What Was Containment?

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, much of the globe was divided between the allied powers who were victorious in the war. Particularly, the United States and Soviet Union carved up the map placing areas of influence in the hands of each other. Arguably, the most famous of the post war spoils was Germany. The Allied Powers divided Germany, particularly Berlin, into East and West with Berlin divided into three districts occupied by England, the United States and the Soviet Union. It quickly became apparent to the West that the Soviet Union was not satisfied with simply taking their spoils. United States President Harry S. Truman felt it necessary for the US to have a policy concerning the Soviet Union’s appeared designs on Empire. From the Soviet threat came the American policy of Containment. What Containment was, largely rests with the theory’s architect: George Kennan. Kennan was an important diplomat in the post World War II era including stints as Ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia. He was also placed in the US State Department under Secretary of State Marshall. From Kennan’s writings came three important policies during Truman’s presidency: The Truman Doctrine, The Marshall Plan and NSC-68. Together, these three policies shaped American policy towards the Soviet Union in particular and Communism in general.

The Truman Doctrine, or the Truman Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, was the official US policy to Communism. The doctrine entailed that the United States would meet the spread of Communism wherever it was to be found in order to stop it. This doctrine directly placed the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War and lead to US involvement in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In the aftermath of the Truman Doctrine, President Harry S. Truman directed Secretary of State Marshall to create a plan to help stimulate the European economies. Initially, the plan was to offer aide to all European Countries (including the Soviet Union.) However, the USSR and her satellites refused to accept the money. Together with the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan’s economic angle played directly to George Kennan’s theory of Containment. Yet, NSC-68 was largely against Kennan’s theory and ultimately led him to leave government. At the heart of NSC-68 was the gradual coercion of the Soviet Union through massive peace time military spending and largely the abandonment of diplomatic and economic strains of the Containment Policy. In addition, NSC-68 also blurred the line between Communism in general and the Soviet Union; ultimately the two would be seen as part and parcel of each other under the policy.

However, these do not get at the heart of what exactly Containment was meant to be as George Kennan conceived of it. In his book, American Diplomacy, Kennan outlines his theory of how to contain the Soviet Union. At the heart of Kennan’s argument is the need for the US to have a sound policy in dealing with other countries such as the Soviet Union. Kennan states, “the idea of the subordination of a large number of states to an international juridical regime, limiting their possibilities for aggression and injury to other states, implies that these are all states like our own…”[1] Of course here Kennan is speaking of the newly formed United Nations, whose main goal was to provide a means of peaceably settling differences between sovereign nations. However, as Kennan points out, the United Nations does not assume the differences between regimes and treats all as the same.

This does not, of course, mean that the United States needs only to develop a military answer to possible Soviet aggression. Kennan’s argument does not imply that the Soviet Union was not a military threat to the United States; they had detonated their first Atomic Bomb in 1949. It does, however, reflect Kennan’s view of Marxist theory in the form of Soviet Communism. At the core of Soviet Communism, “has always been in the process of subtle evolution.”[2] It is for this reason that Kennan believed that a purely militaristic approach to the Soviet Union was unnecessary. Kennan identifies that the Soviet Union has, in the past, relaxed its policy of intervention in economics. When they had done this the capitalistic elements of the Russian economy flourished. And as long as these elements could survive they would, “always constitute a powerful opposing element to the Soviet regime and a serious rival for influence in the country.”[3] For this reason Kennan incorporated an economic element into his theory of Containment. By supporting the capitalistic elements of the Soviet economy, we would provide them with a lifeline to challenge the state controlled government.

The most important element of Kennan’s theory of Containment encompassed one basic principal: the Soviet Union will eventually dissolve if left to its own devices. As Kennan states, “The Kremlin has also proved able to accomplish its purpose of building up in Russia, regardless of the interests of the inhabitants…” In which case, the Soviet Union destroyed its best men in attempting to prop up the state through, “labor camps and other agencies of constraint…”[4] Every aspect of the Soviet system of government placed unnecessary constraint on the people of Russia. Change in Russia depended on these internal constraints on the people and economy, but also on the American government’s influence on Russia:

But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.[5]

The policy of Containment required both the Soviet Union to continue on its path of self destructive and the United States to influence the Soviet Union through economic, diplomatic and military policies. So what was Containment? It was the official policy of the United States government to prevent the spread of Soviet style Communism to the rest of the world. The policy of Containment encompassed economic, diplomatic and military aspects against the Soviet Union. Despite many changes to the policy, and the emphasis on different aspects at different times, Containment was the official policy that helped bring down the Soviet Union.

[1][1] George F. Kennan. American Diplomacy, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.) 97

[2] Ibid. 107

[3] Ibid. 110

[4] Ibid. 121

[5] Ibid. 127

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    What Was Containment? | Formatia trans sicere educatorum


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