The two most infamous examples of militarism in the name of containment are the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Prior to 1950, America did not see itself as the police force of the world, nor did it desire that burden. It took on the “commitment to contain communism everywhere” just before the Korean War (Gaddis, “Reconsiderations: The Cold War”). For the North Koreans, U.S.’s hardline, militaristic containment triggered conflict (Park 250). Truman claimed that conflict resulted from North Korean threats. The truth is still disputed. Kennan saw the fatal flaws of the U.S. involvement in Korea. First, the “police action” marked a shift from the peaceful Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine towards an aggressive policy. Kennan “meant containment to be a policy of selective [diplomatic and economic] confrontation” not one of military adventurism (Menand). This aggressive form of containment resulted in part when Paul Nitze took over Kennan’s office as Director of Policy Planning in 1950. Nitze increased military expenditures drastically: the military budget grew from $12.8 billion in 1947 to $46.1 billion in 1952 (Menand). Nitze claimed that he derived the National Council Report 68 (NSC-68), the top secret, 58-page document that provided the actual outline for US containment policy, from Kennan’s earlier paper, NSC-20/4. NSC-68 differed from Kennan’s theory in three major ways. First, Kennan’s strategy confined America to “a few strategic regions,” but NSC-68 called for the U.S. to counter communism globally (Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove 113). Additionally, because a year earlier in 1949 the Soviets developed a nuclear weapon, Kennan suggested that the U.S. “adopt a policy of never using nuclear weapons before the Soviets did” (113). This policy of no first use would lower the risk of nuclear conflict, but Nitze rejected it. Finally and most importantly, the two papers differed on the question of political or military containment. NSC-68 claimed that the U.S. “could afford a massive arms buildup” (113). Kennan’s paper did address the need for a larger military and “strong action against the Kremlin,” but its primary focus was soft power, for the U.S.S.R still sought “‘to achieve its aims primarily by political means’” (Kennan qtd. in 113). Kennan was outraged by NSC-68 and claimed that he had nothing to do with its development, saying, “‘I was disgusted about the assumptions concerning Soviet intentions’” (Kennan qtd. in 113; McCoy 214-16). The weapons buildup signaled the hardline victory and the start of an arms race. Kennan saw hazard in this weapons race “not because of aggressive intentions on either side but because of the compulsions, the suspicions, the anxieties such a competition engenders, and because of the very serious dangers it carries with it of unintended complications—by error, by computer failure, by misread signals, or by mischief deliberately perpetrated by third parties” (Kennan, “Containment: 40 Years Later”). Second, Kennan saw the limitations of American influence in Asia. In 1948, he urged the U.S. to “‘recognize [its] own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples’” (qtd. in Gaddis, “Reconsiderations: Containment”). He accepted the logic of America attempting to influence Asian affairs, but he warned against the belief that Asia was integral to U.S. security. Washington did not heed Kennan’s warning, ignored Korea’s lack of “geopolitical significance,” and was drawn into years of conflict (Kissinger, Diplomacy 475). Thus, Truman applied “to East Asia a containment policy that had originally been applied in Europe” (Herring). This error was continued by later administrations in other Asian nations. For instance, Eisenhower, in his 1952 inaugural address, linked the French conflict in Vietnam to the American effort to stifle Communism in Korea, for “Communists in Korea and Vietnam were regarded as part of the greater war” (Wiest 13-14). When America entered Vietnam, Kennan was even more enraged than he was after the U.S. entry into Korea, foreseeing the unwinnable nature of the conflict. He testified to this in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he warned against “‘violent objection to what exists, unaccompanied by any constructive concept of what, ideally ought to exist in its place’” (qtd. in Kissinger, “The Age of Kennan”). In other words, he did not want the U.S. to create a problem that it could not solve. Many historians and political scientists now see that using containment theory in Vietnam was wrong. As it happens, the application of that theory caused Americans to misread “the internal dynamics of the conflict there” (Herring). Successive administrations ignored the advice of Kennan, the father of containment, and the result was catastrophe.
Furthermore, China’s fall to communism did not justify Washington’s switch to hardline containment. Kennan knew that “a victory for Mao Zedong would not necessarily be one for the Kremlin,” for Mao was infected with what Kennan called “‘the Tito virus,’” a reference to the Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito’s defiance of the Kremlin, which caused Stalin to lose control of Yugoslavia (Gaddis, George F. Kennan 351-52) Ambassador Walter Smith, who understood Kennan’s stance, advised the Policy Planning Staff that “‘the Russians fear Titoism above everything else…. [T]he United States does not fear communism if it is not controlled by Moscow and not committed to aggression’” (qtd. in 353). Kennan’s view proved to be correct. In 1972, he remarked that a “great part of the energy of Soviet foreign policy is today devoted to the effort to ‘contain,’ politically, another Socialist state – China” (Kennan, Gati and Ullman 9). Rather, the switch to hardline containment can be explained in a couple of ways. A “realist” would say that the cold war “was about the balance of power, or about spheres of influence: it was not much different from the other great power rivalries of modern history” (Gaddis, How Relevant Was U.S. Strategy 3). Whereas a “revisionist” would claim that “the cold war was about the self-serving aggressiveness of an American military-industrial complex that had set out to impose its “hegemony” over the rest of the earth in pursuit of power and profits” (3). However, the truth, most likely, lies somewhere in the middle. American politicians play a unique game in which they seek reelection, and opposing politicians use any means to counter the other party, so politicians cannot take the risk of looking weak to the major enemy of the time. This unfortunate fact became even truer with the rise of McCarthyism. In the U.S., politics occur ultimately at a local level, regardless of how scholars interpret international political actions.
In sum, Kennan promoted a theory of containment primarily focused on containing the Soviets through the strategic use of diplomacy and economics. However, for decades American presidents restyled Kennan’s theory of containment to justify military interventions in Asia. This strategy tragically backfired in Vietnam. Kennan forever lamented his fame as “the father of containment” and, at his ninetieth birthday party in 1994, deemed containment “‘one of the great disappointments of [his] life’” (qtd. in Gaddis, George F. Kennan 249). At this party meant to honor and celebrate his life, Kennan took the opportunity to explain why containment failed, saying that it took too long to get results and the costs were too high. He was particularly upset that the U.S. and its allies demanded Russia’s “‘unconditional surrender’” (qtd. in 249). The world has come to know containment as Kennan’s brainchild, yet Washington changed it in such a way that he did not recognize his own offspring. No one will know what the world would be like if the U.S. had followed Kennan’s path, but perhaps it would be a more peaceful place.
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