As promulgated in 1947 by one of its chief architects, George Kennan, the policy of containment fashioned a strategy to deal with the implacable challenge posed by Soviet Communists (Kennan, 582).
Because of their ideology and history, the Soviets were held to be dangerous and thus their expansion must be countered by the West. To deal with the Soviet threat, Kennan called for a long-term and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies (Kennan, 575).
Although containment policy was widely accepted at its point of conception, the policy is in fact logically flawed.
If the Soviet system really was a flawed as theorists such as Kennan surmised, then the best policy would have been not to contain it, but to give it enough rope – to let it expand until it expand until it reaches the point of terminal overstretch. Containment may have actually lengthened the Cold War by delaying the climax. Thus it may not be sound to wallow in self-congratulation in the wake of the Cold War, and to conclude that we won. Rather it would be much more sensible to conclude that the Soviet Union lost: almost all of the calamities that brought it to its desperate condition and compelled it to abandon its expansionary ideology were self-induced. It is clear that the major problem for the Soviet Union was the staggering failure of its bureaucratic and economic system.
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Based on some utopian notions that sought to repeal human greed and to replace the price system with managed arrangements, the Soviets eventually invented an economic and social system that stifled initiative and enshrined inefficiency. Westerners, however, can take little credit for creating this dilemma. They tried to exacerbate it with various trade policies, but the basic problem was fabricated by the Soviets themselves. Indeed, if the Soviets had taken Western advice, they would never have adopted their system in the first place. Much of the same hold for arms policy.
It is true that the Soviets vast, economy-straining arms buildup was in part a reaction to Western defense spending. Much of this buildup, however, would have happened anyway. As Kennan pointed out in 1947, central to the classic Soviet communist view of the world was an intense suspiciousness of, and hostility toward, the surrounding capitalist world. Massive arms expenditures are a necessary concomitant of this world view, and they were likely no matter how the West chose to array its arsenal.
Indeed, the West tried to level or reduce arms expenditures several times – in the mid-1940 s, the 1960 s, and the 1970 s. Each time the Soviets responded by continuing to build. As Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, concluded with exasperation, “When we build, they build; when we cut back, they build” (Thomas, 371).
As it happened, it was under Carter that the “Reagan defense buildup” began.
The value of that expensive policy is not at all clear. It probably helped the Soviets (especially Gorbachev) to appreciate the depth of the country’s economic dilemma, but the effect may have been fairly marginal since the Soviets were already vastly overspending for defense. Moreover, the buildup came at a severe cost to the American economy which was then forced to devote much of the 1990 s trying to recover. As mentioned earlier, Soviet ideology also had at its center an almost messianic drive to undermine the capitalist enemy. As Kennan wrote in 1947, the Communists believed that for capitalism to perish, a final push was needed from a proletariat movement in order to tip over the tottering structure (Kennan, 567).
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It is on this drive that containment focused most directly, and the assumption was that if the Soviets’ expansionary impetus was systematically frustrated, their foreign policy would eventually mellow because of changes from within.
Accordingly, the United States sought to apply unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world (Kennan, 567).
Kennan does not mention it in his 1947 article, but at its core the policy of containment applied the lesson of Munich: when a county bent on expansion gains more territory, its appetite is only further whetted. Thus when Communist expansion was thwarted the policy was held to have been successful. Likewise, when areas fell into the Communist camp, containment was held to have suffered a setback. What ultimately brought about the mellowing of Soviet expansionism, however, was not containment’s success, but its failure.
Wherever they expanded, the Soviets sought, often brutally, to suppress ancient nationalisms and freedoms. Kennan anticipated that the Soviets would find maintaining control over eastern Europe to be difficult. In 1947, he proclaimed it unlikely that the 100 million Soviets could permanently hold down not only their own minorities, but some ninety million Europeans with a higher cultural level and with long experience in resistance to foreign rule (Gaddis, 43).
By the 1980 s, the Soviet empire in eastern Europe had indeed become a severe economic drain and an psychic problem – although this, of course, cannot be credited to Western policy which had opposed the occupation from the beginning. In 1975 three countries – Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos – toppled into the Communist camp. Partly out of fear of repeating the Vietnam experience, the United States went into a sort of containment funk and watched from the sidelines as the Soviet Union opportunistically gathered a set of Third World countries into its imperial embrace: Angola in 1976, Mozambique and Ethiopia in 1977, South Yemen and Afghanistan in 1978, Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979.
However, far from whetting their appetite for more, these gains ultimately not only satiated their appetite for expansion but, given the special properties of the morsels they happened to consume, the process served to give the ravenous expanders a troubling case of indigestion. For almost all of the new acquisitions soon became economic and political basket cases, fraught with dissension, financial mismanagement, and civil warfare. In 1979 the situation in neighboring Afghanistan had so deteriorated that the Soviets found it necessary to send in troops, and descended into a long period of enervating warfare there. As each member of the newly expanded empire turned toward the Soviet Union for material support, many Soviets began to wonder about the wisdom of the venture.
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Perhaps, it began to seem, they would have been better off contained. The internal contradictions the Soviets came to confront, then, were a direct result of misguided domestic and foreign policies, and these contradictions would have to come about – as Kennan seems to suggest – no matter what policy the West chose to pursue. Soviet domestic problems derived from decades of mismanagement, mindless brutality, and fundamental misconceptions about basic economic and social realities. Their defense dilemmas came from conspiratorial ideology that creates external enemies and then exaggerated the degree to which the enemies would use war to destroy them. Soviet foreign policy failures stemmed from a fundamentally flawed, and often highly romantic, conception of the imperatives of history and of the degree to which foreign peoples will find appeal in the Communist world view. It took forty years but, plagued by economic and social disasters and changes, the Soviets finally were able, as Kennan and Truman had hoped, to rise above the ideology, embrace grim reality, and adopt serious reform.
Although the Western policy of containment probably deserves little special credit for bringing about this belated rendezvous with reality, the policy does seem to have had some beneficial effects. In particular it deserves credit for keeping some countries outside the Soviet orbit. Without a containment war in the 1950 s, South Koreans would probably now be living as miserably as their Northern counterparts. Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore need only to look to the Indochina states to see what might have happened if Communist rebels had been successful in their countries. It is also possible, though far from certain, that some western European countries would have succumbed to Communism in the late 1940 s had the containment policy not been in effect. It can also be argued – very speculatively – that containment helped reduce the danger of a major war.
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The principal containment wars of Korea and Vietnam and the Cuban missile crisis may have had this effect. The Western policy of containment has helped to keep some countries free from Communism, and it may have further reduced the already low danger of major war. However, as it was devised to force the Soviets to confront their inherent contradictions, the history of the Cold War suggests a curious paradox. Kennan and other early containment theorists were correct to conclude that Soviet Communism is a singularly undesirable and fundamentally flawed form of government, and they were right to anticipate that it would inevitably have to change when it could no longer avoid confronting its inherent contradictions.
Soviet Communism, however, would probably have reached this point somewhat earlier if its natural propensity to expand had been tolerated rather than contained.