Containment policy after World War II summary

U.S. Foreign Affairs Since 1898

Explain the origins of the containment policy after World War II. Also, explain the reasons for the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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Even when the Soviet Union was an official ally of the United States, distrust of Stalin’s USSR and communism as an ideology was pervasive in the U.S. Vocal critics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal decried the legislation as socialistic, even though the New Deal was actually intended to offer a middle ground between classical economic theory and radical leftism. However, the defeat of Nazism and the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence into Eastern Europe alerted President Harry Truman and the rest of the Western world that a new level of communist threat had arisen, threatening the free world. “Conflicts among the Allies surfaced at the end of the war. As Soviet troops freed the nations of Eastern Europe from Nazi control, they set up pro-Soviet governments. The other Allies called for free elections, but Stalin refused. He wanted Eastern Europe to serve as a buffer against any future German attack” (World War II and the Cold War, 2009, Fresno). This is important to note: Stalin was not a madman, however undemocratic and brutal he may have been as a leader; Stalin’s policies were based in his fears and memories suffering inflicted by the Nazis upon the Soviet people.

However, President Truman and the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were dubious of Stalin’s assertion that he needed a buffer zone to ensure his nation’s security. They remembered Neville Chamberlain’s ineffective policy of appeasing Hitler. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill wished to appease Stalin. The western powers resolved to contain the spread of communism, and drew a line past which the U.S.S.R. was not permitted to cross in Europe. Even Stalin did not desire a fully-fledged war with America, particularly given America’s atomic capacity, as demonstrated in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The first test of the American policy of containment came in Berlin. At the end of World War II, Germany had been divided into four zones, each occupied by a different power: Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was more punitive and controlling over its sphere of influence, and was determined incorporate Berlin into its empire. On June 24, 1948, the Soviet army created a blockade around its section of Berlin. In response, the western powers organized by the United States airlifted food, and other supplies to sustain the city. “The Soviets did not respond to the airlift by trying to stop it, mainly because they believed that they would have failed or triggered a war” (The Berlin Airlift, 2010, Cold War Museum).

Truman’s policy of containment also extended to giving aid to anti-communist guerilla forces in Greece and Turkey in what would later be called the Truman Doctrine. Gradually, the mandate of containment expanded from Western Europe, as the U.S. began to recover economically, from World War II. “In the early years of the Cold War, our foreign policy goals focused on containing communism in Europe. We recognized that our resources were limited. We had been demobilizing since the end of World War II and the American public had reverted to its traditional isolationist character. Containment was limited only to Western Europe where our military strength was greatest” (Staten 2005). But as communist movements began to take root in China, Southeast Asia, the U.S. feared that Soviet influence would take hold internationally, and vowed to contain communism wherever it might lurk. Western and Eastern Europe were polarized in the alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but behind the scenes covert and not-so covert aid was given by both the U.S. And the U.S.S.R. To rebel forces around the globe.

Q2-What happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and why is it an important case of Cold War confrontation?

The Cuban Missile Crisis was important for what happened — and did not happen. “The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. The United States armed forces were at their highest state of readiness ever and Soviet field commanders in Cuba were prepared to use battlefield nuclear weapons to defend the island if it was invaded” (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis). At the time of the crisis, the Soviet Union still lagged behind the U.S. In the arms race. The U.S. was on a state of heightened alert because of the relatively recent takeover of Cuba by communists. It seemed as if a communist insurgency was knocking on the U.S.’s back door. “In late April 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceived the idea of placing intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. A deployment in Cuba would double the Soviet strategic arsenal and provide a real deterrent to a potential U.S. attack against the Soviet Union” (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis). Fidel Castro, feeling threatened by the hostile U.S. government welcomed the Soviet missiles.

On October 15, 1962, American reconnaissance photographs revealed Soviet missiles were under construction in Cuba. Under the advice of EX-COMM, a group of President Kennedy’s twelve most important advisors, the president resolved to impose a naval quarantine around the island rather than to invade the island, as some of his more hawkish advisors wished him to do. Kennedy announced the discovery of the missiles and his decision to impose the blockade to the American public on October 22. “He also proclaimed that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba” (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis).

Kennedy ordered low-level reconnaissance missions once every two hours. “On the 25th Kennedy pulled the quarantine line back and raised military readiness to DEFCON 2” (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis) Khrushchev sent a relatively conciliatory letter to the U.S., proposing the removal of Soviet missiles in exchange for a U.S. guarantee not to invade Cuba (a genuine fear of Khrushchev). On October 27, relations between the two powers deteriorated after aU-2 was shot down over Cuba. EX-COMM received a more belligerent letter from Khrushchev demanding the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles in Cuba (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis).

