Reflections on Containment

Courtesy Reuters


No matter what Wilsonian-minded American statesmen called them, by late 1945 spheres of influence were emerging across Europe, and they were to remain in place until the collapse of communism four decades later. Under U.S. leadership, the Western occupation zones of Germany were consolidated, while the Soviet Union turned the countries of Eastern Europe into its appendages. The erstwhile Axis Powers, Italy, Japan and, after 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany, gradually moved toward alliance with the United States. The Soviet Union cemented its dominance over Eastern Europe by means of coercion. At the same time, the Kremlin tried its utmost to interrupt the process of Western consolidation by fostering a guerrilla war in Greece and by encouraging mass demonstrations by West European communist parties, especially in France and Italy.

American leaders concluded that they had to resist further Soviet expansion. But their national tradition caused them to seek to justify this resistance on nearly any basis other than as an appeal to the traditional balance of power. In doing this, American leaders were not being hypocritical. When they finally came to recognize that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of a peaceful globe guarded by the four policemen (the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and China) could not be implemented, they preferred to interpret this development as a temporary setback on the way to an essentially harmonious world order. Here they faced a philosophical challenge. Was Soviet intransigence merely a passing phase, which Washington could wait out? Were the Americans, as former Vice President Henry Wallace and his followers suggested, unwittingly causing the Soviets to feel paranoid by not adequately communicating their pacific intentions to Stalin? Did Stalin really reject postwar cooperation with the strongest nation in the world? Did he not want in the end to be America’s friend?

As the highest policymaking circles in Washington considered those questions, a document arrived on February 22, 1946, from an expert on Russia, one George Kennan,

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