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, a relatively junior diplomat at the American embassy in Moscow, that was to provide the philosophical and conceptual framework for interpreting Stalin’s foreign policy. Rarely does an embassy report by itself reshape Washington’s view of the world, but what later came to be known as the "Long Telegram" emphatically did. Kennan maintained that the United States should stop blaming itself for Soviet intransigence; the sources of Soviet foreign policy lay deep within the Soviet system itself. For Kennan, communist ideology was at the heart of Stalin’s approach to the world. Stalin regarded the Western capitalist powers as irrevocably hostile. The friction between the Soviet Union and America was therefore not the product of some misunderstanding or faulty communication between Moscow and Washington but was inherent in the Soviet Union’s perception of the outside world.

From time immemorial, argued Kennan, the Russian tsars had sought to expand their territory. They had sought to subjugate Poland and to turn it into a dependent nation. They had regarded Bulgaria as within Russia’s sphere of influence. And they had sought a warm-water port on the Mediterranean, mandating control of the Black Sea Straits:

At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful, agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries.

This historical insecurity was, according to Kennan, given a new sense of urgency by communist dogma:

In this [communist] dogma, with its basic altruism of purpose, they found justification for their instinctive fear of outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict, for sacrifices they felt bound to demand. . . . Without it they would stand before history, at best, as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced [their] country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes. . . .

America, Kennan argued, had to hunker down for a long struggle; the goals and philosophies of the United States and of the Soviet Union were irreconcilable.

In a top-secret study dated September 24, 1946, Truman adviser Clark Clifford fell in with this view: "The main deterrent to Soviet attack on the United States, or to attack on areas of the world which are vital to our security, will be the military power of this country." By now, this had become conventional wisdom. But Clifford used it as a springboard from which to proclaim a global American security mission, embracing "all democratic countries which are in any way menaced or endangered by the U.S.S.R." It was not clear what was meant by "democratic." Did this qualification limit America’s defense to Western Europe, or was it a courtesy that extended to any threatened area and thus required the United States to defend simultaneously the jungles of Southeast Asia, the deserts of the Middle East and densely populated Central Europe? In time, the latter interpretation became dominant.

Clifford rejected any similarity between the emerging policy of containment and traditional diplomacy. In his view, the Soviet-American conflict was not caused by clashing national interests—which by definition might be negotiated—but by the moral shortcomings of the Soviet leadership. Therefore, the goal of American policy was not so much to restore the balance of power as to transform Soviet society. Just as in 1917 Wilson had blamed the need for a declaration of war on the kaiser rather than on the threat Germany posed to American security, so Clifford now ascribed Soviet-American tensions to "a small ruling clique and not the Soviet people." A significant Soviet change of heart, and probably a new set of Soviet leaders, was required before an overall Soviet-American agreement would be possible. At some dramatic moment, these new leaders would "work out with us a fair and equitable settlement when they realize that we are too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened."

Neither Clifford nor any subsequent American statesman involved in the discussion of the Cold War ever put forward specific terms to end the confrontation or to initiate a process that would bring about negotiations to do so. So long as the Soviet Union maintained its ideology, negotiations were treated as pointless. After a Soviet change of heart, a settlement would become nearly automatic. In either case, spelling out the terms of such a settlement in advance was deemed to inhibit America’s freedom of action—the same argument that had been used during World War II to avoid discussion of the postwar world. America now had the conceptual framework to justify political and military resistance to Soviet expansionism.


Since the end of the war, Soviet pressures had followed historical Russian patterns. The Soviet Union controlled the Balkans (except for Yugoslavia) and a guerrilla war was raging in Greece, supported from bases in communist Yugoslavia and the Bulgarian Soviet satellite. Territorial demands were being made against Turkey, along with a request for Soviet bases in the Straits—very much along the lines of what Stalin had wanted from Hitler on November 25, 1940. Ever since the end of the war, Great Britain had supported both Greece and Turkey, economically as well as militarily. In the winter of 1946-47, the Attlee Government of Britain informed Washington that it could no longer shoulder the burden. Truman was prepared to take over Great Britain’s historical role of blocking a Russian advance toward the Mediterranean, but neither the American public nor Congress could countenance the traditional British geopolitical rationale. Resistance to Soviet expansionism had to spring from principles based strictly on the American approach to foreign policy.

