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This article is about foreign policy. For containment in mathematics, see Set.

Containment refers to the foreign policy strategy of the United States in the early years of the Cold War to defeat the Soviet Union by responding to any attempts by it to expand the territory under Communist control or otherwise extend its influence.



The concept of containment essentially springs from the recognition that isolation would lead to stagnation. In earlier times, containment was followed as a tactic rather than a strategy or a policy. Laying a passive siege to a castle where a powerful or influential lord resided, and cutting off supply lines was a form of containment. This made the lord helpless, as his tactical ability was limited with only a few soldiers at his command. Another way to maximize the damage done due to containment was, after making sure of relative isolation, introduce a flaw in the enemy. In practice, this is achieved using espionage and sabotage, or in medieval times, catapulting carcasses of cows with disease. This ensures that, due to the isolation, any flaw introduced will have a high cost and will take a long time to rectify if left alone, or will take away a certain measure of resources to avoid in the form of security measures. This serves the purpose of maintaining an upper hand in development and deployment.


The policy was first laid out in George F. Kennan's famous long telegram. It was then made public in 1947 in his anonymous Foreign Affairs article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," better known as the X Article.

Kennan argued that the primary goal of the United States should be to prevent the spread of Communism to non-Communist nations; that is, to "contain" Communism within its borders. The Truman Doctrine aimed at this goal, and containment was one of its key principles. This led to American support for regimes around the world to block the spread of communism. The apotheosis of containment may have been domino theory, which held that allowing one regional state to fall to communism would threaten the entire region as if a series of dominoes were toppling. After the Vietnam War, Kennan asserted that his ideas had been misinterpreted, and that he never advocated military intervention, merely economic support.


Developed during the Stalin era, the policy of containment derived from the belief that Communism in general, and the Soviet system in particular, required the stability of a global state-controlled economy. Otherwise, the capitalist countries could continue to amass and allocate capital, including capitalist military capacity, with efficiencies that could not be matched by the controlled economies of the communist world. Counter-revolutionary forces could develop. By 1968, the Brezhnev Doctrine had been described as a rationale for Soviet intervention as well as expansion. The doctrine was a form of expansionism rationale, that each satellite Communist party is responsible not only to its own people, but also to all the socialist countries, to the entire Communist movement. Once a country fell into the Communist orbit, it would not be allowed to leave.

In other words, Soviet expansionism became a ratchet - "once in, never leave." Soviet involvement in third world political movements - real or invented - became the tool by which gradual Soviet expansion was practiced, all the while avoiding escalation into a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. An era of "proxy wars" was fought, worldwide, in developing countries, particularly Africa and Central and South America.

Later developments

U.S. containment policy developed into a principled opposition to the Soviet ratcheting of its sphere of influence. However, the policy suffered setbacks, and after the U.S. pullout from the Vietnam conflict, the policy of containment was somewhat discredited. U.S. politicians advanced new theories of “détente” and “peaceful co-existence”.

At the end of the 1970's - a particularly ineffective decade for U.S. foreign policy - the U.S. elected Ronald Reagan for what became an 8-year term. Reagan believed that detente was misguided, and that peaceful co-existence was tantamount to surrender to an ultimate Soviet ratcheting of influence. Reagan believed that the policy of containment did not go far enough. Instead of pursuing containment as an end result, Reagan believed the U.S. should defeat the Soviets by the use of an expensive arms race that the Soviets could not match. His policies were highly controversial and unpopular in many countries. They included new missile systems in Europe, and significantly, plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars", that would render the U.S. immune to a first strike. Thus, containment was not enough; defeating the Soviet Union, via bankrupting its economy, was ushered in as U.S. policy in the 1980's.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Last updated: 08-07-2005 20:47:03
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