John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Cold War, Containment, Foreign Policy, Diplomacy, Korean War, Vietnam.

Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis's book Strategies of Containment offers a detailed and nuanced analysis of the guiding strategies animating American foreign policy from Truman to Nixon. Beginning with the world situation in 1945, Gaddis explains how the diplomatic means of containment slowly outgrew its original mandate to become the end of American foreign policy. And, while its apology for Kissinger's Machiavellian "realism" at the end definitely rubbed me the wrong way, I still found the book illuminating and informative in its discussion of the often complex and turbulent relationship between ideas and process.

According to Gaddis, containment emerged "as a series of attempts to deal with the consequences of [the] World War II Faustian bargain" between the Soviet Union and the US. (4) Although Kennan didn't coin the term until 1947, Gaddis argues, the problem of containing Russia hung like a sword of Damocles over the entire war effort, particularly since Roosevelt -- needing Soviet troops to fight so that the US could primarily remain the "arsenal of Democracy" rather than its army -- could ill afford to antagonize the Russians too deeply. As such, Roosevelt "sought to ensure a stable postwar order by offering Moscow a prominent place in it; by making it, so to speak, a member of the club. The assumption here -- and it is a critical one for understanding Roosevelt's policy -- was that Soviet hostility stemmed from insecurity, but that the sources of that insecurity were external." (11) FDR believed that "integrating the Soviet Union into a postwar security structure" by making it one of the "Four Policemen" (with the US, England, and China) would hone the rough edges off of Soviet policy while creating a system by which its territorial ambitions could be countered. (11)

Although Roosevelt's plan of integrating Russia into the postwar community failed -- in part because even FDR's considerable personal charm couldn't crack the tough nut of Stalin -- such a policy remained the goal of US foreign policy until George Kennan composed his "long telegram" of February 1946. As Gaddis puts it, the "thesis of Kennan's 'long telegram' was nothing less than that the whole basis of American policy toward the Soviet Union during and after World War II had been wrong." (19) Kennan argued that the source of Russian insecurity wasn't external - it was internal and could not be alleviated through diplomatic means. Indeed, "Kremlin leaders were too unsophisticated to know how to govern by any means other than repression," and thus "picturing the outside world 'as evil, hostile, and menacing'" was a boon to Soviet legitimacy. (20) According to Gaddis, Kennan instead suggested a strategy of "patience and firmness" in dealing with Russia, one that openly recognized disputes with the USSR and maintained "a calculated relationship of resources to objectives." (24)

Having explained the diplomatic scene and the rise of Kennan thus, Gaddis then spends the rest of the book evaluating the "five distinct geopolitical codes [that arose] in the postwar era" (ix):

1. Kennan and Containment: Blending together a number of Kennan writings and speeches, including his famous "X" article in Foreign Affairs, Gaddis attempts to reformulate the author's original policy of containment. For one, containment was a strategy that assumed "the most notable characteristic of the international environment was its diversity, not its uniformity: to make national security contingent upon the worldwide diffusion of American institutions would be to exceed national capabilities, thereby endangering those institutions." (28) For Kennan, "internal organization of states was not in and of itself, a proper matter of concern for American foreign policy" -- National security resulted not from making the rest of the world like us but "through a careful balancing of power, interests, and antagonisms." (30-31) In positing thus, Kennan's strategy recognized the realistic limits of American diplomacy: his "was a view conscious of the fact that because capabilities are finite, interests must be also; distinctions had to be made between what was vital and what was not...it insisted on using [a] perception of interests as a standard against which to evaluate threats, not the other way around: threats had no meaning, Kennan insisted, except with reference to and in terms of one's concept of interests." (32-33)

So what was a vital interest for George Kennan? He designated "'only five centers of industrial and military power in the world which are important to us from the standpoint of national security.' These were the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Central Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan...Only one of these power centers was, at that time, in hostile hands; the primary interest of the United States in world affairs, therefore, was to see to it that no others fell under such control." (30) To do thus, Kennan advocated employing psychological means: "(1) restoration of the balance of power through the encouragemnet of self-confidence in nations threatened by Soviet expansionism; [the Marshall Plan, for example] (2) reduction, by exploiting tension between Moscow and the international communist movement, of the Soviet Union's ability to project influence beyond its borders; [such as dealing with Tito's Yugoslavia](3) modification, over time, of the Soviet concept of international relations, with a view of bringing about a negotiated settlement of outstanding differences." (36-37) [For Gaddis, the Truman administration's implementation of this last point was all stick and no carrot.]