This imperative became apparent at a key meeting held on February 27, 1947, in the Oval Office. Truman, Secretary of State Marshall and Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson sought to persuade a congressional delegation led by Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) of the importance of aid to Greece and Turkey—a formidable assignment, since the traditionally isolationist Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Marshall led off with a dispassionate analysis setting forth the relationship between the proposed aid program and American interests. He elicited stereotypical grumblings about "pulling Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire," the iniquities of the balance of power and the burdens of foreign aid. Recognizing that the administration was about to lose its case, Acheson asked Marshall in a whisper whether this was a private fight or whether anyone could join in.

Given the floor, Acheson proceeded, in the words of one aide, "to pull out all the stops." Acheson boldly presented the group with visions of a bleak future in which the forces of communism stood to gain the upper hand: "Only two great powers remained in the world . . . [the] United States and the Soviet Union. We had arrived at a situation unparalleled since ancient times. Not since Rome and Carthage had there been such a polarization of power on this earth. . . . For the United States to take steps to strengthen countries threatened with Soviet aggression or communist subversion . . . was to protect the security of the United States—it was to protect freedom itself."

When it became evident that Acheson had roused the congressional delegation, the administration stuck to his basic approach. From that point on, the Greek-Turkish aid program was portrayed as part of the global struggle between democracy and dictatorship. When, on March 12, 1947, Truman announced the doctrine that would later be named after him, he dropped the strategic aspect of Acheson’s analysis and spoke in traditional Wilsonian terms of a struggle between two ways of life: "One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms."

Had Soviet leaders been more aware of American history, they would have understood the ominous nature of what the president was saying. The Truman Doctrine marked a watershed because, once America had thrown down the moral gauntlet, the kind of realpolitik Stalin understood best would be forever at an end, and bargaining over reciprocal concessions would be out of the question. Henceforth, the conflict could only be settled by a change in Soviet purposes, by the collapse of the Soviet system, or both. Truman had proclaimed his doctrine as "the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." Inevitably, criticism of the objective of defending democracy appeared at both ends of the intellectual spectrum: some protested that America was defending countries that, however important, were morally unworthy; others objected that America was committing itself to the defense of societies that, whether free or not, were not vital to American security. It was an ambiguity that refused to go away, generating debates that have not ended to this day about American purposes in nearly every crisis. Ever since, American foreign policy has been obliged to navigate between those who assail it for being amoral and those who criticize it for going beyond the national interest through crusading moralism.

Once the challenge had been defined as the very future of democracy, America could not wait until a civil war actually occurred, as it had in Greece. On June 5, less than three months after the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, Secretary Marshall in a commencement address at Harvard committed America to the task of eradicating the social and economic conditions that tempted aggression. America would aid European recovery, announced Marshall, to avoid "political disturbances" and "desperation," to restore the world economy and to nurture free institutions. Therefore, "[any] government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States government." In other words, participation in the Marshall Plan was open even to governments in the Soviet orbit—a hint taken up in Warsaw and Prague and just as quickly squelched by Stalin.

Checkpoint in West Berlin, West Germany with sign "You are leaving the American Sector" in four languages
Checkpoint in West Berlin, West Germany

Only a country as idealistic, as pioneering and as relatively inexperienced as the United States could have advanced a plan for global economic recovery based solely on its own resources. And yet the very sweep of that vision elicited a national commitment that would sustain the Cold War generation through its final victory. The program of economic recovery, said Secretary Marshall, would be "directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." Just as when the Atlantic Charter had been proclaimed, a global crusade against hunger and despair was found to be more persuasive to Americans than appeals to immediate self-interest or the balance of power.


At the end of all of these more or less random initiatives, there emerged a document that would, for over a generation, serve as the bible of the containment policy, indeed which supplied it with its very name. All the various strands of American postwar thought were brought together in an extraordinary article published in July 1947 in Foreign Affairs. Though it was anonymously signed by "X," the author was later identified as George F. Kennan, by then head of the policy planning staff of the State Department. Of the thousands of articles written since the end of the Second World War, Kennan’s "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" stands in a class by itself. In this lucidly written, passionately argued literary adaptation of his "Long Telegram," Kennan raised the Soviet challenge to the level of philosophy of history.

