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Barton J. Bernstein

The containment doctrine, with its ambiguities and imprecision, was a major strategy and the guiding conception in American foreign policy from shortly after World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 19891991, and some might argue that containment remained a policy into the twenty-first century for the United States in dealing with communist regimes in Cuba, North Korea, and China. In its most general form, containment denotes the American effort, by military, political, and economic means, to resist communist expansion throughout the world. But precisely because of the looseness of the doctrine and the differing interpretations, including questions about the selective application of efforts to stop communism, the doctrine's author, George F. Kennan, an influential foreign service officer in 1947 and later a respected private scholar, often opposed important tactics that many American policymakers defined as the implementation of containment: the global rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 19491950, the heavy military emphasis of U.S. policy in the 1950s, the extension of alliances to Asia and the Middle East, and the prolonged military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. As Kennan stated in 1967:

If I was the author in 1947 of a "doctrine" of containment, it was a doctrine that lost much of its rationale with the death of Stalin and with the development of the Soviet-Chinese conflict. I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance.

While agreeing on the desirability of resisting communist expansion, Kennan and others disagreed on whether the doctrine remained relevant, and how and where to implement it. Their disputes have often rested on fundamental differences about the capacity of American power, about the extent of American interests beyond western Europe, and especially about the nature of the communist threat. The last issue has raised many questions. Was the threat subversion, revolution, military aggression, economic encirclement, or some combination? With the exception of Yugoslavia, was world communism controlled by Joseph Stalin even after the successful Chinese revolution in 1949? After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and after the obvious Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, did the nature of the communist threat sometimes change, even well before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 19891991? At times from the early 1960s, according to the proponents of containment, was the threat primarily China and wars of national liberation in the Third World, and not the Soviet Union mostly in the developed world? Was American policy in the 1990s and continuing into the twenty-first century in dealing with Cuba, North Korea, and the People's Republic of China often the policy of containment?

Beyond these important issues, scholars, as well as politicians and policymakers, have raised other questions: whether the doctrine in 1947 was new or necessary, whether it was ultimately self-defeating, whether it was active or passive, and whether it did or should have endured as American policy into the late 1980s and early 1990s and perhaps later. Many of the questions about containment, if it is interpreted as the general course of American foreign policy, become the basic questions about that policy itself, from Harry S. Truman's administration to the first years of President George H. W. Bush's and possibly beyond.


Writing mysteriously as "X" in 1947, George Kennan, then the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, first publicly articulated the doctrine of containment in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in Foreign Affairs (July 1947), the influential journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. That mid-1947 statement, it might be said, became the near-canonical expression of containment, though Kennan himself, even in the 1940s when operating in the State Department, provided various formulations in speeches and reports that departed, sometimes, significantly from the 1947 essay.

When his identity quickly leaked out, his Mr. "X" analysis was interpreted as official policy, because of his position in the State Department and because the essay seemed to justify a recent bold departure in American foreign policy: Truman's call on 12 March 1947, in the so-called "Truman Doctrine" speech, for economic and military aid "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

Kennan's essay offered both a diagnosis of and a prescription for treating the Soviet threat; actually, he frequently termed it "Russian" and thus often used that adjective and the noun "Russia" to mean "Soviet" and "Soviet Union." His prescription attracted the most attention: the need to confront "the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where [the Soviet Union] shows signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful world." There would be perpetual crises, presumably frequent confrontations. Such a policy "must be long-term, patient but firm and vigilant." Kennan predicted that it would increase enormously the strains in Soviet society, compel Soviet foreign policy to be cautious and circumspect, and produce the gradual mellowing or breakup of the Soviet system. Containment promised the liberation of Eastern Europe and an American victory in the long run, without preventive war. History was on the side of the West. His faith that the future belonged to democratic capitalism directly repudiated the Marxist faith that capitalism would crumble from its own contradictions.

Kennan's diagnosis of Soviet policy was central to his optimistic forecast and to much of his doctrine. Soviet policy was, he asserted, relentless but not adventurous"a fluid stream which moves constantly wherever permitted to move toward a given goal." This patient but insatiable expansion, he explained, was the logical outgrowth of communist ideology. Soviet hostility to the West, in turn, was a result largely of the "neurotic world view" of Soviet leaders and of their need to create a foreign enemy to justify dictatorship at home. Their "world view" was both paranoid and functional; it misunderstood Western actions but also helped Soviet leaders to stay in power.

The Soviet policy, he stressed, could be altered only by Soviet authorities, not by any other national power. "Once a party line has been laid down," he asserted, "the whole Soviet governmental machine, including the mechanism of diplomacy, moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force." In that view, Soviet officials at the middle levels were basically automatons, and there were presumably no important differences among top Soviet leaders.

Kennan's message was clear: Soviet hostility was not a reasonable response to America's wartime policy or to earlier American actions, nor could negotiations ease or end this hostility and produce a settlement of the Cold War. His analysis became the new orthodoxy: the Soviet Union 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, our traditional ways of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."


Kennan, a member of the first generation of State Department specialists on the Soviet Union, was born in Milwaukee in 1904 to a well-to-do family, attended Princeton University in the early 1920s, and, perhaps because of his provincialism amid the glitter of the eastern elite, developed the sense of the outsider. A man of rarefied intelligence and strained sensibility, he was in many ways a latter-day Jamesian character. He was sensitive to the slightest rebuff, to minor breaches in etiquette, but, judging from his memoirs, when he returned to the United States from foreign service overseas in 1937, remained curiously untroubled by the economic depression, with its ravaging poverty, in his own nation.

In the diplomatic service, Kennan happily found what he termed "protective paternalism" and seemed to delight in the ordered tasks, the requirements of discipline, the acts of civic responsibility, the applications of intelligence, and the distance from the United States. When the United States opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, Kennan became third secretary in Moscow. He later claimed that his four years in Moscow were "unavoidably a sort of liberal education in the horrors of Stalinism," and his hostility to Marxism and the Soviet system grew. They offended his taste, his sensibility, and his values.

During those early years in the Soviet Union, he had a zest to understand, to penetrate, and to participate in Russian society. He soon complained to Washington about repression in the Soviet Union, stressing, for example in 1937, that "the great majority of the Soviet citizens who have had extensive social or official relations with diplomats during the past few years have now disappeared they have been intimidated, arrested, exiled, or executed." Such politics, he told Washington in terms that could suggest personal grievance, had destroyed "any prestige and popularity which foreign envoys might otherwise enjoy in the eyes of the Soviet public."

Having become a fierce critic of the Soviet system, Kennan deplored America's welcoming the Soviet Union in 1941 as an "associate in defense of democracy," for this alliance, he complained, would identify the United States with Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe. By 1944, Kennan was already counseling that Soviet-American diplomatic collaboration was impossible. Fearing that the United States lacked "the political manliness" to stop the Soviets from carving out a sphere of influence in Eastern and Central Europe, he proposed, in despair, that the United States might as well divide Germany, partition Europe into spheres, and define "the line beyond which we cannot afford to permit the Russians to exercise unchallenged power or to take purely unilateral action." This was the containment doctrine in embryonic form.

In 1944 and 1945, Kennan's analysis was unacceptable to many policymakers, including his immediate superior, W. Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. Harriman and many American policymakers had often defined American interests in universalist terms to include Eastern Europe, but believed that Soviet-American cooperation was possiblethat the Soviets would withdraw or reduce their influence and accede in this area to free elections. These policymakers concluded that American economic power and atomic prowess might compel the Soviets to accede to American wishes in this border area. Unlike Kennan, they believed that Soviet policy was alterable, that accommodations could be reachedon American terms.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by some historical interpretations, had temporarily acceded to Soviet control in much of Eastern Europe, and confirmed that arrangement at the Yalta Conference of the "Big Three" (with Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) in February 1945. But Roosevelt had also hoped to bring the Soviets into a condominium of great powers, to involve the Soviets in the United Nations, and, through a combination of deftness and toughness, to push the Soviets to soften their policy in Eastern Europe.

In certain ways, Kennan's analysis of the Soviet Union seemed closer to that of former President Herbert Hoover. Most notably, Hoover, who had long chafed at the growth of Soviet power in Europe, had serious doubts about negotiating with the Soviets. In mid-1945, Hoover even recommended, about ten weeks before the August atomic bombings of Japan and Soviet entry into the Pacific war, his own policy of containment. Hoover wanted President Harry S. Truman, who had just succeeded Roosevelt, to greatly soften the surrender terms for Japan in order to end the war before Soviet entry into the conflict and in order to restrain Soviet influence in Asia. Hoover had even proposed letting Japan retain Formosa and Korea, among other generous terms, in order to end the war well before the Soviets could gain territorial advantages in Asia.

