America’s containment of communism policy since 1945

Length: 3003 words

There have been a number of issues raised by this essay prompt, which have forced me to consider the effect this policy has had on the world and the path it has travelled since 1945.

Firstly, we must focus on what the ‘communist containment’ policy is. Essentially this policy was designed, by the US, for curbing the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. It was a response to Stalin’s desire for a ‘cushion’ of satellite countries in Eastern Europe and around the USSR’s borders so as to protect it from future ‘capitalist’ interference. However, when answering this question we must be more precise in understanding what the ‘communist containment’ policy actually constitutes.

The terminology ‘communist containment’ has been the ideological backbone to American foreign policy over the last five decades, but, successive US governments have differed in their approach to this ‘umbrella’ terminology. Therefore, to be able to debate this essay question thoroughly we will have to examine each doctrine that has been in action since 1945, whilst focusing on examples of ‘communist containment.’

George Keenan, a State Department official published an anonymous article in the US Journal Foreign Affairs (1947) outlining the future US foreign policy needed, if Soviet expansionist tendencies were to be contained. Keenan commented on his understanding of the USSR by suggesting that:

“…the Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry…it has no right to risk the existing achievements of the revolution for the sake of vain baubles in the future.”1

And, it was due to this understanding of the Soviet psyche that Keenan proposed the USA foreign policy, Keenan concludes his article by suggesting that:

“…in these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”2

Keenan’s conclusions can be seen as the ‘ideological foundations’ of communist containment. The effects this had on US policy thinking were immediate. In the same year as Keenan’s article (1947) President Truman initiated the ‘Truman doctrine’ in a speech in March as a response to the fear of Russian intentions & involvement in Turkey and Greece due to the power vacuum created by Britain’s withdrawal of aid & guarantees to these two countries (Civil war in Greece and Russian desire for territorial gains in Turkey). Truman proposed a choice between two ideological combatants, whereby:

“One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed on the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press, framed elections and the suppression of personal freedom.”3

What we can see here is the beginnings of the ideological and actual bi- polarisation of the world. The Truman doctrine, in effect was a shift from the isolationism of the Monroe doctrine of the last 150 years to an acceptance of the role the USA ‘had’ to play in the international political, economic and social scene. The two effects the Truman doctrine had on the international scene, which are to be examined are; the Marshall Plan and the Korean War.

The aims of the Marshall Plan were complex and inter- dependent. Europe, by the end of World War II, was economically and politically shattered. As well as the great humanitarian need to aid Europe, the communist parties of France and Italy had obtained positions of power within their respective governments by using the ill economic situation as a platform for their extreme ideological positions (note the obvious- Hitler’s rise to power in Germany during the ‘Great Depression’). It was due to this, which led US Secretary of Defence- Forrestal- to request action, for;

“…unless the United States acted quickly and on a scale adequate to meet the need, Europe would be swept by revolution. If this happened, the Western hemisphere would be isolated- for no one in his right mind believed that the new governments would be anything but hostile.”4

Thus, the Marshall Plan was a policy of economic reconstruction and development aid offered to all governments of European countries (including Russia, Czechoslovakia and Poland), the terms and conditions for those countries who joined were required to reduce trade barriers (General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs) to all countries so as to be able to stimulate world trade, and conform to the USA’s desire for “…free convertibility of currencies.”5 In effect, this meant a conversion to a capitalist laissez-faire economy.

This policy achieved a number of successes, for it helped revive the American economy by opening up all national markets that agreed to the Plan, relieved the humanitarian crises which loomed over Europe by developing and reconstructing the market, and as a result of this it destroyed the threat of communism in Western Europe “…not by attacking communist ideology but by striking at the conditions which make the spread of communism possible.”6

A particular example of the success of the Marshall Plan, with respects to constraining communism in Europe, can be seen in the American attitude to Germany. Instead of ‘bleeding dry’ Germany, as had happened previously by the Treaty of Versailles, Marshall was aware that;

“…the German economy is the heart of Europe, and if we do not coordinate that in connection with the rest of Europe, certainly Western Europe will be in difficulties for an interminable procession of years.”7

If Germany was to fall to communism then, one of the strongest European industrial infrastructures would lye in the Soviet sphere of influence and not be able to aid recovery for the rest of Western Europe.

The economic and political interests of the USA were deeply imbedded in the Marshall Plan. It is because the Marshall Plan was based on the idea that “…the surest defence against communism is to help people everywhere secure for themselves a decent standard of living and a fuller measure of freedom”8 that communism was halted. In other words, the economic interests of the US served the political interests of the US and vice versa.

