History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War - Confrontation and Containment


Foreword


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.


This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

  1. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Founding Principles

  2. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Looking West - The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny

  3. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Beginnings of Empire and World War I

  4. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Interwar Period and World War II

  5. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Cold War: Confrontation and Containment

  6. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Cold War Part 2: Détente and Rapprochement

  7. History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror

  8. History of American Foreign Policy 101: The Rise of China


The early years of the Cold War would be a defining moment for the foreign policy of the United States. Developments during these years would set the course for American action in the world at large for the next half century, with many of the foreign policy principles and visions of the time enduring to this day. This article will discuss the foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War, from roughly 1945 until 1975. First, the post-World War II situation will be explained briefly, detailing the origins of the Cold War. Secondly, the dominant American foreign policy of the Cold War, ‘containment’, will be discussed in depth, with a brief look at other more minor theoretical policy foundations as well. Thirdly, American foreign policy in regard to the Korean War will be discussed, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of this conflict, such as the domino theory. Finally, there will be a brief summary of the other major events in the period of focus, with a conclusion discussing the effects and ‘blowback’ of American foreign policy during this period in history.


U.S. Signal Corps. (1945). Yalta Conference. Wikimedia Commons.

The Origins of the Cold War


Although the beginning of the Cold War is generally associated with the issuance of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the roots of the conflict lie in the historical context of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. In this sense, the origins of the Cold War can generally be traced back to the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, in which the Bolsheviks came to power and founded the USSR (Anderson, 2017). After the revolution, a bloody civil war ensued between the Bolsheviks and the counter-revolutionary Whites, with the United States and the various other European powers sending troops to support the counter-revolutionary forces, who were ultimately defeated. In the following years, the Bolsheviks would create the Communist International, a Soviet-controlled international organisation dedicated to achieving world communism, in line with the Soviet state policy of promoting revolution on a global scale, especially in Germany and the rest of Europe (James & Høgsbjerg, 2017). Such a stance struck fear into the ruling governments in Europe and in the United States, who feared revolution in their own country (Dailey, 2018). However, with the death of Lenin in 1924 and the rise of Stalin, the Soviet state would turn inwards, following a state policy of achieving communism in the USSR, as opposed to a world revolution, and establishing itself in opposition to the capitalist West. Given the ideological differences between communism and capitalism, both of which sought to put an end to the other, relations between the two states would remain bitter, with both governments nominally and actively seeking the overthrow of the other (Anderson, 2017). Despite this, with the Soviet Union turning inwards after 1924, and with the growing US isolation during the interwar period (1919-1939), the prospect of conflict remained distant.

With the beginning of World War II (1939-1945) and the fall of France, battlefield priorities would take precedence over ideological considerations, and the United States would enter into a military alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler (Anderson, 2017). Despite this, American leaders still did not trust the Soviet Union and hoped that the Soviets and the Nazis would inflict massive damage on each other. Future president Harry Truman, for example, “rejoiced at the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, hoping that each state would destroy the other” (Anderson, 2017, p. 31). As the tide of the war began to swing towards the Allies and the contours of a bipolar world order made themselves clear, ideological and geo-political considerations would once again creep into the calculus of both nations. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union would control nearly all of Eastern Europe and part of Germany as a bulwark against any future Western incursion. The United States, on the other hand, would seek to build up the nations on the Soviet borders in Western Europe and East Asia as a bulwark against further Soviet expansion, thus setting the boundaries for the Cold War (Anderson, 2017). The Cold War would then officially begin with the declaration of the Truman Doctrine by President Harry Truman. Within such doctrine, Truman pledged “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” (National Archives, 2006). The Truman Doctrine was issued primarily in response to U.S. fears of the spread of Communism, specifically in Greece, where a civil war was ongoing between the Greek government and the Communist party. Truman feared that the Soviets were supporting revolution in Greece and that if the latter fell, it would be the first of a domino effect of countries to fall to communism. In reality, Stalin had taken an approach of deliberately refraining from providing support to the Greek Communists. The issuance of the Truman Doctrine marks an important distinction, in that it effectively officialised the Cold War, and reoriented U.S. foreign policy towards one of possible intervention in far-off conflicts in pursuit of anti-communism (Merrill, 2006).


Liberal Party. (1962). It’s your choice: where do you draw the line against Communist aggression?

