The stalemate in Korea led many frustrated Americans to question their nation's involvement in Korea, the tactics and purposes of limited war, and the policy of containment itself. John Foster Dulles, a Republican spokesman and State Department adviser who would become Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, issued the most forceful challenge. In "A Policy for Boldness," in Life (19 May 1952), Dulles castigated containment as negative and called for a new policy: one that would "liberate" the "captive peoples" of Eastern Europe and not shrink from the use of nuclear weapons in meeting communist military aggression. Sketching the strategy that would later be fleshed out and bear the name of "massive retaliation," Dulles proposed that the United States might retaliate anywhere ("where it hurts") "by means of our choosing." Such a strategy, he pledged, would deter communist aggression and eliminate limited war initiated by Soviet "stooges." His critiques and proposals, with some softening and hedging, became the Republican Party's foreign policy plank in 1952: it promised victory in the Cold War and liberation of Eastern Europe.
Despite the bold rhetoric of massive retaliation and liberation, the Eisenhower administration generally subscribed in its actions to the containment doctrine, moving to "liberation" clandestinely to use the CIA to overthrow the nationalist government in Iran in 1953 and to overthrow in 1954 the elected leftist but not communist government in Guatemala. The administration avoided both nuclear war and significant limited war, and restricted liberation mostly to words of encouragement, when revolution erupted in Eastern Europe. In Korea, after bombing some irrigation dams and obliquely threatening nuclear escalation, the Eisenhower administration accepted the division of the country and the return to status quo ante—Truman's original war aims. Despite the much-heralded "unleashing" of Chiang Kai-shek in 1953, the Eisenhower administration soon "releashed" him and restricted his actions. Having learned lessons from Truman's involvements in Greece and Korea, Eisenhower would not commit troops to the war in Indochina but used other tactics to prevent a communist victory in his time—the establishment of a client state that received about $2 billion in military and economic aid. Expanding commitments in Asia and the Middle East, along the general lines of NATO, the administration created security pacts, which, critics charged, extended American alliances and power beyond their natural limits. Under Eisenhower, the government used subversion and sponsored revolutions and small armed military interventions to overthrow suspected communist governments and to maintain stability. Eisenhower's major failure, judged by the standards of containment, was the rise in Cuba of a communist government allied with the Soviet Union.
Kennan in the 1950s never discussed in public the use by the American government, under Truman and then Eisenhower, of covert activities to weaken communist regimes. Instead, he deplored the public pressures for liberation, but carefully implied that the only truly meaningful calls for liberation required American armed intervention against the Soviet Union or at least in the Iron Curtain area. Kennan's careful omission of covert activities had the effect, whether intended or not, of implying that there were no such American operations and thereby concealing an aspect of U.S. policy in dealing with communism abroad.
The most marked shift from the earlier policy of containment was Eisenhower's decision (endorsed by Kennan) that negotiations with the communists were desirable and that some important differences in Europe might be settled. In 1955, for the first time since Potsdam in 1945, a president of the United States met with a Soviet premier. Although Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin, and Nikita S. Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, did not resolve important issues, their summit meeting at Geneva did ease East-West tensions. Kennan, among others, wanted the two nations to go further. In late 1957, echoing Lippmann's plea in 1947, Kennan proposed disengagement—the creation of a unified, independent Germany, withdrawal of foreign troops from Germany and Eastern Europe, and the elimination of nuclear weapons in that area. The Soviet Union had changed under Khrushchev, Kennan declared. There were new "realities." The Eisenhower administration, while implicitly recognizing some of these "realities," would not endorse the plan and even considered giving nuclear weapons to West Germany. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, denying that the Soviet Union had changed and warning against Khrushchev's talk of peaceful coexistence, condemned Kennan for preaching a "new isolationism" and counseling a "futile and lethal attempt to crawl back into the cocoon of history."
