This semester as I am teaching a class on the Cold War, it seems as if the major comparison we are discussing is the war in Ukraine. I am grateful this war is still on students’ minds, as often with tragedies like Ukraine there is a great deal of emotion at first that wanes over time. I assume that is what Putin was hoping for, waiting until the world stopped caring. Yet instead, we have recently learned the U.S. and others are sending the Ukraine tanks but stopped short of sending jets. The question my students have asked is would we have handled this differently during the Cold War? It’s a good question and one without a simple answer as each president is different, yet during the Cold War we did have the foreign policy of containment to help guide our decisions.
Considering it’s been 34 years since the fall of communism, it might be worth reviewing the concept of containment. It was, for good or bad, our foreign policy for the second half of the 20th century and influenced Americans in almost every aspect of their lives. The term and the concept came from a 1947 article in The Journal of Foreign Affairs, titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and written by someone calling himself Mr. X. George Kennan had written the “long telegram” to the State Department the year before, but it had not received much traction. The following year he wrote basically the same thing anonymously for the journal.
Kennan was a career diplomat and a leading expert on the Soviet Union. He took a similar approach towards the Soviet Union as we take today, that the Russians are good people but are led by bad ones who cannot be trusted. While this sounds like common sense today, in 1945 we had just come off an alliance with Stalinist Russia in fighting WWII. During that time, we portrayed Stalin as a firm but fair leader and President Truman believed he could work with him. Kennan disagreed.
Kennan put forth two key concepts that he believed drove the Soviet government, the need for a repressive dictatorship at home and a belief that the West/Capitalism would never accept a communist government. It was the second that justified the first. Stalin had previously argued that eventually the world would divide into two “centres,” the socialists centers and the capitalist centers, and that the fate of the world would come down to which side won the battle between them.
Kennan also argued that for communism to survive it needed to expand but that Stalin was more concerned with security at home than expansion of communism. This is where containment came into play. The Soviets would only expand if allowed to by American weakness. If America and its allies showed enough strength, they could contain communism to its current borders with their military or economic strength. America did not always actually have to fight, just convince Stalin they would. This meant the U.S and allies would have to spend billions of dollars and be willing to send troops to remote corners of the globe to stop them. If Stalin believed the U.S. would fight, he would push but ultimately not risk war. We would have to fight proxy wars across Asia, South America, and the Middle East, but Russia would never go head-to-head against the U.S. so long as they believed we fought fight back. It was about containing communism, not pushing it back.
An early example of a successful containment policy was Berlin. After the World War II, both Germany and Berlin were divided between the Russian-controlled communist side and the American/British democratic side. Berlin was in the heart of communist East Germany and Stalin decided to cut off road access to the city from West Germany. Instead of attacking or allowing West Berlin to fall, America began a fifteen-month airlift where American pilots flew around the clock bringing West Berliners everything they needed to survive. Stalin could have stopped the U.S. by shooting down American planes but that would have led to war. Eventually, knowing the airlift made him look bad, Stalin opened the road back up. With the Berlin Airlift, Russia acted and America reacted in kind and contained communism to its current borders. If only it was always so easy. Other containment examples include the Korean and Vietnam War, both of which cost American lives and only Korea was successful.
In the end, democracy won out over communism, but it is debatable whether containment was the cause. It was not always a perfect policy. It forced the U.S. to side with those who did not stand for what America believed in simply because regimes opposed communism, groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan or despotic governments like the Ngo Dinh Diem administration in Vietnam. However, the Soviet Union did fall. It is impossible to answer if containment would still work today, yet it is hard to imagine Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if they thought they would face American troops. It is difficult to know how Putin chose when to invade. He did so in 2014 when he captured Crimea and then again in 2022 with the current invasion. The space in between was during the Trump years. While Trump did use more Cold War rhetoric, future historians will have to decide once this crisis has passed.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.