National Security

What Containment Really Is

Analysis: How a Cold War grand strategy became just another word for passivity

George F. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow / AP

Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, President Barack Obama has repeatedly asserted that "this is not another Cold War." Yet in a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times, Peter Baker reports that the president and his advisers have chosen "to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment." Their ambition, Baker says, is nothing less than to isolate Russia, "making it a pariah state."

However, it is not clear whether a president incapable of enforcing his own "red lines" has the fortitude necessary to execute a true policy of containment. In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War, memories of containment have faded, resulting in kinder, gentler recollections of a grand strategy that consumed vast resources and generated perennial controversies.

The Times, it should be pointed out, provides no hard evidence of a turn toward containment, not even the telltale quotes from unnamed senior officials on which reporters so frequently rely. A former ambassador to NATO tells the Times, "This is the strategy we ought to be pursuing." The article then suggests that the choice of John Tefft as the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow reveals the administration’s newly confrontational state of mind, since previously it was "leery" of appointing Tefft, a career diplomat, lest his prior service in Ukraine and Georgia antagonize the Kremlin. However, as a provocation this pales in comparison to President Harry Truman’s decision to send George F. Kennan, the renowned architect of containment, to Moscow in 1952. The Soviets sent Kennan back just several months after his arrival.

Containment was controversial from the moment of its birth. In February 1946, Kennan’s "Long Telegram" systematically dismantled wartime hopes that U.S.-Soviet cooperation would provide the foundation of a peaceful postwar order. The following January, Kennan produced the manuscript that would become "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which introduced the strategy of containment for dealing with an adversary whose hostility to a liberal international order was implacable.

Yet five critical months passed between the completion of Kennan’s manuscript and its publication in Foreign Affairs. In the interim, Truman delivered the address to Congress in which he announced, "It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures," a policy that quickly became known as the Truman Doctrine.

Kennan was aghast at what appeared to be a blank check for backing any government threatened by Communists. Yet when his article finally appeared in Foreign Affairs, its audience presumed it to be the intellectual foundation on which the Truman Doctrine rested. After all, Kennan called for "the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy." Walter Lippmann, the preeminent foreign affairs columnist of his day, dedicated no fewer than fourteen separate columns to denouncing Kennan’s "strategic monstrosity," which would surrender the initiative to Stalin and leave the United States dependent on "a coalition of disorganized, disunited, feeble or disorderly nations, tribes and factions."

This was only a foretaste of the rancorous debate over containment and policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that would persist for decades—a debate that was rapidly forgotten after the end of the Cold War. For example, the Times glibly notes that "Mr. Obama is retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated American strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union."

Even though the Truman Doctrine represented a more ambitious policy than the one advocated by Kennan, three years would pass before Truman recognized the implications of containment for the size and budget of the U.S. military. In 1947 Truman was still busy dismantling the stunningly powerful war machine that had sent millions to fight on the far sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Popular pressure for demobilization was persistent and intense. In Washington, there was also tremendous pressure to cut dramatically the massive spending and debt generated by the war.

To borrow a phrase from a later era, Truman left himself with a hollow force. The tragic cost of that decision did not become clear until the North Korean army began streaming across the 38th parallel in June 1950. In July the North Koreans mauled Task Force Smith, the first American combat force rushed from Japan to the Korean peninsula. Ever since that time, "Task Force Smith" has become a byword among American troops for the dangers of unpreparedness.

In the wake of the North Korean invasion of the south, Truman approved NSC-68, the blueprint for building military forces capable not just of fighting the war, but also prepared to stand guard indefinitely against the global threat emanating from Moscow.

The scale of the build-up that followed is astonishing. In 1950 the United States spent $164.8 billion (2005 dollars) on defense, which amounted to 32.2 percent of the federal budget or 5.0 percent of GDP. After the war, during which defense spending peaked at $515.1 billion, spending stabilized at roughly $370 billion per year for the remainder of the decade, amounting to 53.2 percent of the federal budget or 10.0 percent of GDP in 1959.

In the Reagan years, defense spending increased only 55 percent above its post-Vietnam low, never exceeding more than 28.2 percent of the budget or 6.2 percent of GDP. During the Afghanistan surge in 2011, the defense budget reached its post-9/11 peak of $615.2 billion, equal to 19.6 percent of the budget or 4.7 percent of GDP. In real terms, this represented an increase of 69 percent, whereas peacetime budgets in the 1950s were 120 percent greater than they were before Korea.

The White House Office of Management and Budget projects that Obama’s defense policy will bring spending down below 14 percent of the budget and 3 percent of GDP by 2018. In real terms, this will represent a moderate increase compared to the years before 9/11, though personnel and operating costs have shot up dramatically. The United States will be paying more for a smaller and less capable military. Adding "containment" of an illiberal and belligerent Russia to the Pentagon mission set will not be plausible if such trends persist.

When Truman launched the campaign to repulse communist aggression in Korea, his decision was popular both at home and in Europe. Americans and Europeans considered the moral and strategic justifications for the war to be impregnable. Even Kennan, who had railed against Truman’s militarization of containment, became an avid hawk, insisting America would not go bankrupt "even if we were forced to shell out three times as much for defense."

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Kennan, historian John Lewis Gaddis observes that Korea exposed contradictions in Kennan’s thinking about containment. Before the invasion, Kennan was comfortable with excluding Korea from the U.S. defensive perimeter, since its strategic value was marginal at best. However, once the invasion began, Kennan agreed that tolerating such brazen aggression was unthinkable, because of the message it would send the Soviets.

Yet being well resourced is no guarantee of success. For all of its spending, the United States achieved nothing more than a bloody stalemate in Korea. And though the United States faced a conventional adversary rather than an insurgency, the attitude of the American public came to resemble the one that prevailed during the depths of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans regretted becoming involved at all, and drew the lesson that the United States should never embark on a similar course of action again. Truman’s approval rating plunged to lows that would only be equaled by President George W. Bush.

The contradictions in Kennan’s thinking foreshadowed the bitter debates that would persist about how to implement a strategy of containment. American involvement in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and Central America all became profoundly divisive because the United States never found a reliable way to determine where it should draw its red lines. Divisions at home had their parallel in recurrent clashes between the United States and the other members of NATO. Today we remember the Cold War through the prism of its joyously peaceful conclusion, when oppressed peoples rose up and swept communism out of Europe. This was the fruit of containment, yet Kennan remained so embittered by the long and difficult road to success that in 1994, at a celebration of his ninetieth birthday, he called the outcome "one of the great disappointments of my life."

The diminished threat of Russia today when compared to the Soviet Union after World War II does not mean that containing the Putin regime will be inexpensive or uncontroversial. Over the past month Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden have all warned Putin that if his behavior does not improve, severe consequences will follow. However, severe consequences have not followed.

During the Cold War, the United States established its leadership by demonstrating a tangible and costly commitment to shared objectives. For decades, hundreds of thousands of American troops stood watch on European soil. The Marshall Plan facilitated the reconstruction of Europe at the cost of over a hundred billion in today’s dollars. The threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe did not make such a passive approach plausible during the Cold War. This is the reality the White House must face if it is serious about meeting Russian aggression with a policy of containment that consists of more than rhetoric.