By the time Kennan’s article appeared, Soviet intransigence had become the staple of policy documents. Kennan’s distinctive contribution was to explain the ways in which hostility to the democracies was inherent in the Soviet domestic structure and why that structure would prove impervious to conciliatory Western policies. Tension with the outside world was inherent in the very nature of communist philosophy and, above all, in the way the Soviet system was being run domestically. Internally, the Communist Party was the only organized group, with the rest of society fragmented into an inchoate mass. Thus the Soviet Union’s implacable hostility to the outside world was an attempt to gear international affairs to its own internal rhythm. The main concern of Soviet policy was "to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power." The way to defeat Soviet strategy was by "a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world."

Like almost every other contemporary foreign policy document, Kennan’s "X" article disdained the elaboration of a precise diplomatic goal. What he sketched was the age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary, albeit in language more elevated and far more trenchant in its perception than that of any contemporary. But where Kennan differed from other experts was when he described the mechanism by which, sooner or later, through one power struggle or another, the Soviet system would be fundamentally transformed. Since that system had never managed a "legitimate" transfer of power, Kennan thought it likely that, at some point, various contestants for authority might reach down into these politically immature and inexperienced masses in order to find support for their respective claims. If this were ever to happen, strange consequences could flow for the Communist Party: "For the membership at large has been exercised only in the practices of iron discipline and obedience and not in the arts of compromise and accommodation. . . . If, consequently, anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies."

No other document forecast quite so accurately what would in fact take place after the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev. And in the aftermath of so total a collapse of the Soviet Union, it may seem carping to point out just how back-breaking an assignment Kennan had prescribed for his people. For he had charged America with combating Soviet pressures for the indefinite future all around a vast periphery that embraced the widely differing circumstances of Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The Kremlin was, moreover, free to select its point of attack, presumably only where it calculated it would have the greatest advantage. Throughout subsequent crises, the American political objective was deemed to be the preservation of the status quo, with the overall effort producing communism’s final collapse only after a protracted series of ostensibly inconclusive conflicts. It was surely the ultimate expression of America’s national optimism and unimpaired sense of self-confidence that as sophisticated an observer as George Kennan could have assigned his society a role so global, so stern and, at the same time, so reactive.


This stark, even heroic, doctrine of perpetual struggle committed the American people to endless contests with rules that left the initiative to the adversary and confined America’s role to strengthening the countries already on its side of the dividing line—a classic policy of spheres of interest. By abjuring negotiations, the containment policy wasted precious time during the period of America’s greatest relative strength—while it still had the atomic monopoly. Indeed, given the premise of containment—that positions of strength had yet to be built—the Cold War became both militarized and imbued with an inaccurate impression of the West’s relative weakness.

The redemption of the Soviet Union became the ultimate goal of policy; stability could emerge only after evil had been exorcised. It was no accident that Kennan’s article concluded with a peroration instructing his impatient, peace-loving compatriots about the virtues of patience and interpreting their international role as a test of their country’s worthiness:

The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. . . . The thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

One of the outstanding features of these noble sentiments was their peculiar ambivalence. They rallied America to a global mission but made the task so complex that America would nearly tear itself apart trying to fulfill it. Yet the very ambivalence of containment seemed to lend an extraordinary impetus to American policy. Though essentially passive with respect to diplomacy with the Soviet Union, containment evoked tenacious creativity when it came to building "positions of strength" in the military and economic realms. This was because in containment were merged lessons derived from the two most important American experiences of the previous generation: from the New Deal came the belief that threats to political stability arise primarily from gaps between economic and social expectations and reality, hence the Marshall Plan; from the Second World War America learned that the best protection against aggression is having overwhelming power and the willingness to use it, hence the Atlantic alliance. The Marshall Plan was designed to get Europe on its feet economically. NATO was to look after its security.


As containment slowly took shape, the criticism it encountered emerged from three different schools of thought. The first came from the "realists," exemplified by Walter Lippmann, who argued that the containment policy led to psychological and geopolitical overextension while draining American resources. The spokesman for the second school of thought was Winston Churchill, who objected to the postponement of negotiations until after positions of strength had been achieved. Finally, there was Henry Wallace, who denied America the moral right to undertake the policy of containment in the first place. Postulating a fundamental moral equivalence between both sides, Wallace argued that the Soviet sphere of influence in Central Europe was legitimate and that America’s resistance to it only intensified tension. He urged a return to what he viewed as Roosevelt’s policy: to end the Cold War by American conciliation.

