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Cold War Geopolitics: Containment

Soviet 444x718With the end of world war and fascism erased from the globe, the United States followed its instincts and disarmed. Once war is over, peace begins, Americans thought, and there was nothing in between. With 16 million uniformed personnel by war’s end in 1945, only 1.5 million remained by 1947. Not only did the rise of a new threat from the Soviet Union, a wartime ally, shock American belief systems, but the threat itself reversed centuries of faith in the oceans to protect them. The result was a strategic and geopolitical challenge unprecedented in U.S. history. Nor did the leadership have the slightest idea on what to do about it.

At first, there was little that the US could do. With 12 million Red Army soldiers in occupation of Eastern Europe, up to and including East Germany, and with powerful communist parties in France and Italy, the skeleton American army in West Germany was left without power or purpose. Americans were not used to strategic thought in foreign arenas in peacetime and were left bankrupt against Marshall Stalin and Soviet hostility toward the outside world. The potential of a communist Western Europe was real, as it appeared that that the West was about to turn the continent over to a new totalitarian, having just lost millions of lives against the original.

Into this void appeared George F. Kennan of the Moscow embassy with his “long” (8000 words) telegram in 1946 that was about to turn American geopolitics on its head. Sent in February, Kennan identified the nature of the politico-military threat posed by the Soviet Union and outlined a broad set of policies that might counter it.  Basically, this was the first comprehensive set of strategic principles to be applied, short of war, since the Farewell Address of 1796.

Acknowledging the revolutionary and totalitarian nature of the Soviet regime, Kennan distinguished between communist and fascist strategies, noting that the communist threat represented a spectrum of tactical maneuvers opposed to the largely military challenge of Hitler and the Nazis. To counter the communist threat, Kennan urged “…a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” From this point forward until the Reagan presidency, every successive U.S. political administration would adopt some variant of geopolitical “containment” against world communism, first in Europe, then everywhere.

Initially, Kennan advocated the “…adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points,” which, he predicted, would result in “either the break-up or gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Although nobody, including Kennan, could possibly have foreseen the geopolitical trajectory of the next-half-century of Cold War, that is exactly what happened: they mellowed; then they broke up. Or as Reagan put it before assuming the presidency: “We win, they lose.”

This process began in theory with the Long Telegram and began in practice almost immediately. A month later came Churchill’s historic Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri. With President Truman looking on favorably, the former Prime Minister (having been defeated for re-election) introduced Americans to the reality of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and how it should be met. Advocating a permanent “settlement,” Churchill drew upon his pre-war rhetoric for a coalition “by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections…” to establish “…an overwhelming assurance of security” for the Western allies. Although the text was not received favorably by the U.S. media, which still clung to an isolationist past, the net result, along with Kennan’s cable, was to catapult the United States into a position of global leadership for the first time and, eventually, to a position of “sole remaining superpower,” which is about where we are today. The entire revolution took about fifteen weeks.

On February 21, 1947 the British government sent a cable to the State Department that it could no longer provide support for Greece or Turkey, both of which appeared about to crumble against Moscow. Led by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI), the Truman Administration led an all-out bipartisan assault against world-wide communism and its home, the USSR. Acheson applied an original version of President Eisenhower’s later “domino” theory by explaining to the Senate how the loss of Greece and Turkey would lead to the loss of nearby states such as Iran and India.

The key statement was Truman’s March 12th address to Congress, the “Truman Doctrine,” for $400 million of aid “…to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The rest of the package came swiftly: The Marshall Plan for the economic restoration of Western Europe (announced at Harvard on June 5th), the reorganization of the national security apparatus of the government, establishment of an independent Air Force and CIA in 1947, the Berlin airlift, 1948-49, and the crown jewel of the revolution, creation of NATO in 1949.

Thus, practically overnight, America moved from a sleepy isolationist outpost of Europe to undisputed champion of the Free World, responsible for the liberty of all “free peoples.” Originally, this meant European peoples; but just as quickly it would literally mean “all,” free or not. These were heady days, never to be seen again.