Hoover's counsel failed, largely because his proposalvery soft surrender terms for Japan seemed politically unacceptable in America. But neither of the two high-level administration officials he approachedSecretary of War Henry L. Stimson and President Trumanseemed opposed, in principle, to Hoover's motivating desire to contain Soviet influence and power. These two American leaders, however, knew something important that was kept secret from Hoover and the American peoplethat President Roosevelt at Yalta, in return for Stalin's promise to enter the Pacific war within three months of Germany's surrender, had granted some important territorial concessions in Asia. State Department efforts to renege on those territorial terms failed in mid-1945, partly because Soviet armed intervention in the Pacific was still deemed necessary by American leaders in order to speed Japan's surrender and reduce U.S. casualties.

Practicing his own early form of containment in 1945, President Truman, disliking the fact that the Soviets had an occupation zone in Germany and thus a role in the postwar reconstruction of that nation, acted to bar the Soviets from any role in the postwar occupation and reconstruction of Japan. In mid-August 1945, when Japan surrendered, Stalin hoped speedily to land troops in northern Japan to establish a Soviet presence in Japan, but Truman insisted, successfully, that Stalin back down. The Soviets nevertheless stuck by their mid-August agreement with the United States on Korea. The Soviets occupied only the northern half of Korea, and southern Korea was unoccupied by Allied forces, until the American troops arrived in September 1945, a few weeks after the Soviets could have taken over the south.

In early 1946, when Stalin publicly warned of future capitalist wars, called for Soviet military strength, and refused to join the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Department of State asked for an analysis of Soviet policy. That request evoked from Kennan his famous Long Telegram (about 5,500 words) of 22 February 1946, an early statement of his "X" essay. "The more I thought about this [opportunity]," he later wrote, "the more it seemed obvious that this was 'it.' For eighteen months I had done little else but pluck people's sleeves, trying to make them understand the nature of the phenomenon with which we in the Moscow embassy were daily confronted and which our government and people had to learn to understand if they were to have any chance of coping successfully with the problems of the world."

Kennan's telegramexplaining that the Soviet Union was expansionist, malevolent, warlike, and uncompromisingneatly expressed the emerging conclusions among policymakers in Washington. The response was, Kennan recalls, "nothing less than sensational." It lifted him from the relative obscurity of chargé d'affaires in Moscow, won the affection of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, brought Kennan a position at the newly created National War College, and gave him fame and popularity within the higher echelons of the Truman administration. Kennan had not offered new thoughts or insights, but rather, at a critical juncture, had phrased in telling words the emerging analysis within the administration.

According to some revisionist historians, his message arrived shortly after policymakers had moved away from "liberation" in Eastern Europe and the hopes of using "atomic diplomacy" to roll back Soviet influence there. The Soviets, while delaying elections in Bulgaria in August 1945, had not yielded further to implied threats. The result was a virtual stalemate in this area. While pledged to universalism, and wanting democratic governments and an economic open door in Eastern Europe, the United States was not prepared to go to war to achieve its goals there.

Two weeks after the Long Telegram, on 5 March 1946, Winston Churchill, now former British prime minister, delivered his Iron Curtain address. The Soviet Union, he asserted, did not want war, only the "fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of [its] power and doctrines." The implication was that the Soviet Union was insatiably expansionist and would use subversion and aggression to take over Europe and Asia. Churchill's clarion call to the West had the endorsement of President Harry S. Truman, who had read the speech in advance and presumably welcomed it as part of the administration's strategy of reorienting the American public for a "get-tough" policy toward the Soviet Union.

That strategy included exploiting the dispute in Iran, where the Soviet Union had not yet withdrawn its troops from Azerbaijan, an oil-rich northwestern province once part of czarist Russia's sphere of influence. In early 1946, the United States pushed this issue into the United Nations forum and insisted upon keeping the matter there even after the Soviet Union promised in late March to remove its troops in a few weeks. American success in this venture established for many policymakers that firmness could compel the Soviets to withdraw from recently occupied areas beyond Eastern Europe and to accede to American demands.

In the summer of 1946, Truman requested an analysis of Soviet policy. Simplifying Kennan's analysis in the Long Telegram, the resulting study (put together by White House assistant George Elsey and endorsed by Truman's counsel Clark Clifford) stressed the influence of Marxist ideology on Soviet action. The Kremlin leaders, according to that report, "adhere to the Marxian theory of ultimate destruction [of capitalist states] by every means at their disposal." Efforts at accord or mutual understanding would be "highly dangerous" for the United States, because concessions would raise Soviet demands. Warning that the Soviet Union might start war to spread communism, the report called for "resisting [Soviet] efforts to expand into areas vital to American security." Among the potential "trouble spots" requiring American attention were three in the Far EastChina, which needed a "unified and economically stable" system; Japan, which had to be reconstructed and made democratic; and Korea, which should be "united and independent."

"The language of military power is the only language which [the Soviet Union] understands," the Clifford-Elsey report asserted. Agreeing with the general tone and analysis of the report, which was still in draft form, Kennan urged the addition of a key paragraph, which with minor cosmetic changes ended up in the final report:

Whether it would actually be in this country's interests to wage atomic and biological warfare against Russia in the event hostilities should develop is of course a question which would require careful consideration in the light of circumstances prevailing at the time. This decision might be influenced by a number of factors which can not now be estimated, but it is important that this country be prepared to use them if need be, for the mere fact of such preparedness may prove to be the only powerful deterrent to Russian aggressive action and in this sense the only sure guaranty of peace.

By late summer 1946, the Soviet Union's refusal to endorse the American plan for international control of atomic energy confirmed to policymakers that the Soviets were deceitful, suspicious, and uncompromising. How, Americans asked sincerely, could the Truman administration's offer, which they incorrectly deemed magnanimous, be rejected? Concessions were impossible. Compromise would not work. Kennan privately suggested that the United States use implicit "atomic diplomacy" to force the Soviets to accept the U.S. plan. He proposed, in the words of an associate, tactics "designed to convince the Russians of our serious intent and of the consequences if they chose to continue their present course." His proposal included the public announcement of "the construction of a new bomb-proof General Staff headquarters in a remote region"a possible preliminary to war.

It is unclear whether or not Kennan in 1946 was mulling over the possibility of preventive war by the United States. He had given some thought to the prospects of actual war, and how it should be fought, if it occurred. Meeting during the summer with General Carl Spaatz, the chief of staff of the air force, Kennan said that the war, in the summary words of a minutes-taker's notes, should be "conducted by the U.S. [as] an air war in the strictest sense of the term." According to Kennan, there were only "about ten vital points" in the Soviet Union to be bombed in order to cripple the Soviet Union and force its speedy defeat. They were not primarily cities but production areas and railroads. He saw no need to try to invade and occupy the USSR after such air attacks, and anticipated a revolution in which "the Bolshevik regime would crack."

In mid-1946, when Kennan met with Spaatz, the United States only possessed about five or eight A-bombs, though Kennan, like many American officials, was not allowed to know the top-secret number. Thus, his sketch of a bombing attack on the Soviet Union may have implied nuclear weapons or conventional weapons, or, most likely, a combination of both kinds of bombs. He may not have known that his thinking about virtually a push-button war was markedly at odds with the emerging secret American military planning at the time in which there was usually an assumption that war, if it came, would involve a long, costly conflict between armies on the European continent. According to those plans, the bomb could be helpful, but not decisive.

Amid the growing East-West tension, with his own expanding reputation as a prescient Soviet expert, Kennan found additional opportunities to refine and advance his views in Washington and in other influential quarters. In January 1947, Secretary Forrestal, Kennan's benefactor, asked him to comment on a manuscript on Soviet policy, and Kennan went beyond the assignment to present on 31 January his own lengthy interpretation. His paper for Forrestalbased on an early January speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New Yorkbecame the "X" essay. It was speedily cleared by the State Department, because Kennan's thoughts were compatible with emerging American policy. Upon publication of the essay, he became the recognized philosopher-diplomat of containment. He had synthesized the emerging wisdom and dignified it within an acceptable intellectual framework.


Four months before publication of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" and while it circulated within the administration, President Truman launched what became known as the Truman Doctrine. Speaking before Congress on 12 March 1947, he called for a global crusade against encroaching communism and requested $400 million in military and economic aid, as well as military and economic advisers, to halt what he described as communist aggression and subversion in Greece and communist threats to Turkey. The alternatives in beleaguered Greece, he contended, were totalitarianism or freedom. The world was at a critical turning point: the struggle was between the forces of light and darkness, of humanity and evil. America's commitment could turn back the hordes of oppression and guarantee freedom.