As the most eloquent spokesman for the realists, Walter Lippmann rejected Kennan’s proposition that Soviet society contained the seeds of its own decay. He considered the theory to be too speculative to serve as the foundation of American policy: containment, argued Lippmann, would draw America into the hinterlands of the Soviet empire’s extended periphery, which included, in his view, many countries that were not states in the modern sense to begin with. Military entanglements that far from home could not enhance American security and would weaken American resolve. Containment, according to Lippmann, permitted the Soviet Union to choose the points of maximum discomfiture for the United States while retaining the diplomatic, and even the military, initiative. Lippmann stressed the importance of establishing criteria to define areas in which countering Soviet expansion was a vital American interest. Without such criteria, the United States would be forced to organize a "heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets," which would permit America’s newfound allies to exploit containment for their own purposes. The United States would be trapped into propping up nonviable regimes, leaving Washington with the sorry choice between "appeasement and defeat and the loss of face, or . . . support[ing] them [U.S. allies] at incalculable cost."

Kennan sketched the age-old American dream of a peace achieved by the conversion of the adversary.

It was indeed a prophetic analysis of what lay ahead for the United States, though the remedy Lippmann proposed was hardly congenial to the universalist American tradition, which was far closer to Kennan’s expectation of an apocalyptic outcome. Lippmann asked that American foreign policy be guided by a case-by-case analysis of American interests rather than by general principles presumed to be universally applicable. In his view, American policy should have been aiming less at overthrowing the communist system than at restoring the balance of power in Europe, which had been destroyed by the war. Containment implied the indefinite division of Europe, whereas America’s real interest should be to banish Soviet power from the center of the European continent:

For more than a hundred years all Russian governments have sought to expand over Eastern Europe. But only since the Red Army reached the Elbe River have the rulers of Russia been able to realize the ambitions of the Russian empire and the ideological purposes of communism. A genuine policy would, therefore, have as its paramount objective a settlement which brought about the evacuation of Europe. . . . American power must be available, not to "contain" the Russians at scattered points, but to hold the whole Russian military machine in check, and to exert a mounting pressure in support of a diplomatic policy which has as its concrete objective a settlement that means withdrawal.

From among its intellectuals, America was able to draw on the thinking of both Lippmann and Kennan while they were at the height of their powers. Kennan correctly understood communism’s underlying weakness; Lippmann accurately foretold the frustrations of an essentially reactive foreign policy based on containment. Kennan called for endurance to permit history to display its inevitable tendencies; Lippmann called for diplomatic initiative to produce a European settlement while America was still preponderant. Kennan had a better intuitive understanding of the mainsprings of American society; Lippmann grasped the impending strain of enduring a seemingly endless stalemate and of the ambiguous causes that containment might lead America to support.


In the end, Lippmann’s analysis found a substantial following, though mainly among the opponents of confrontation with the Soviet Union. And their approbation was based on only one aspect of Lippmann’s argument, emphasizing as they did its critique while ignoring its prescriptions. They noted Lippmann’s call for more limited objectives but overlooked his recommendation for more aggressive diplomacy. Thus it happened that in the 1940s the most compelling alternative strategy to the doctrine of containment came from none other than Winston Churchill, then leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament.

Churchill supported containment, but for him it was never an end in itself. Unwilling to wait passively for the collapse of communism, he sought to shape history rather than rely on it to do his work for him. What he was after was a negotiated settlement. His "iron curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri had merely hinted at negotiations. On October 9, 1948, at Llandudno, Wales, Churchill returned to his argument that the West’s bargaining position would never be better than it was at that moment. In a much-neglected speech, he said:

No one in his senses can believe that we have a limitless period of time before us. We ought to bring matters to a head and make a final settlement. We ought not to go jogging along improvident, incompetent, waiting for something to turn up, by which I mean waiting for something bad for us to turn up. The Western nations will be far more likely to reach a lasting settlement, without bloodshed, if they formulate their just demands while they have the atomic power and before the Russian communists have got it too.

Two years later, Churchill made the same plea in the House of Commons: the democracies were quite strong enough to negotiate, and would only weaken themselves by waiting. Defending NATO rearmament on November 30, 1950, he warned that arming the West would not by itself change its bargaining position, which, in the end, depended on America’s atomic monopoly:

[W]hile it is right to build up our forces as fast as we can, nothing in this process, in the period I have mentioned, will deprive Russia of effective superiority in what are now called the conventional arms. All that it will do is to give us increasing unity in Europe and magnify the deterrents against aggression. . . . Therefore I am in favour of efforts to reach a settlement with Soviet Russia as soon as a suitable opportunity presents itself, and of making those efforts while the immense and measureless superiority of the United States atomic bomb organization offsets the Soviet predominance in every other military respect.