The most important decision of the crisis was made by Attorney General Robert Kennedy who ignored the second Soviet letter, pretended it had never been sent and contacted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to say that the U.S. had agreed to the terms of the first letter. On October 28 Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations and return the missiles to the Soviet Union. “Further negotiations were held to implement the October 28 agreement, including a United States demand that Soviet light bombers be removed from Cuba, and specifying the exact form and conditions of United States assurances not to invade Cuba” (An overview of the crisis, 1997, The Cuban Missile Crisis).

Many years later Robert Kennedy’s decision was revealed to have been the ‘correct’ decision that brought the superpowers back from the brink of nuclear war. Unbeknownst even to Kennedy, “in addition to their intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the Soviets had deployed nine tactical missiles in Cuba to be used against any U.S. invasion force. Even more significant, General Gribkov stated that Soviet field commanders in Cuba had the authority to fire those tactical nuclear weapons without further direction from the Kremlin” (Chang & Kornbluh 1998)

Q3-Explain how the United States got involved in Vietnam, and how did the United States end its role in Indochina?

The United States became involved in Vietnam as a direct result of The Truman Doctrine’s policy of international containment of communism. When communist China began to support the anti-colonial Viet Cong, the U.S. helped the French create a non-communist government in South Vietnam and gave aid to South Vietnam to help prop up the French-controlled regime. President Eisenhower was the first president to formulate what later became known as the Domino Theory of communism after the retreat of the French, justifying continuing American involvement in the region: “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” (BBC, 2009).

Eisenhower used this theory to justify American support for the South Vietnamese dictator Dien Bien Phu, a fanatical Catholic anti-communist who ruled with an iron fist. In 1960 The National Liberation Front (NLF), a guerrilla group was formulated to resist Dien’s government. It also resolved to expel the Americans (whose presence was increasing as President Kennedy sent more advisors to the South) and unite the two sections of the nation. However, the NLF needn’t have worried about Dien — Dien was so widely loathed, even in the South, that eventually his own army staged a coup and killed him. President Johnson became even more fearful of a communist take-over.

In 1964, when two American ships were attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin “the American Senate gave Johnson the power to give armed support to assist any country requesting help in defense of its freedom,” effectively beginning the Vietnam War without a formal declaration of war (BBC 2009). The wide-scale bombing of the North in ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ began in February 1965. By March 1965, the first American ground troops had landed in South Vietnam and by December 1965, there were 150,000 servicemen stationed in the country (BBC 2009).

Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency in 1968, promising a policy of Vietnamization or the taking-over of the war against the North by native Vietnamese troops. However, it would be four more years before substantial withdrawals of American servicemen occurred. Nixon also supported dictators in Laos and Cambodia, and the bombing of Cambodia to terrorize North Vietnamese forces hiding in that nation. In reaction to the continued escalation, “the Senate voted on June 30, 1970 to pass the Church-Cooper amendment with 58 votes. The amendment stipulated that the administration could not spend funds for soldiers, combat assistance, advisors, or bombing operations in Cambodia” (BBC 2009). The war only ended when Congress passed a series of measures, bitterly fought by Nixon, which used the Congressional power of the purse to end funding of the conflict. Finally, American military involvement ended with the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, mainly because “the president knew that he only had a limited amount of time before Congress finally used the power of the purse to bring the war to an end… In 1975, Congress refused President Gerald Ford’s last-minute request to increase aid to South Vietnam by $300 million, just weeks before it fell to communist control” (Zelizer 2007).

Q4-Power discusses several issues of human rights and genocide since the 1970s. Select one of these issues — Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Kosovo, and explain what policies the United States pursued and the limitations of American and other outside actions.

The dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe was not a uniformly positive development for all residents of the region. The collapse of the multinational conglomerate nation Yugoslavia into many smaller nations pitted long-standing ethnic rivals against one another. Serbia was widely regarded as the worst aggressor of the many ethnic rivalries that arose because of its policy of ethnic cleansing. The first Bush Administration feared becoming embroiled in a Vietnam-like quagmire, however, and did not send American forces to support the victims of Serbian attacks.

According to Mark Danner, to avoid using U.S. troops to protect vulnerable peoples, such as the Bosnians, against Serb aggression, the U.S. used the specter of Vietnam as an excuse. The result was wide-scale genocide: “mass executions, beatings, mutilations, and rape” of Croats and particularly Bosnian women (Danner 1997). Many analysts claimed that this was mere ethnic strife, not unlike what had occurred when the Vietnamese resisted the French. However, the Serbs were not merely fighting over disputed borders, but openly declared their intention to clear the land of all traces of non-Serbs. The Bosnian Muslims were the most brutalized group, and deemed the most ‘alien’ to Serbian purity (Danner 1997).