Although Truman never explicitly labeled the Soviet Union as the malefactor, his slightly veiled references left no room for doubt. Most policymakers then assumed that Stalin was supporting and planning the revolution in Greece, the intended recipient of most of the American aid. According to the later testimony of Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslavian revolutionary, Stalin opposed the revolution in Greece and tried to stop communist nations from supplying the Greek revolutionaries. Stalin was sometimes a counterrevolutionary, who believed, Djilas wrote, "that the creation of revolutionary centers outside Moscow could endanger its supremacy in world communism." American policymakers were apparently blinded by their own ideology, by their belief that the communist world was then monolithic, and by their conviction that Stalin was an ardent revolutionary and would extend communism whenever possible.

The Truman administration seized the opportunity to declare the Cold War in the Truman Doctrine speech. Until March 1947, partly because of some pro-Soviet attitudes in the United States and fears of a disastrous rift in the Democratic Party, policymakers had wavered publicly on whether the United States could reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union or whether the Russians were an implacable adversary. Resolving his earlier public ambivalence in March, Truman called for a global crusade against communism while limiting his specific legislative requests to Greece and Turkey.

Kennan, then in Washington at the National War College and active in the State Department's planning of the aid program, objected to the tone and ideological content of the message, and to some aspects of the program. Judging that the Turkish problem was one of morale that the Turks themselves could solve, he opposed military aid to Turkey. Truman's message, Kennan believed, went too far in its ideological analysis and in its global promisesthe stark portrayal of two opposing ways of life and the open-ended commitment to aid free peoples everywhere. He feared that the Soviet Union might be provoked by the tone and crusading commitment to declare war.

Kennan's anxieties eased when the administration, in presenting its request to Congress, retreated from the promise of a global crusade and limited its commitment to Greece, Turkey, and western Europe. Like most policymakers, Kennan feared the results of a communist victory in Greece and linked that to what later became known as the domino theory: The triumph in Greece would destabilize the Middle East and weaken the morale of western Europe, so that the people there might "trim their sails and even abet" the victory of communism. For Kennan, the commitment to Greece was necessary, reasonable, and desirable; it was within American capabilities; it would halt "our political adversaries"; and its "favorable consequences will carry far beyond the limits of Greece itself." According to Kennan, other European nations, then beset by communist threats internally or near their borders, would gain hope and have confidence in the United States.


Despite Kennan's doubts about some aspects of the Truman Doctrine, most commentators viewed Truman's speech and the "X" essay as parts of the same programcontainment. Most unfriendly critics focused on the Truman Doctrine. They charged the United States with bailing out British imperialism in the Middle East, establishing American imperialism there, risking war against the Soviet Union, exaggerating the crisis, militarizing policy, abandoning negotiations, misinterpreting Soviet action, misunderstanding the civil war in Greece, supporting totalitarianism there, escalating the Cold War, and trying to scare the American people. Both right-wing critics like Senator Robert A. Taft, a leading Republican, and left-wing critics like Henry A. Wallace, who had recently left Truman's cabinet because of disagreements on foreign policy, agreed that the Soviet Union was not a military threat. A self-styled heir of Franklin D. Roosevelt's foreign policy, Wallace argued publicly for a settlement of the Cold War and the avoidance of the arms race.

Shortly after Kennan's essay appeared, Walter Lippmann, the respected columnist and sympathetic critic of American foreign policy, published in a series of columns a penetrating critique of the containment policy, later collected as The Cold War: A Study of U.S. Foreign Policy (1947). Interpreting the "X" essay as the intellectual rationale for the Truman Doctrine, Lippmann focused on the essay. It was, he contended, fundamentally wrong on two major grounds: it misunderstood the sources of Soviet behavior and offered recommendations for American policy that were a diplomatic and strategic "monstrosity."

Whereas Kennan had mostly stressed Marxist ideology as the major source of Soviet actions (belief in the "innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism"), Lippmann argued on the basis of Russian history that expansionthe quest for a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and power in the Mediterraneanwas an inherited czarist ambition, not a communist innovation. By emphasizing the continuity of Russian and Soviet history, Lippmann minimized the role of communist ideology. Yet, curiously, in explaining Soviet behavior, he did not stress the long history of Western hostility and American opposition to the Soviet system. Unlike later revisionist historians, Lippmann was not placing the burden for Soviet-American antagonism on American, or Western, actions.

Lippmann agreed with Kennan that Soviet power would expand unless confronted by American power, but he objected on pragmatic grounds to Kennan's plan for the next generation or beyond: resistance with "counterforce" wherever the Soviets threatened, until the pressure destroyed or mellowed the Soviet system. Lippmann argued that this plan was too optimistic: America did not have the patience, the economic power, or the armed forces to contain the Soviet Union wherever it showed signs of encroaching and until it collapsed. Kennan's doctrine was strategically dangerous to the United States; it gave the Soviet Union the initiative, allowed the Soviets to choose for confrontation the areas near their border where they were stronger, and would ultimately lead to excessive demands upon American forces. Lippmann warned that the United States, compensating for inadequate military strength, would recruit and organize a "heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents, and puppets," who might plunge the United States into crises or compel it to abandon them and risk charges of appeasement and "sell out." Kennan's strategy required the United States to create "unassailable borders" near the Soviet Union, which would be an unnatural alliance for the West. For Lippmann, the doctrine of containment, as represented by the "X" essay, failed the test of realism. The essay did not recognize the limits of American power and thereby threatened to involve the United States in dangerous alliances, and ultimately to sap American will and morale when the policy of confrontation did not bring prompt victory.

Lippmann's alternative strategylater known as "disengagement" when Kennan publicly advocated it a decade latercalled for the withdrawal from Germany and eventually from continental Europe of the armies of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. This policy, Lippmann argued, would be the "acid test" of Soviet intentions, and, if successful, would reduce tension, eliminate troubling issues, move the two great powers toward a modus vivendi, contribute to a better life for many Europeans, and conserve American resources.

More important than this specific proposal, Lippmann was counseling the continuation of negotiations, the use of diplomacy, in order to achieve at least a partial Soviet-American settlement. The Truman Doctrine and "X"'s diagnosis, the columnist asserted, erred because they rejected diplomacy. "The history of diplomacy," Lippmann wrote, "is the history of relations among rival powers, which did not enjoy political intimacy, and did not respond to appeals to common purposes. Nevertheless, there have been settlements. For a diplomat to think that rivaland unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is all about."

Drawing less attention in 1947 than Lippman's analysis but more concern in the early 1950s was the savage critique of Kennan's thinking from the right in America. Containment, to those critics, was appeasement, accepting Soviet domination of much of Eastern Europe. In their judgment, containment was timid, if not pusillanimous. A notable critic, the right-wing James Burnham, who had once been on the anti-Stalin American left, charged that containment was the "bureaucratic verbalization of a policy of drift [concealing] its inner law. Let history do it." These critics wanted actionpenetration of the "iron curtain," overthrow of communist regimes, liberation of the "captive peoples." At minimum, there should be, these critics contended, America-directed sabotage, clandestine activity, and paramilitary involvement against the Soviets and what was regarded as their "stooge" governments in Eastern Europe. None of those proposed aggressive tactics, according to the right-wing critics, was countenanced or encouraged by containment. Those critics were actually very wrong but they could not know about the then-secret American tactics.

Significantly, Kennan had often used the terms "Russian" to denote "Soviet" and "Russia" to mean "Soviet Union," thus casually ignoring the fact that many Soviet citizens (about 25 to 30 percent or about 45 to 54 million of the USSR's population) were not ethnic Russians, and that Russian history, when Kennan discussed it, was not actually the history of many Soviet peoples. Kennan's prominent critics in the 1940s and 1950s usually neglected this important difference. But occasionally some hyphenated Americans, especially Ukrainians, did stress what was called the "nationalities problem" (the fact that the Soviet Union was composed of a number of different nationality groups) and argue that the Soviet Union might come apart, under American-directed pressure, and splinter into different nationality-based states.


Twenty years after Kennan's "X" essay, when publishing his memoirs, Kennan lamented publicly for the first time that his "X" essay had been misunderstood and that he had been mistaken for the architect of those very features of the Truman Doctrine that he had opposed. He had not intended to offer a doctrine, he claimed, but wanted to show that war with the Soviet Union was neither inevitable nor necessary, that there was no need to conclude from the failure of American concessions to the Soviets that there must be an eventual war between the two great powers. Kennan regretted that he had not explained his meaning of "counterforce" and, thus, had seemed to endorse the militarization of American foreign policy. In 1967 he claimed that by counterforce he had meant "not the containment by military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat."

Some scholars have regarded this belated explanation as disingenuous, as an effort to rewrite his past. Certainly, it is curious that, as a master stylist who presumably sought clarity, he chose a metaphor that was so clearly military to express what he claims was a nonmilitary meaning. Even some friendly critics suggest that Kennan's use of language revealed that he intended to propose more than just a political or economic responsealso a military one.