Promising victory in the Cold War, John F. Kennedy's administration castigated Eisenhower for allowing communism in Cuba and for failing to provide a larger, more diversified arsenal that would give the United States "flexible options"—a capacity ranging from limited conventional war, through limited nuclear war, to holocaust. The Kennedy administration, while seeking to roll back communism in Cuba through CIA-directed assassination attempts on Castro (there is no clear but only suggestive evidence that President Kennedy knew or authorized these attempts) and the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, generally endorsed the containment doctrine and acted to enforce it by blocking communist expansion, including national liberation movements in Africa and Asia. The result was an escalated arms race and efforts to strengthen the faltering NATO alliance, but after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy achieved in 1963 a limited nuclear-test ban treaty and moved toward détente—a policy opposed by Kennan.
Perhaps the most dangerous application of the containment doctrine in the Cold War occurred in October 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets had clandestinely placed forty-two "offensive" missiles in Cuba, despite their private assurances to the contrary, and President Kennedy, in response, imposed a blockade (called a "quarantine" to avoid using the term "blockade," which in international law meant war) on all new arms shipments to Cuba to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw its weapons. Privately, administration members believed the Soviets were testing America's (and Kennedy's) will and commitment, and probably hoping to use the missiles to buttress their policy to push the United States out of Berlin. Most likely, the Soviets were actually acting defensively: To protect the Cuban revolution, which seemed threatened by the United States, and to narrow the severely worsening missile gap, when the United States had about 175 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Soviets had only between about 20 and 40 in the USSR. The overall U.S. strategic superiority, as measured in bombers and missiles, was estimated as better than ten to one. In October 1962 in the Cuban missile crisis, a shoot-out at sea was avoided, the Soviets began to back down, and a Kennedy-Khrushchev deal was arranged to have the Soviets withdraw their missiles from Cuba partly in return for a secret American promise to withdraw similar missiles from Turkey, where Kennedy had only recently installed them. Only twenty-five years later was that secret deal—long denied by Kennedy stalwarts—fully acknowledged.
Under Lyndon B. Johnson, national liberation movements in Asia became the focus of administration energies, as the United States abandoned the surreptitious warfare that Kennedy had initiated in Indochina and openly applied the policy of military containment in Vietnam—a policy that Kennan challenged in 1966. Containment, he suggested, could be extended from Europe in the Stalin years to China in recent years, but the doctrine was ill-suited for Indochina. The costs were too high, Kennan explained to a congressional committee in 1966: "If we had been able, without exorbitant cost in American manpower and resources … to do better in Vietnam I would have been delighted, and I would have thought that the effort was warranted." He also thought that Vietnam might well follow an independent, not a Russian-or Chinese-directed foreign policy. While warning against "a precipitate and disorderly withdrawal [which could be] a disservice to our own interests … and even to world peace," he recommended liquidation of American involvement "just as soon as this can be done without inordinate damage to our own prestige or to the stability of conditions in that area."
Undeterred by this unwelcome counsel, the Johnson administration publicly justified American intervention in Indochina as necessary to stave off communism, to defeat wars of national liberation, to establish the value of counterinsurgency, to affirm American credibility, to protect the security of the "free world," to halt the loss of dominoes, to maintain access to raw materials, to restore an important trading area for Japan, and, variously, to contain the Soviet Union or China, and sometimes both. The limited war proved to be one the United States could not win, as Kennan had lamented, and the cost in American lives and dollars, as well as the disruptions and protests at home, tore apart the nation. The war divided members of the elite, produced the defection of policymakers and old cold warriors, and ultimately compelled Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to withdraw U.S. armed forces from much of Southeast Asia. Whether or not Nixon in the Paris agreement of January 1973 truly intended a permanent American pullout or only a temporary withdrawal, followed by a return as the southern government started to collapse, remains in some historical dispute. The decisions ultimately to withdraw and not return to Vietnam did not necessarily represent the abandonment of containment in principle, for that loose doctrine, at least since the fall of China in 1949, had always operated on the assumption that some interventions were too costly and too dangerous.
