To what extent did the US policy of containment prove effective in limiting Soviet expansion between 1947 and 1962?

Sample DP Paper 2 Essay with Examiner Comments

From the May 2014 exam.

This essay received 9/20 from the IBO:

 From the May 2013 exam:

For what reasons, and with what success, did the United States adopt a policy of containment between 1947 and 1962?

The era that spanned from 1947 to 1962 was pivotal in global politics as it was marked by the initiation and operationalisation of the policy of containment by the United States. The policy of containment, a term first used by George F. Kennan in 1947, aimed to halt the spread of communism across the globe, a major tenet held by the USSR. This essay delves into the reasons that compelled the United States to adopt this policy and assesses its effectiveness during this period.

The United States adopted the containment policy for several reasons, with the major ones revolving around ideological, political, and economic concerns. From an ideological perspective, the US was fearful of the spread of Soviet-led communism. The clash of the democratic ideals of the United States and the communist principles of the USSR fostered a sense of apprehension within the US. The differing worldviews between the capitalist West and the communist East were not merely ideological chasms but rather, according to John Lewis Gaddis, they symbolised a "clash of civilisations". Hence, the containment policy emerged as a strategic tool to counteract this ideological menace.

Politically, the United States was driven by the desire to uphold its global position as a superpower. The aftermath of the Second World War had seen the United States and the USSR emerge as two global hegemons. However, the territorial acquisitions and sphere of influence of the USSR in Eastern Europe, coupled with their rapid industrialisation, were seen as potential threats to American global supremacy. As George F. Kennan articulates in his "Long Telegram," it was the inherent nature of the Soviet Union to expand, hence necessitating a policy to 'contain' this growth. Furthermore, the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which was essentially a corollary to containment, called for support to "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" as a way of averting the domino effect of countries falling to communism. The domino theory was based on the fear that if one state in a region were to fall to communism, then surrounding states would also fall like a row of dominoes. This fear was particularly strong in Asia and the Middle East, regions in which the US had strategic interests. Lastly, economic considerations also played a pivotal role in the adoption of the containment policy. American leadership was concerned about the potential economic impacts that a Soviet expansion might have on the free world. In the wake of the Second World War, the United States initiated the Marshall Plan, an economic recovery program for Europe, to create strong economies that could resist communist influence. As a part of containment, the plan was designed to not only rebuild war-torn Europe but also create markets for American goods, thereby strengthening the American economy.

The success of the containment policy, however, has been a matter of extensive debate among historians. A balanced examination of the evidence would seem to indicate that while there were some successes, there were also significant failures. Firstly, the policy of containment was successful in preventing the spread of communism in Western Europe. The Marshall Plan in particular played a pivotal role in the economic recovery of Europe, thereby solidifying democratic institutions and preventing the growth of communism in this region. Furthermore, the policy of containment was also effective in limiting Soviet expansion in the Middle East and Asia. The success of the containment policy in Turkey and Greece, as evidenced by the implementation of the Truman Doctrine, serves as a case in point. The Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 also highlighted a success of the containment policy. When the Soviet Union blocked Western allies' access to West Berlin in an attempt to make the whole city dependent on the Soviets, the United States initiated an airlift to provide supplies to the people of West Berlin. This action demonstrated the United States' commitment to resist communist expansion.

However, the containment policy also witnessed several failures during this period. One significant failure was the inability to prevent the spread of communism in China in 1949. American policymakers and general public were shocked when Mao Zedong's Communist Party of China seized power. The loss of China, the most populous country in the world, to communism was a severe blow to the containment policy. As historian Odd Arne Westad argues, the 'loss' of China significantly influenced US foreign policy, fuelling an exaggerated fear of the global spread of communism. Another failure of the containment policy was seen in the Korean War (1950-1953). Although the United States, under the United Nations banner, managed to push back the North Korean invasion of South Korea, it did not achieve its ultimate objective of unifying the Korean peninsula under a non-communist regime. The war ended in a stalemate with the division of the peninsula along the 38th parallel, roughly the same border as before the war. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 and subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 marked another significant failure of the containment policy. The success of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the coast of Florida, highlighted the limitations of the US containment policy. The subsequent installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 led to the most dangerous episode of the Cold War, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.

From a broader perspective, historians have criticised the containment policy for its overemphasis on militaristic strategies and underemphasis on diplomatic engagement. For instance, historian Walter LaFeber opines that the policy of containment became excessively militarised, leading to the involvement of the United States in unnecessary wars and military conflicts. 

In conclusion, the United States adopted the policy of containment from 1947 to 1962 primarily due to ideological, political, and economic reasons. The policy was designed to stem the perceived threat of Soviet-led communism and maintain American global supremacy. In terms of its success, while the containment policy achieved some of its objectives, including preventing the spread of communism in certain regions such as Western Europe, it failed in other areas such as China and Cuba. The varied successes and failures of the policy offer a nuanced view of American foreign policy during the early Cold War era. The containment policy has since remained a subject of rigorous scholarly debate, with varying interpretations regarding its impact and effectiveness.