Barton J. Bernstein

The containment doctrine, with its ambiguities and imprecision, was a major strategy and the guiding conception in American foreign policy from shortly after World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–1991, and some might argue that containment remained a policy into the twenty-first century for the United States in dealing with communist regimes in Cuba, North Korea, and China. In its most general form, containment denotes the American effort, by military, political, and economic means, to resist communist expansion throughout the world. But precisely because of the looseness of the doctrine and the differing interpretations, including questions about the selective application of efforts to stop communism, the doctrine's author, George F. Kennan, an influential foreign service officer in 1947 and later a respected private scholar, often opposed important tactics that many American policymakers defined as the implementation of containment: the global rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949–1950, the heavy military emphasis of U.S. policy in the 1950s, the extension of alliances to Asia and the Middle East, and the prolonged military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. As Kennan stated in 1967:

If … I was the author in 1947 of a "doctrine" of containment, it was a doctrine that lost much of its rationale with the death of Stalin and with the development of the Soviet-Chinese conflict. I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance.

While agreeing on the desirability of resisting communist expansion, Kennan and others disagreed on whether the doctrine remained relevant, and how and where to implement it. Their disputes have often rested on fundamental differences about the capacity of American power, about the extent of American interests beyond western Europe, and especially about the nature of the communist threat. The last issue has raised many questions. Was the threat subversion, revolution, military aggression, economic encirclement, or some combination? With the exception of Yugoslavia, was world communism controlled by Joseph Stalin even after the successful Chinese revolution in 1949? After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and after the obvious Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, did the nature of the communist threat sometimes change, even well before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989–1991? At times from the early 1960s, according to the proponents of containment, was the threat primarily China and wars of national liberation in the Third World, and not the Soviet Union mostly in the developed world? Was American policy in the 1990s and continuing into the twenty-first century in dealing with Cuba, North Korea, and the People's Republic of China often the policy of containment?

Beyond these important issues, scholars, as well as politicians and policymakers, have raised other questions: whether the doctrine in 1947 was new or necessary, whether it was ultimately self-defeating, whether it was active or passive, and whether it did or should have endured as American policy into the late 1980s and early 1990s and perhaps later. Many of the questions about containment, if it is interpreted as the general course of American foreign policy, become the basic questions about that policy itself, from Harry S. Truman's administration to the first years of President George H. W. Bush's and possibly beyond.


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See also Cold War Evolution and Interpretations ; Cold War Origins ; Cold War Termination ; Covert Operations ; Doctrines ; Domino Theory ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy .

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