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Cold War Grand Strategy: Containment
Containment was the overarching strategy of US administrations during the Cold War regardless of changing situations, ideologies, or policy preferences. George Kennan was its chief architect. Writing as Mr. X in an article in Foreign Affairs (July 1947) titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” he stated that that
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.
Each US president interpreted this grand strategy differently.
With the emergence of the Reagan Doctrine, the US began supporting every anticommunist movement in the world in an effort to turn back or rollback communist expansion. This mostly included supplying arms, but it also involved covert interventions to provide funding and weapons during civil conflicts.
The Cold War ended in 1989, during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The Berlin Wall came down, Germany reunified, and NATO expanded.
Foreign Affairs: Selected Happenings 1946-1989
Early Cold War: Occupation of Europe
Germany and Austria: the US, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union split each country and their capital into four zones. Eventually, the four zones merged into two, one overseen by the three western powers and the other by the Soviet Union.
The Marshall Plan
By 1948, the US was spearheading the Marshall Plan to guard European markets against protectionist backlashes and Soviet influence.
The Marshall Plan aided European economic recovery and postwar rebuilding. It drew states closer to American economic, political, and cultural influences. (For more detail on the plan, access our podcast here.)
None of the Eastern European countries where the Soviet Union held influence joined the program.
In 1949, the Soviets shut down American access to Berlin. The US organized a successful airlift of food and economic goods to resupply the city.
Political Control of Western Europe
The Soviet Union retained influence with communist parties in France and Italy.
In response, the US used covert aid to help other parties win elections.
1946: NATO is created, solidifying US military commitments to Western Europe.
March 1947: President Harry Truman addresses Congress. He proclaims
. . . it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
The Truman Doctrine is interpreted as an open-ended commitment to resist Soviet expansionism.
1956: The Budapest uprising in Hungary. The US decides not to intervene.
1961: The Soviets erect the Berlin Wall to stop defections from East Germany.
End of World War II: The United States occupies Japan, reorganizing its politics, but keeping the emperor as a figurehead.
The US also takes over the international mandates Japan holds for various Pacific Island territories. Since the end of World War I, Japan has administered them as UN trust territories.
At the same time, the US takes control of the Philippines which was occupied by Japan for three years in World War II.
Civil War continues in China. The Soviets support communist forces (CCP) under Mao Zedong. The Americans back the Republic of China (ROC) forces under Chiang Kai-Shek.
American forces attempt to keep the Japanese military in place in Manchuria to allow time for ROC forces to arrive, but Soviet forces pressure the Japanese into surrender.
1949: Mao and the communist forces win the battle for mainland China. ROC forces retreat to Taiwan. The US doesn’t recognize the Communist Chinese government as legitimate.
Korea and Vietnam, key regional players, become more important to the US.
The US and the Soviets split Korea, a former Japanese territory, into a northern and southern occupation zone.
1950: A communist insurgency begins in South Korea with support from the north. Border clashes begin. Click here for a Korean War timeline.
Korea marks the beginning of US military interventions in what was then called the Third World, culminating in the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1973. (Interested in Korean War Music. Click here.)
1953: Cessation of full-scale hostilities in Korea. Ceasefire borders are along the 38th parallel.
The Korean War has never officially ended: American troops remain in South Korea.
1954: French forces fight at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. The United States does not intervene. View a Vietnam War timeline here.
1955: The US sends 327 military advisors to assist South Vietnamese forces. The numbers of fighters continue to rise in the years ahead.
1955: The French withdraw forces and Vietnam is temporarily partitioned on the 17th parallel between North and South Vietnam. The two sides are to hold a national election to determine how to unify.
1956: Vietnam is partitioned into two separate states, with the communists under Ho Chi Minh ruling the North and the US backed Ngo Dinh Diem regime governing the South.
The US provides military and financial support, fearing a domino affect if the communists gain control of the entire region.
1957: Tensions between North and South Vietnam intensify.
May 1960: The US doubles the number of military advisers in the country from 327 to 685.
End of 1961: US President John F. Kennedy increases the number of military advisers embedded with South Vietnamese military units to over 3,400 and increases financial assistance to the South Vietnamese army to $144 million yearly.
1964: The US military presence in Vietnam expands to 23,000 troops.
US President Johnson escalates the war in Vietnam. The US reinstitutes the draft. An American ground war is initiated.A strategic bombing campaign called Rolling Thunder also begins in North Vietnam, but fails.
1973: US forces withdraw from Vietnam. Approximately 2,954,000 American troops served in Vietnam; the intervention cost $732 million.
The South Vietnamese military isn’t strong enough to resist North Vietnamese aggression.
Saigon falls to the communists.
Before the 1970s: American-Chinese relations are hostile.
1972: Nixon travels to China and is the first American president to recognize the legitimacy of the communist Chinese regime.
The United States and China take the first step in a settlement on the Taiwan issue.
1979: America and China normalize relations.
After 1979: The US no longer has formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but it does continue arms sales to the country.
1989: Tiananmen Square disrupts the US relationship with China.
1954: In Guatemala, the US sponsors the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and the installation of a right-wing government. The intervention was stoked by a United Fruit Company campaign that fomented fears of communism.
1959: Fidel Castro succeeds in displacing Eugencio Batista as the leader of Cuba.
1963: The Bay of Pigs operation in support of Cuban exiles fails in Cuba, reinforcing Castro’s control of the island nation.
1963: The Cuban Missile Crisis is resolved through diplomacy, with the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba and the US removing some missiles from bases in Turkey.
1960-1965: The US intervenes in the Dominican Republic, fearing that the country is becoming “a second Cuba.”
The US operates a covert anti-Trujillo campaign involving the transfer of small arms and sabotage equipment to dissidents with links to political assassins.
May 1961: A group of US supported dissidents assassinate the Dominican leader, Rafael Trujillo.
May 1965: US President Lyndon B. Johnson intervenes in the Dominican Republic after the earlier overthrow of the Trujillo regime spirals into Civil War. His goal: prevent the installation of a leftist government and another Cuban type revolution.
May 6, 1965: The Organization of American States (OAS) authorizes an inter-American force to restore order.
May 20, 1965: The 24,000 American troops in the Dominican Republic successfully clear the rebels from Santo Domingo.
A ceasefire is established on May 21. Within a week the Inter-American Peace Force assumes command and US Marines begin returning home.
1953: The United States aids the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leftist government, successfully removing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadegh from power.
1973: Yom Kippur War
1973: Arab oil producers impose an embargo on the United States and its allies for supporting Israel in the war, raising global oil prices even after the embargo ends.
The oil crisis permanently increases the effectiveness of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ()PEC) in the international economy.
1978: Camp David Accords
1979: The Iranian Revolution. The pro US Shah is overthrown and American diplomats are taken hostage for 444 days.
President Carter’s efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis and to mount a rescue mission both fail.
1979: The Soviets invade Afghanistan. The US supports the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets and the Soviet-imposed regime.
1980: Iraq invades Iran launching the Iran-Iraq War. The United States nominally supports Iraq.
1980s: The US retains a heightened military presence in the Strait of Hormuz.
1981: The Americans held hostage in Iran are released after the election of Ronald Reagan.
1983: US Marine barracks are bombed in Lebanon. The Marines were in Lebanon as part of a multinational force enforcing the 1982 crisis between Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and various Lebanese factions.
President Reagan eventually removes American forces from Lebanon and sells arms to Iran as part of the Iran-Contra affair.
1989: The Cold War comes to an end with the US as victor.
Photograph: David Shankbone (Shankbone22): Flickr