In order to stabilise Western Europe and bring it closer to the orbit of the United States both politically and economically, the Marshall Plan was instituted as a rescue plan for Europe in 1947. The initiative, which would funnel 13 billion dollars into 16 European nations, served multiple purposes (Christenson & Christenson, 2018). On the one hand, the funds were tied to the purchase of American goods, the logic being that “American manufacturers needed a European market capable of purchasing American goods” in order for sustained domestic economic growth (Dailey, 2018, p. 205). As a result, the vast majority of the Marshall Plan funds were spent on the purchase of American goods (Dailey, 2018). However, such a recovery instrument was also a political tool, aimed at bringing about the electoral outcomes Washington desired in Europe. In the words of Thomas McCormick, “The Marshall Plan sent a strong message to European voters that American largesse depended on their electing governments willing to accept the accompanying rules of multilateral trade and fiscal conservatism” (McCormick, 1995, p. 66). Consequently, there would be no rescue plan for states which would elect Communist or left-wing governments. In summary, the Marshall Plan was viewed as instrumental to the ensuing economic stability in Western Europe, which would lead to a large market for American goods and the alignment of European governments toward the U.S. instead of the Soviet Union. NATO would follow shortly after in 1949, militarily integrating the United States and Western Europe against the Soviet Union, and cementing the Trans-Atlantic Alliance between Europe and the United States (Anderson, 2017).


Containment

At this time, the foreign policy known as containment would come to the forefront of American foreign policy. In the words of its author, diplomat George Kennan, containment referred to a policy of “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” (Kennan, 1947, p. 568). This stance would be the primary driver of American foreign policy for the duration of the Cold War. In the years since the ‘long telegram’ by Kennan first outlined the policy of containment, it has been variously praised and criticised. For supporters, including Truman and the top levels of the State Department, containment was the policy which successfully allowed the United States to check the spread of Communism, while at the same time avoiding a direct conflict which could lead to a thermonuclear war (Dailey, 2018). The critics of containment fell into two parties, those who felt that it went too far, and those who felt it didn’t go far enough. In the former camp, Perry Anderson proposes that “the objective [of containment] was not to check, but delete the adversary. Victory, not safety, was the aim” (Anderson, 2017, p. 33). He adds that the adoption of containment as a foreign policy mantra would “set the course for decades of global intervention and counter-revolution” (Anderson, 2017, p. 33). On the other hand, critics of containment such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would call it “negative, futile, and immoral” stating that it “abandoned countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism” (Bodenheimer & Gould, 1999, p. 12).


Theoretically, containment was a middle ground approach between two other concepts: détente and rollback. Détente, though a term generally used to characterise the later years of the Cold War, was the vision of Franklin Roosevelt, who envisioned friendly relations with the Soviet Union in the post-war era (White, 1981). Carried forward by Henry Wallace, the vice president under Truman, détente would be discarded in the early years of the Cold War with the election of new post-Roosevelt leaders and a growing crackdown domestically on any politics considered to be pro-Soviet (Jerel & Scott, 2011). On the other side, ‘rollback’ was another popular theoretical approach towards interaction with the Soviets. More aggressive than détente and containment, the rollback was espoused by conservative strategists in the United States which actively sought to destroy the Soviet Union. In this sense, rollback referred to both direct military intervention against communist governments, as well as military or clandestine assistance to forces fighting pro-communist regimes (Borhi, 1999). American foreign policy during the Cold War would vacillate between these three theoretical conceptions, though the policy of containment was by far the most popular guiding principle enshrined in American foreign policy wisdom (Dailey, 2018).


Spencer, R. V. (1951). Korean War Refugee With Baby. Wikimedia Commons.

The Korean War

In East Asia, the United States took a similar approach to the one they adopted toward Western Europe. In both areas, in fact, the United States sought to aggressively build up the nations on the Soviet border economically in order to produce stability and economic growth, while blunting the appeal of Communism (Johnson, 2004). The means for achieving economic development and political alignment in Europe in the early years was the Marshall Plan, while in East Asia “The United States used aid and preferred access to its vast market to bring these countries into its political orbit” (Johnson, 2004, p. 96). Interestingly, according to Chalmers Johnson, “When it came to the political and military dimensions of satellite creation and maintenance, the Soviet Union and the United States pursued similar policies and for similar reasons” (Johnson, 2004, p. 96). Both the USSR and the United States would set up dependent satellite regimes in their spheres of influence to check the expansion of the other (Johnson, 2004). In Japan, for example, the United States army installed the Liberal Democratic Party in 1949, “supporting it throughout the Cold War against any and all popular efforts to introduce truly democratic regimes” (Johnson, 2004, p. 97) and helping to maintain a single party regime from 1949 until 1993. It was revealed in the 1990s that the CIA spent millions of dollars influencing the outcomes of elections in Japan during the Cold War to ensure the conservative and U.S.-aligned LDP would defeat leftist parties (Johnson, 2004; Johnson et al., 2000).

