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During the first years of the Cold War, the Truman administration pursued a strong policy of containment to counter perceived Soviet aggression.[1] It is useful to underline that this was a perception of the American Government and, in many cases, these intuitions were wrong. The President and his establishment implemented the following policies (political, economic, and of course military) for three main reasons:

  1. to preserve stability in the international arena;
  2. to maintain a balance of power;
  3. to express disapproval of totalitarian, non-democratic regimes.[2]

These were ideological statements and, regarding the last point, it is necessary to emphasize that United States intervened in Vietnam in order to prevent democratic elections that would have seen Ho Chi Minh elected by his people into leadership. The ideology of containment was also applied to Southeast Asia: this region was very important for the United States and Truman didn’t want to return Indochina to France. Although Ho Chi Minh wasn’t regarded as one of the worst American enemies, Truman (always considering his perceptions) didn’t consider the option to exclude Vietnam (and Indochina) from the containment policy;[3] the main reason was that after the Communist victory in China (1949), the American Government could not face the political damage of another loss to a Communist power in Asia.

It is possible to argue that the real United States’ involvement in Indochina widened during the Truman administration. As Danielle Costa argues:

on V-J Day 1945, Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh stated independence from France, but the U.S. announced its support of restoring French power. In 1950, Ho Chi Minh again declared Vietnamese independence and Vietnam was recognized by Communist China and the Soviet Union. He controlled some remote territory along the Chinese border, while France controlled the remainder. Truman’s containment policy (calling for opposition to Communist expansion) led the U.S. to continue to recognize French rule and the French client Government, and to amplify aid to Vietnam.

Kennan’s Containment, the Long Telegram and NSC 68

George F. Kennan created the strategy of containment, probably the most used American policy for fighting the Cold War (1947-1989) with the Soviet Union and other Communist States. The strategy of Kennan, which can be considered the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy, first came to public attention in 1947 in an article for the journal Foreign Affairs,[4] the famous “X-Article.”

The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.[5]

Again, it is important to specify that it represents Kennan’s point of view and a starting-point for the American policies mostly based on his perceptions. He called for countering:

Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world through the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.[6]

This kind of policy, in Kennan’s idea, would

promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.[7]

For Truman and his advisors, the idea of the balance of power was predominant. As a consequence of this policy, the President increased military expenditures in Europe and Asia. “Truman implemented an assortment of aid packages to Europe, the so-called Marshall Plan[8] (what the Marshall Plan and the billions in U.S. military aid largely accomplished was to allow the European regimes to construct their welfare states and, in the case of France, for one, to continue trying to suppress colonial uprisings, as in Vietnam) and Asia to help those Countries help themselves.”[9]

Substantial American funds under the Marshall Plan enabled France to use its own resources to prosecute the war in Indochina.[10]

Truman believed that giving a strong economic aid to European and Asian Countries was a good strategy to fight Communism without a war.

George Kennan wrote (February 1946) the longest telegram in State Department history. This telegram stated that a direct conflict with Soviet Union was not the best option for the United States and that the best choice was to help Western Powers and implement a global policy against Communism by assisting endangered and poor nations.

The NSC-68[11] was a policy statement prepared by the National Security Council (NSC) and approved by Truman (1950). This document expressed a relevant expansion of the American military budget. It showed containment’s scope; for instance, “the defense of major centers of industrial power to encompass the entire world.”[12]

In the context of the present polarization of power,[13]


a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.[14]

As Danielle Costa claims:

under NSC-68, he increased military spending to $45-50 billion a year. The perceived threat by the Soviets led Truman to pursue this strategy which he rightly considered essential. It is possible to say that probably any president in Truman’s situation would have pursued the same policies of military containment because it was the only option made available to him.[15]

The Domino Theory

The idea of containment generated the so-called Domino Theory, “which held that if one Country fell under communist influence or control, its neighboring Countries would soon follow.”[16] Containment can be considered as the basis of the Truman Doctrine. This policy created several fundamental elements of the history of the Cold War, for example the mentioned Marshall Plan, NATO, the United Nations and it influenced 50 years of domestic and foreign American policy.

As Thomas J. Wheat argues:

the Domino Theory was not just exclusively applied in these regions but also throughout the world. This theory would be the impetus for incursions in Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Africa and Asia. This was a major departure from just containing the Soviet’s to one of which every revolt in the Third World was believed to be under Soviet sponsorship, of which to certain extent was a legitimate reality, and on the other, also a representation of U.S. ideological disdain for populist based class revolt when it interfered with the needs of capitalism to have raw markets at its disposal.[17]