For Churchill, a position of strength was already in place; for American leaders, it had yet to be created. Churchill thought of negotiations as a way of relating power to diplomacy. And though he was never specific, his public statements strongly suggest that he envisaged some kind of diplomatic ultimatum by the Western democracies. American leaders recoiled before employing their atomic monopoly, even as a threat. Churchill wanted to shrink the area of Soviet influence, but was prepared to coexist with Soviet power within reduced limits. The American leaders had a nearly visceral dislike of spheres of influence. They wanted to destroy and not to shrink their adversary’s sphere. Their preference was to wait for total victory and for the collapse of communism, however far off, to bring about a Wilsonian solution to the problem of world order.

The disagreement came down to a difference between the historical experiences of Great Britain and America. Churchill’s society was all too familiar with imperfect outcomes; Truman and his advisers came from a tradition in which, once a problem had been recognized, it was usually overcome by the deployment of vast resources. Hence America’s preference for final resolutions and its distrust of the sort of compromise that had become a British specialty. The American view prevailed, because America was stronger than Great Britain, and because Churchill, as leader of the British Opposition, was in no position to press his strategy.


In the end, the most vocal and persistent challenge to American policy came from neither the realist school of Lippmann nor Churchill’s balance-of-power thinking, but from a tradition with roots deep within American radical thought. Whereas Lippmann and Churchill accepted the Truman administration’s premise that Soviet expansionism represented a serious challenge and only contested the strategy for resisting it, the radical critics rejected every aspect of containment. Henry Wallace, vice president during Roosevelt’s third term, former secretary of agriculture, and secretary of commerce under Truman, was its principal spokesman.

A product of America’s populist tradition, Wallace had an abiding Yankee distrust of Great Britain. Like most American liberals since Jefferson, he insisted that "the same moral principles which governed in private life also should govern in international affairs." In Wallace’s view, America had lost its moral compass and was practicing a foreign policy of "Machiavellian principles of deceit, force and distrust," as he told an audience in Madison Square Garden on September 12, 1946. Since prejudice, hatred and fear were the root causes of international conflict, the United States had no moral right to intervene abroad until it had banished these scourges from its own society. The new radicalism reaffirmed the historical vision of America as a beacon of liberty but, in the process, turned it against itself. Postulating the moral equivalence of American and Soviet actions became a characteristic of the radical critique throughout the Cold War. The very idea of America having international responsibilities was, in Wallace’s eyes, an example of the arrogance of power. The British, he argued, were duping the gullible Americans into doing their bidding: "British policy clearly is to provoke distrust between the United States and Russia and thus prepare the groundwork for World War III."

To Wallace, Truman’s presentation of the conflict as one between democracy and dictatorship was pure fiction. In 1945, a time when Soviet postwar repression was becoming increasingly obvious and the brutality of collectivization was widely recognized, Wallace declared that "the Russians today have more of the political freedoms than they ever had." He also discovered "increasingly the signs of religious toleration" in the U.S.S.R. and claimed that there was a "basic lack of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union." Wallace thought that Soviet policy was driven less by expansionism than by fear. In his speech at Madison Square Garden in August 1946, Wallace laid down a direct challenge to Truman, which caused the president to demand Wallace’s resignation:

We may not like what Russia does in Eastern Europe. Her type of land reform, industrial expropriation and suppression of basic liberties offends the great majority of the people of the United States. But whether we like it or not the Russians will try to socialize their sphere of influence just as we try to democratize our sphere of influence. . . . Russian ideas of social-economic justice are going to govern nearly a third of the world. Our ideas of free enterprise democracy will govern much of the rest. The two ideas will endeavor to prove which can deliver the most satisfaction to the common man in their respective areas of political dominance.

In a curious reversal of roles, the self-proclaimed defender of morality in foreign policy accepted a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe on practical grounds, while the administration he was attacking for cynical power politics rejected the Soviet sphere on moral grounds.

