Containment and Détente

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The term containment has taken on many meanings but it is mostly used to refer to a changing set of Cold War policies by which the United States tried to limit the extent and the spread of the Soviet Union's political or military influence. Detente was a lasting relaxation of the antagonism between the United States and the Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s. These policies had a direct effect on American society, culture, and national identity. Following World War II, the containment policy provided the rationale for America's rearmament, the Red Scare of the 1950s, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was also a central element in the Cold War (1946–1991)—the military, economic, political, and ideological conflict with communism.

origins of containment

Attempts at containing the Soviet Union began almost as soon as it became obvious that the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 might succeed. With World War I raging, German successes on the eastern front and a war-weary Russian population helped the Bolsheviks seize power at a time when the first American troops were arriving in Europe. After Russia reached a peace agreement with Germany at Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, German forces were transferred to fight against American troops on the western front. This seemed to many Americans like a betrayal, and U.S. soldiers were deployed to keep supplies stockpiled in Siberia from falling into German hands and to help the so-called Czech Legion leave Russia. This half-hearted attempt at military containment cost more than 200 hundred American lives and continued even after the ceasefire on November 11, 1918; the last American troops left Soviet soil on June 3, 1919.

After World War I, by helping Germany with its reparations through Dawes Plan and the Young Plan, the United States created a bulwark against communist encroachment in Europe, employing humanitarian aid to European countries to prevent a spread of Soviet influence. Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover ignored Soviet efforts to establish diplomatic relations.

In 1933, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried stimulating exports to the Soviet Union by finally giving the country diplomatic recognition. In light of the increased danger posed by Nazi Germany and World War II, the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States moved into the background. But even before the end of World War II, it had become obvious that the ideological antagonism had only been glossed over by wartime cooperation. The administration of occupied Germany revealed the dysfunctional relationship between the Western allies and the Soviet Union. Explaining this antagonism, George F. Kennan, the chargé d'affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow, wrote in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," appearing in the July 1, 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs under a pseudonym, that "the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." If the Soviet Union could be prevented from expanding, Kennan argued, its domestic social and economic strains would soon lead to its collapse.

What many thought a workable strategy was criticized almost immediately by journalist Walter Lippmann, among others, who interpreted Kennan's essay as a call to arms, and by John Foster Dulles, one of the leading Republican foreign relations experts and later secretary of state from 1953 to 1959, who claimed that the United States should not contain but rather "roll back" communism. With Secretary of State George C. Marshall convinced that negotiations with his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov would not resolve the economic and humanitarian problems of Europe, the idea of containment became the backbone of American foreign policy. Kennan, by then director of the Policy Planning Staff (PPS), was charged with setting guidelines for a plan of European reconstruction and rehabilitation that would keep the Soviet Union from profiting politically and at the same time prevent Germany from once again becoming a menace to the world.

testing containment

Containment was the cornerstone of American foreign relations until the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear device and Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the People's Republic of China in October 1949. Containment had failed. A more assertive policy, it seemed, was needed to check communist advances. President Harry Truman ordered the National Security Council to review American policy, and National Security Memorandum No. 68 (NSC #68) was drafted in April 1950 under the supervision of Paul Nitze, who had succeeded Kennan as director of the PPS. It called for a swift buildup of the political, economic, and military power of the "free world." It also stressed as pivotal the need for the United States to "possess superior overall power" to reveal the "falsities of Soviet pretensions" and foster the "seeds of destruction within the Soviet system."

Containment faced a crucial test in the Korean War. After tens of thousands of American soldiers died on the battlefield and a ceasefire divided North and South Korea at roughly the prewar line, military containment was considered to have proven itself. However, an understanding developed after the abortive 1956 rising in Hungary that any attempt at rolling back communism would come at a prohibitive price. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 proved that nuclear armament by the Cold War adversaries had created a stalemate that could provide for mutual deterrence. After France suffered a dramatic defeat in its colony Indochina (later known as Vietnam), the United States was willing to step up support for the South Vietnamese government, which was threatened by a popular nationalist and communist movement. The containment of communism in Vietnam was perceived as a first line of defense: If Vietnam "fell," the other states in that region, like dominoes, would follow suit. Even Japan's stability was considered to be in danger.

By the end of the 1960s and with the Vietnam War still raging, both the United States and the Soviet Union saw that continuing the arms race did not increase the likelihood of achieving their political goals and that it risked all-out nuclear war and mutual annihilation. On the global level, a period of détente set in. President Richard M. Nixon traveled to Moscow in May 1972, and Henry Kissinger visited China. Nixon and the Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev signed a number of agreements on arms control. Most important was the Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) Treaty, ratified by Congress the same year. However, tensions over the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union let to a cooling of relations. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter was supportive of arms limitations but at the same time approved increased military spending. His support of human rights and anger over the 1979 Soviet invasion in Afghanistan let to the collapse of détente and prepared the ground for a return to a more aggressive containment policy.

During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, rollback surfaced as the prime doctrine of American foreign relations. Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and in 1983 National Security Decision Directive 75 maintained that containing and ultimately reversing Soviet expansionism, particularly in the so-called developing world, was of central interest to the United States. Thus the Reagan administration sponsored the Contras in an effort to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and provided considerable support for Islamist mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The renewed arms race put a strain on Soviet society that the internal reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev could not counteract. Gorbachev retreated, allowing the East European satellite states to break away in 1989. In 1991, he was forced to turn over power to Boris Yeltsin, who banned the Communist Party in Russia. On Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Union had been dissolved.

The impact of containment on American society was dramatic. With the advent of militarized containment after 1950, the United States was halfway to a war footing. This meant substantive military spending. Nonetheless, the 1950s were a period of affluence, when large portions of the population aspired to the trappings of middle class life: a suburban home, job security, and plentiful consumer goods. However, it was also a period of fear that communist agents had infiltrated American institutions and that the Soviet Union was poised to attack the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy cashed in on this fear and fostered it. After the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear device in 1949, and even more markedly after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite in 1957, nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. Containment served at home to help suppress civil liberties activists and union organizers. The overall impact of containment on American society and its exact cost to the domestic and global economy are impossible to pin down. Among them, however, are a political culture of distrust and fear coupled with tangible self-righteousness, an enormous national debt, and a revulsion to apply military force for political ends even within the context of the

United Nations after the end of the Vietnam War that has been termed the Vietnam syndrome. The benefits were the demise of what seemed at the time an ardent and dangerous adversary and, at least for a short period, the hope for a more peaceful and prosperous world.


Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Isaacson, Walter, and Thomas, Evan. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohlen, Harriman, Kennan, Lovett, McCloy. London: Faber & Faber, 1986.

McCormick, Thomas J. America's Half-Century: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Cold War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Miller, David. The Cold War: A Military History. London: Murray, 1998.

Scott, James M. Deciding to Intervene: The Reagan Doctrine and American Foreign Policy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Taubman, William. Khruschev: The Man and His Era. New York: Norton, 2003.

Michael Wala

See also:Arms Control Debate; Cold War Mobilization; Communism and Anticommunism; Foreign Aid, 1946–Present; Kirkpatrick, Jeanne; Kissinger, Henry; Korea, Impact of; NSC #68; Nitze, Paul; Reagan, Ronald; Truman Doctrine .