Until 1955, despite Kennan's many speeches and articles, including the reprinting of the "X" essay in his American Diplomacy (1951), he never publicly clarified his 1947 meaning, never explained that his 1947 intentions had been grossly distorted. Even in 1967, he did not adequately explain his years of public silence before correcting the record. In his memoirs, however, he did provide a 1948 letter to Lippmann, which Kennan never sent, in which he clarified his understanding of the communist threat and of the American response. In that unsent letter Kennan wrote that he did not favor the stationing of military forces near the Soviet border to halt Soviet aggression, for the Soviets "don't want to invade anyone. They don't want war of any kind.They far prefer to do the job with stooge forces."

In clarifying his understanding of the Soviet threat, Kennan revealed in this letter that he considered the real communist threat internal but often military: "The violence is nominally domestic, not international, violence. It is, if you will, a police violence." The implication of this analysis, which he seemed to deny in 1967, was that small-scale American interventions might be necessary to deal with these "police" threats. For, presumably, Kennan did not think that the United States should rely in every case on words of support, friendly advice, and economic assistance, even if they were inadequate. In most cases, he assumed, they would be sufficient. But what if the "stooge forces" were not conquered so easily? Applying this logic in the 1960s, others could argue that the Truman Doctrine and the counsel of "X" shaped, if not dictated, the commitment of U.S. troops to Vietnama conclusion and policy that Kennan opposed by 1966.

In 1947 communism was, for Kennan, monolithic. It was in the service of Joseph Stalin. "Any success of a local Communist party," Kennan later explained, "any advance of Communist power anywhere [was] an extension of the political orbit, or at least the dominant influence, of the Kremlin." Looking back on the 1940s, even in 1967, Kennan maintained that the Chinese Communist Party had been "an instrument of Soviet power"a conclusion disputed by some experts who trace the Sino-Soviet rift back to this period and contend that Stalin opposed the revolution of Mao Zedong.

Yet, in the late 1940s, unlike in his "X" essay, Kennan actually started predicting that Chinese communism might become independent of the Soviet Union and even a threat to the Soviet state. "The men in the Kremlin," Kennan thought, might well "discover that this fluid and subtle oriental movement had quietly oozed away between their fingers and there was nothing left but a ceremonious Chinese bow and a polite inscrutable Chinese giggle."

Placing himself in 1967 closer to Lippmann's views than the text of his 1947 essay may have justified, Kennan emphasized that "X" did not mean to bar negotiations, only to postpone them until issues could be settled. Whereas in 1947 Kennan had seemed to locate that time in the distant future, in 1967 he implied that he had thought it was quite near when he wrote the essay. Nor, he claimed, did he want a permanent division of Europe, only a temporary division until the possibilities for negotiations developed.

Commenting in 1967 on "X"'s 1947 analysis of Soviet motivations, Kennan lamented, "much of it reads exactly like one of those primers put out by alarmed congressional committees or by the Daughters of the American Revolution, designed to arouse the citizenry to the dangers of the Communist conspiracy." This belated reassessment indicates how far in two decades Kennan and the American consensus had shifted. In 1947, however, his tough-minded, hostile analysis of Soviet policy won him respect within the administration and among scholars of the Soviet Union. Few then dissented or criticized him, even though he minimized Russian history and ignored Western hostility in explaining the sources of Soviet conduct.


Although Kennan did not endorse the Truman Doctrine's global rhetoric, he, as well as many of its critics, applauded the Marshall Plan. Whereas the doctrine's military emphasis and ideological tone troubled many, the Marshall Plan with its promise of economic aid was attractive. To many Americans and Europeans, though not to Kennan or other policymakers, the plan seemed to offer a rapprochement to the Soviet Union, even an end to the division of Europe that the Truman Doctrine threatened. For Lippmann, the program of economic assistance was not a part of containment; but to Kennan and others in the administration it was simply another tactic in the implementation of containment.

Kennan, then head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, had worked on the Marshall Plan in early 1947 and was among those who conceived of it as a way of shoring up western Europe, improving its morale, halting communism there, prying the Eastern bloc out of the Soviet orbit, and weakening the Soviet Union. This American program of massive economic assistance promised to contain communism and Soviet expansion, maybe even to speed the liberation of Eastern Europe and hasten the destruction of the Soviet systemprecisely the promise of the "X" essay. By Truman's own admission, the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine were "two halves of the same walnut."

To the public, the Marshall Plan seemed generous and friendly, partly because the United States invited the Soviet Union, as well as the Eastern bloc nations, to participate in the program. Kennan and other policymakers knew that Soviet membership was unlikely, for they had devised the plan to be unacceptable to the Soviets. It required that European nations provide data on their economy, open their land freely to American agents, and move toward economic multilateralism. As policymakers knew, the Soviets would neither relax secrecy, upon which they believed their security partly rested, nor adopt multilateralism, which would have required them to reorganize their economy and abandon state trading. As Kennan later acknowledged, the Marshall Plan also anticipated that the Soviets would be a donor nationan expectation that would make the plan even more unacceptable to Stalin.

By reintegrating Eastern European trade back into western European channels, the plan promised to weaken Soviet power in the Eastern bloc and reorient it to the West. How longVyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, had asked earliercould, say, Romania or Bulgaria remain independent of the West after the introduction of American capital? Or, for that matter, how could the East industrialize, following Soviet plans, if it joined the Marshall Plan and once more played the role of supplier of raw materials and agricultural products to the West? To halt this "rollback" of its influence, the Soviet Union blocked East European nations from joining the American program.

The Marshall Plan, like the Truman Doctrine, contributed to the division of Europe and probably to the hardening of Soviet policies in its bloc. When the United States successfully helped drive communist parties out of Western coalition governments in 1947 and 1948, the price was increased Soviet suspicion and stepped-up suppression of dissent in Eastern Europe. As a result of the Marshall Plan, in "a defensive reaction," according to Kennan, the Soviet Union ended democracy in Czechoslovakia with a brutal coup in February 1948. That analysis by Kennan differed greatly from the American public analysis in 1948, which interpreted the Czech coup as virtually an act of unprovoked Soviet aggression.

Kennan did hope that war with the Soviet Union would be unnecessary, but he did not rule it out. He even, at least briefly, considered the possibility of preventive war. If Germany and the USSR ever combined, or if the Soviets' "total warmaking potential [increased] at a rate considerably faster than that of ourselves," he told an Air War College audience in 1947, the United States might have to move to preventive war. Echoing much of his analysis presented in his mid-1946 meeting with General Spaatz, Kennan stated in 1947 "that with probably ten good hits with atomic bombs you could, without any great loss of life or loss of the prestige or reputation of the United States as a well-meaning and humane people, practically cripple Russia's war-making potential." At that time, the United States unknown to Kennanonly had about ten to twelve A-bombs.

Kennan himself in the years after his "X" essay struggled to define America's vital interests, because he understood, in a way left unclear in his "X" essay but emphasized by Lippmann, that the United States lacked the resources to get involved substantially wherever in the world communism seemed to threaten. In August 1948, Kennan included among the key U.S. interests the Atlantic community ("Canada, Greenland and Iceland, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Western Europe, the Iberian Peninsula"), as well as Morocco and the upper part of the west coast of Africa, many of the countries of South America (in the area from bulge northward), the area of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Japan, and the Philippines. That list, interestingly, excluded much of Africa and all of China, India, Korea, Indonesia, and Indochina.

Redefining his analysis in late 1948, he concluded that there were only five centers in the world of "industrial and military policy" of great value to the United States in terms of its "national security": the United States itself, Great Britain, Germany and nearby central Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan. This was, in a sense, a sophisticated economic-industrial conception of American national security, stressing that these areas, based upon their resources and populations, could threaten the United States militarily and that the American economic system also depended upon access to most of these areas. In the late 1940s, aside from the Soviet zone of Germany and the Soviet Union itself, the crucial areas, as defined by Kennan, were in the American orbit.

Emphasis on the importance of Germany and Japan, which before World War II were the key industrial powers in Europe and Asia, respectively, helped shape American postwar decisions to reconstruct these two nations economically and to anchor them in the American-directed international political-economic system. Partly under Kennan's aegis, the State Department urged the redevelopment of Germany in Europe to rebuild the western European economy, and of Japan in Asia so that the island nation could be the linchpin of American policy and of reconstructed international trade in that area.

Containment, as secretly conceived by Kennan and other policymakers, also involved various forms of covert action abroad. In early 1948 he secretly urged the government to create a permanent covert capability, including paramilitary activity and political and economic warfare. Under the then-secret National Security Council (NSC) paper 10/2, in June 1948, concealing his action, President Truman authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to handle such operations. They included both the blocking of left forces in the West (especially in Italy and France) in 1948, and clandestine assistance to anticommunist forces behind the "iron curtain." Put bluntly, covert activity could offer containment and, ultimately, liberation. Such efforts could speed the weakening of Soviet power, as forecast in Mr. "X"'s essay. Normally, as recommended by Kennan and approved by Truman, the covert action would be conducted in such a way as to maintain "plausible denial" that the American government was involved.