Taking Kennan's strategy of finite objectives and psychological offensives to heart, the Truman administration first had to come to grips with "a particularist rather than a universalist conception of American security interests: what was required not to remake the world in the image of the United States, but simply to preserve its diversity against attempts to remake it in the image of others. He had also stressed the necessity, imposed by limited means, of establishing hierarchies of interests, of differentiating between the vital and the peripheral. And he had insisted that if competition was to take place, it do so on terrain and with instruments best calculated to apply American strengths against Soviet weakenesses, thereby preserving the initiative while minimizing costs." (56) These notions -- particularism, limited objectives, a "strongpoint" defense rather than a "perimeter" one -- would sometimes come unnaturally to a foreign policy establishment steeped in Wilsonianism and flush with the victory of WWII. Indeed, many of these key elements of Kennan's containment strategy would undergo revision in the years to come. Also, by relying so heavily on psychological means, Kennan sowed the seeds of his strategy's collapse -- For psychology is a funny thing, and you never know what peripheral, logistically unimportant event might upset the psychological apple cart, and thus the balance of power. As Kennan eloquently puts it, "psychological insecurity could as easily develop from the distant sound of falling dominoes as from the rattling of sabres next door." (91-92)

2. Truman and NSC-68: While Gaddis has painfully reconstructed the tenets of Kennan's thinking, at the time there was no one place to go to grasp his entire strategy (This was by design - Kennan thought guidelines resulted in oversimplification.) Nevertheless, "it was precisely this need for greater coherence in policy formulation following the shocks of 1949 -- the 'loss' of China, the Soviet atomic bomb, persistent interservice debates over strategy, and the dilemma of how to meet expanding responsibilities with what appeared to be limited resources -- that caused President Truman, early in 1950, to authorize just the sort of study Kennan had resisted: a single, comprehensive statemetn of interests, threats, and feasible responses, capable of being communicated throughout the bureaucracy." (90) Hence, NSC-68. As Gaddis notes, "NSC-68 was not intended as a repudiation of Kennan...The objective rather was to systematize containment, and to find the means to make it work. But the very act of reducing the strategy to writing exposed the differences that had begun to develop between Kennan and the administration...The result, like that more promiment product of a broadly construed mandate, the United States Constitution, was a document more sweeping in content and implications than its originators had intended." (90)

How did NSC-68 differ from Kennan's view of containment? For one, Kennan's emphasis on industrial-military power centers was thrown out the window - "In the context of the present polarization of power," argued NSC-68, "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere." Thus, NSC-68 committed America to unlimited objectives and to a "perimeter" defense (defending everywhere) rather than a "strongpoint" one (attacking where the enemy was weakest.) "World order, and with it American security," Kennan notes, "had come to depend as much on perceptions of the balance of power as on what that balance actually was...The effect was vastly to increase the number and variety of interests deemed relevant to the national security, and to blur distinctions between them." (92) Obviously, unlimited interests meant the US required unlimited resources, and thus, prodded on indirectly by "grow the pie" Keynesian economists such as Leon Keyserling, the military-industrial complex began its swell to current proportions.

