-economic considerations in a wider context of containment of Soviet influence as a  Grand Strategy of discourse. While the openly confrontational containment policy of the early Cold War years were increasingly replaced by more covert ‘counterinsurgency’ operations, the all-pervasive official justification of Soviet containment arguably concealed a mixture of much more pragmatic and economically-driven considerations to keep proxy governments in strategic places.

Within the context of a Cold War emerging between the ‘superpowers’ of the United States and the after the end of the Second World War, the struggle for spheres of interests and influence came to be framed in an ideological discourse that conveyed exclusive systemic validity. With an unrivalled military and economic potential, together with the sole possession of the nuclear bomb, the United States emerged from the war in a powerful position that assigned them the role of policeman and upholder of the newly emerging liberal world order (Painter 1995: 525-48).

With partisan conflicts in Greece and Italy unfolding and the danger of states in the heart of the liberal order falling to the communist bloc, US intervention quickly became a means to uphold the political order that represented the ideals of the Western hemisphere and to contain the ‘communist threat’ at the same time. Deliberations about the extent to which US Cold War interventions were driven by a Grand Strategy of ‘Soviet containment’ quickly turn into normative arguments on the objectives and rationale of US foreign policy and have to strike a balance between a consistent account of US foreign policy (bearing in mind historical and contextual particularities of every conflict) and the danger of selective reinterpretation of Cold War history (Gaddis 1978: 25).

While the orthodox perspective ascribed the origins of the Cold War to an aggressive and expansionist Soviet , the revisionist angle blamed an expansionist and politico-economic imperial US foreign policy to have caused the Cold War. George Kennan famously argued in his ‘Long Telegram’ in 1946 that the Soviets were waging a perpetual war against the capitalist model of society, and did so by aggressively promoting their own communist model (Kennan 1946). Likewise, Thomas A. Bailey was one of the first scholars to coin and formulate the ‘orthodox’ school of thought in explaining the origins of the Cold War. In his 1950 America Faces Russia, he held the expansionist ambitions of Soviet responsible for the post-WWII-tensions between the US and the USSR (Bailey 1950).

Against the background of the experience of the Vietnam war at the latest, the revisionist school of thought sought to challenge the ‘orthodox’ way of explaining the Cold War and held US hegemonic capitalist ambitions responsible for the origins of US-USSR tensions. Famously, William Appleman Williams’ 1959 The Tragedy of American Diplomacy decisively challenged ‘orthodox’ interpretations and explained the Cold War with the US strife for empire and hegemony (Williams 1959). Cold War Imperialism, in this interpretation, was the strife to create and maintain a dominant position in global politics, based on economic and perceived politico-cultural superiority and necessarily resulting in the subordination of the ideological enemy.

There can be no doubt about the influential role that politico-military doctrines and ‘grand strategies’ have played to address the international geopolitical situation after WWII (Bacevich 2002: 4). It was the doctrine of ‘containment’, coined by George Kennan in 1946, that would have a lasting impact on the conduct of US foreign policy interventions during the Cold War. Initially understood as ideological containment of communism in Western Europe through the provision of economic aid (cf. Marshall plan), the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 proved to be a trigger moment for the subsequent ‘militarization of containment’ (NSC 68) and the fierce freezing of US and USSR into two diametrically opposed ideological blocs. Containment in this sense was to be defined as a US policy to contain or stall Soviet communism by ideological, political, economic and military means.

By retracing major US Cold War interventions from the Korean War and the Vietnam War to more covert interventions in Latin America, the , Asia and and an accompanying shift in doctrinal meaning, usage and perception, this paper provides balanced account of the extent to which US Cold War interventions were in fact driven by a grand strategy of ‘Soviet containment’. By showing that the doctrinal meaning of the containment doctrine in fact was gradually shifting, this paper analyzes the extent to which ‘Containment’ can be said to have been a Grand Strategy actually informing and shaping US foreign policy. In other words, revealing a certain flexibility in interpretation of ‘Containment’ on the side of US government executives, it is argued that the official Cold War rhetoric essentially functioned as a discursive cover for other strategic objectives that could not be named as such in public. Rather than identifying itself with static schools of thought about the origins of the Cold War, this paper thus explores the porosity and pragmatic flexibility of alleged Grand Strategies.