Whether or not covert activities, conducted without the knowledge of the American people, and generally without the knowledge or explicit approval of the Congress, lived up to the standards of traditional American valuedemocracy and public accountabilitywould be discussed only years later, when many of the CIA activities ultimately became known. Some critics, pointing to Mr. "X"'s own 1947 words ("To avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation"), would contend that clandestine CIA activities violated Kennan's publicly implied values.

Thus, the angry right-wing criticism of containment as being passive, charges that were never fully answered by the Truman-government practitioners of containment, had the unintended effect of helping to conceal from the American people that their government was sometimes following a secret policy of "liberation." Liberation seemed to men like Burnham and generally to the American public in the 1940s and early 1950s as the near-antithesis of containment. But liberation was either the close ally of containment or perhaps, as some would later cynically suggest, even the hidden other side of containment.

Containment, mixed with occasional hopes of liberation, continued as the policy of the Truman administration. It was, in short, a counter-revolutionary policy that tried to prevent revolutions of the left, block subversion, eliminate instability ("the breeding ground of communism") in the West, and stop Soviet expansion. Containment, like most other competing American doctrines then, interpreted revolutions as communist and Soviet inspired.

Analysts then and later questioned the mainsprings of this anticommunism. Why did policymakers conclude that American security was threatened by revolution abroad? Did they simply fear that the Soviet Union might benefit and hence that the United States would lose? No. Nor did they fear Soviet military aggression in the short run, for well into 1947 no policymaker expected the Soviet Union to expand militarily then or in the near future. In the long run, American leaders were less sanguine. Some revisionist historians have analyzed the fears of policymakers in a larger ideological context: American leaders believed that the removal of markets and resources from the world economy would disrupt international trade, impair production, and weaken the international economy and, in turn, the American economy, which depended upon the international capitalist system and expanding trade. In this view, for some analysts, policymakers believed that American freedoms depended upon prosperity at home, and that the spread of communism abroad, by threatening the American economy, also threatened the American political system and its traditional freedoms. These policymakers also preferred the creation of democratic governments abroad, and believed that they were useful, if not essential, to the flourishing of the American political economy at home.

The containment policy did prove sufficiently supple for the United States to give Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavian government economic aid in 1949, a year after he had broken with Stalin and the Cominform. The containment policy, despite its counterrevolutionary implications, also proved sufficiently flexible in practice that policymakers greatly modified, and practically abandoned, it in one notable case (China), where the cost of armed intervention, in American dollars and lives, would have been exorbitant to block the communist revolution. Earlier U.S. economic assistance and military advisers had not been able to check the erosion of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kaishek's political and military power. By early 1949,U.S. policymakers recognized that they could not halt the communist revolution in China unless they were willing to commit millions of American soldiers and billions of dollars. Whatever the sources of American anticommunism, whatever the reasons for trying to halt communism, policymakers were aware of the relationship of means and ends; they knew that some commitments to allies and some interventions were too costly. China was such a case.

The administration dramatically applied the doctrine of containment to Asia in 1950, when the United States stressed negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan and military bases there; provided economic aid in May to the French, who were trying to prevent a communist triumph in Indochina; and intervened in June in Korea, in the civil war between the communist north and the American "client state" in the south. That intervention, and the policies soon following it, ended for at least a few years the hopes of policymakers that the Soviet Union and China might split, that Chinese nationalism might overthrow Mao or make him another Tito.


In 19491950, when western European governments feared armed insurrection, Soviet military expansion, and the power of a revived West Germany, the United States constructed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to maintain stability, improve morale, block revolution, restrain Soviet pressure, and ease fears about the revival of West Germany. Kennan understood these purposes, but he still objected to the treaty, partly because he deemed it unnecessary. The United States would defend its vital interests (western Europe) without a treaty, he declared; there was no need to request from signatories a reciprocal pledge that they would go to the aid of the United States. A simple American pledge would suffice.

This attack on legalisms did not cut to the core of Kennan's objections. "The Russians had no idea," he later explained, "of using regular military strength against us. Why should we direct attention to an area where we were weak and they were strong?" He forecast correctly that the pact would mean "a general preoccupation with military affairs, to the detriment of economic recovery and of the necessity for seeking a peaceful solution to Europe's difficulties." In a lame effort to avoid what the Soviets might regard "as an aggressive encirclement of their country," Kennan proposed the exclusion of Greece and Turkey, and probably Italy, as outside the North Atlantic area. His criticisms found no favor with Dean Acheson, the new secretary of state.

Containment, as Kennan recognized, was taking on a life of its own. He was its uneasy sire, torn between pride and distress; he could not restrict it to the paths he wished to follow. Although popularly regarded as its preeminent philosopher and spokesman, he was being relegated within the councils of policy to the outer orbit reserved for critical scolds, for men whose judgment no longer commanded respect. Kennan and Acheson were differing on important issues involving the implementation of containment. Their differences, in important measure, were rooted in the very ambiguities of the "X" essay, especially its definition of "counterforce" and the nature of the communist threat. NATO was partly a military response to the potential insurrections that Kennan, in his unsent letter to Lippmann, had described as political, but which others labeled as military.

After the Soviet testing of their first atomic bomb in August 1949, the Truman government, which had been secretly but slowly pursuing development for some years of a thermonuclear (or hydrogen) bomb, confronted the problem of how the United States should respond to the Soviets ending the U.S. nuclear monopoly a few years before the West had predicted. Part of the Truman administration's answer was to accelerate the effort to develop the thermonuclear weapon, which could be a thousand times more powerful than the World War II A-bombs and thus could kill millions, not simply many thousands. Within the State Department, Kennan fruitlessly opposed development of this H-bomb. Reversing his 1947 positions, he pleaded, unsuccessfully, for an American doctrine of "no first use" of nuclear weapons, and decried the prospects of nuclear war. He likened nuclear war "to the concepts of warfare which were once familiar to the Asiatic hordes," and contended that use of nuclear weapons meant that "man not only can be but is his own worse and most terrible enemy."

Kennan believed that the military needs of containment could be met within the limits of the current defense budget (about $13.5 billion): the development of highly mobile, small, unified forces to deal with the likely military threats of localized, limited conflicts. In 19491950 his analysis conflicted sharply with that of Paul Nitze, whom Acheson would soon name as the new director of the Policy Planning Staff, for Nitze was concerned with the overall threat of Soviet arms and wanted a greatly expanded budget to provide both a limited-war capacity and, more importantly, overall strategic superiority against the Soviets.

Joined by Acheson, Nitze stressed "the Soviet purpose of world domination," and they disregarded Kennan's fears that policy should not be set down in a single document, that it would lead to distortion and a freezing of policy. In part, perhaps, Kennan had learned a lesson from the reception of the "X" essay and its hardening into dogma, albeit an ambiguous one. But more important, he believed that Nitze and Acheson were overmilitarizing American policy and misunderstanding Soviet aims. Acheson later characterized the Nitze-Kennan debate as "stultifying," for he concluded that the question of emphasis in Soviet aimswhether the Soviet Union placed world domination or survival of the regime firstmade little practical difference. For Acheson, there was still a considerable "degree of risk of all-out war which the Soviet government would run in probing a weak spot for concessions."

Kennan, looking forward to the future, claimed that he was thinking of disengagement in Europe and stressed that there was no Soviet military threat to western Europe. Defeated by Acheson, Kennan watched unhappily as NSC 68, the security document embodying the Nitze-Acheson plan, moved to the president's desk. NSC 68 would cost between $38 and $50 billion, and promised, ironically, to provide the global capabilities that the Truman Doctrine had outlined, that the administration had retreated from in 1947, and that Lippmann had believed the "X" essay was promoting. NSC 68, when it was accepted after the outbreak of the Korean War, was a dramatic turning point, a bold new departure, in American foreign policy in terms of creating a larger capacity to extend and expand American commitments to stop communism.


The Korean War led to the endorsement of NSC 68, vast expenditures for arms in Asia and in Europe, and the overextension of American power. American intervention in Korea was the most dramatic test to that date for containment. Although questions about the origins of the war linger, Truman and his advisers speedily concluded that North Korea had attacked South Korea, that Stalin had approved and planned the attack, and that the North Korean invasion was a Soviet test of American credibility and a possible preliminary to Soviet probes elsewherein Europe, perhaps in Germany. "This could be the Greece of the Far East," Truman declared to an associate.

