Chapter 4 – U.S. “Containment” Strategy from Truman to Johnson - 1950 to 1968

then went on to win the national election of 1948. Truman’s faith, plain-spokenness, courage, and both idealism and realism, especially about the unbridgeable moral and strategic gulf between the faith and institutions of liberty and those of the Communist totalitarians, rallied Americans and the international community in tempestuous times. He had to deal with the terms and consequences of ending of the Second World War in Europe and Japan, building peacetime U.S. society, global reconstruction and progress, and the Soviet Union’s intransigence and new totalitarian threats from Eastern Europe to Asia. As he encountered U.S. temptations to isolationism and accommodation, Truman successfully applied a mix of Cold War idealism and realism exceeded only by Ronald Reagan (see Chapters 7–20).

George Kennan’s Analyses and Recommendations. The containment strategy that ultimately reflected Truman’s own faith, instincts, and leadership had roots in the recommendations and drafts of the U.S. diplomat George Kennan, both in his own individual writings and in his contributions (with Paul Nitze) to Truman’s Department of State and National Security Council (NSC) planning documents. Readers are encouraged to review Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of February 1946, sent by Kennan from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and provided in this book’s Internet Document Library. Kennan’s telegram describes the Marxist-Leninist basis of the Soviet ideology of power in insightful words. He reviews the “myth” used by Communist “movements” to justify a “regime’s centralized power” that is “violent,” “cruel and wasteful,” “paranoid,” “neurotic,” “self-hypnotic,” “secretive,” and “totalitarian” at home, and aggressively “subversive” and “expansionist” towards its neighbors and others abroad. He notes that Soviet leaders act on this basis unless met with strong resistance that would force them to consider more pragmatic actions. Kennan expanded this classified telegram in a Foreign Affairs magazine article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in July 1947 under the pseudonym “X”. In-depth analysis of Kennan’s changing views, including his increasingly contrarian approach, is provided in two books by the historian John Lewis Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life and Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy).

NSC, Department of State and Early Strategic Planning—May 1946 to July 1948. Beyond Kennan and Truman himself, other U.S. officials and developments influential in the creation of a comprehensive post-war national security strategy include Secretary of State George Marshall who, on May 7, 1947, established a small Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State with Kennan as its first director and Paul Nitze as one of its members. Next, Truman established the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House as required by the National Security Act of July 26, 1947. In May 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal wrote to President Truman to request preparation of an authoritative statement on strategic risks, objectives, and measures of greatest U.S. concern. The process of resulting NSC responses is detailed in a 1994 National Defense Unviersity Study, NSC-68 Forging the Strategy of Containment.

NSC–20/4—November 1948. Truman’s new NSC was assigned to respond to these organizational developments and to aggressive Soviet moves abroad with a new strategy document, NSC–20/4. It relied heavily on Department of State, Defense, and CIA analysis. Focused on the Soviet Union’s Communist ideology, objectives, and actions, the document was formally approved on November 23, 1948 by Truman as highest-level policy guidance for senior U.S. officials. It opened with the warning that:

[Soviet Global Domination Objectives] The will and ability of the leaders of the USSR to pursue policies which threaten the security of the United States constitute the greatest single danger to the U.S. within the foreseeable future. . . . Communist ideology and Soviet behavior clearly demonstrate that the ultimate objective of the leaders of the USSR is the domination of the world. Soviet leaders hold that the Soviet communist party is the militant vanguard of the world proletariat in its rise to political power, and that the USSR, base of the world communist movement, will not be safe until the non-communist nations have been so reduced in strength and numbers that communist influence is dominant throughout the world. The immediate goal and top priority since the recent war has been the political conquest of Western Europe. . . .

[Soviet Subversion and War-Preparation] The Soviet leaders appear to be pursuing these aims by:

a. Endeavoring to insert Soviet-controlled groups into positions of power and influence everywhere, seizing every opportunity presented by weakness and instability in other states and exploiting to the utmost the techniques of infiltration and propaganda, as well as the coercive power of preponderant Soviet military strength.

b. Waging political, economic, and psychological warfare against all elements resistant to communist purposes, and in particular attempting to prevent or retard the recovery of and cooperation among western European countries.

[Book pg. 71]