In contrast to the North Vietnamese, who mainly wanted independence, Milosevic wished to expand the borders of Serbia and was emboldened by his view that the U.S. And the UN were unwilling to enforce their disapproval of his policy. He infiltrated the Bosnian army and mobilized the Serbian minority. On May 5, 1992, “all soldiers and officers of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) who came from Bosnia were taken out of the main force, complete with their equipment, and officially became a ‘Bosnian Serb Army’ of more than eighty thousand fully trained men. Over the objections of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, the Serb forces took up strategic positions around the country, clearly preparing for war” (Danner 1997).

While the Bush Administration did little to prevent the genocide, other than voice its official dismay, the Clinton Administration’s response was slightly more aggressive than the Bush Administration’s, but only moderately so. Clinton sent troops into Bosnia to implement the Dayton Accords and rebuild a unified Bosnian state that had been torn asunder by the Serbs. However, Clinton tried to ensure that the troops did not become ’embroiled’ in the conflict and severely limited American military actions, fearing “mission creep” or partisanship (Kagan 1997). As a result, “U.S. commanders refused to arrest war criminals — even those traveling freely through areas which NATO forces nominally controlled. They refused to aid in the resettlement of refugees — even though soldiers were confronted every month by the demoralizing spectacle of uprooted people being turned back from their old homes by stone-throwing mobs. And they refused to ensure Bosnian citizens safe passage across the bloody ethnic lines that the U.S.-sponsored Dayton peace accords aimed to erase (Kagan 1997). NATO had become actively involved and eventually engaged in air strikes that ultimately brought the Bosnian Serbs into submission. Only a coalition, not U.S. actions alone, brought about something resembling stability in the region — meanwhile the atrocities perpetrated by the Serbs continued. Critics today say that without aggressive intervention — that came to late to save many Bosnian lives — Serbian expansion would have continued.

Q5-What were the major foreign policy issues of the 1950s? Justify your response by addressing the significance of each. (Do not just list them).


The Russian launch of Sputnik touched off the ‘space race’ between the Soviet Union and the United States. It eventually fostered an international drive to explore space, even after the Cold War ended. The fears instilled in the American public by Sputnik that Soviet space technology could be used to facilitate Soviet military superiority had a positive effect, namely the creation of NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the eventual landing of a man on the moon (Sputnik, 2009, Cold War Museum).

Not all developments in technology were so positive, of course. The arms race, fueled by Soviet fears of American superiority and American mastery of atomic weapons during World War II caused the world to teeter on a terrified precipice that the all of human existence could end due to a misunderstanding between the two superpowers, as nearly occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. American fears of Soviet superiority created a climate of paranoia and fear. In the U.S., McCarthyism silenced political dissent and even ordinary civilians built bomb shelters.


Such paranoia about communism seemed justified when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were condemned to death for giving the Soviets the necessary technology to build atomic weapons. “Following the first successful nuclear tests by the Soviets in 1949, America quickly began to fear the scientific strides of their eastern-hemisphere rival, and its citizens began to suspiciously eye those around them, believing that Soviet spies must have been responsible for passing the nuclear technology from the United States to Russia” (The Rosenberg Trial, 2009, Cold War Museum). The idea that communists could be ‘everywhere’ caused the American public to be more supportive of an aggressive containment policy, as pursued by Presidents Eisenhower and Truman.

The spread of communism

The dissolution of the colonial empires resulted in a number of major powers reverting to communist forms of government, often simply because the nationalist forces within nations such as China and Vietnam supported such an ideology, not because of a nefarious plot of Soviet control. In the eyes of the American public who knew little about the history of such nations, however, the ‘loss’ of China to the communists seemed terrifying and threatening, and seemed to justify the allegations of men such as McCarthy that communism was like a plague that could only be contained through aggressive measures.


An overview of the crisis. (1997). The Cuban Missile Crisis. Crisis Center. Thinkquest.

Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

The Berlin Airlift. (2010). Cold War Museum. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

Chang, Laurence & Peter Kornbluh. (1998). A national security archive documents reader.

Foreword by Robert S. McNamara, 2nd Edition, New York: The New Press, 1998.

Retrieved from George Washington University on January 1, 2009 at

Danner, Mark. (1997, December 4). America and the Bosnia genocide. The New York Review

of Books, 44.19. America and the Bosnia Genocide

Kagan, Robert. (1997). Clinton and Cohen in Bosnia: Senseless boredom. Carnegie Endowment

for Peace. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

The Rosenberg Trial. (2009). Cold War Museum. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

Staten, Cliff. (2005, July 30). U.S. foreign policy since World War II. University of North

Carolina. American Diplomacy Publishers. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

Sputnik. (2009). Cold War Museum. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

World War II and the Cold War. (2009). Fresno School District. Social Science.

Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

Why did the U.S. get involved in Vietnam? (2009). BBC School History. GCSE Review.

Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

Zelizer, Julian E. (2007, February 19). How Congress got us out of Vietnam. The American

Prospect. Retrieved January 1, 2009 at

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