Many later analysts would stress, in contrast to the dominant 1950s interpretation, that this shooting war had occurred in the context of an ongoing civil war since 1948 between the two parts of the then-recently divided Korea, and some historians would later argue that the Korean War was, in many ways, part of a revolution in Korea. According to such a view, the Korean War was primarily a war between Koreans, for the unification of Korea, and later evidence indicated that Stalin had even been reluctant to endorse the North's desire to attack. According to such evidence, Stalin had been wary and cautious, greatly fearing the commitment of Soviet power and prestige to the North's aim to unite Korea.

In late June 1950, over the course of just a few days, President Truman quickly expanded the American commitment and sent ground forces to assist the embattled South Koreans. At the time, his was a popular decision in the United States, even though he did not ask for a declaration of war. Kennan, among other advisers, agreed that "we would have to act with all necessary force to repel this attack." He had already urged that the United States should prepare for limited war, and Korea became the test case of his own counsel. The Kremlin, he concluded, had unleashed its puppets to try to block America's peace treaty with Japan and to exploit the opportunity in Korea created by America's withdrawal of troops. A major concern of Soviet policy, he reaffirmed in 1951, was "to make sure that it filled every nook and cranny available. There was no objective reason to assume that the Soviet leaders would leave the Korean nook unfilled if they thought they had a chance of filling it at relatively little risk to themselves and saw time running out." Containment, then, could mean "counterforce" by military meansprecisely what Kennan claimed the "X" essay did not counsel; and the military test was in Asia, not Europe, which had been Kennan's preeminent concern.

Late in June 1950, after President Truman had committed the U.S. Air Force to the war in Korea but the day before the president committed ground troops there, Kennan assessed the likelihood of direct Soviet military involvement in the war. He thought that such intervention was unlikely, and that the possibility of the Soviets at that time attacking the United States was "remote." He did not believe, he explained, that the Soviets had the military capacity, but, according to the declassified minutes, he "thought if the Russians got into a world war now they would have stumbled in, and in the long run this might be the best situation for us."

In July 1950, Kennan agreed with others in the government that the air force should operate beyond the Thirty-eighth Parallel, but thought that American war aims should be sharply limited: restoration of the status quo ante. Unfortunately, the Truman administration wanted to achieve more and would not negotiate in July 1950, when the Chinese accepted an Indian proposal for a settlement of this nature. Casting aside Kennan's counsel, U.S. policymakers rejected India's proposal, partly because it "would leave South Korea defenseless [before] a renewed North Korean attack." Even before U.S. ground troops crossed the Thirty-eighth Parallel in October 1950 and moved toward the debacle near the Chinese border in late November, Kennan urged caution lest the United States overextend its lines and "frighten the Russians" into war. Unlike many policymakers then, he was content to limit the commitment of American power, not to try to "liberate" North Korea, but simply to stop what he later defined as a civil war ("'aggression' was as misplaced here as it was to be later in Vietnam"), and thereby to restrict containment. Kennan lost to Acheson and Truman, who wished to move beyond containment to "roll back" and "liberation." Korea, they then said, could not be "half slave and half free."

When in the fall and early winter of 19501951, the People's Republic of China sent in "volunteers," who pushed back U.S. troops and killed thousands of GI's, American policymakers promptly abandoned "liberation" and shifted back to containment. Some even denied that their war aims had ever included unification of the recently split nation and the vanquishing of communism there.

Relying on the strategy of containment, Truman and Acheson in early 1952, in opposition to their top-level military advisers, made decisionsinvolving mostly the insistence on voluntary repatriation of prisoners of warthat dragged out the armistice negotiations for more than fifteen months. That Truman-Acheson decision to insist on voluntary repatriation, instead of the standard procedure of automatic repatriation, was devised to give the United States a symbolic victory by establishing the unwillingness of many captured Chinese and Korean POWs to return to their communist homelands. According to Acheson, this new standard of voluntary repatriation might well stop communist nations in the future from going to war, lest their soldiers, when guaranteed voluntary repatriation, quickly surrender in order to flee communism.


The stalemate in Korea led many frustrated Americans to question their nation's involvement in Korea, the tactics and purposes of limited war, and the policy of containment itself. John Foster Dulles, a Republican spokesman and State Department adviser who would become Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, issued the most forceful challenge. In "A Policy for Boldness," in Life (19 May 1952), Dulles castigated containment as negative and called for a new policy: one that would "liberate" the "captive peoples" of Eastern Europe and not shrink from the use of nuclear weapons in meeting communist military aggression. Sketching the strategy that would later be fleshed out and bear the name of "massive retaliation," Dulles proposed that the United States might retaliate anywhere ("where it hurts") "by means of our choosing." Such a strategy, he pledged, would deter communist aggression and eliminate limited war initiated by Soviet "stooges." His critiques and proposals, with some softening and hedging, became the Republican Party's foreign policy plank in 1952: it promised victory in the Cold War and liberation of Eastern Europe.

Despite the bold rhetoric of massive retaliation and liberation, the Eisenhower administration generally subscribed in its actions to the containment doctrine, moving to "liberation" clandestinely to use the CIA to overthrow the nationalist government in Iran in 1953 and to overthrow in 1954 the elected leftist but not communist government in Guatemala. The administration avoided both nuclear war and significant limited war, and restricted liberation mostly to words of encouragement, when revolution erupted in Eastern Europe. In Korea, after bombing some irrigation dams and obliquely threatening nuclear escalation, the Eisenhower administration accepted the division of the country and the return to status quo anteTruman's original war aims. Despite the much-heralded "unleashing" of Chiang Kai-shek in 1953, the Eisenhower administration soon "releashed" him and restricted his actions. Having learned lessons from Truman's involvements in Greece and Korea, Eisenhower would not commit troops to the war in Indochina but used other tactics to prevent a communist victory in his timethe establishment of a client state that received about $2 billion in military and economic aid. Expanding commitments in Asia and the Middle East, along the general lines of NATO, the administration created security pacts, which, critics charged, extended American alliances and power beyond their natural limits. Under Eisenhower, the government used subversion and sponsored revolutions and small armed military interventions to overthrow suspected communist governments and to maintain stability. Eisenhower's major failure, judged by the standards of containment, was the rise in Cuba of a communist government allied with the Soviet Union.

Kennan in the 1950s never discussed in public the use by the American government, under Truman and then Eisenhower, of covert activities to weaken communist regimes. Instead, he deplored the public pressures for liberation, but carefully implied that the only truly meaningful calls for liberation required American armed intervention against the Soviet Union or at least in the Iron Curtain area. Kennan's careful omission of covert activities had the effect, whether intended or not, of implying that there were no such American operations and thereby concealing an aspect of U.S. policy in dealing with communism abroad.

The most marked shift from the earlier policy of containment was Eisenhower's decision (endorsed by Kennan) that negotiations with the communists were desirable and that some important differences in Europe might be settled. In 1955, for the first time since Potsdam in 1945, a president of the United States met with a Soviet premier. Although Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin, and Nikita S. Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, did not resolve important issues, their summit meeting at Geneva did ease East-West tensions. Kennan, among others, wanted the two nations to go further. In late 1957, echoing Lippmann's plea in 1947, Kennan proposed disengagementthe creation of a unified, independent Germany, withdrawal of foreign troops from Germany and Eastern Europe, and the elimination of nuclear weapons in that area. The Soviet Union had changed under Khrushchev, Kennan declared. There were new "realities." The Eisenhower administration, while implicitly recognizing some of these "realities," would not endorse the plan and even considered giving nuclear weapons to West Germany. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, denying that the Soviet Union had changed and warning against Khrushchev's talk of peaceful coexistence, condemned Kennan for preaching a "new isolationism" and counseling a "futile and lethal attempt to crawl back into the cocoon of history."

Promising victory in the Cold War, John F. Kennedy's administration castigated Eisenhower for allowing communism in Cuba and for failing to provide a larger, more diversified arsenal that would give the United States "flexible options"a capacity ranging from limited conventional war, through limited nuclear war, to holocaust. The Kennedy administration, while seeking to roll back communism in Cuba through CIA-directed assassination attempts on Castro (there is no clear but only suggestive evidence that President Kennedy knew or authorized these attempts) and the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, generally endorsed the containment doctrine and acted to enforce it by blocking communist expansion, including national liberation movements in Africa and Asia. The result was an escalated arms race and efforts to strengthen the faltering NATO alliance, but after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy achieved in 1963 a limited nuclear-test ban treaty and moved toward détentea policy opposed by Kennan.

