Although Kennan did not endorse the Truman Doctrine's global rhetoric, he, as well as many of its critics, applauded the Marshall Plan. Whereas the doctrine's military emphasis and ideological tone troubled many, the Marshall Plan with its promise of economic aid was attractive. To many Americans and Europeans, though not to Kennan or other policymakers, the plan seemed to offer a rapprochement to the Soviet Union, even an end to the division of Europe that the Truman Doctrine threatened. For Lippmann, the program of economic assistance was not a part of containment; but to Kennan and others in the administration it was simply another tactic in the implementation of containment.
Kennan, then head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, had worked on the Marshall Plan in early 1947 and was among those who conceived of it as a way of shoring up western Europe, improving its morale, halting communism there, prying the Eastern bloc out of the Soviet orbit, and weakening the Soviet Union. This American program of massive economic assistance promised to contain communism and Soviet expansion, maybe even to speed the liberation of Eastern Europe and hasten the destruction of the Soviet system—precisely the promise of the "X" essay. By Truman's own admission, the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine were "two halves of the same walnut."
To the public, the Marshall Plan seemed generous and friendly, partly because the United States invited the Soviet Union, as well as the Eastern bloc nations, to participate in the program. Kennan and other policymakers knew that Soviet membership was unlikely, for they had devised the plan to be unacceptable to the Soviets. It required that European nations provide data on their economy, open their land freely to American agents, and move toward economic multilateralism. As policymakers knew, the Soviets would neither relax secrecy, upon which they believed their security partly rested, nor adopt multilateralism, which would have required them to reorganize their economy and abandon state trading. As Kennan later acknowledged, the Marshall Plan also anticipated that the Soviets would be a donor nation—an expectation that would make the plan even more unacceptable to Stalin.
By reintegrating Eastern European trade back into western European channels, the plan promised to weaken Soviet power in the Eastern bloc and reorient it to the West. How long—Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, had asked earlier—could, say, Romania or Bulgaria remain independent of the West after the introduction of American capital? Or, for that matter, how could the East industrialize, following Soviet plans, if it joined the Marshall Plan and once more played the role of supplier of raw materials and agricultural products to the West? To halt this "rollback" of its influence, the Soviet Union blocked East European nations from joining the American program.
The Marshall Plan, like the Truman Doctrine, contributed to the division of Europe and probably to the hardening of Soviet policies in its bloc. When the United States successfully helped drive communist parties out of Western coalition governments in 1947 and 1948, the price was increased Soviet suspicion and stepped-up suppression of dissent in Eastern Europe. As a result of the Marshall Plan, in "a defensive reaction," according to Kennan, the Soviet Union ended democracy in Czechoslovakia with a brutal coup in February 1948. That analysis by Kennan differed greatly from the American public analysis in 1948, which interpreted the Czech coup as virtually an act of unprovoked Soviet aggression.
Kennan did hope that war with the Soviet Union would be unnecessary, but he did not rule it out. He even, at least briefly, considered the possibility of preventive war. If Germany and the USSR ever combined, or if the Soviets' "total warmaking potential [increased] at a rate considerably faster than that of ourselves," he told an Air War College audience in 1947, the United States might have to move to preventive war. Echoing much of his analysis presented in his mid-1946 meeting with General Spaatz, Kennan stated in 1947 "that with probably ten good hits with atomic bombs you could, without any great loss of life or loss of the prestige or reputation of the United States as a well-meaning and humane people, practically cripple Russia's war-making potential." At that time, the United States— unknown to Kennan—only had about ten to twelve A-bombs.
Kennan himself in the years after his "X" essay struggled to define America's vital interests, because he understood, in a way left unclear in his "X" essay but emphasized by Lippmann, that the United States lacked the resources to get involved substantially wherever in the world communism seemed to threaten. In August 1948, Kennan included among the key U.S. interests the Atlantic community ("Canada, Greenland and Iceland, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Western Europe, the Iberian Peninsula"), as well as Morocco and the upper part of the west coast of Africa, many of the countries of South America (in the area from bulge northward), the area of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Japan, and the Philippines. That list, interestingly, excluded much of Africa and all of China, India, Korea, Indonesia, and Indochina.
Redefining his analysis in late 1948, he concluded that there were only five centers in the world of "industrial and military policy" of great value to the United States in terms of its "national security": the United States itself, Great Britain, Germany and nearby central Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan. This was, in a sense, a sophisticated economic-industrial conception of American national security, stressing that these areas, based upon their resources and populations, could threaten the United States militarily and that the American economic system also depended upon access to most of these areas. In the late 1940s, aside from the Soviet zone of Germany and the Soviet Union itself, the crucial areas, as defined by Kennan, were in the American orbit.
