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. 2/4 |

However, it is without doubt that the quickly unfolding Cold War became a psychological and discursive exercise of ‘constructing’ an ideological enemy against whom one’s foreign policy would be directed (Jervis 1976: 766). ‘Grand strategy’ in this sense meant an overarching direction of US foreign policy that would guide and determine the political course of events. From a US perspective, ‘containment’ became the reinforced and ‘naturalized’ Grand Strategy, marginalizing alternative accounts of US imperialist ambitions (Rowley & Weldes 2008: 198). In this vein, the Marshall plan already served to ‘contain’ Soviet influence in Western Europe by way of economic aid and reconstruction, seeking to both ensure US access to these markets and closely tying West European states to the US, thereby thwarting Soviet influence (NSC 7: 1978: 168). The Marshall plan illustrated an example of economic intervention to prevent the recurrence of communist and anti-capitalist tendencies by promoting a societal organization that explicitly confronted the Soviet planned economic model. The Marshall Plan, without having been discursively framed as such, was an early example of Soviet containment by means of direct economic intervention. The Berlin Airlift during the Soviet Berlin blockade in 1948/49 arguably was another example of US economic provision to favourably influence the contest over the status of Berlin (Nitze 1989: 70) - a decision which was deemed crucial in symbolically containing a creeping Sovietization in the early years of the looming Cold War.

Korea and the Militarization of Containment

The communist revolution in China in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 provided the trigger for the militarization of containment, which had hitherto been an ideological one. With US support to South Korea which fought against the communist North with the support of China, a new dimension of Cold War strategic planning had begun: The intervention of the US in Third World countries to militarily contain Soviet influence. While avoiding a direct conflict, this first proxy war in Korea inaugurated a foreign policy phase in which political unrest in East Asia constituted a dangerous disequilibrium in a bipolar ideological world where the ‘loss’ of South Korea to the communists could have provided the stepping stone for further Sovietization in the region (Acharya, 1997: 306). This ‘domino effect’ was to be avoided at all costs (Truman 1950). As Painter importantly notes: “the United States increasingly took the view that internal arrangements in other states were linked to its security and economic well-being. This view was at the heart of the doctrine of containment […]” (Painter 1995: 525-48).

In fact, assuming the right to influence domestic compositions in third states became the precondition to pursue ‘US interests’ worldwide. Ensuring US-friendly governments stayed in place in strategically important regions meant ‘containing’ Soviet influence at the same time and thus had a direct security political and economic dimension. Again, it is worth reflecting on the theoretical debate on containment as a Grand Strategy driving US intervention. Where revisionists would hold that US foreign policy has been guided by an overarching grand strategy of Soviet containment to secure capitalist expansion (in this reading, then, the military support to South Korea was inevitable if access to the East Asian markets was not to be lost), one may equally argue that US foreign policy was much more reactive and events-driven (communist turmoil as in Greece and Italy or communist expansionary endeavors as in Korea only provided the stimulus for the policy shaping of containment).

This ties in to the scholarly debate between those who stress the impact the external environment had on the course of US foreign policy (Kissinger 1994; Morgenthau: 1951), those who emphasize the influence of US political economy in the formulation of US foreign policy (Horowitz 1971; Kolko 1968; Saull 2007) and those who believe in the persistence of ideological frameworks as an expression of deeper societal values (Crockatt 1995; Lebow 1994). While one may disagree over the rationale underlying the strategy of containment (and in a realistic assessment, US foreign policy has probably been informed by all these factors simultaneously), containment of Soviet influence had become the cornerstone of Cold War US foreign policy. From the Korean War onwards, the way had been paved towards a militarization of Soviet containment as instigated by the influential NSC-68 (1950). This militarization of containment concretized with the foundation of NATO as a military alliance to unite the Western hemisphere against the communist bloc and an increasing military aid to French troops fighting against communist decolonization movements in Indochina.

Decolonization and Covert Operations: The CIA as a Secret Power in Soviet Containment

Decolonization proved to be a delicate issue in the post-war US liberal order as liberation movements seeking autonomy and the nationalization of foreign-owned property presented a direct threat to the US by disrupting economies and, in the case of Latin America and the Middle East, possibly undercutting energy supplies of the US or their strategic allies. With the Soviet Union having had control over the major oil and gas reserves of Eastern Europe, Latin America and especially the Middle East became essential energy suppliers whose politico-economic ties to the US needed to be guaranteed (Kolko 1988: 69). In this context, US intervention in Latin America, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa became a logical spin-off of the overarching strategy of Soviet containment: Containing Soviet power would mean ensuring that US-friendly governments stayed in place especially in states that became absolutely crucial for oil and gas supply.

Thus, when Iranian prime minister Mossadegh sought nationalization of the British-owned Iranian oil industry, he was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup d’état in 1953, after which the US-friendly regime of Mohamed Reza Shah Pahlevi was installed (Gaddis 1997: 165). Following the same pattern of covert CIA operation, the planned land redistribution reform by president Jacob Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala was reversed by a CIA-backed coup d’état in 1954 (Doyle 2003: 7). The agrarian reform plans were deemed essentially communist, letting CIA director Allen Dulles express his fears over Guatemala potentially becoming “a Soviet beachhead in the Western hemisphere” (Cullather 1999: 17). Similar CIA covert operations toppled and replaced unwanted (leftist and/or democratically elected) leaders in Congo in 1960, in the Dominican Republic in 1963, in Brazil in 1964 and in Indonesia in 1965 (Lev 1966: 103-110; Gibbs 2000). In a striking and blatant contradiction to the US promotion of human rights, democracy and freedom as expressed in public discourse and official diplomacy, US foreign policy did (covertly) support and maintain authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (Kirkpatrick 1979: 34-45). Klare formulates:

“In many cases […] these arrangements involve a secret pledge of political, diplomatic or military support to regimes of dubious legitimacy. What is involved here, in other words, is the making of foreign policy commitments outside of the normal decision-making process […] and independent of- if not in outright contradiction with- the stated goals of American policy” (Klare 1989: 87-118).

If American foreign policy indeed was allegedly based on respect for human rights and the promotion of democracy and freedom, these covert operations in fact stood in mocking defiance of these officially stated goals. Widening gaps between stated foreign policy objectives and actual policies and implementation (and/or selective application of stated objectives according to geostrategic pragmatism) became a hallmark of ‘Soviet containment’ which in reality translated into the approval of dubious, if not outright undemocratic and amoral foreign policy decisions. In official parlance, strategic deliberations would guarantee stability from revolutionary upheavals, thus contain global communism and “realign the global ‘correlation of forces’ in America’s favor” (by upholding a global proxy network, ibid.: 101).

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