Perhaps the most dangerous application of the containment doctrine in the Cold War occurred in October 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets had clandestinely placed forty-two "offensive" missiles in Cuba, despite their private assurances to the contrary, and President Kennedy, in response, imposed a blockade (called a "quarantine" to avoid using the term "blockade," which in international law meant war) on all new arms shipments to Cuba to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw its weapons. Privately, administration members believed the Soviets were testing America's (and Kennedy's) will and commitment, and probably hoping to use the missiles to buttress their policy to push the United States out of Berlin. Most likely, the Soviets were actually acting defensively: To protect the Cuban revolution, which seemed threatened by the United States, and to narrow the severely worsening missile gap, when the United States had about 175 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Soviets had only between about 20 and 40 in the USSR. The overall U.S. strategic superiority, as measured in bombers and missiles, was estimated as better than ten to one. In October 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis, a shoot-out at sea was avoided, the Soviets began to back down, and a Kennedy-Khrushchev deal was arranged to have the Soviets withdraw their missiles from Cuba partly in return for a secret American promise to withdraw similar missiles from Turkey, where Kennedy had only recently installed them. Only twenty-five years later was that secret deallong denied by Kennedy stalwartsfully acknowledged.

Under Lyndon B. Johnson, national liberation movements in Asia became the focus of administration energies, as the United States abandoned the surreptitious warfare that Kennedy had initiated in Indochina and openly applied the policy of military containment in Vietnama policy that Kennan challenged in 1966. Containment, he suggested, could be extended from Europe in the Stalin years to China in recent years, but the doctrine was ill-suited for Indochina. The costs were too high, Kennan explained to a congressional committee in 1966: "If we had been able, without exorbitant cost in American manpower and resources to do better in Vietnam I would have been delighted, and I would have thought that the effort was warranted." He also thought that Vietnam might well follow an independent, not a Russian-or Chinese-directed foreign policy. While warning against "a precipitate and disorderly withdrawal [which could be] a disservice to our own interests and even to world peace," he recommended liquidation of American involvement "just as soon as this can be done without inordinate damage to our own prestige or to the stability of conditions in that area."

Undeterred by this unwelcome counsel, the Johnson administration publicly justified American intervention in Indochina as necessary to stave off communism, to defeat wars of national liberation, to establish the value of counterinsurgency, to affirm American credibility, to protect the security of the "free world," to halt the loss of dominoes, to maintain access to raw materials, to restore an important trading area for Japan, and, variously, to contain the Soviet Union or China, and sometimes both. The limited war proved to be one the United States could not win, as Kennan had lamented, and the cost in American lives and dollars, as well as the disruptions and protests at home, tore apart the nation. The war divided members of the elite, produced the defection of policymakers and old cold warriors, and ultimately compelled Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to withdraw U.S. armed forces from much of Southeast Asia. Whether or not Nixon in the Paris agreement of January 1973 truly intended a permanent American pullout or only a temporary withdrawal, followed by a return as the southern government started to collapse, remains in some historical dispute. The decisions ultimately to withdraw and not return to Vietnam did not necessarily represent the abandonment of containment in principle, for that loose doctrine, at least since the fall of China in 1949, had always operated on the assumption that some interventions were too costly and too dangerous.

By the mid-1970s, with détente under Nixon and then Ford, scholars were unsure whether American policy still subscribed to containment. The détente with the Soviet Union, the recognition of communist polycentrism, the Sino-Soviet split, the erosion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, the uneasy settlement in Southeast Asia, the rapprochement with China, and the Soviet-American strategic arms limitation agreementsall marked the distance that American foreign policy had moved. Yet, American assistance under President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, despite public denials, led to the overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected communist government in Chile in 1973 and the establishment of the harshly repressive government of General Augusto Pinochet, who a quarter century later would be indicted for war crimes. Under Nixon and Ford, the continued fear of Soviet influence in the Middle East, the efforts to maintain worldwide military alliances, and the desire to thwart national liberation movements all suggested that the policy of containment, modified at times, endured as a guiding principle in the conduct of American foreign policy through the end of the Ford administration in 1977.

Containment generally continued under President Jimmy Carter, and often it easily was mixed with his concern for human rights abroad. He initially seemed to want to work out better relations with the Soviet Union. He resisted getting tough when the Soviets and Cubans became involved in parts of Africa. But, in continuing and expanding the Nixon-Kissinger policy of playing off China and the Soviet Union, Carter's administration formalized relations with China in January 1979. In December 1979, when the Soviets moved troops into Afghanistan in a brutal war, Carter moved to a decidedly get-tough policy with the Soviet Union. The administration disregarded that Afghanistan had long been judged by some analysts as already within the Soviet sphere of interest. Carter contended, incorrectly, that the Soviets were aiming to move into the oil-rich Middle East. He proclaimed, in hyperbolic rhetoric, that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was the gravest threat to world peace since World War II. He announced a "Carter Doctrine" declaring that the United States would act, unilaterally if necessary, to protect American interests against Soviet encroachments in the Persian Gulf area. Through the CIA, Carter provided covert aid to anti-Soviet, rebel forces in Afghanistan, including apparently those of Osama bin Laden, and thereby unintentionally helped nurture military groups that would later turn against other governments, including the United States, and be termed "terrorists" in the 1990s and in the early twenty-first century. Having already recently expanded the military budget, the Carter administration, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, again increased the U.S. military budget. In 1980, President Carter signed Presidential Directive (PD) 59 to provide a capacity to fight a prolonged, limited nuclear war.

President Ronald Reagan, building on the expanded defense spending of Carter's last two budgets, added significantly to American military spending. Reagan, moving beyond Carter's already heated rhetoric of 19791980, declared that the Soviet Union was a menace to world peace. Reagan called the USSR an "evil empire" in 1983, and yet, perhaps paradoxically, sought to work out some arms-limitation agreements on strategic weapons with the Soviets. In Latin America, frequently employing clandestine means, Reagan's government provided aid for overthrowing the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua and sought to block efforts by the Sandinistas and left-wing rebels to overthrow the right-wing, U.S.-supported government in El Salvador. In 1985, in words that seemed to echo the ideology of the 1947 Truman Doctrine, Reagan announced the "Reagan Doctrine": "Our mission is to nourish and defend freedom and democracy [and to support those] on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua to defy Soviet-supported aggression and [to] secure rights which have been ours from birth. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense." In his last years in office, however, Reagan softened his anti-Soviet words and policies and struggled, amid contentions that he knowingly violated congressional mandates, to escape from the political debacle at home emerging from his government's secret trading of arms for hostages and then arranging for the monies from some of the arms sales to be funneled clandestinely to the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua.

The American military buildup under Reagan put more economic and military pressure on the Soviet Union. Already wracked by economic inefficiency, beset by lurking crises of legitimacy at home and in its satellite states, and suffering under heavy military budgets, the Soviet system was unable adequately to reform itself. Some analysts and politicians (most often Republicans) would later argue that the Reagan policy of increased American military spending had been devised to pressure the Soviets to increase military spending, further dislocate their economy, and add to their already severe problems at home. But other analysts pointed out that Reagan publicly, and apparently privately, had argued for larger American military budgets not to injure the Soviet economy but because he had sincerelybut incorrectlybelieved that the Soviet military system was very powerful and threatening to the West. The Soviets were far weaker than he and many administration advisers had recognized. In a sense, Kennan's 1947 Mr. "X" forecast of Soviet self-destruction would prove prescient in 19881989.


In 1989, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, still struggling to reform the Soviet system after allowing in March the first free elections in the Soviet Union in seventy-two years, generally acceded to the defection of the Soviet satellites. Most dramatically, in November 1989, East Germany opened its border, and its citizens enthusiastically helped tear down the hated Berlin Wall, which had been erected in 1961 to halt the flow of East Germans to the West. In December 1989, Gorbachev declared that the Cold War was over. In early 1990, Kennan, now eighty-five and worried by Gorbachev's troubles in the Soviet Union, pleaded unsuccessfully for a more generous American policy toward the Soviets. Thus, as his 1947 prophecy of Soviet disintegration seemed close to coming true nearly a decade before the twentieth century ended, Kennan sought to devise ways of stopping that process because of the dangerous instability that might result. In early 1990 he also feared the de facto unification of Germany before other Europeans were prepared for that development, and urged in congressional testimony that "this dangerous situation which is developing has to be stopped in some way or other." The administration of George H. W. Bush, wary of taking the lead or significantly intervening in events, chose more cautious policies than Kennan had proposed. But in 1991, as the Soviet Union faced disintegration, President Bush, fearing the disorder there, actually counseled Ukraine (some 52 million people) not to leave the Soviet Union. But his words failed to halt the dissolution of the USSR. The Soviet Union formally dissolved in December 1991.

