How Successful was the Policy of Containment during the Cold War

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In May of 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered, thus starting the beginning of the end of World War II. The already uneasy wartime treaty between the allied United States and Great Britain and the Soviet Union began to unravel. By 1948, the Soviets had placed left-wing governments into the countries that had been liberated by the Red Army. The Americans and British both feared the permanent Soviet control of eastern Europe and the threat of Soviet-influenced communist parties coming over and trying to rise to power in the democracies of western Europe. However, the Soviets were determined to maintain control of eastern Europe in a safety net approach to safeguard against any new threat from Germany. The Soviets wanted to spread communism worldwide, mainly for ideological reasons, and the United States did not. So, when U.S. aid provided under the Marshall Plan had brought western Europe under American influence, and the Soviets had installed openly communist regimes in eastern Europe, the two world super-powers started to clash. By 1947-48, the cold war was solidified, and very, very real.

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“Containment,” this was the strategy the Americans set in motion to fight the Soviets. In the famous “Long Telegram,” the diplomat George Kennan explained the policy, he wrote: “the Soviet Union is a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi.” As a result, America made the decision to go with the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” “It must be the policy of the United States,” he stated before Congress in 1947, “to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by outside pressures.” This method of thinking, this policy, would go on to shape American foreign policy for the next four decades. The containment strategy also offered the rationale for an arms buildup in the United States. In 1950, a National Security Council known as NSC-68 echoed Truman’s recommendation that the United States would use military power to control and contain communist expansionism anywhere deemed necessary.

As a result, the United States military budget increased four-fold in defense spending. American officials at the time were encouraging development of nuclear weapons like those that had ended World War II. Thus, began the infamous “arms race”. In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atom bomb, the test was codenamed “RDS-1,” which was commonly referred to as “Joe-1” in the United States. In response, President Truman announced that the U.S. would build an even bigger and better bomb: the hydrogen bomb, or “superbomb.” Stalin followed close behind. As a result, the stakes of the Cold War were now dangerously high. The first H-bomb was conducted in the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands. The bomb, named “Mike” showed a very clear and undisputed result, just how fearsome and deadly nuclear technology could be. It created a 25-square mile fireball that vaporized an island and blew a 6,300 ft. in diameter and 130 ft. deep crater into the ocean floor. At that point in 1952 it was the largest nuclear explosion to date. Today, it still ranks fourth among all U.S. nuclear tests. “Mike” had the power to destroy half of Manhattan, and as the arms race continued, subsequent American and Soviet tests would send radioactive waste flying off into the atmosphere.

On October 4th, 1957, the Cold War extended to space with the launch of a Soviet-made R-7 missile, carrying “Sputnik” (Russian for “traveling companion”), the world’s first artificial satellite and the first man-made object to be placed in earth’s orbit. Sputniks launch was a surprise to most Americans, and not a pleasant one, at that. The idea that the Soviets had beaten the Americans to space was unpleasant, it was crucial not to lose to much ground. In addition, the idea of the Soviets possessing an intercontinental missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into U.S. air space meant that gathering intelligence was now of the utmost priority. In 1958, the United States launched its own satellite, Explorer I, designed by the U.S. Army under the direction from rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, thus kicking off the “space race”. That may, after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, John F. Kennedy made the bold public claim that by the end of the decade, the United States would land a man on the moon. As we know, his claim came true. On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission became the first man to set foot on the moon, effectively winning the space race.In June of 1950, the first military action of the Cold War took place when the Soviet-backed North Korean people’s army invaded its pro-Western neighbor to the south. American officials feared this was the beginning of a communist campaign to take over the world, and deemed nonintervention was no longer an option.

Truman did send American troops into Korea, but ultimately the war dragged on to a stalemate and ended in 1953. In 1955, The United states and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made West Germany a member of NATO and allowed them to remilitarize. The Soviets responded with the Warsaw pact, a mutual defense organization between the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgari that set the ground for a unified military command under Marshal Ivan S. Konev of the Soviet Union. Other international disputes followed, in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy faced numerous troubling situations in his own hemisphere. The Bay Of Pigs invasion in 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Both these events seemed to prove that the real communist threat now stemmed from the unstable, postcolonial “Third World”. Nowhere was this more obvious then in Vietnam, where after the collapse of the French colonial regime they had been cast into a struggle between the American-backed nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem in the south, and the communist nationalist Ho Chi Minh in the north. Since the 1950s, the United States had been committed to the survival of the anticommunist government in the region, and by the early 1960s, it seemed clear to American leader that if they wanted to “contain” communist expansion in Vietnam, they would have to intervene themselves. However, what was intended to be a brief military action spiraled into a 10-year long disaster.

As soon as President Richard Nixon took office, he began to implement a different approach to international relations. After encouraging the United Nations to recognize the communist Chinese government, and, after taking a trip there in 1972, he began to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing. At the same time, he adopted a policy of relaxation towards the Soviet Union. In 1972, he and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), which prohibited the manufacture of nuclear weapons on both sides and took a step toward reducing the decades-old threat that was the nuclear war. Despite Nixon’s best efforts, the Cold War was put on the burner again under President Ronald Reagan. Like many others, he believed that the spread of communism anywhere threatened freedom everywhere. As a result, he provided aid to anticommunist governments and insurgents around the world. This policy was known as the Reagan Doctrine. While Reagan fought communism in Central America, the Soviet Union of collapsing, and under new rule from Premier Mikhail Gorbachev set fourth a new two new polices: “glasnost,” or political openness, and “perestroika” or economic reform. Soviet influence in Eastern Europe subsided. And in 1989, every other communist state in the region replaced its government with a noncommunist one.

In November of that year, the most visible symbol of the decades-long cold war crumbled, the Berlin Wall. By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart. The Cold War was finally over.

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How Successful Was The Policy of Containment During The Cold War. (2020, Nov 20). Retrieved March 23, 2023 , from

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