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How to “Contain” War

The Washington Naval Conference, 1921–1922

Notice that the keyword in the title is NOT “prevent,” nor “end,” but “contain,” an expression that goes back to the beginning of the Cold War (1946). In that year, George Kennan, a State Department officer in Moscow, wrote back that the U.S. must maintain “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” In the following years, a series of policy adjustments by the Truman Administration, including the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, and NATO, ensured that Russia (“Soviet Union”) stayed within its eastern borders and that Western Europe was allowed to develop and produce free from fear of Russian invasion. 

In 1950, Truman expanded containment to Asia with the Korean War, defense of Taiwan, and, later, to Vietnam. By-and-large containment was a success, except for Vietnam, but eventually gave way to the Reagan Administration and the end of Communism, the Soviet Union, and the ultimate end of the Cold War itself. 

But in the context of the subject herein, “war” itself, we must remain true to America’s first objective against global Communism, namely, not to end it but merely to “contain” it. That, under the circumstances, is sufficient as, unlike Communism or Fascism, war, by definition, is neither an ideology nor a passing behavior but a universal phenomenon that goes back as far as humanity itself. More like “crime,” war remains “institutionalized” within human nature, and the “end” of war, like crime itself, goes way beyond the human capacity to “remake” the designs of Creation. 

But again, like crime, war can be “contained” through human initiative, policy choices, and determination. Why, for example, was there such a disparity in New York City crime rates between the Administrations of Mayor Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001) and Bill de Blasio (2014-2021)? Why is the Canadian border tranquil and the Mexican border violent and disruptive? Why has Western Europe, the arena for the most violent and destructive wars in history, been peaceful for over 75 years? Why was Europe peaceful for the century prior to 1914 and suddenly burst into flames in World War I? 

“Why” is the only question beginning with “W” that even requires an answer. The others (who, what, where, when) can be satisfied within seconds. The answer, again by both definition and necessity, lies within the human capacity to adjust and expand. 

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna met after Waterloo and years of incessant war and created the “Concert of Europe,” a political structure that preserved both peace and monarchy (against the French Revolution) for an entire century. The members of the Concert, France, England, Prussia (later Germany), Russia, and Austria, met periodically, with both successes and failures, until the “house,” as it were, collapsed into a geopolitical disaster. By 1914, they had all split into opposing “balance of powers,” known as the “Central Powers” vs. the “Triple Entente,” and remained that way until an “outsider” (USA) came to the rescue both in 1917 and 1941. 

The Chief Executive of that “outsider,” Woodrow Wilson, tried to “resurrect” Europe’s old Concert with a new vehicle, including his own country. The League of Nations (1919) was the errant “stepchild” of the Concert of Europe but, being American, contained an ideological message to “make the world safe for democracy.” But neither the isolationist U.S. Senate nor the European leadership was buying the League while its membership watched from the sidelines in Switzerland as the world seemed to be on the verge of self-destruction.   

In the years immediately after World War I, the Republican leadership (1920 – 1933) tried “disarmament” as a substitute World Order, including the Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922) and the Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war (1929). Both succeeded in the short run but collapsed as defeated Germany adopted a new ideology to upset the order from World War I. 

Despite the world’s best efforts since Napoleon, Nazi armies ran over most of Western Europe, the Luftwaffe bombed British cities for over a year, and Hitler declared war on the U.S. days after Pearl Harbor. By the end, Germany lay in ruins while the A-Bomb ended Japan’s fantasies in the Pacific. 

World Order, despite humanity’s best efforts over centuries, had failed miserably. 

Not to be outdone, Wilson’s Democratic successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, promised “Four Freedoms” after the war, created the “Atlantic Charter” with Britain’s Churchill, and re-created the League with another “stepchild,” the United Nations. 

There have been dozens of wars since, each a tragedy within itself, including Ukraine and “endless” ones as described by the American media.   

As the famous song goes, “when will it ever end”?   


Like all others, I do not know when it “will end.” 

Is that a reason (“excuse”) for ending the quest?  

My favorite expression, attributed to George Bernard Shaw, is “Some see things that are and ask why. Others see things that never were and ask why not.”   

From experience, we know that the requirement is a new political structure that contains war. We also understand that all previous efforts have ended in tragedy and failure. 

It is halftime, and we are down 21 to 0. Does the coach say, “Get dressed. We’re going home?”