These changes, crucial as they were, did not represent the entire deviation from Kennan's philosophy. NSC-68 also redefined interests in light of the Soviet threat, rather than articulating any independent US interests - By this logic, any move by the Soviet Union became a problem for the US: "The whole point of NSC-68 had been to generate additional means with which to defend existing interests. But by neglecting to define those interests apart from the threat to them, the document in effect expanded interests along with means, thereby vitiating its own intended accomplishment." (98) Moreover, unlike Kennan, who advocated "a variety of political, economic, psychological, and military measures" in America's arsenals, NSC came emphasized military response to the Russian threat above all else. (99) Finally, NSC-68 did not openly share Kennan's belief in the value of exacerbating inter-Communist splits (perhaps, Gaddis notes, because the domestic furor over anticommunism would make it hard to sell the American people on the idea of "good" Communists. For all these reasons, NSC-68 finds its best expression in the Korean War: "Despite the fact that the administration had resolved not to let Korea become the occasion for getting bogged down in a peripheral war with a secondary adversary, this was precisely what happened. And it happened, one suspects, because of the extent to which the premises of NSC-68 had come to overshadow, and modify, the original strategy of containment." (117)

3. Eisenhower, Dulles, and the New Look: The election of 1952 brought former Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower to the White House and, due to the stridency of the Taft wing of the GOP, the General was soon forced to choose John Foster Dulles as his Secretary of State. Together, Eisenhower and Dulles further modified the containment doctrine as articulated in NSC-68. For one, Eisenhower continually articulated a conception of American interest that was independent of the Soviet threat: He aimed to preserve a "way of life characterized by freedom of choice for individuals, democratic procedures for government, and private enterprise for the economy," and he recognized that "an unthinking quest for absolute security could undermine all of these." (136) Dulles, for his part, came to believe that "the United States might actually have an interest in being threatened, if through that process Americans could be goaded into doing what was required to preserve their way of life." (136) Thus, although Dulles was relatively unconcerned about communism at the national level, his and the State Department's rhetoric incessantly harped on the dangers of international communism for its reputed salutary effect. (Dulles also shifted foreign policy attention to "the ideological writings of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin" - unlike his predecessors, Dulles believe communist ideology "made Soviet intentions 'knowable.'" (139)) In sum, Dulles believed America needed the Soviets as an enemy to maintain the "unity of the anti-Soviet coalition both at home and overseas...[This argument] was a curious inversion of ends and means: the Soviet challenge, the removal or neutralization of which had been the original goal of containment, had now become a means by which the doctrine's instruments were to be perpetuated as an ends in themselves." (145)

Eisenhower and Dulles were also forced to recognize that the unlimited interests/unlimited resources formulation of NSC-68 was ultimately untenable. But these two Cold Warriors couldn't back away from earlier commitments without possibly precipitating a psychological backlash. Thus, Dulles came to articulate the doctrine of "brinkmanship," or "massive retaliation," which made up for the difference between unlimited interests and finite means through the threat of nuclear weapons. In a sense, Dulles was returning to Kennan's idea of "asymmetrical response -- of reacting to adversary challenges in ways calculated to apply one's own strengths against the other side's weaknesses...The effect, it was believed, would be to regain the initiative while reducing costs." (147) Along with the threat of mutual annihilation, alliances (NATO, SEATO, CENTO), psychological warfare (also aimed at rolling back communism everywhere rather than working with "Titoism" or Maoism), covert actions (overthrowing Iraq and Guatemala, planned assassinations, etc.), and negotiations all formed part of Dulles's containment strategy.

