Containment as U.S. policy during Cold War Era

From after World War II and up until 1991 the foreign policy of the United States was based on Cold War ideology and the policy of containment; to prevent nations from leaning towards Soviet Union-based communism, as first laid out by George Kennan and later used as one of the key principles in the Truman Doctrine (LeCain). As this essay will argue, because of this policy the United States made a commitment to fight communism everywhere in the world and got them involved in conflicts more because of self interest, self protection and determination to beat communism than the cause itself.

The fear of communism first emerged after the Soviet Revolution in 1917 during the First Red Scare in the 1920s. The fear of extreme ideologies that emerged in Europe during the Great Depression was present in the United States and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second New Deal was established to guarantee a modest level of economic safety and security thus avoiding communism and fascism which used fear to gain popularity (LeCain). The New Deal programs to conservatives were un-American and began criticism towards liberals for being weak on communisms, rooted in the fear of big government, but establishment of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the ratification of the 1940 Smith Act undermined the conservative argument (LeCain). After World War II the criticism against liberals came back and again the conservatives accused the democrats for being too weak on communism. In 1950, Senator McCarthy, arriving late on the Red menace arena (Fried 121), began his communist-sympathizer which-hunt and became the symbol of anti-communism. But events such as the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift, the build-up of the military and the Korean war was evidence that the Democrats and President Truman was everything but weak on communism (LeCain).

Together with the containment policy, the criticism against the liberals from the conservatives made the Democrats and the Truman administration obsessed with fighting the Soviets and communism. The Truman Doctrine and the policy of containment painted a black-white picture of the world; “a victory for communism anywhere was a defeat for non-communism everywhere (Brands 31). During spring of 1950, Truman’s National Security Council had developed a blueprint for American policy in the Cold War; NSC 68 (Brands 32). The document, possibly inspired by George Kennan, portrayed the Soviet Union in an aggressive light stating that “The Soviet Union is seeking to create overwhelming military force” and called for a massive buildup of the Unites States military (Brands 33), but the realpolitik George Kennan believed in did not advocate for a military containment (LeCain); his views are ultimately ignored by NSC 68 and President Truman accepts NSC 68 in April 1950. With the rusting up of the permanent war-machinery together with the establishment of NATO in 1949, containment had now become military containment (LeCain). The United States had entered an evil circle that would ultimately lead them into two wars in Asia, a face-off with the Soviet Union in Cuba and be an important part of American foreign policy the next 40 years.

Only months after President Truman’s acceptance of NSC 68 the Korean War begins. President Truman believes Stalin has ordered the invasion and orders in American troops (LeCain); the first war the United States is directly involved in due to the policy of containment was a fact. For the advocators of military buildup the North Korean invasion played directly into their hands and subsequently the defense budget tripled during the Korean conflict (Brands 34). The war went well until November 1950 when China began pouring troops into North Korea. General MacArthur believed the United States military was superior to any communist enemy (Maier 813), advocated waging a war against China causing President Truman to remove him from power; General MacArthur would have involved the United States in “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy” General Bradley stated on behalf of the Joint Chief of Staff (Maier 813).

Even though President Truman had developed the policy of containment and gone to war in Korea to fight against communism, Senator McCarthy continued to attack the President calling him “a son of a bitch” (LeCain) and referred to Truman’s and Roosevelt’s Democratic administrations as “twenty years of treason” (Maier 815). Americans grew impatient due to the Korean conflict and McCarthy fueled the already angry and frustrated American voters and in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president. President Eisenhower hinted that if the North Koreans did not come to the peace table, the United States might use atomic weapons (LeCain). Offering the same terms as President Truman did, Eisenhower was able to make the Chinese and North Koreans sign a peace treaty on July 27th 1953 (Maier 815). With Eisenhower as president Senator McCarthy’s days were numbered (Fried 132), the massive defense budget would be reduced, but it did not have an effect on American Cold War policy (Brands 43).