Discourse and Perception: Containment as a Grand Strategy

The orthodox perspective of explaining the origins of the Cold War stresses the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union and the unsettling communist movements in east-central Europe. These developments were interpreted as Moscow’s longing for ever more spheres of communist influence on the path to world as a central tenet in Marxism-Leninism (Saull 2008: 72). Communist tendencies in Greece and Italy were seen as an ideological attack on the heart of the liberal order as represented by the Western hemisphere, to which the US needed to respond as the guarantor of liberal and . Especially the Greek meant a disturbing threat to political ‘stability’ (i.e. liberal democratic order and a capitalist market, Bromley 2004: 153) and could have become a destabilizing factor for neighboring Turkey and the further Middle East (PPS 1978). Turkey would become a formal US ally with its NATO membership a few years later. Against this background, communist Greece would have become a prickly neighbor. American economic aid was intended “to combat not communism, but the economic maladjustment which makes European society vulnerable to exploitation by any and all totalitarian movements and which Russian communism is now exploiting” (ibid.) – in other words, by providing economic assistance to war-torn Europe, the US was seeking to bind it politically too.

It was precisely against this background that President Truman delivered a speech on the 12 March 1947 that would become the outset of the Truman doctrine, calling on the US to ‘support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’ (Truman 1947). Without diplomatic ambiguity, Truman already indicated the direction of political and ideological containment (a term coined by George Kennan one year before) that was to influence US foreign policy in the decades to come (Kennan 1946). The political message was clear: Western Europe needed to be sealed off from communist influences (Kissinger 1957: 7f.; 60). The US decision to intervene and support where the liberal-capitalist order was threatened was, in this interpretation, a direct response to an expansionist and aggressive Sovietization; a historical interpretation against which revisionist scholars hold that the economic expansion of the US (‘open door’ policy of American capitalist expansion into new markets) meant a direct threat to the USSR by cementing the US’ economic and political influence. As always in historiography, objectivity claims fall victim to the problem of regressive causality (‘chicken-and-egg problem’).

Suggested Reading from StudentPulse

By the time 1921 came around, Russia’s economy had been maimed by the effects of War Communism. Socialism had not begun on a good note, and Vladimir Lenin was becoming concerned with the unfortunate state of the economy. His response to the poor economy he adopted and how he planned to improve it was called the New Economic... MORE»
Advertisement
As the world's first real Marxist experiment, the Soviet Union, by virtue of lasting seventy odd years, proved Western intelligentsia wrong. The latter had long thought it was doomed to fail. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union disintegrated two years later, Western conservatives and liberals alike felt vindicated... MORE»
The Soviet nationality policy for Central Asia in the early twentieth century was an acceleration of the processes of modernization that the Russian Empire had already begun. However, building socialism in a region where no working class existed and intellectuals based their knowledge primarily on religious texts presented inherent... MORE»
What I want to do today is answer one really big question. If we have time maybe we’ll get to the second question, but I want to answer one big question, because that’s what we should do as academics. It comes from an experience I had right after I left government. I came home to Palo Alto, and one of my neighbors... MORE»
Submit to Student Pulse, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Student Pulse provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Student Pulse's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in International Affairs

2016, Vol. 8 No. 03
In 2014, the United Nations called for "a truly transformative agenda to follow the Millennium Development Goals." This study applies a critical qualitative discourse and textual analysis to examine the first priority of the agenda—to end... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 2
In the last few years the Internet has borne witness to and facilitated a great deal of social and societal change. From Hilary Clinton's positive 2010 address; ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom', to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions that showcased... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 2
Cybersecurity is presented in the growing literature on the subject as an essentially "slippery" object for state security.1 The Internet puts a lot of stress on the conventional conception of state security as the insurance of the state's survival... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 2
In June 2012, two years after the initial discovery of the Stuxnet worm,1 an excerpt from David Sanger's then soon to be released book entitled Confront and Conceal was published in the New York Times.2 This piece, purportedly based on the testimony... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 2
Cyber security is a compelling problem for scholars of International Politics. Internet technology is so thoroughly integrated into civil society, commerce, governance, critical infrastructures, intelligence collection and law enforcement that the... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 8 No. 01
There is a longstanding territorial dispute raging in the South China Sea between China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and Vietnam over several groups of islands called the Spratlys and Parcels. While most of the players involved are... Read Article »
2016, Vol. 9 No. 1
Starting with a high profile push through the region in 2011, the Obama Administration has made the "Pivot to Asia" a central part of American foreign policy. Enlisting regional partners who share strategic interests will be critical to ensuring... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

Presentation Tips 101 (Video)
Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School