Containmentif understood primarily as an anti-Soviet policywas clearly no longer relevant with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the establishment of a number of states, and preeminently Russia, in place of the USSR. But among the challenges to Bush in his remaining thirteen months in office, to President Bill Clinton in his succeeding eight years (19932001), and to George W. Bush in his first year (2001) was to determine how much of the intrinsic anticommunism in the containment policy, as it had evolved between 1947 and 1991, was relevant in dealing with the very different communist regimes in Cuba, North Korea, and China. Up through 2001, all three U.S. administrations remained hostile to Cuba, and unwilling to open relations with Fidel Castro's government. All three American presidents continued to worry about North Korea, and instability on the Korean peninsula. For George H. W. Bush in 19891993 and Bill Clinton in 19932001, as well as the new George W. Bush presidency in 2001, generally the lure of trade with China, and frequently the belief that soft words were better than hard words in improving human rights policies, would guide the uneasy but often shifting American policy toward China.

At the same time, international "terrorism"sometimes conducted by foreign groups nurtured initially by earlier American covert aid, under Presidents Carter and Reagan, when those secretly funded military groups were opposing Soviet policiesperiodically plagued the Clinton administration and George W. Bush's early administration, too. Such challenges occurred in a rather new world. It was one in which the containment of communism was no longer generally a major issue and the quest for world order would often be defined broadly to mean capitalism, and sometimes democracy and human rights, in an international system in which there was only one superpower, the United States. In that postCold War world, terrorism was generally viewed as anathema to America and its values. But some critics, usually analysts on the left, suggested, sometimes uneasily, that terrorism unfortunately was rather similar, not infrequently, to the hidden sidethe "liberation" sidethat earlier containment policy, in various American administrations, had applied to help weaken communism abroad. Such an unsettling argument, suggesting similarities between some postCold War terrorism and some secret Cold War "liberation" policies under the CIA, departed greatly from dominant American, and Western, thinking. The dominant view denied that there were any meaningful similarities. That dominant view was perhaps best expressed by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in September and October 2001, when they, among many outraged Americans, sharply condemned the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., as assaults on the good by the forces of evil.


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See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations; Cold War Origins; Cold War Termination; Covert Operations; Doctrines; Domino Theory; Intervention and Nonintervention; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy .

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Containment has been the primary strategy of the United States in its conduct of foreign policy in the postwar era.

The term defines the objective: to “contain” communism within the spheres of influence which it controlled effectively in 1947. It was then that American leaders first fully perceived the extent to which communist expansionism threatened the security and freedom of the noncommunist world.

In the opinion of some observers, the concept of containment has guided the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and the Western powers, although the ground rules have differed for each side. For the West, containment of communism signified a status quo policy which did not envisage any attempt to regain any territory absorbed by the Sino-Soviet bloc. The communist powers, however, while insisting on the inviolability of their domain behind the iron and bamboo curtains, considered the lands within the West's defense perimeter fair game for aggression—if not by direct military means, then by indirect methods hardly less effective (Strausz-Hupé et al. 1959; Stillman & Pfaff 1961).

Evolution. The United States policy of containment evolved during that unhappy period, from about 1945 to 1947, when the United States was forced by ineluctable realities to reassess Soviet intentions. Repeated shocks were necessary in order to impress the hard fact of Soviet hostility upon the American consciousness, so long conditioned during the war years to regard the U.S.S.R. as a gallant ally. As the implications of Soviet dominion over eastern Europe began to dawn on Western leaders, their resistance to further Soviet encroachment began to stiffen. When Soviet troops failed to evacuate Iran by the established deadline in March 1946, American and British pressure was brought to bear, forcing their withdrawal. That same month, Winston Churchill helped to arouse Americans to the growing communist threat with his famous “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri.

The communist-inspired civil war which erupted in Greece that fall hastened the formation in the United States of a wide consensus on policies designed to halt communist aggression. In March 1947, Britain asked the United States government to take over the support she had been providing to Greece and Turkey. President Truman and his advisors responded with a proposal to Congress to provide substantial aid to these two countries. The policy outlined by the president, which became known as the Truman Doctrine, promised American aid to any country whose freedom and independence were threatened by external aggression. The Truman Doctrine proved to be the inspiration for the American concept of containment. From it issued the Marshall Plan, NATO, Point Four, and other programs and alliances designed to build up the economic, political, and military strength of the “free world.”

The containment policy, with its rationale and its objectives, was articulated most clearly by George F. Kennan (1947), a career diplomat, who organized and served as the first head of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, created in 1947. He specified that “the main element of any U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” (1951, p. 119). The communist threat, Kennan maintained, “can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy …” (1951, p. 120).

Kennan developed his thesis, in somewhat general terms, from an analysis of Soviet ideology and society. It was his contention that if the West could successfully block the communists' “unceasing constant pressure” toward world dominion for a period of time—perhaps 10 to 15 years—the resulting frustration would so heighten the internal strains of Soviet society that the Kremlin regime would collapse or, at the least, seek a realistic accommodation with the West.

The policy of containment has been executed by a variety of means. One of the chief architects of the policy, Dean G. Acheson, who served as undersecretary of state during the crucial spring of 1947 and later succeeded George C. Marshall as secretary of state, saw the problem as primarily one of converting situations of weakness in the free world into “situations of strength.” This meant, first of all, the building of military strength but, in addition, “the buttressing of all the other forms of power— economic, political, social, and moral—and the utmost resolution and unity among the free nations of the world” (Acheson 1950, p. 965). Embracing a policy of containment, the United States clearly repudiated such alternative policies as isolationism, appeasement, and preventive war.

The principal tools which the United States has employed to carry out its policy have been economic assistance and a system of military alliances. Perhaps the most important objective of the United States' alliance diplomacy has been to secure overseas bases along the perimeter of Sino–Soviet bloc territory in return for military assistance and mutual security pacts.

Critique. The critics of the containment policy have found it wanting on several accounts. Perhaps the least serious of the charges leveled against it has been the argument that American resources are not equal to the task of policing the entire frontier of the communist empire. Defenders of containment counter with the assertion that in time our European allies, whom we assisted in regaining economic strength, will help shoulder a larger portion of the burden.

More telling has been the contention that the supporters of containment as the most rational and only possible policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union have failed to take into account the transformation in Soviet society which has occurred since Kennan published his celebrated analysis in 1947. Soviet economy and technology have outpaced rates of growth predicted 15 years ago. Furthermore, the Soviet Union has thus far overcome the difficulty of the transfer of supreme power, a hurdle which many Western Kremlinologists thought Soviet leadership could not surmount.

A corollary to the criticism that containment has been too inflexible is the charge that the policy has been, from the beginning, wholly unsuitable for application in Asia. Those who hold this view are willing to concede that the strategy of containment has been reasonably successful in Europe, where the crisis was of long standing, where the remedies were fairly obvious, and where a shared cultural heritage facilitated political and military cooperation. As these critics see it, the mistake was in attempting to extend the European formula to other areas of the world where similar conditions did not exist.

The sharpest critics of containment have been those who felt that the policy was too passive, too static, too apt to concede victory to the enemy by default. This school of thought contends that the free world, simply by maintaining the status quo, leaves the communist camp free to consolidate its gains. Thus, the hope for a break-up or a mellowing of the Soviet regime in some far-distant future is considered both erroneous and dangerous. According to this view, by accepting the communist ground rules, which forbid waging the cold war on any territory already under Sino–Soviet control, the West commits a folly that is all the more unpardonable because it is, besides being dangerous, exceedingly costly.

Despite such adverse criticisms, nearly all Americans conversant with international affairs are willing to concede that containment has achieved some success in imposing on the Soviet Union, in Kennan's words, “a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection.” In fact, even the severest critics of the policy of containment agree that it provides the basis upon which must rest any future foreign policy adopted by the United States. To be sure, the United States must “contain” before it can assume the initiative. Generally, those who believe that containment can be no more than a stopgap argue that it should be superseded by a more positive policy. Such a policy should place greater emphasis on political realities, especially the need for the political reformation of the western alliance; persist in the maintenance of military defense; and, in addition, concentrate greater efforts on the non-military aspects of the conflict; i.e., means must be found to carry the contest beyond the bounds of the free world and to exploit the divergencies and vulnerabilities of the communist camp itself.

History has yet to render a final verdict on the success or failure of containment. Given the existing political and intellectual climate of the United States in 1946–1947, it seems reasonable to assert that containment was probably the one and only effective foreign policy that did not exceed the physical and psychological capabilities of the United States at that time. How the American people can put to best use the experience derived from containment in order to develop a foreign policy adequate for the world of today—this is a matter which still demands their and their leaders' most thoughtful attention.

Robert Strausz-hupÉ and David Edwin Lebby

[See alsoDisengagement; Foreign policy; Strategy; and the guide underInternationalRelations.]


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Strausz-hupÉ, Robert et al. 1959 Protracted Conflict. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

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con·tain·ment / kənˈtānmənt/ • n. the action of keeping something harmful under control or within limits: the containment of the AIDS epidemic. ∎  the action or policy of preventing the expansion of a hostile country or influence: the containment of communism.

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Containment. See Truman Doctrine.

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