To assess the implementation of the New Look, Gaddis judges it by the "Democratic party's critique of Eisenhower in 1960": that it had "(1) relied excessively on nuclear weapons as the primary instrument of deterrence, thereby narrowing the range of feasible response to aggression; (2) failed to deter revolutions in the Third World; (3) allowed a 'missile gap' to develop, thus undermining the strategic balance of the Soviet Union; and (4) neglected opportunities for negotiations with its adversaries." (165) Gaddis generally seems to agree with the first point - he says that nuclear-based deterrence did not increase American options, did not take into account intra-Communist rifts that could be manipulated, and did not take into consideration the fact that there's no such thing as a "limited" nuclear war (although Eisenhower himself seems to have understood the danger.) Regarding the second fault, Gaddis concedes that the New Look, in its often futile attempts to find a non-Communist-tinged "third force" in Third World revolutionary situations, suffered from "a fundamental failure of strategic vision...because Dulles defined the threat as communism generally, not just the Soviet Union, the administration concentrated on opposing communism, even when it took on nationalist forms." (182) In believing that international communism was a stronger force than Third World nationalism, and in actively working to subvert home-grown Communist-tinged nationalist movements in Vietnam and elsewhere, the Eisenhower administration made perhaps their most crucial blunder. As for #3, the "missile gap" was a rhetorical fear exacerbated by Sputnik - "at no point during [Ike's] presidency was the United States inferior to the Soviet Union in overall strategic capabilities." (183) As for negotiations, Eisenhower clearly didn't give them the priority they should have had in containment strategy, as evidenced by his decision to authorize Francis Gary Power's U2 mission just before the Paris Summit.

In the end, however, Gaddis concludes of the New Look that Dulles was a "more subtle and skillful diplomat" than his blunt doomsday rhetoric suggested, and that Eisenhower was more active and hands-on than public perception believed. (165) Ike's "strategy was coherent," writes Gaddis, "bearing signs of his influence at almost every level, careful, for the most part, in its relation of ends to means and, on the whole, more consistent with than detrimental to the national interest. It is a modest claim, but nonetheless a more favorable one than one can reasonably make about either the strategy that preceded, or the one that followed, the 'New Look.'" (197)

4. Kennedy, Johnson, and Flexible Response: Kennedy arrived in office holding the same basic beliefs as his predecessors: "that the American interest was not to remake the world, but to balance power within it; that nationalism, so long as it reflected the principle of self-determination, posed no threat to American institutions; that the United States therefore could more easily accommodate itself to a diverse world than could its autocratic adversaries." (201) But Kennedy and his advisers, believing the "balance of power was fragile" and based often on perceptions as much as facts, expanded the notion of American interests back to its NSC-68 largesse, when the US needed to be capable of taking action in any number of "peripheral" situations. "[H]aving committed itself to maintaining the existing distribution of power in the world," remarks Gaddis of the Kennedy era, "the United States could not allow challenges to that distribution even to appear to succeed against its will, because perceptions of power could be as important as the real thing." (Hence, the Cuban Missile Crisis) (213)

This managing of power disruptions wherever they occur - like NSC-68 a symmetrical rather than asymmetrical response - was codified in the doctrine of "flexible response." According to Gaddis, flexible response relied on six central tenets: "(1) the bolstering of conventional and unconventional military capabilities; (2) the strategic missile build-up, which proceeded even after the myth of the 'missile gap' had been exposed; (3) renewed efforts to solidify alliances; (4) a new emphasis on the non-military instruments of containment; [Counter-insurgency, nation-building, etc.] (5) attempts to manage more effectively domestic resources vital to defense; and (6) an expansion of Eisenhower's earlier efforts to open up areas for possible negotiation with the Russians." (215)

Gaddis then uses Vietnam to test the doctrine of "flexible response" and finds that "rarely have accomplishments turned out so totally at variance with intended objectives...The American defeat there rather grew out of assumptions derived quite logically from that strategy: that the defense of Southeast Asia was crucial to the maintenance of world order, that force could be applied in Vietnam with precision and discrimination; that means existed accurately to evaluate performance; and that effects would be to enhance American power, prestige, and credibility in the world. The assumptions in turn reflected a curiously myopic preoccupation with process -- a disproportionate fascination with means at the expense of ends -- with the result that a strategy designed to produce a precise correspondence between intentions and accomplishments in fact produced just the opposite." (238) In sum, Gaddis concludes that the "sensitivity to the need to keep ends and means in balance was precisely what was lacking in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations; there was instead a preoccupation with process at the expense of objectives, a fascination so great with things were to be done that it tended to obscure what was being done...This, then, was the unexpected legacy of 'flexible response': not 'fine tuning' but clumsy overreaction, not coordination but disproportion, not strategic precision, but, in the end, a strategic vacuum." (273)