In Korea, the end of World War II ended in a temporary split of the country at the 38th parallel into Soviet and United States occupation zones. Allied leaders had previously planned for a ‘five years four state’ trusteeship to oversee the gradual move to Korean self-rule, as it was deemed that the peninsula was not yet ready to govern itself at the end of the war (Stokesbury, 1990). However, with the beginning of the Cold War and the failure of negotiations between the Soviets and the United States, the United States and the Soviet Union set up satellite regimes in the South and North respectively. In the North, Kim Il Sung would consolidate power, while in the South the United States would back Syngman Rhee, “a Princeton-educated member of the anti-Japanese provisional government” (Dailey, 2018, p. 208) and a “firm anti-communist“ (Johnson, 2004) who would consolidate power with American support and lead an authoritarian government until 1960 (Buzo, 2008). Both the Soviets and the United States distrusted the intentions of the other, and for this reason were unwilling to relinquish their occupation zone (Matray, 1979). Korea was to become the first great flashpoint of great power politics in the Cold War.


Jones, E. (2013). TOPSHOT-SKOREA-NKOREA-POLITICS-DMZ. Getty Images.

In 1950, inspired by the victory of the PLA in China and with the tacit approval of Stalin, the North invaded the south with the hope of “rapidly knocking over the unpopular counterpart set up by the US across the border” (Anderson, 2017, p. 64). The newly created United Nations Security Council would subsequently agree to intervene in the conflict, primarily using troops from the United States (Dailey, 2018). Thus, the Korean War began. American foreign policy during the war could be described first as being containment oriented, with the initial goal being only to push the North Korean troops back to the 38th parallel (Matray, 1979). However, after the successful counterattack at Inchon by UN forces pushed the North Korean army back to the 38th parallel, a rollback strategy was embraced, with the objective of toppling North Korea and having nationwide elections follow under the purview of the United Nations (Matray, 1979). The Korean War also led to the emergence of another important concept from the Cold War: Domino Theory. Though popularised in the context of the Vietnam War, the first use of the term would be by Harry Truman regarding the potential spread of Communism in Europe if Greece or Turkey fell in 1947. The term came to support the American foreign policy approach that if the United States let one country fall to communism, there would be a domino effect in which other states would follow (Leeson & Dean, 2009). In this sense, the domino theory would represent a dangerous rationale for intervention on a global scale, most infamously in Vietnam, since it implied an activist foreign policy of preventing the rise of pro-communist governments anywhere in the world (Leeson & Dean, 2009).

UN forces would subsequently push all the way to the North Korea and China border, where they would then be faced with 300,000 Chinese troops, who would subsequently push the UN troops back to the 38th parallel. In the end, the war would end with a negotiated peace, with each side controlling the same territory as before the war. 36,000 Americans would lose their lives, along with a staggering 1 million South Korean troops, and 1.5 Million North Korean and Chinese (Dailey, 2018). Additionally, the bombing campaign of North Korea by the USAF would destroy 85% of the buildings in the region, where more bombs were dropped than in the Pacific Theater in World War II (Harden, 2017).

There would be three primary consequences of the Korean War. First, there was a massive turn toward military spending: the defence budget of 1953 would be 4 times as high as that of 1949, representing 60% of government expenditures (Dailey, 2018). The National Security Council Memorandum 68, which would propose this increase in defence spending, represented “a massive transfer of resources from those parts of government that maintained the basic building blocks of democracy — education, employment, the health and welfare of the people — to the military” (Dailey, 2018, p. 211). Along these lines, the second consequence, one which predated the war but was accelerated by it, was the expanded conception of national security: as Perry Anderson describes (2017), this period marked the beginning of the institutionalisation of the permanent ideology of national security as the defence of American empire, which continues to this day. Here Anderson points to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence agency at the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947 as the institutional complex which arose ostensibly for defensive purposes, although what was being defended was no longer the physical territory of the United States, but American hegemony (2017). The third consequence of American foreign policy relates to the United Nations’ relationship with the United States. Since the Korean War was fought through the U.N., “President Truman was able to bypass Congress, which has the power to declare war and commit US troops on his own executive authority (…) a significant expansion of executive power in a moment when Cold War foreign policy and national security were already merging in the White House“ (Dailey, 2018, 209). Additionally, as a “US war waged under the nominal banner of the UN”, the Korean War discredited the United Nations partially, giving the impression that the organization was dominated by the United States and its interests (Anderson, 2017, p. 64).


