CONTAINMENT IS a political concept that served as the muted geopolitical battle cry for the UNITED STATES in the four decades of the Cold War (1947–89). It was first articulated in an embassy report from a young diplomat in Moscow dated February 22, 1946. In the “long telegram” George F. Kennan laid out a philosophical and conceptual framework for understanding the Soviet Union’s approach to the world.
He pointed to a basic Russian psychic insecurity that underlay all their historic interactions with other nations, a sense of impending danger from the open STEPPE and a need for greater buffers and more impenetrable boundaries. Thus conflict with the Soviet Union was no shortcoming on the part of U.S. diplomacy but was more a perennial part of the Soviet perception of the outside world exacerbated by the flawed ideology of communism. Furthermore, it was the moral duty of the United States to stay its ground as the defender of personal liberty and democratic principles. This conflict was not a pragmatic case of give and take, rather a fight to the death between good and evil. Kennan called for a heroic struggle that had neither time limits nor geographical bounds.
This pathway of American moral imperative had powerful detractors from the beginning. Since it asked for the good fight to be fought at all points of the compass according to the “shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy” it allowed no distinction between vital and peripheral interests. As the Truman Doctrine became a working reality around the world, Kennan’s view of political and economic containment gave way to the administration’s more martial strategy.
Sentiments from Europe embodied in the mighty voice of Winston Churchill called for the West to seek concession from the Soviet Union immediately while the U.S. atomic monopoly remained. Containment was patently defensive in nature, giving up the initiative to an aggressive adversary. Truman’s political opponents would call for a more aggressive “rollback” of the communist advance with a more proactive posture. The early criticism of former vice president Henry Wallace that questioned America’s moral right to wage an ideological and material war against communism, continued to plague the American mindset during the Cold War.
Kennan’s insights would become the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy. Stalin had proven to be an unreliable partner in the liberation and reconstruction of Europe. Instead the Kremlin chose to confound Western consolidation by instigating insurgency in GREECE and pressing communist parties to civil disobedience in Europe. As embers of discontent glowed among the ashes of Europe, Britain proved too weak to take up the crusade against a new threat to democracy.
The United States instinctively moved toward this moral challenge but needed more than the old world balance of power rationale. The administration saw the struggle against the Soviet Union as a struggle against two ways of life, a call to the protection of freedom everywhere. Here Kennan’s concept of containment gave an American vision and voice to the epic struggle. The Truman Doctrine took a moral high ground of supporting all free peoples who would resist subjugation by armed minorities or external forces. This meant immediate military and economic support
to GREECE and TURKEY; Greece representing the European victims of World War II and Turkey the new American commitment to all nations struggling for freedom.
Each administration after Truman used the clarion call of containment as the framework of its foreign policy. Its lack of specifics regarding U.S. national interests caused much debate as to action. The countering of Soviet influence was seen to require the pouring of treasure into military bases around the world, the coffers of regional treaty organizations and power brokers, and weapons programs designed for the apocalypse. It also justified the shedding of blood in such diverse places as the Korean peninsula, the jungles of VIETNAM, and the islands of the CARIBBEAN SEA.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sees Kennan’s article rising to the level of historical philosophy, in calling the United States to a moral crusade heroic in proportion and idealistic in purpose. The United States could pursue its foreign policy in the spirit of righteously feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and defending the weak. The Cold War has been won.
The Soviet Union dissolved and communism lapsed as a viable ideology among nations. Containment’s legacy in Europe is the NORTH AMERICAN TREATY ORGANIZATION (NATO), the EUROPEAN UNION, and the newly independent states of Eastern Europe eager to join in. The United States was left with an armed might of global proportions that was available for the handling of rogue regimes such as Iraq and AFGHANISTAN.