Were there any promising alternatives to the policy of containment?
In April 1945, U.S. and Soviet forces met at the Elbe, marking the defeat of Nazi-Germany and the end of World War II. The forces of liberation joined hands this day, and though American and Russian soldiers came from two different worlds, they felt like brothers. They were united in fighting and finally defeating a common enemy, namely fascism. Post-war hopes arouse that this could mark the beginning of a period of long-lasting peace, and the latter half of 1945 was supposed to be a time of celebration. However, all these hopes should be dashed soon. During World War II, the Soviet Union had liberated East Europe from Nazi-terror. Only a few months later, Stalin started to implement his own regime of terror. Instead of keeping his promise to hold free elections in the countries of East Europe, Stalin installed loyal communist governments in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and so on, and therefore made these nations satellite states of the Soviet Union. Additionally, the countries of Greece and Turkey were also about to turn communist, as their respective governments were locked in civil wars with communist guerrillas. An era in world politics had begun which should be later known as the “Cold War”. In 1947, when U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his key foreign policy aides finally became aware of the threat posed by this Soviet expansionism, they decided to stall the spread of communism and to halt Stalin’s aggressive ambitions. Their strategy became known as the “policy of containment”, which was first outlined by President Truman in his 1947 “Truman Doctrine”, stating that Soviet expansionism poses a serious threat to the freedom of peoples all over the world. Therefore, it must be the goal of the United States to prevent the Soviet sphere of influence from expanding, but also to prevent a third world war by not intervening in the already existing Soviet sphere of influence (Shi, and Mayer 295-303). But not everyone in America was happy with this way of dealing with the Soviet threat. Different actors opposed the policy of containment for different reasons and came up with their own, alternative ways of how to deal with the worldwide spread of communism. Main critics of the containment policy included parts of the Republican Party, various isolationists and famous journalist Walter Lippmann. In this essay, I will uphold the view that there were no promising alternatives to the policy of containment by first rejecting these three alternatives and then showing that the policy of containment was a rather efficient and safe way to face Soviet expansionism.
Some Republican circles felt that Truman was going soft on communism. They believed that the United States should have acted more aggressively in order to face the Soviet threat. As an alternative to Truman’s policy of containment, they favored the strategy of “rollback”, which called for “the application of military and diplomatic pressure to force the Soviet Empire to disgorge” (Johnson 821). In contrast with containment, which means preventing the expansion of an enemy state, rollback is the strategy of destroying an enemy state by exerting diplomatic, economic, and military pressure. Contemporary proponents of this strategy claim that once President Ronald Reagan shifted from the policy of containment to the strategy of rollback, the Soviet Union started to disintegrate (Bova 119). Additionally, they suggest that the Soviet Union was a rather weak state right from the beginning, and if such a shift in American foreign policy had been done earlier, the Cold War would have come to a sooner end. Though this argument be convincing in the first place, yet it is wrong for two reasons: First, Reagan’s more active and aggressive foreign policy was not the main cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Instead, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was mainly due to internal factors, especially its weak centrally planned economy. Second, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is not comparable to his predecessors. While Gorbachev was a quite progressive politician whose main interests were to reform the Soviet Union and to establish a system of international cooperation (Bova 26-27), his predecessors were much more determined to defend the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower. This applies in particular for Joseph Stalin, who was an erratic and totalitarian dictator, as, for example, widely acknowledged and prize-winning historian Paul Johnson states in his classic work, A History of the American People (788-791). Therefore, if the strategy of rollback had been tried earlier, the effects would have been different from those in the 1980s. Stalin probably would have responded with force, and the strategy of rollback would have led to a third world war. Hence, the strategy of rollback was not a safe and promising alternative to the policy of containment in the first 40 years after the end of World War II.
