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Cold War - Containment

Containment of the Soviet Union became American policy in the postwar years. After driving German forces out of Eastern Europe they set about creating communist puppet states throughout the region, apparently ignoring their promises to allow democratic elections there. Having just won a world war, they seemed intent on setting the stage for another.

To the new administration of Harry Truman, this behavior was reminiscent of Hitler's in the 1930s. Like many of the statesmen of his age, he believed that the proper means of responding to an international bully was a credible threat of force; "appeasement" was a dirty word, as it would only lead to new demands. Thus Truman decided on a strategy known as "containment," in which the Soviets would be prevented-militarily if necessary-from using force to export their ideology abroad. Containment would, in fact, remain the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for the next fifty years.

George Kennan, a top official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, defined the new approach in the Long Telegram he sent to the State Department in 1946. He extended his analysis in an article under the signature "X" in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. Pointing to Russia's traditional sense of insecurity, Kennan argued that the Soviet Union would not soften its stance under any circumstances. Moscow, he wrote, was "committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted." Moscow's pressure to expand its power had to be stopped through "firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. ..."

Containment assumed many different forms. Under the Truman Doctrine the president pledged to defend "free peoples" everywhere through economic and military aid. The Marshall Plan provided billions of dollars for economic recovery to Western Europe, lest misery in France, Germany, and Italy lead to communist electoral victories in those countries. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a formal military alliance, and a clear message to Moscow-the United States would fight to defend Western Europe. Ultimately it would lead to actual war in Korea.

Not everyone saw the adoption of "containment" as a positive development. Some Republicans, like Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, argued that the United States could become overextended by committing itself to the security of other countries. Containment was not without its critics, and among the most perceptive was journalist Walter Lippman. Lippman believed that the result would be an ongoing "cold war" that might never involve actual combat, but would continue to drain American resources as the United States was committed to resist communism everywhere it might appear. And indeed, "Cold War" is exactly the term that has come to define the entire period from 1945 to 1989. In this curriculum unit students will learn how the Cold War began, from the agreements reached at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 through the formation of NATO in 1949.

The first significant application of the containment doctrine came in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. In early 1946, the United States demanded, and obtained, a full Soviet withdrawal from Iran, the northern half of which it had occupied during the war. That summer, the United States pointedly supported Turkey against Soviet demands for control of the Turkish straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. In early 1947, American policy crystallized when Britain told the United States that it could no longer afford to support the government of Greece against a strong Communist insurgency.

In a strongly worded speech to Congress, Truman declared, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Journalists quickly dubbed this statement the "Truman Doctrine." The president asked Congress to provide $400 million for economic and military aid, mostly to Greece but also to Turkey. After an emotional debate that resembled the one between interventionists and isolationists before World War II, the money was appropriated.

Critics from the left later charged that to whip up American support for the policy of containment, Truman overstated the Soviet threat to the United States. In turn, his statements inspired a wave of hysterical anti-Communism throughout the country. Perhaps so. Others, however, would counter that this argument ignores the backlash that likely would have occurred if Greece, Turkey, and other countries had fallen within the Soviet orbit with no opposition from the United States.

Containment also called for extensive economic aid to assist the recovery of war-torn Western Europe. With many of the region's nations economically and politically unstable, the United States feared that local Communist parties, directed by Moscow, would capitalize on their wartime record of resistance to the Nazis and come to power. "The patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate," declared Secretary of State George C. Marshall. In mid-1947 Marshall asked troubled European nations to draw up a program "directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."

The Soviets participated in the first planning meeting, then departed rather than share economic data and submit to Western controls on the expenditure of the aid. The remaining 16 nations hammered out a request that finally came to $17,000 million for a four-year period. In early 1948 Congress voted to fund the "Marshall Plan," which helped underwrite the economic resurgence of Western Europe. It is generally regarded as one of the most successful foreign policy initiatives in U.S. history.

Postwar Germany was a special problem. It had been divided into U.S., Soviet, British, and French zones of occupation, with the former German capital of Berlin (itself divided into four zones), near the center of the Soviet zone. When the Western powers announced their intention to create a consolidated federal state from their zones, Stalin responded. On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded Berlin, cutting off all road and rail access from the West.

American leaders feared that losing Berlin would be a prelude to losing Germany and subsequently all of Europe. Therefore, in a successful demonstration of Western resolve known as the Berlin Airlift, Allied air forces took to the sky, flying supplies into Berlin. U.S., French, and British planes delivered nearly 2,250,000 tons of goods, including food and coal. Stalin lifted the blockade after 231 days and 277,264 flights.

By then, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and especially the Czech coup, had alarmed the Western Europeans. The result, initiated by the Europeans, was a military alliance to complement economic efforts at containment. The Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad has called it "empire by invitation." In 1949 the United States and 11 other countries established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). An attack against one was to be considered an attack against all, to be met by appropriate force. NATO was the first peacetime "entangling alliance" with powers outside the Western hemisphere in American history.

The next year, the United States defined its defense aims clearly. The National Security Council (NSC) - the forum where the President, Cabinet officers, and other executive branch members consider national security and foreign affairs issues - undertook a full-fledged review of American foreign and defense policy. The resulting document, known as NSC-68, signaled a new direction in American security policy. Based on the assumption that "the Soviet Union was engaged in a fanatical effort to seize control of all governments wherever possible," the document committed America to assist allied nations anywhere in the world that seemed threatened by Soviet aggression. After the start of the Korean War, a reluctant Truman approved the document. The United States proceeded to increase defense spending dramatically.




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