Containment refers to a foreign policy of the United States in the early years of the Cold War. The policy was a response to a series of moves by the Soviet Union to expand communist influence in eastern Europe and elsewhere. It represents a middle ground position between appeasement and rollback. It was championed by Cold War liberals such as U.S. presidents Harry S Truman (1945-53) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-69). For nuclear weapons policy, the corresponding doctrine is called Mutual Assured Destruction.

The basis for containment was articulated in a diplomatic cable by George Kennan, a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, in February 1946. It was adopted as policy by Truman the following year. The purpose of containment was to prevent communism from spreading in a "one after another" pattern known as the "domino effect." Containment was a rationale for many U.S. actions during the Cold War, Korean War, and Vietnam War. U.S. defeat in Vietnam led many to question the doctrine.



When the U.S. State Department asked Kennan why the Russians opposed the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he responded with a wide-ranging analysis of Russian policy. This Long Telegram of February 22, 1946 concluded,

Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventunstic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.

According to Kennan:

  • The Soviets perceived themselves to be in a state of perpetual war with capitalism;
  • The Soviets would use controllable Marxists in the capitalist world as allies;
  • Soviet aggression was not aligned with the views of the Russians or with economic reality, but with historic Russian xenophobia and paranoia;
  • The Soviet government's structure prohibited objective or accurate pictures of internal and external reality.

“The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies,” Kennan wrote.

Kennan's analysis came to be regarded as prescient following later Russian moves aimed at establishing Communist control over eastern Europe. Kennan's telegram was published as a magazine article entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" in July 1947 under the pseudonym "Mr. X."

Adopted as policy

U.S. President Harry S. Truman adopted containment as policy in March 1947 when he gave a speech promising aid to Greeks fighting Communist subversion. Truman pledged to, "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This pledge became known as the Truman Doctrine. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance between the U.S. and Western Europe created in 1949, was the centerpiece of containment policy.

During the Korean War, Truman allowed General Douglas MacArthur to advance across the 38th parallel into North Korea. For many policymakers, MacArthur's subsequent defeat at the hands of the Chinese at Chosin Reservoir confirmed the wisdom of containment and discredited MacArthur's focus on victory. Others, such as John Foster Dulles, backed MacArthur and concluded that Truman had been too timid. In 1952, Dulles called for "rollback" and the eventual "liberation" of eastern Europe. Dulles was named secretary of state by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower's failure to intervene during Hungarian Uprising of 1956 made containment a bipartisan doctrine.

Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, challenged containment and asked, "Why not victory? President Johnson, the Democratic nominee, answered that rollback risked nuclear war. Johnson explained containment doctrine by quoting the Bible: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but not further." Goldwater lost to Johnson in the general election by a wide margin. Johnson adhered closely to containment during the Vietnam War, rejecting proposals by General William Westmoreland that U.S. ground forces advance into Laos and cut communist supply lines. Rallies in support of the troops were discouraged for fear that a patriotic response would lead to demands for victory and rollback. Military responsibility was divided among three generals so that no powerful theater commander could emerge to challenge Johnson as MacArthur had challenged Truman.

Post-Vietnam developments

Communist victory in Vietnam led many policymakers to abandon containment. Democrats began to view further communist advance as inevitable while Republicans returned to rollback doctrine. Ronald Reagan, a long-time advocate of rollback, was elected U.S. president in 1980. Reagan took a more aggressive approach to dealings with the USSR, believing that détente was misguided and peaceful co-existence was tantamount to surrender. By sending military aid to anti-communist resistance movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, he confronted existing communist governments and went beyond the limits of containment doctrine. He deployed the Pershing II missile in Europe and promoted research on a Strategic Defense Initiative, which critics called "Star Wars", to shoot down missiles fired at the United States. Reagan's actions were interpreted as being aimed at defeating the Soviets through an expensive arms race the Soviets could not match. However, Reagan continued to follow containment doctrine in several key areas. He pursued a comprehensive nuclear disarmament initiative called START I and policy toward Europe continued to emphasize a NATO-based defensive approach.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 marked the official end of U.S. containment policy, though it kept its bases in the areas around the former Soviet Union, such as ones in Iceland, Germany, and Turkey. (The Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland was closed in September 2006.) As of 2005, the U.S. had at least 700 military bases around the world.


A containment policy was also applied by the U.S. to Iraq from 1991 to 2003. When Saddam Hussein was not ousted from power after the Gulf War the U.S. adopted containment towards Iraq via severe sanctions, U.N. weapons inspections, basing of troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, patrol of the Iraq no-fly zones, and periodic airstrikes. By 2000, these elements of containment were fraying because Iraq was able to smuggle many prohibited items via Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Oil for Food which began in 1996 was also corrupted, and the U.N. withdrew their inspectors in 1998 because of Iraqi non-cooperation and were unable to verify whether or not Iraq's prescribed weapons programs were destroyed. The U.N. was divided. Meanwhile, Arab public opinion in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere became increasingly hostile to the U.S. military presence in their nations because of renewed violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After 1998 Iraq began to fire on allied aircraft in the no-fly zones and thus suffered from retaliation via bombing, but such strikes did not threaten Saddam's grip on power. Containment was abandoned by the George W. Bush administration which opted for regime change via military action in 2003.


In the post-Cold War world, scholars have debated the extent to which containment—or some variant of that strategy—continues to animate U.S. diplomacy, particularly vis-a-vis China. At a speech to Tokyo's Sophia University in March 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid abundant tribute to Kennan and his intellectual legacy and then elaborated on the logic of the new alliances Washington was building in Asia: "[As] we look to China's life... I really do believe the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S.-South Korean relationship, the U.S.-Indian relationship, all are important in creating an environment in which China is more likely to play a positive role than a negative role. These alliances are not against China; they are alliances that are devoted to a stable security and political and economic and, indeed, values-based relationships put China in the context of those relationships, and a different path to development than if China were simply untethered, simply operating without strategic context."

As of 2008, the U.S. has military bases in South Korea, Japan and Afghanistan. The US supplies military equipment to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and India. In addition, it is assumed by the ROC military that the US has guaranteed the security of Taiwan. The U.S. has also proposed a deal to supply India with nuclear fuel and technology.

The other Asian nation "contained" by U.S. policies is North Korea, which has been under trade sanctions and isolation. The U.S. president George W Bush further claimed North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran forms the Axis of Evil.

Further reading

  • Kennan, George F., American Diplomacy, The University of Chicago Press. 1984. ISBN 0-226-43147-9
  • Wright, Steven. The United States and Persian Gulf Security: The Foundations of the War on Terror, Ithaca Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0863723216


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