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. 3/4 |

From Vietnam to Chile: Shifting Perceptions of Containment and Regional Proxy Arrangements

After the French left Vietnam in 1954, the US became more involved through its attempts of post-colonial state-building in South Vietnam. US intervention was intended to secure an allied government against the communist North (Haig 1992: 117f.). With increased conflict between North and South Vietnam and especially after the NLF offensive of 1960, the US again had to step up its military presence since a withdrawal from South Vietnam would have meant surrender to a communist aggressor and had become unthinkable if strategic credibility against the ideological enemy was to be kept. Discourse and speech act analyses of the Johnson and following Nixon administration are indicative of the extent to which the concept of communist containment was upheld as a key tenet of US foreign policy (Lorell & Kelley 1985: 38, 56; Johnson 1964; Nixon 1969: 901f.).

Containment still served as a public justification for a bloody war of attrition that would last until 1973 and that gravely damaged the US’ image as beacon of liberty and human rights with such infamous bombing raids like Operation Rolling Thunder or the bombing of neighboring Cambodia (Palmer 1978: 112). Yet, the fact that the argument of Soviet containment still remained the official justification for US intervention in this proxy war seemed to prove the (official) pervasiveness of this Grand Strategy in the conduct of US foreign policy. On a critical side note, however, it seems legitimate to reflect on the extent to which US foreign policy in Vietnam after 1965 was partially to be explained by a certain (macabre) path dependency (withdrawal simply was no option anymore if the US were to save its face against the communist North and its Soviet sponsors).

The rising death toll, eventually, inaugurated a final phase of the Vietnam War in which the abstract concept of containment of the ideological enemy was not sufficient anymore to justify a war in Southeast Asia that the US arguably had no recognizable strategic interest in (Talbott 1988: 100). Domestic politics and public opinion henceforth became much more influential factors in US foreign policy decision making. The certainty of containment as a Grand Strategy driving US foreign policy and justifying third world interventions had been questioned (Lorell & Kelley 1985: 61f.). This shift in doctrinal importance coincided with a general period of détente during the 1970s which paved the way for the gradual thawing of frosty relations between the US and the USSR (Litwack 1984).

Containment, then, shifted from being a Grand Strategy in public discourse to justify overt military interventions to becoming the underlying justification for a number of covert operations and ‘unconventional warfare’ methods in the 1970s and 1980s (McClintock 2002). The importance given to formal alliance systems during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations gradually gave way to a higher prioritization of informal proxy networks. As perceptions changed (public opinion and domestic politics becoming more influential and increasingly critical of Third World surrogate wars) and political conditions shifted (period of détente, rendering the openly confrontational containment policy of the early Cold War years increasingly inappropriate), US foreign policy sought other ways to pursue and convey a policy of Soviet containment (“propaganda shift to international terrorists, Hispanic narcotraffickers, crazed Arabs, and other chimeras,” Chomsky 1992: 142).

In this context, the CIA grew to a mighty apparatus of secret power beyond public scrutiny (Bames 1981: 399-415, conducting operations against unwanted socialist movements and explicitly assisting pro-US governments financially and technologically- or, for that matter, opposition movements and anti-communist insurgencies fighting socialist regimes in place.1 Under the Nixon and Reagan administration, the US supported friendly regional powers conducting counterrevolutionary activities in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chad, Ethiopia, Angola, Libya, South Yemen and Nicaragua (Klare 1989; Norden & Russell 2002: 25). Especially in Latin America, US intervention came prior to any Soviet sponsorship of revolutionary activities, rendering ‘containment’ as a Grand Strategy nothing but a political pretext to pursue US political and economic interests (Stokes 2005: 33) - a ‘conceptual framework for the regional military transformation […]’, as McClintock wryly puts it (McClintock 2001: 9).

The CIA-backed coup d’état against the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was one such example of rationalist Cold War strategic thinking in proxy arrangements that tied in with CIA-backed paramilitary activities in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America earlier. With financial contributions to opposition parties and conservative newspapers such as El Mercurio, the US began influencing events in Chile by means of anti-Allende propaganda, eventually paving the way for the coming to power of the military junta by General Augusto Pinochet. Under his regime, thousands of oppositionists were persecuted and murdered by the newly established secret police DINA. The extent of the involvement of the Nixon administration (with the highly influential national security adviser and later state secretary Henry Kissinger) in the affairs in Chile even after the coming into power of Pinochet, fully came to light with the later Church Committee and declassified documents by the CIA itself (Johnson 2004: 3-14). Documents also evidence (albeit not completely) US involvement in the larger Operation Condor in Latin America, an operation to systematically persecute leftist oppositionists in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil- still with the argument of the fear of Marxist revolution in these countries that would spill over to neighboring states (McClintock 2001: 3;8). The support of dictatorial leaders particularly in Latin American countries and assassination plots against leaders of sovereign governments remains a moral eyesore of the ‘Grand Strategy’ of containment of US administrations in the 1970s and 1980s as practiced through regional proxy arrangements. Behind the official justification of Soviet containment arguably often lay a mixture of pragmatic politico-economic considerations to keep proxy governments in place.

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