The second effect of the Truman doctrine (as mentioned previously) will focus on the Korean War. Their is no need to mention the entire intricacies of the War, what is required is an understanding of the affects and effects- the relationship- of policies to action. In June 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, when they crossed the 38th parallel, the US response was to send approximately two million service people and spend over $50 Billion to halt an invasion they saw as an “aggressive master plan orchestrated by Moscow”9. This statement was backed up by Soviet and then Chinese aid to North Korea’s war machine. It was this example of ‘communist expansionist tendencies’, which led the National Security Advisory committee to produce a report (NSC-68) in late 1950 outlining the intentions of future American foreign policy, once again, the underlying assumptions were based on fear of communism, whereby;

“The Soviet Union was engaged in a fanatical effort to seize control of all governments wherever possible.”10

This report recognised the need for America to use force to contain communism. To be able to do this the report suggested a potential fifty percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) to be used for military purposes.

At the same time Stewart Alsop, a journalist, reconfirmed the ‘general mood’ of the time when he declared how “we (USA) are losing Asia fast.”11 The following passage is the symbolism he uses to represent his fear of communism in Asia:

“…The head pin was China. It is down already. The two pins in the second row are Burma and Indochina. If they go, the three pins in the next row; Siam, Malaya, and Indonesia are pretty sure to topple in their turn. And if all the rest of Asia goes, the resulting psychological, political and economic magnetism will almost certainly drag down the four pins of the fourth row, India, Pakistan, Japan and the Philippines.”12

By 1953 Eisenhower was President of the US, and fulfilled one of his election promises by ending the Korean war, through accepting the status quo ante (the division of Korea along the 38th parallel). This shift was recognition of a new policy focusing on the need for a new accord with the Kremlin, a detente, whilst maintaining its pledge of combating communist expansionism. In other words, this was a change in tactics not ideology. This is supported by Eisenhower’s speech in 1954 when he defined his understanding of the threat of communism in South East Asia by using the ‘Domino Theory’.

“…You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”13

As you can see the terminology of Alsop and Eisenhower is very similar, they both saw that if one country becomes communist then others surrounding would inevitably fall as well. This paranoia is not unfounded. Richard Nixon in The Real War suggests two reasons as to why the US were so fearful of the rapid spread of an enemy (i.e. communism) in Asia when you consider the perceived nature of communism and the Japanese geopolitical control of South East Asia in the Second World War.

In WWII Japan’s control of S.E.Asian countries by the end of the war had doubled. These countries fell quickly and were used to support the military-industry complex needed to facilitate a total war machine. The speed of Japan’s expansion alarmed Eisenhower. To apply it to communism he substituted communism for Japan, and saw that if one fell then they would all fall. This is one way of explaining the US involvement in Korea and the future Vietnam war.

Once again, we must understand that we are not necessarily concerned with the actualities of the war, this section on Vietnam will focus on the progression of USA policies on Vietnam and communism.

Although Eisenhower placed nine hundred military advisors in South Vietnam he refused to escalate American military involvement. Eisenhower’s policy of containment was more geared towards using the threat of mass retaliation and the building up of defensive alliances. Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers lists the alliances that the US were a part of during the Eisenhower presidency. By 1954 the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was set up whereby, ‘the United States joined Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Pakistan and Thailand’ to offer each other mutual assistance in combating any aggression in that region. In 1955, in the Middle East, the Baghdad Pact was set up with the aid of the US ‘Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan’ to provide the same assurances as SEATO. By 1957 the Eisenhower Doctrine was responsible for giving aid to ‘Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan’ and other Arab states.

In 1961 President Kennedy had begun to increase the American military involvement in Vietnam to 16,000 Service people. Kennedy’s policy of containment in Vietnam involved the idea of a ‘limited’ war, a war of counter-interventionism, an intervention which aids the party, not take over the responsibilities of fighting the war. Kennedy provided justification of this policy when he said;

“…It is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it- the people of Vietnam against the Communists.”14

However, when Johnson became President, he authorised an increase of Service people to approximately half a million, mainly as a response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 when North Vietnamese gunboats allegedly attacked a US Navy ship, the Maddox. Walzer in Just And Unjust Wars suggests that Johnson’s presidency is a move away from the policy of ‘aiding not interfering’ with Vietnam and moving towards an ‘interfering and aiding’ policy.