Bettmann. (1962). Distances of Major Cites from Cuba. Getty Images.

Blowback



With the death of Stalin in 1953 and the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev as First Secretary of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union’s state policy towards the United States became one of peaceful coexistence (Lipson, 1964). Despite this, Khrushchev’s time as Premier of the USSR would mark some of the most critical moments of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is extremely interesting in that it helps illustrate the concept of ‘blowback’ in international relations theory. The term ‘blowback’ has its origins in the CIA lexicon, in which it was used to describe “the unintended consequence and unwanted side-effects of a covert operation” (Johnson, 2004, p. 7). In the context of the Cold War, blowback is an important theoretical concept, given that many of the actions that America began to undertake in order to bring down Left-wing governments and stymie the spread of Communism led to unintended blowback in the future, and have profoundly shaped modern conflicts.


After the Cuban Revolution which overthrew the Dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1958, Fidel Castro came to power. Soon after, incensed that the United States had provided aid to the Batista dictatorship during the revolution, Castro and the new Cuban government nationalized all U.S. property in Cuba in 1960. Unwilling to let Cuba stand as an example to other left-wing revolutionary movements in Latin America, the Eisenhower administration would allocate 13 million dollars to the CIA to bring down Castro, while also freezing “all Cuban assets on American soil, severing diplomatic ties, and tightening its embargo of Cuba” (Londoño, 2014, p. 2). What followed in 1961 was one of the most infamous foreign policy blunders in American history, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, in which the United States trained, funded, and transported 1,400 Cuban emigres to Playa Giron in Cuba in a failed attempt to bring down Castro. The United States also attempted various assassination plots on Castro under Operation Mongoose in the same year and in the years that followed (Franklin & Chomsky, 2016). The Bay of Pigs invasion and the various CIA plots to assassinate Castro and bring down the government would lead to an unresolvable chasm between Cuba and the United States and would push the Cuban government closer to the Soviets (Franklin & Chomsky, 2016). In this sense, the unintended consequences of these covert actions, undertaken without the consent of the American people, would lead to what is widely considered the most dangerous moment in the modern history of humankind, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in that it pushed Cuba to seek nuclear weapons in order to guarantee their survival (White, 1998). In the ensuing crisis, the Soviets, in response to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the U.S. placement of ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey, would place similar ballistic missiles in Cuba at the request of Castro (Scott & Hughes, 2015). The result was a stand-off between the United States and the Soviets, which threatened to lead to nuclear war: the crisis was only averted when an agreement was reached that the Soviet missiles would be removed, in exchange for a public declaration from the U.S. that they wouldnt invade Cuba, and the removal of American missiles from Turkey (Scott & Hughes, 2015).


Shi, D. E., & Tindall, G. B. (2016, June 1). America: A Narrative History (Brief Tenth). W. W. Norton & Company.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is relevant in the theoretical context of the Cold War in that it represents the most vivid example of ‘brinksmanship’. The term was originally used to describe Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s “apparent willingness to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war before settling differences diplomatically” (Dailey, 2018, p. 241), but can be further adopted to indicate various actions and posturing during the Cold War in which both sides threatened the other and pushed the world close to nuclear war. The justification was that, if the Soviets believed that the Americans were actually willing to use nuclear weapons, it would increase American bargaining power and make it easier for them to achieve their goals (Dailey, 2018).