By the mid-1970s, with détente under Nixon and then Ford, scholars were unsure whether American policy still subscribed to containment. The détente with the Soviet Union, the recognition of communist polycentrism, the Sino-Soviet split, the erosion of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, the uneasy settlement in Southeast Asia, the rapprochement with China, and the Soviet-American strategic arms limitation agreements—all marked the distance that American foreign policy had moved. Yet, American assistance under President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, despite public denials, led to the overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected communist government in Chile in 1973 and the establishment of the harshly repressive government of General Augusto Pinochet, who a quarter century later would be indicted for war crimes. Under Nixon and Ford, the continued fear of Soviet influence in the Middle East, the efforts to maintain worldwide military alliances, and the desire to thwart national liberation movements all suggested that the policy of containment, modified at times, endured as a guiding principle in the conduct of American foreign policy through the end of the Ford administration in 1977.
Containment generally continued under President Jimmy Carter, and often it easily was mixed with his concern for human rights abroad. He initially seemed to want to work out better relations with the Soviet Union. He resisted getting tough when the Soviets and Cubans became involved in parts of Africa. But, in continuing and expanding the Nixon-Kissinger policy of playing off China and the Soviet Union, Carter's administration formalized relations with China in January 1979. In December 1979, when the Soviets moved troops into Afghanistan in a brutal war, Carter moved to a decidedly get-tough policy with the Soviet Union. The administration disregarded that Afghanistan had long been judged by some analysts as already within the Soviet sphere of interest. Carter contended, incorrectly, that the Soviets were aiming to move into the oil-rich Middle East. He proclaimed, in hyperbolic rhetoric, that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was the gravest threat to world peace since World War II. He announced a "Carter Doctrine" declaring that the United States would act, unilaterally if necessary, to protect American interests against Soviet encroachments in the Persian Gulf area. Through the CIA, Carter provided covert aid to anti-Soviet, rebel forces in Afghanistan, including apparently those of Osama bin Laden, and thereby unintentionally helped nurture military groups that would later turn against other governments, including the United States, and be termed "terrorists" in the 1990s and in the early twenty-first century. Having already recently expanded the military budget, the Carter administration, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, again increased the U.S. military budget. In 1980, President Carter signed Presidential Directive (PD) 59 to provide a capacity to fight a prolonged, limited nuclear war.
President Ronald Reagan, building on the expanded defense spending of Carter's last two budgets, added significantly to American military spending. Reagan, moving beyond Carter's already heated rhetoric of 1979–1980, declared that the Soviet Union was a menace to world peace. Reagan called the USSR an "evil empire" in 1983, and yet, perhaps paradoxically, sought to work out some arms-limitation agreements on strategic weapons with the Soviets. In Latin America, frequently employing clandestine means, Reagan's government provided aid for overthrowing the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua and sought to block efforts by the Sandinistas and left-wing rebels to overthrow the right-wing, U.S.-supported government in El Salvador. In 1985, in words that seemed to echo the ideology of the 1947 Truman Doctrine, Reagan announced the "Reagan Doctrine": "Our mission is to nourish and defend freedom and democracy [and to support those] on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua … to defy Soviet-supported aggression and [to] secure rights which have been ours from birth…. Support for freedom fighters is self-defense." In his last years in office, however, Reagan softened his anti-Soviet words and policies and struggled, amid contentions that he knowingly violated congressional mandates, to escape from the political debacle at home emerging from his government's secret trading of arms for hostages and then arranging for the monies from some of the arms sales to be funneled clandestinely to the anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua.
The American military buildup under Reagan put more economic and military pressure on the Soviet Union. Already wracked by economic inefficiency, beset by lurking crises of legitimacy at home and in its satellite states, and suffering under heavy military budgets, the Soviet system was unable adequately to reform itself. Some analysts and politicians (most often Republicans) would later argue that the Reagan policy of increased American military spending had been devised to pressure the Soviets to increase military spending, further dislocate their economy, and add to their already severe problems at home. But other analysts pointed out that Reagan publicly, and apparently privately, had argued for larger American military budgets not to injure the Soviet economy but because he had sincerely—but incorrectly—believed that the Soviet military system was very powerful and threatening to the West. The Soviets were far weaker than he and many administration advisers had recognized. In a sense, Kennan's 1947 Mr. "X" forecast of Soviet self-destruction would prove prescient in 1988–1989.