When Nixon took power in 1969, the situation had worsened. Walzer states:

“Searching for a level of conflict at which our technical superiority could be brought to bear, we steadily escalated the trouble , until finally it was an American war, fought for American purposes, in someone else’s country.”15

Nixon had realised this and this became one of the parts of the ‘Nixon Doctrine’. It is worth mentioning the whole doctrine, as Nixon puts it in his book titled, The Real War:

“-Reverse the ‘Americanization’ of the war that had occurred from 1965 to 1968 and concentrate instead on Vietnamization.

-Give more priority to pacification so that the South Vietnamese could be better able to extend their control over the countryside.

-Reduce the invasion threat by destroying enemy sanctuaries and supply lines in Cambodia and Laos.

-Withdraw the half a million American troops from Vietnam in a way that would not bring about a collapse in the South.

-Negotiate a cease fire and a peace treaty.

-Demonstrate the willingness and determination to stand by our ally if the peace agreement was violated by Hanoi, and assure South Vietnam that it would continue to receive our military aid as Hanoi did from its allies, the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, China.” (p107)

We can clearly see how this doctrine is a clear reversal of the Johnson policy in Vietnam and a return to the policy, whereby, “…countries threatened by communist aggression must take the primary responsibility for their own defence.”16

After the Watergate affair and the subsequent resignation of Nixon, President Ford came to power. Ford continued the non-military interventionism imposed by Nixon in the previous administration. Both administrations had shifted their focus away from stopping the ‘Domino’ falling in Vietnam, to stopping the fall of Vietnam from toppling other countries. Thus, in 1975 Ford and Henry Kissinger visited Indonesia. The principal task of this visit was to give their support to the Suharto regime in invading East Timor. East Timor was invaded whilst President Ford and Henry Kissinger were on a plane which had just left Indonesian airspace. The CIA officer in Jakarta, Philip Liechty, reported:

“Women and Children were herded into school buildings that were set alight- and all because we didn’t want some little country being neutral or leftist in the United Nations.”17

Unfortunately, this was the result of American communist containment policy in Asia. When we talk about the strategic strengths and weaknesses, we have to, we must include the affect this policy had on the people of the countries that were embroiled in the balance of power situation, made famous under the name; the cold war. An inherent weakness of this policy was the initiation of the pacification programme in Vietnam, Tom Buckley, an American journalist comments on the consequences of this programme on the landscape of the delta and the central lowlands;

“…bomb craters beyond counting, the dead grey and black fields, forests that have been de-foliated and scorched by napalm, land that has been ploughed flat to destroy Vietcong hiding places. And everywhere can be seen the piles of ashes forming the outlines of huts and houses, to show where hamlets once stood,”18

These two cases cannot just be ignored, put to the side, considered mere trivial side issues to the bigger question; that of containing communism, can they?

The foundations of communist ideology from Marx’s Communist Manifesto to Lenin’s Imperialism- The Highest Stage of Capitalism have constantly criticised the expansionist tendencies of Capitalism and its exploitation of workers. The communist revolution was to spread from the post-industrial countries to the entire world, it is this attack on capitalism in an ideological and practical basis, which has led the US (leader of capitalist countries) to see communism as an interference (enemy) to its own expansionism. (rather satirically the US is attacking communist expansionism as it opposes its own capitalist expansionism)

The Americans have contained communism, and it has worked. As mentioned above the communist ideology was sufficient in fighting the ideological battle. However, economically and militarily, there was no way that the Communists/Soviets could ever win these battles when you consider the organised and vast economic infrastructure that the US was/is compared to the relatively recent industrialisation of the USSR. It is simple economics, for a prolonged battle of any type you need the economic resources necessary to supply the military hardware, if your economy can compensate for this then- in the long run- you will have the victory. The US knew this but why did they continue this policy? Read what force protection condition delta means 

What was the price for the containment of communism, was it justifiable? Under the just war theory there are two criteria named proportionate and discrimination. These two issues focus on the proportion of the means with regards to the end result and the affect on the non- combatant community. The US directly and indirectly supported right wing terrorists/regimes for they new that they were ideological opposites too communism and would destroy or attack all communist existence.

President Allende (socialist) was deposed in Peru by Pinochet (right wing) with the support of the US, when Allende was a democratically elected leader. East Timor was Invaded by Indonesia with the support of the US. Turkey was supported by the US even with one of the worst Human Rights records in the world, all because it is a geographically strategic country in the Mediterranean. A report by the Agence France Presse (AFP) release from Hanoi in April 1995, stated that four million non- combatants/civilians died both in the North and South of Vietnam between the years 1963- 1974.19

If you can justify these weaknesses as proportionate to the containment of communism aims then you can justify the attacks on civilian populations, as well as the destruction of democratically elected leaders and the support of right wing regimes. Therefore, do the strengths outweigh the weaknesses?

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