Besides Cuba, other prominent examples of American intervention from the early Cold War period which caused blowback are the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected governments of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1954, and Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. In the case of Mossadegh, his overthrow and the subsequent installation and support of the unpopular Shah would eventually lead to the Iranian Revolution and the rise of a radically anti-American regime. In the case of Guatemala, the covert CIA operation known as PBSuccess would overthrow the left-leaning Guzman government and end 10 years of democracy and reform in Guatemala. Besides plunging the country into nearly four decades of Civil War, the event would strengthen long-lasting anti-American sentiment in Latin America as a whole (Streeter, 2001). Jane Dailey states in this regard that “the propensity of top American foreign policy analysts to see left-leaning nationalist movements in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East as Soviet pawns severely limited US relations with much of the world in the 1950s and left a bitter aftertaste that persists” (Dailey, 2018, p. 240).



Conclusion


The early years of the Cold War were pivotal in establishing many of the theoretical principles which would guide the conflict. The emergence of Cold War approaches such as containment, domino theory, brinksmanship, and the Truman Doctrine, would all set the course of American foreign policy for the next half-century. Furthermore, given the top priority that anti-communism and containment assumed in American foreign policy at the time, these theoretical underpinnings would lead to a vast expansion of the conception of American national security and of the military-industrial complex, two themes which still dominate the foreign policy of the United States to this day.


Bibliographical References

Bodenheimer, T., & Gould, R. (1999, July 1). Rollback!: Right-wing Power in U.S. Foreign Policy. South End Press.


Borhi, L. (1999). Rollback, Liberation, Containment, or Inaction?: U.S. Policy and Eastern Europe in the 1950s. Journal of Cold War Studies 1(3), 67-110. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/9109


Buzo, A. (2008, February 14). The Making of Modern Korea (Asia’s Transformations) (2nd ed.). Routledge.


Christenson, L., & Christenson, E. (2018). The Marshall Plan: “A Short Time to Change the World.” In H. Bak, F. Mehring, & M. Roza (Eds.), Politics and Cultures of Liberation: Media, Memory, and Projections of Democracy (Vol. 7, pp. 344–359). Brill. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1163/j.ctvbqs8h0.20


Dailey, J. (2018). Building the American Republic, Volume 2: A Narrative History from 1877 (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press.


Franklin, J., & Chomsky, N. (2016, May 1). Cuba and the U.S. Empire: A Chronological History (3rd Revised edition). Monthly Review Press.


Harden, B. (2017, October 3). King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea (1st Edition). Viking.


James, C. L. R., & Høgsbjerg, C. (2017, August 11). World Revolution, 1917–1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (The C. L. R. James Archives) (Illustrated). Duke University Press Books.


Johnson, C. (2004, January 4). Blowback, Second Edition (American Empire Project) (First Edition). Holt Paperbacks.


Johnson, C., Schlei, N. A., & Schaller, M. (2000). THE CIA AND JAPANESE POLITICS. Asian Perspective, 24(4), 79–103. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42705308


Lipson, L. (1964). Peaceful Coexistence. Law and Contemporary Problems, 29(4), 871–881. https://doi.org/10.2307/1190700


Londoño, E. (2014, October 29). On Cuba Embargo, It’s the U.S. and Israel Against the World — Again. Taking Note. Retrieved September 9, 2022, from https://archive.nytimes.com/takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/on-cuba-embargo-its-the-u-s-and-israel-against-the-world-again/?_r=0&mtrref=en.wikipedia.org&gwh=36DE311E228E8EF0DFD4339392EF099F&gwt=pay&assetType=PAYWALL


Leeson, P. T., & Dean, A. M. (2009, July). The Democratic Domino Theory: An Empirical Investigation. American Journal of Political Science, 53(3), 533–551. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2009.00385.x


Matray, J. I. (1979). Truman’s Plan for Victory: National Self-Determination and the Thirty-Eighth Parallel Decision in Korea. The Journal of American History, 66(2), 314–333. https://doi.org/10.2307/1900879


McCormick, T. J. (1995, February 1). America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After (The American Moment) (2nd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press.


Merrill, D. (2006). The Truman Doctrine: Containing Communism and Modernity. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36(1), 27–37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552744


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Scott, L., & Hughes, G. R. (2015, April 10). The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Critical Reappraisal (Cold War History) (1st ed.). Routledge.


Streeter, S. M. (2001, February 28). Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961 (Volume 34) (Ohio RIS Latin America Series) (1st ed.). Ohio University Press.


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Tucker, R. W. (1971). The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy. Baltimore, pp. 11, 23, 58-64, 107–11, 149.


White, B. (1981). The Concept of Detente. Review of International Studies, 7(3), 165-171. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20096917


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