Containment: An Ambiguous Strategy

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The Cold War doctrine of containment is one of the most famed examples of grand strategy in the modern age. However, it is also the most misunderstood. From Truman onwards, nearly every American President claimed that containment was at the heart of their vision of dealing with the spectre of the Soviet Union. However, almost every one of these Presidents had a fundamentally different approach to foreign affairs, making it somewhat contradictory that they all described themselves as followers of the church of containment. The primary reason for this reality is that, throughout the Cold War, there was constant confusion of what actually constituted containment. Accordingly, the story of containment is also the tale of controversy, expediency and inconsistency – all of which ultimately aided America’s eventual triumph. 

If containment had a main architect, it was the famed diplomat George Kennan. Kennan had attempted to spell out his views in the Long Telegram and the ‘X Article’ – two writings which detailed his view on US-Soviet relations. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Stalin had carved out an empire for himself in Eastern Europe, as pro-communist governments were installed in Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. His assessments can be summarised as follows: communism had not changed the core nature of Russian foreign policy, which was inherently expansionist. Marxism-Leninism was merely a justification. Driven by a paranoia fostered under the Mongol yoke, Russia would relentlessly try and increase its power, and would view any other powerful nation as an existential threat to its security. Accordingly, concordat was impossible.

Containment was intended to be a third alternative to appeasement (the policy of awarding endless concessions until the Soviets were satisfied) and rollback (the aggressive expansion of US influence into the Soviet sphere). Containment called for “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points” to stop Soviet gains and force a deadlock. This deadlock would, eventually, ensure American victory, since Marxism-Lenninism was an inherently flawed ideology, and would – eventually – collapse in on itself. All America had to do was prevent Soviet global domination before that occurred, and drain the USSR’s reservoirs of strength to hasten their implosion. 

Kennan’s influence peaked when President Truman was in power. His ideas were largely realised in the form of the Marshall Plan, which saw the US provide Western Europe economic aid to stop a vacuum – which the USSR could exploit – developing. Kennan felt the Marshall Plan would showcase the power of capitalism and lead to widespread satisfaction behind the Iron Curtain. He also approved of the formation of the CIA, and its roll in helping rig Italian elections to prevent a Communist takeover. Fearful of a Soviet foothold in Southern Europe, Kennan even suggested military action may be needed to stop Italy turning red – one of the few cases he supported outright intervention.

Yet Kennan also felt containment was rapidly transforming into something very different to what he had proposed. He was vehemently opposed to NATO, as he felt it made a war far more likely. He also was eager to unify Germany, establish it as a counterweight to the USSR and withdraw troops from Europe – something the Europeans denounced as treacherous, and Truman thought absurd. Finally, Kennan was concerned by the decision to advance beyond the 38th Parallel during the Korean War. Though Kennan felt South Korea was of enough strategic significance that communist influence ought to be contained there, he saw little point in attempting to conquer North Korea, and feared it would provoke a war with the USSR. Although Containment became a sacred cow of US foreign policy, Kennan was already concerned the policy was becoming more belligerent than he had intended.

During the Eisenhower administration, Kennan wielded far less influence. Yet American foreign policy remained broadly similar. Eisenhower began the tradition of successive American Presidents inheriting the mantle of containment, even if his policies strayed in several ways from Kennan’s original theory. Eisenhower’s Presidency witnessed the increased use of covert action in Central and South America – a method Kennan approved of in a region he deemed unimportant.

During the Suez Crisis of 1955, Kennan was an ardent supporter of Anglo-French actions, arguing control of the canal was vital for maintaining the power of America’s European allies. Kennan still believed the Cold War was ultimately a European struggle, and that America should support its Western allies over concerns of self-determination – though in some cases (namely France’s war in Indochina) he felt the Europeans were fighting a lost cause and should not waste their resources in a futile struggle. The main region of disagreement between Kennan and Eisenhower was over Germany; the conceiver of containment was convinced a split Germany was likely to provoke a war, and urged the President to enter talks with Khrushchev to rectify this reality. The Eisenhower administration felt very differently, and Vice President Richard Nixon regularly rebuked Kennan in public, creating in the latter what later amounted to a pathological loathing. 

Kennan was accordingly delighted when Nixon was defeated in the 1960 election by John Kennedy. Kennedy’s tenure was, in many ways, a return to Kennan’s views on grand strategy – a return symbolised by Kennan’s return to politics as ambassador to Yugoslavia. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear holocaust appeared imminent, and many in Washington pushed for rollback and the expulsion of communism from Cuba. Kennedy, sensing this would cause little short of the Third World War, managed to find a restrained, diplomatic way to have Soviet missiles removed from the island. Through negotiations and the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce”, Kennedy had managed to restrain Communism. Rather than a success of military containment, Cuba was a political triumph of the sort Kennan had originally envisioned. 

