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. 4/4 |


With the post-war international balance of power gradually shifting towards a bipolar ideological world, the US as the new policeman of the newly emerging liberal world order was suddenly confronted with communist partisan conflicts in Greece and Italy. The American reaction, the Truman doctrine in 1947, was to lay the basis for the policy of containment of global communism, the Grand Strategy that should henceforth guide and inform US foreign policy. Even though there is scholarly disagreement over the origins of the Cold War, with the orthodox perspective ascribing the origins of the Cold War to an expansionist Soviet power, and the revisionist angle blaming an expansionist and politico-economic imperial US foreign policy, ‘containment’ undoubtedly became the politico-ideological justification for future US interventions to uphold and defend US spheres of influence and to protect its economic and political interests (prevent a creeping ‘Sovietization’, in official parlance).

With the outbreak of the Korean War and the subsequent militarization of containment, the freezing into two mutually opposed ideological blocs was cemented. Subsequently, the US intervened militarily in world regions where US strategic interests had to be safeguarded against communist revolutionary tendencies that would threaten to politically overturn US regional proxies and spill over into the wider region (domino effect). In this context, US intervention in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia 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 in crucially strategic positions (regional proxy arrangements). But when the Vietnam War turned into a wearing war of attrition, US domestic support waned and gradually called into question the whole idea of Soviet containment by means of regional proxy wars in remote world regions.

Together with a period of Cold War détente, the openly confrontational containment policy of the early Cold War years was thus increasingly rendered inappropriate. US foreign policy thereafter sought more subtle ways to pursue a policy of Soviet containment. In this context, the support of dictatorial regimes and assassination plots against leaders of sovereign governments by means of infamous CIA covert operations remains a moral eyesore of US foreign policy during the Cold War period. American foreign policy strategically had sought to uphold (ideological, political, economic, societal) spheres of influence and a global network of regional proxies in a wider context of containment of Soviet influence as the prevalent Grand Strategy of foreign policy discourse.


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1.) Counterinsurgency, cf. logistical and financial assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras and other regional proxies against the Sandinista government; to the Mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan or US military aid to the Colombian FARC

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