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Why did the United States adopt a policy of containment?

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The term containment, introduced by the Truman Administration, describes the foreign policy pursued by the United States after the Second World War. The policy itself was an attempt to ‘contain’ the Soviet Union within its current borders and frustrate any attempts of expansion. George F. Kennan, a diplomat and US State department advisor on Soviet affairs, introduced the term in his famous Anonymous X – article. Keenan suggested a

‘ Long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’

This would lead to the inevitable break up of the Soviet Union. Since the defeat of the Nazi’s the Soviets because of their communist ideology and history were considered to be the largest threat to the Western World. Arguably all of the United States foreign policies after the Second World War were in one way or another directed towards that of the Soviet Union and therefore examples of containment.

The Truman administration introduced the policy of containment, based on the work of George F, Keenan. Within his Anonymous – X article Kennan suggested three policies the U.S. should adopt in order to accomplish the ‘containment’ of the Soviet Union. Kennan recommended that the first goal should be the restoration of the balance of power within Europe. According to Kennan, the ultimate goal of U.S. foreign policy should not be the division of the World into Soviet and American Spheres of influence. Instead, U.S. foreign policy should aid the establishment of independent centres of power in Europe and Asia and also encourage self – confidence in nations threatened by soviet expansion through economic and military aid.

The second goal was the reduction of Soviet power projection by exploiting tensions in international communism. Since the Soviet Union projected power towards the outside, by relying on communist governments subservient to Moscow and communist parties elsewhere, Kennan suggested to exploit tensions between Moscow and the international communist movement. Therefore, it made sense to support conflicting communist states and sometimes even co – operate with their regimes. Since nationalism would prove more durable than communism, Keenan expected international communism to break up sooner or later.

The third goal was the most ambitious one, namely to lead the Soviet Union away from its universal notion of international affairs toward a particular understanding of reality. Kennan’s theory of containment differed significantly from the containment U.S. foreign policy makers would later practise.

It is important to point out that the United States did not adopt its policy of containment primarily because of post World War Two events. Tensions between the United States and Russia had dated back to the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Firstly, the ideology of communism was deemed to be very unpopular within the Western World, especially within the U.S. They saw themselves as the leaders of Democracy and the ‘Free World’, they believed communism contradicted the American way of life and restricted people of their freedom. Secondly, tensions were increased during the civil war of Russia, as the U.S. backed the white army alongside other western countries . This was an early example of the United States attempting to contain the spread of communism years before the Cold War was a worldwide phenomenon. Finally, the refusal of the United States to recognise Russia as a legitimate state under the rule of the Bolsheviks and also stopping all trade with the nation further increased tensions on both sides.

The actual origins of the containment policy are to be found towards the end of the Second World War. Despite a wartime alliance between the two nations, inevitable disagreements arose due to the competing strategies put forward over the post – war future of Europe. The most significant of these was during meetings between the allied leaders at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in July 1945.

During Yalta a major dispute between the two nations occurred over the political future of Eastern Europe, namely Poland. President Truman wished to set up democratic government and free elections according to the Atlantic Charter principles. On the other hand, Stalin refused to allow democratic elections in Poland and insisted on a strong pro – communist government to guarantee the security of the Soviet Union. Stalin claimed that the use of Poland as a ‘buffer zone’ was for defence purposes only, pointing out that throughout history Russia had been prone to invasion from Germany and by gaining Poland as an ally, Russia would be able to defend itself adequately. The United States believed the motives of Stalin were of a more expansive nature. They believed there were two key explanations for the creation of the ‘buffer zones’. Although it was true Russia would be less prone to invasion than it had been in the past, it would also be in a much stronger position to enforce future foreign policies as it would be more difficult to oppose them. Secondly, they believed that Stalin was in fact attempting to create a communist Empire within Europe, with the intention of expanding worldwide.

By the time the allies met again at the Potsdam, the situation had changed dramatically. Germany had been defeated, Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Truman and Clement Attlee had defeated Churchill in the British election. The allies agreed to divide Germany into zones and to claim reparations for war losses. However, the USA began to realise that it did not want a weakened Germany in Central Europe, as this would leave a perfect breeding ground for communism. Truman wished to rebuild Germany and create a stable nation, while Stalin wanted to weaken it further by taking equipment and materials as reparations. The pattern for future conflict between the USA and the USSR was set, with fears over Soviet Union foreign policy increasing.