Yet it was under Kennedy’s successor, President Johnson, that Kennan’s relationship with the White House exploded. Johnson saw himself as a fervent adherent to the tenets of Containment, and concerns surrounding domino theory led him to send hundreds of thousands of Americans into the jungles of Vietnam to check the advance of Ho Chi Minh. Johnson aimed only to hold the line, and was so concerned that patriotic voices in America would begin to call for rollback that he privately prevented rallies in support for the war. Unfortunately, this strategy was utterly unworkable.

America was caught in quagmire, unable to ever throw a knock out punch at North Vietnam, instead simply absorbing endless assaults with countless lives. Kennan was apoplectic. He thought Johnson may end up provoking a world war, and was by now completely opposed to the use of military force to contain communism. He felt his doctrine was being perverted, and that America was fighting a war for a strategically worthless region he had never meant for his strategy to be applied to. 

Johnson was succeeded by Kennan’s old foe, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s plan to win the Vietnam War was to expand the conflict to Cambodia and Laos, and adhere to a “mad man” strategy, in which he would act so unpredictably that a terrified Vietnam would suspect a nuclear attack was imminent and negotiate. Kennan was as supportive of these policies as can be expected. He even opposed Nixon’s later policy of Vietnamisation, believing America was wasting resources for its own pride.

The irony was that Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger managed to achieve several breakthroughs in line with Kennan’s conception of containment, and he probably would have lauded them had any other President achieved them. The famed opening to China was a way to exert tremendous political pressure on the USSR, while Nixon’s visit to Moscow and détente helped stabilise relations without awarding concessions. Moreover, both Nixon and Kissinger saw the Cold War more as a geopolitical game than an ideological struggle, a view Kennan had espoused for decades. 

Kennan was broadly supportive of the policies of President Carter, who sought to foster stronger ties with both China and the USSR. In contrast, Kennan had a deep loathing for Carter’s successor – President Reagan. Although his policies were not as extreme as his campaign speeches, Reagan began sending increased aid to anti-communist Afghan mujahideen and Nicaraguan Contras. The Cold War became a war of words, as Reagan denounced the “Evil Empire” and labelled the Kremlin “the focus of evil in the modern world.” Most significantly, Reagan began an enormous arms buildup, designed to either overawe the Soviets or bankrupt them. Kennan was horrified, terming Reagan the “most dangerous” leader of the Cold War (a list which included Joseph Stalin). The irony was that, in many ways, Raegan was using ideas initially proposed by Kennan. 

Reagan felt relying on the word of Soviet officials was a dangerous game, and the only way to ensure dialogue was productive was to negotiate from strength – a position held by Kennan in the Long Telegram. For all his rhetoric, Reagan was cautious about directly using the US military in interventions to contain communism; in his eight years as President, he launched one war. It lasted two days. Instead, Reagan preferred to throw American support behind anti-communist regimes and groups, in ways not dissimilar to what Kennan once advocated, albeit on a far smaller scale. Reagan wanted to economically and politically bankrupt the Soviets to hasten their fall, another position Kennan had endorsed in the X Article. Kennan’s main fear of Reagan’s policies was they would trigger a US-Soviet War, but by 1989, relations between the superpowers had substantially improved.

Despite the fact America eventually won the Cold War, it is increasingly difficult to find defenders of Containment. Those on the right decry containment as too passive, and note the USSR only fell after America began to take a more aggressive stance. Those on the left feel Containment promoted unnecessary interventions that cost countless lives. Even the father of Containment, George Kennan, came to denounce what his doctrine morphed into. The day the Berlin Wall fell, Kennan wrote in his diary that nothing good would ever come of these developments, and by the end of his life had become convinced America had never followed his  strategy and had gained victory in the Cold War largely by accident. 

Instead of attempting to classify containment as a single set of precise policies, it is perhaps better to view it is a loose collection of notions held by Washington. At its core, containment was the idea that if America could prevent communism spreading across the globe, it would eventually win the Cold War without having to directly battle the USSR. This assessment proved accurate. Though Kennan later denounced the scale of and methods used to ensure containment, it was perhaps impractical to suggest that there could have been such a thing as a limited war for the world. Once the competition began in earnest, matters escalated too quickly for that, and all options barred total war became possibilities. Though it’s founder may have repudiated it, the theory behind containment allowed America to win the Cold War.

Gaddis, J., 2012. George F Kennan: An American Life. Penguin