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 |


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 Cold War 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 foreign policy 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 Soviet Union 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 power, 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 Russia 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 Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa 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 revolution 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 democracy and capitalism. Especially the Greek civil war 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’).

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