Emphasis on the importance of Germany and Japan, which before World War II were the key industrial powers in Europe and Asia, respectively, helped shape American postwar decisions to reconstruct these two nations economically and to anchor them in the American-directed international political-economic system. Partly under Kennan's aegis, the State Department urged the redevelopment of Germany in Europe to rebuild the western European economy, and of Japan in Asia so that the island nation could be the linchpin of American policy and of reconstructed international trade in that area.
Containment, as secretly conceived by Kennan and other policymakers, also involved various forms of covert action abroad. In early 1948 he secretly urged the government to create a permanent covert capability, including paramilitary activity and political and economic warfare. Under the then-secret National Security Council (NSC) paper 10/2, in June 1948, concealing his action, President Truman authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to handle such operations. They included both the blocking of left forces in the West (especially in Italy and France) in 1948, and clandestine assistance to anticommunist forces behind the "iron curtain." Put bluntly, covert activity could offer containment and, ultimately, liberation. Such efforts could speed the weakening of Soviet power, as forecast in Mr. "X"'s essay. Normally, as recommended by Kennan and approved by Truman, the covert action would be conducted in such a way as to maintain "plausible denial" that the American government was involved.
Whether or not covert activities, conducted without the knowledge of the American people, and generally without the knowledge or explicit approval of the Congress, lived up to the standards of traditional American value—democracy and public accountability—would be discussed only years later, when many of the CIA activities ultimately became known. Some critics, pointing to Mr. "X"'s own 1947 words ("To avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation"), would contend that clandestine CIA activities violated Kennan's publicly implied values.
Thus, the angry right-wing criticism of containment as being passive, charges that were never fully answered by the Truman-government practitioners of containment, had the unintended effect of helping to conceal from the American people that their government was sometimes following a secret policy of "liberation." Liberation seemed to men like Burnham and generally to the American public in the 1940s and early 1950s as the near-antithesis of containment. But liberation was either the close ally of containment or perhaps, as some would later cynically suggest, even the hidden other side of containment.
Containment, mixed with occasional hopes of liberation, continued as the policy of the Truman administration. It was, in short, a counter-revolutionary policy that tried to prevent revolutions of the left, block subversion, eliminate instability ("the breeding ground of communism") in the West, and stop Soviet expansion. Containment, like most other competing American doctrines then, interpreted revolutions as communist and Soviet inspired.
Analysts then and later questioned the mainsprings of this anticommunism. Why did policymakers conclude that American security was threatened by revolution abroad? Did they simply fear that the Soviet Union might benefit and hence that the United States would lose? No. Nor did they fear Soviet military aggression in the short run, for well into 1947 no policymaker expected the Soviet Union to expand militarily then or in the near future. In the long run, American leaders were less sanguine. Some revisionist historians have analyzed the fears of policymakers in a larger ideological context: American leaders believed that the removal of markets and resources from the world economy would disrupt international trade, impair production, and weaken the international economy and, in turn, the American economy, which depended upon the international capitalist system and expanding trade. In this view, for some analysts, policymakers believed that American freedoms depended upon prosperity at home, and that the spread of communism abroad, by threatening the American economy, also threatened the American political system and its traditional freedoms. These policymakers also preferred the creation of democratic governments abroad, and believed that they were useful, if not essential, to the flourishing of the American political economy at home.
The containment policy did prove sufficiently supple for the United States to give Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavian government economic aid in 1949, a year after he had broken with Stalin and the Cominform. The containment policy, despite its counterrevolutionary implications, also proved sufficiently flexible in practice that policymakers greatly modified, and practically abandoned, it in one notable case (China), where the cost of armed intervention, in American dollars and lives, would have been exorbitant to block the communist revolution. Earlier U.S. economic assistance and military advisers had not been able to check the erosion of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kaishek's political and military power. By early 1949,U.S. policymakers recognized that they could not halt the communist revolution in China unless they were willing to commit millions of American soldiers and billions of dollars. Whatever the sources of American anticommunism, whatever the reasons for trying to halt communism, policymakers were aware of the relationship of means and ends; they knew that some commitments to allies and some interventions were too costly. China was such a case.
The administration dramatically applied the doctrine of containment to Asia in 1950, when the United States stressed negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan and military bases there; provided economic aid in May to the French, who were trying to prevent a communist triumph in Indochina; and intervened in June in Korea, in the civil war between the communist north and the American "client state" in the south. That intervention, and the policies soon following it, ended for at least a few years the hopes of policymakers that the Soviet Union and China might split, that Chinese nationalism might overthrow Mao or make him another Tito.