There were parts of the Republican Party which preferred another strategy in order to deal with the Soviet and communist threat. These parts were neither in favor of containment nor of rollback; instead, they preferred an isolationist approach. Backed up by isolationists from outside the party, some Republicans claimed that it was not the United States’ business to assist other countries in fighting off communism. To them, it would have been more in the national interest of the United States to focus solely on the defense of the own country, therefore saving American financial, military, and human resources. From the isolationist´s perspective, the United States did not have any moral obligation to help foreign peoples maintaining their freedom, and the absorbing of other countries into the Soviet sphere of influence would not have posed a threat to American national security. Even though there are still some advocates of isolationism today, I conceive serious doubts as to the reality of these isolationist assumptions. First, the United States does not only have material interests, as isolationist arguments implicate, but also an ideological identity, from which result various moral implications. Therefore, I absolutely agree with Irving Kristol, one of Americas most influential contemporary writers on foreign affairs, as he says:
“Large nations, whose identity is ideological, like that Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. […] Behind all this is a fact: the incredible military superiority of the United States vis-à-vis the nations of the rest of the world, in any imaginable combination. This superiority was planned by no one, [… but] with
power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not” (Love 168-169).
Second, it seems rather naïve to believe that the absorption of other states into the Soviet sphere of influence would not have had an effect on the United States and its national security could have been guaranteed without taking account of events outside its own borders. Without the assistance of the United States, political units like Greece and Turkey (Shi, and Mayer 301-304) as well as South Korea and West Berlin (Johnson 814, 822-825) probably would have been absorbed into the Soviet sphere of influence, causing what Truman and various scholars called “the domino effect” and transforming even more states into communist ones. Therefore, without taking measures to stall the spread of communism, America soon would have been surrounded by an overwhelming number of communist states, facing an enormous disadvantage which not even the greatest superpower could handle. Hence, the strategy of isolationism was no promising alternative to the policy of containment.
Another main critic of Truman’s foreign policy was Walter Lippmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist widely recognized as one of the most authoritative commentators on political and diplomatic affairs. Therefore, his arguments have to be taken as seriously as those by the Republican Party mentioned above. Lippmann’s critique consists of two different elements: First, he did not criticize the Truman administration for containing Soviet influence, but for doing so in areas which were, according to Lippmann, of minor importance to the United States. More precisely, he was talking about the Middle East and Asia, and referred to countries in these areas as “dubious and unnatural allies”. Second, he doubted that the military capability of the United States alone was enough to deal with communist threats throughout the whole world. Therefore, Lippmann wanted to get the U.N. involved, not only to mediate between the United States and the Soviet Union, ending or at least moderating the Cold War, but also to enhance the U.N. as an institution (Shi, and Mayer 300-301). When it comes to his first objection, the question remains what made Lippmann estimate that the countries of the Middle East and Asia were not of vital interest to and no “natural” allies of the United States (whatever the latter means). With the tremendous oil supply they provided, the countries of the Middle East were unquestionable a region of vital interest to the United States throughout the Cold War (as they are still today), and therefore worth fighting for. Also, many Asian countries experienced enormous economic prosperity throughout the latter half of the 20th century, with some of them becoming so important within the international system that various contemporary scholars of the field of international relations refer to the 21st century as “the Asian century” (Bova 67). Not only that the Asian continent plays an important and powerful role in today´s world politics, but also many of its countries have become essential allies of the United States, therefore disproving Lippmann´s thesis. When it comes to his second objection, I have to admit that I am not perfectly familiar with the structure of the U.N. and its potential to promote international peace and order. Still, it seems questionable if this far from perfect international organization had the power to halt Soviet aggression and end the Cold War, as Lippmann suggests. First, the U.N. was quite incapable of action during the Cold War, as both the United States and the Soviet Union have been members of the U.N. Security Council and blocked each other´s actions with their veto power. For example, in the first 20 years after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union made use of its veto 106 times (Bova 160). Second, even in less troublesome times than the Cold War era, the U.N. has proven its lack of efficiency countless times (Bova 159-165). Therefore, it seems very unrealistic that the U.N. would have been able to halt Soviet aggression and end the Cold War. Hence, Lippmann´s critique of containment seems not very convincing.
 By “safe”, I mean a way to face Soviet expansionist ambitions while minimizing the threat of a direct military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, which would have provoked a third world war.
 What makes it hard to assess Lippmann’s suggestion is that he remains vague about how exactly the U.N. should get involved.