Fears of soviet expansionist policies were increased in February 1946 when US ambassador in Moscow, George Keenan, sent the so called ‘Long Telegram’ which presented a view of Russia as an “intractable” foe, bent on an expansionist policy to spread its power and influence . Furthermore, in 1946 Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech increased US fears by stating that the USSR aimed to spread communism worldwide. Churchill referred to the division of Europe, East and West, communist and capitalist, stating

‘A shadow has fallen across the scenes so lately lighted by Allied victory. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.’

There was no real physical barrier as suggested by Churchill but there was a clear division between the democratic states of the West and the communist states of the East. Many in the West were concerned that Stalin would not simply stop in Eastern Europe but would then turn his sights to the West. The alarms sounded by Keenan and Churchill seemed to be confirmed by Moscow’s growing influence throughout the world, with communist regimes gaining influential support within France, Greece and Vietnam.

The U.S. reaction to escalating concerns over the Soviet Union was to introduce its policy of containment. In March 1947 Truman announced details to Congress of what eventually became known as the Truman Doctrine. The U.S. was very concerned with the growth of Soviet power and also with the vulnerability of smaller nations within Europe and promised to help any country threatened by communism. Truman believed that Stalin had forced the countries of Eastern Europe into accepting communist governments and that it was America’s duty to defend democracy . In his speech he pledged American support for

‘Free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures’.

This speech also included a request that congress agree to give military and economic aid to Greece in its fight against communism. The Truman Doctrine was the first real example of U.S. intensions to ‘contain’ the Soviet Union and fight against the spread of communism.

As a result of the Truman Doctrine Greece and Turkey received 400 million dollars in economic aid in order to fight communism, in exchange the United States established missile bases in Turkey, which provided a fundamental advantage over the Soviet Union. Truman was eager to help European countries recover from the war. He believed that economically strong countries would be unlikely to turn to communism and would become major trading partners with the USA. To help Europe rebuild after the war, the USA gave millions of dollars under the Marshall Plan. A fund of 15 billion dollars was set aside for European countries to draw on. The idea was to allow countries from both East and West to receive Marshall Aid but Stalin realised that this would make countries like Poland more dependent upon the USA than the USSR.

In all, sixteen countries received Marshall Aid, Britain and France being the major recipients. West Germany also received just under $1.4 billion. This angered Stalin, as he did not want a strong Germany being fearful of another invasion. In the East he deliberately weakened the Soviet zone of Germany, whereas Truman wanted to create a powerful buffer against communism in the west. By 1952 most Western European countries had recovered to their pre-war levels of production. The communist parties in France and Italy lost their support as standards of living rose. The Marshall Plan had been very effective in preventing the spread of communism in Western Europe and had created economically strong democratic allies for the USA.

Overall the early stages of containment proved to be a success for the Truman Administration, though further strategies pursued would not bring similar success. For example, the U.S. involvement in Indochina would deem to be very costly, not only in an economic sense but loss of life was very high. Also, although the United States halted Korea becoming one whole communist state, the fact that the north remained communist was a major blow. Similarly, despite U.S. economic and military aid, Vietnam was to follow the same pattern with South Vietnam remaining under the communist regime . Containment policy within Asia did not have the success it had within Europe either, yet the United States would continue to implement the policy until the end of the Cold War.

To conclude, the United States adopted the policy of containment due to escalating fears over the expansionist foreign policy of the Soviet Union. The U.S. believed that Stalin was attempting to create a worldwide communist regime with Moscow as its capital. The soviet intension over the future of Poland and Germany led the US to introduce the containment policy, firstly through the Truman Doctrine. This was the first example of containment as US foreign Policy and also stated the intensions of the United States towards Soviet Union. Although containment was never carried out exactly how George Kennan devised the policy, it was effective when first introduced through the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. It halted the expansion of communism within European states such as Greece and Turkey and also gave the U.S. strategic advantages over the Soviet Union.

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