Wallace’s challenge collapsed after the communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin blockade and the invasion of South Korea. As a presidential candidate in 1948, he gained only one million votes against more than 24 million for Truman, placing him fourth. Nevertheless, Wallace managed to develop themes that would remain staples of the American radical critique throughout the Cold War and move to center stage during the Vietnam conflict. These emphasized America’s moral inadequacies and those of the friends it was supporting; a basic moral equivalence between America and its communist challengers; the proposition that America had no obligation to defend any area of the world against largely imaginary threats; and the view that world opinion was a better guide to foreign policy than geopolitical concepts. When aid to Greece and Turkey was first proposed, Wallace urged the Truman administration to put the issue before the United Nations. If "the Russians exercised their veto, the moral burden would be on them. . . . [W]hen we act independently . . . the moral burden is on us." Seizing the moral high ground meant more than whether America’s geopolitical interests were being safeguarded.

Though Wallace’s radical critique of American postwar foreign policy was defeated in the 1940s, its basic tenets reflected a deep strain of American idealism that continued to tug at the nation’s soul. The same moral convictions that had conferred such energy on America’s international commitments also had the potential to be turned inward by disillusionment with the outside world, or with America’s own imperfections. In the 1920s, isolationism had caused America to withdraw on the grounds that it was too good for the world; in the Wallace movement and its heirs, it revived itself in the proposition that America should withdraw because it was not good enough for the world.


One result of the containment policy was that the United States relegated itself to an essentially passive diplomacy during the period of its greatest power. That is why containment was increasingly challenged by yet another constituency, of which John Foster Dulles became the most vocal spokesman. His constituents were the conservatives who accepted the premises of containment but questioned the absence of urgency with which it was being pursued. Even if containment did in the end succeed in undermining Soviet society, these critics argued, it would take too long and cost too much. Whatever containment might accomplish a strategy of liberation would surely accelerate. By the end of Truman’s presidency, the containment policy was caught in a crossfire between those who considered it too bellicose (the followers of Wallace) and those who thought it too passive (the conservative Republicans).

This controversy accelerated because, as Lippmann had predicted, international crises increasingly moved to peripheral regions of the globe, where the moral issues were confused and direct threats to American security were difficult to demonstrate. America found itself drawn into wars in areas not protected by alliances and on behalf of ambiguous causes and inconclusive outcomes. From Korea to Vietnam, these enterprises kept alive the radical critique, which continued to question the moral validity of containment. Thus surfaced a new variant of American exceptionalism. With all of its imperfections, the America of the nineteenth century had thought of itself as the beacon of liberty; in the 1960s and 1970s, the torch was said to be flickering and would need to be relit before America could return to its historical role as an inspiration to the cause of freedom. The debate over containment turned into a struggle for the very soul of America. As early as 1957, even George Kennan had come to reinterpret containment in this light when he wrote: "To my own countrymen who have often asked me where best to apply the hand to counter the Soviet threat, I have accordingly had to reply: to our American failings, to the things we are ashamed of in our own eyes, or that worry us; to the racial problem, to the conditions in our big cities, to the education and environment of our young people, to the growing gap between specialized knowledge and popular understanding."

A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.

A decade earlier, before he had become disillusioned by what he considered the militarization of his invention, George Kennan would have recognized that no such choice existed. A country that demands moral perfection of itself as a test of its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security. It was a measure of Kennan’s achievement that, by 1957, the free world’s parapets had been manned, his own views having made a decisive contribution to this effort. The parapets were in fact being manned so effectively that America permitted itself to indulge in a hefty dose of self-criticism.

Containment was an extraordinary theory—at once hardheaded and idealistic, profound in its assessment of Soviet motivations yet curiously abstract in its prescriptions. Thoroughly American in its utopianism, it assumed that the collapse of a totalitarian adversary could be achieved in an essentially benign way. Although this doctrine was formulated at the height of America’s absolute power, it preached America’s relative weakness. Postulating a grand diplomatic encounter at the moment of its culmination, containment allowed no role for diplomacy until the climactic final scene in which the men in the white hats accepted the conversion of the men in the black hats.

With all of these qualifications, containment was a doctrine that saw America through more than four decades of construction, struggle and, ultimately, triumph. The victim of its ambiguities turned out to be not the peoples America had set out to defend—on the whole successfully—but the American conscience. Tormenting itself in its traditional quest for moral perfection, America would emerge, after more than a generation of struggle, lacerated by its exertions and controversies, yet having achieved almost everything it had set out to do.

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  • HENRY KISSINGER was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations. This essay is adapted from his eleventh book, Diplomacy, published by Simon and Schuster, with whose permission this essay appears.
  • More By Henry A. Kissinger