Eisenhower was a moderate Republican (LeCain) and he did not attempt to cut the New Deal programs, but wanted to reduce the budget. Six weeks after Eisenhower enters office, Stalin dies. This offered a possibility in reductions in defense expenditures, thus reducing the budget (Brands 41). The change of leadership in both Washington and Moscow made Winston Churchill advocate a summit between the superpowers, but so soon after the election Eisenhower did not want to go back on his promises during the campaign, and rejected Churchill’s call; distrust towards the Soviet Union was still present even though Stalin was gone (Brands 42). Eisenhower ordered a review of American foreign policy and in October 1953 an updated national security policy was signed; it concluded that “with neither defeat nor victory imminent…the United States must prepare for the long haul”. It also stated that “the United States must carefully balance military preparedness and economic vitality”. This distinguished Eisenhower from Truman; the health of American economy led to a cut in conventional forces and greater reliance on nuclear weapons (Brands 45). Even though Eisenhower did not advocate containment, two cases in the 1950s not only showed that the foreign policy still was influenced by the policy, but that legally elected governments with communist influence could not be tolerated by the United States. The CIA helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 and trained and outfitted a Guatemalan army to oppose the elected president, the reformist Guzman. In both cases, American officials feared that the elected officials were paving the road to bring communists to power (Brands 57). This showed Eisenhower the importance of intelligence and covert operations became an important element of America’s Cold War established under the Eisenhower administration (Brands 60). Before leaving office President Eisenhower warns Americans about the growing military-industrial complex influencing economy, politics and the American spirit.1

Democratic President John F. Kennedy went against President Eisenhower stating that the United States should possess the capacity to react to foreign pressure; this was what Eisenhower saw as unnecessarily expensive and what he warned about in his farewell speech (Brands 78). But Kennedy also continued the work on covert operations; the Green Berets became Kennedy’s flexible solution to Cold War containment. Before leaving office Eisenhower gave green light to train Cubans for an invasion of Cuba to remove Fidel Castro; Kennedy authorized this operation in the Bay of Pigs and it became a disaster for his administration (Brands 79). Again it shows how tangled the foreign policy was in containment and that any communist threat needed American attention and be fought down. With the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 Kennedy showed himself as a Cold War warrior and determined to stand up against Khrushchev (LeCain) when the Soviet Union backed down after an intense showdown between the two superpowers. After the assassination of Kennedy in Dallas November 22nd 1963, Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated as the 36th President of the United States, on the plane back to Washington D.C.

Kennedy had inherited a situation in Vietnam from Eisenhower. After the Geneva Accords in 1954, Vietnam was divided; Ho Chi Minh rules in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem came to power in the South. Diem was chosen merely because he was not communist, but the American government was not able to see the realpolitik; Diem’s democracy was questionable (LeCain). When Viet Minh realized that he was a puppet of the United States they started a civil war and Eisenhower sent in advisors to train ARVN’s to fight against NLF. From a few hundred advisors in 1961 it escalated into 16,000 during the Kennedy administration and now it was Johnson’s challenge. Johnson, as Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, was an anti-communist and began to increase commitment in Vietnam, reaching more than 500,000 troops in 1969. Vietnam was seen as important to American security, Johnson also believed that Democrats had a special obligation to resist communism (Brands 89). Again, Johnson’s advisors were not able to see the realpolitik; the conflict in Vietnam was a civil war, we should get out (LeCain). The Vietnam situation had began as an act of containment where the Eisenhower administration backed an anti-communist leader, continued and escalated under Kennedy and destroyed Johnson’s presidency.

In conclusion, when President Truman introduced the policy of containment in his 1947 speech he committed the United States to anti-communist causes. But the realpolitik George Kennan, who first laid out the containment policy, was overlooked and the United States became more interested in fighting communism in general than the cause itself; it did not matter if they removed a legally elected official because the American government thought the official would pave the way for communists to gain power as in Iran and Guatemala, or if they supported a person that were the reason for a civil war that ultimately led to deployment of American soldiers as in Vietnam. Because of this policy the United States reacted as imperialists, either by military force or covert operations as seen in this essay, to stop challenges to their hegemony (Brands 58). And when going to war, the military overestimated their power and technology (Maier 815) and underestimated their enemy. Although they also used means such as diplomacy and financial support, the containment policy caused the United States to spend vast amounts of money, resources, to sacrifice American soldiers’ lives and get involved in conflicts around the world in order to prevent communism from spreading.

Works cited:

1. http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html

Brands, H. W., “The Devil We Knew”, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993

Fried, Richard M., “Nightmare in Red”, New York, Oxford University Press, 1990

Maier, Pauline, Roe Smith, Merritt, Keyssar, Alexander, Kevles, Daniel J., “Inventing America”, Second Edition, Volume 2: From 1865, New York & London, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006

LeCain, Timothy J. “Lecture 3: Roots of WW III”, Montana State University, Bozeman, 12 and 14 September 2006.

LeCain, Timothy J. “Lecture 4: Cold War Through Korea”, Montana State University, Bozeman, 19 and 21 September 2006.

LeCain, Timothy J. “Lecture 9: Vietnam and the 1960s” , Montana State University, Bozeman, 7, 9, 14 and 16 November 2006.

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