5. Nixon, Kissinger, and Détente: While drawing some (some might say too little) attention to the executive culture that fostered the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate, Gaddis is generally favorable to the foreign policy strategy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He argues that they forsook the "Crisis Management" approach of the Kennedy-Johnson era, and kept an eye to larger objectives. Moreover, Gaddis believes that the pair took containment "back to concerns and concepts that had animated it during the earliest days of the Cold War -- but now those ideas were being used, as Kennan had hoped to use them, to try to end the Cold War." (276) "What this odd alliance of Nixon and Kissinger sought," argues Gaddis, "was a strategy that would combine the tactical flexibility of the Kennedy-Johnson system with the structure and coherence of Eisenhower's, while avoiding the short-sighted fixations that had led to Vietnam or the equally myopic ideological rigidities of a John Foster Dulles. To a remarkable extent, they succeeded, but only by concentrating power in the White House to a degree unprecedented since the wartime administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The price was a uninformed, sullen, and at times sabotage-minded bureaucracy, a Congress determined to reassert its eroded constitutional authority without any sense of how far that authority could feasibly extend, and, ultimately, the resignation of a president certain otherwise to have been impeached and convicted for abusing the overwhelming power his own system had given him." (275) Nevertheless, Gaddis concludes, "it is a tribute to the logic of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy that its fundamental elements survived these upheavals." (275)

Indeed, speaking later of this logic when comparing Kennan and Kissinger, Gaddis writes, "their congruent approaches seem to have grown out of a shared commitment to the 'realist' tradition in American foreign policy, an intellectual orientation solidly grounded in the study of European diplomatic history, a degree of detachment from the academic and policy-making elites of the 1950's and 1960's, and, above all, a sense of strategy -- an insistence on the importance of establishing coherent relationships between ends and means. It was on this last point, more than anything else, that the Kennan-Kissinger connection primarily rested: both men understood the existence of a strategic 'logic' transcending time and circumstance; a way of thinking that can make ideas formulated in one context relevant to very different ones; that can make it possible for thoughtful men, separated in their periods of public responsibility by a quarter of century, to apply with some success similar strategies to vastly dissimilar situations." (308)

Of course one might question, given the illegal bombing of Cambodia (which set the stage for the ascendance of the Khmer Rouge), the CIA subversion of the Allende government in Chile, and the indifference to human rights violations by allies in Pakistan, East Timor, and elsewhere, whether Henry Kissinger is really someone who should be lauded for his understanding of the relationship of ends to means. In easily the least satisfying portion of the book, Gaddis briefly and half-heartedly tsk-tsks Kissinger for these lapses, then proceeds to argue that "it is, in a way, a tribute to Kissinger, and to the presidents he served, that they succeeded, however briefly, in imparting enough 'order' to world affairs that the American people could indulge in the unaccustomed luxury of applying to them the standards of 'justice.'" (343) If this Nathan Jessup-like pronouncement weren't enough, Gaddis also states that there "was in [Kissinger's] thinking a surprisingly strong concern with the moral dimensions of world politics" and that "there has been a perennial and probably unresolvable debate over the extent to which foreign policy should reflect moral principles." (342) To my mind, this is something of a cop-out. While Gaddis's often-fascinating book tells us much about the shifting relationship of ends to means in American foreign policy, and evaluates persuasively how containment went from becoming a means of fighting the Cold War to an end in and of itself (and back again), I find its suggestion that realist ends justify any means to be a problematic one. And particularly given his full-on critical assault on "flexible response," Gaddis would have done better to drop the kid gloves and cast a more discerning eye on the mechanics and "process" of Kissinger's diplomatic strategy as well. Indeed, I think this failure casts an unsettling shadow over the argument of the rest of the book.

Still, Strategies of Containment is a highly informative tome, and definitely worth a read.

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