USA Cold War Foreign Policy Essay

When the Berlin Wall started to fall in November 1989, it represented the beginning of the end of a nearly 45 year conflict. All over Eastern Europe, millions of people cried out for freedom. Within two years, the Soviet Union dissolved and so too had the Cold War. Many in the West called this a victory with many praising U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his aggressive, military policy towards the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history. Others looked to the future with U.S. President George H. W. Bush speaking about a ‘new world order’. Yet, the absolute victory Fukuyama spoke of is misleading. Bush’s vision of the future is tainted by ‘new’ elements, Osama bin Laden, that are directly linked to the policies of the Cold War. To understand our Cold War policies and their effects requires us to examine some of the earliest documents of this conflict. This includes George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and his “Mr. X” article as well as Walter Lippman’s response. NSC-68 and The Ugly American will also be analyzed. Together, these documents provide the necessary foundation from which to more completely understand how the Cold War ended and why.

I. What was our policy and why?

When Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, it ended World War II fighting in Europe. Almost immediately, though, the Soviet Union and the United States of America started to establish radically different policies in respect to recently liberated European counties. By 1946, tension between the former war allies started to mount. George Kennan, a member of the U.S. State Department stationed in Moscow, wrote a letter to Secretary of State James Byrnes describing the Soviet Union and her ambitions in the midst of this tension. In his “Long Telegram”, Kennan argues that the “Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Kennan separates the Russian people from the ruling class, and, more importantly, finds complexity in the policy positions of the Soviet Union. Further, while the Soviet Union is insecure, Kennan believes that the Soviet Union thinks slowly in respect to international conflicts and internal stability is of particular importance to the regime. Accordingly, Kennan suggests that the United States should engage the Soviet Union on many fronts; diplomatic, economic and military. Kennan finishes the telegram with a note of caution: “the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

In 1947, Kennan wrote an article for Foreign Affairs under the name ‘Mr. X’. In “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, Kennan offers a more compact version of the ‘Long Telegram’. Kennan argues that the United State must lead the ‘fight’ against the Soviet Union. However, he only uses the words ‘military’ and ‘conflict’ once and argues that the United States should apply “a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and, weakening of all rival influence and rival power.” Further, Kennan notes that “the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate.” This, though, did not mean solely military engagement. Walter Lippman responded by arguing that the United States should “concentrate our effort on treaties of peace which would end the occupation of Europe.” Unlike Kennan, Lippman believed that recent Soviet actions demonstrated that it was a much more violent country, prone to aggressive international behavior. Accordingly, Lippman took a more militaristic stance again the Soviet Union and the concept of containment.

Then, in 1950, the U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union was more officially codified in ‘NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’. While using Kennan as a starting point, the document leans more towards Lippman’s conception of the Soviet threat and has a more militaristic response. NSC-68 argues for a “rapid and concerted build-up of the actual strength of both the United States and the other nations of the free world.” This is a decidedly military document, with few references to the use of economic and diplomatic pressures. It viewed the Soviet Union as an extremely threatening country that will only respond to intense physical, military pressure. Despite the fact the Kennan’s name is attached to the concept of ‘containment’, the policy that followed lacked much of the depth developed by Kennan.

II. The Ugly American and Cold War Policy

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, Lippman and Kennan, among others, were correct in predicting that the West would win. Yet, the Cold War policy is more complicated than simple statements of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. While a piece of fiction, the 1958 short story The Ugly American summarized the success and faults of U.S. Cold War policy; 30 years before the end of the conflict. The book’s authors, William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, are more closely aligned with Kennan. A conversation between U.S. Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite and Philippine Defense Minister Magsaysay demonstrates the complexities of this conflict and many of the shortcomings and faults of the official U.S. policy:

I know you’re a diplomat and that warfare is not supposed to be your game; but you’ll discover soon enough out here that statesmanship, diplomacy, economics, and warfare just can’t be separated from one another. And if you keep your eyes and ears open, you’ll start to see some of the connections between them. It’s not something you can learn from textbooks.

So even as the United States ‘won’ the Cold War, the overall policy was a failure. The United States engaged the Soviet Union through limited use of textbooks and did not open its ‘eyes and ears’ to the relationships between economics, warfare and history. Lederer and Burdick note that “(s)tatistics from our recent diplomatic history to document this sort of thing do not exist, but the resignation of George Kennan is in point.”

One character in particular that summarizes the Cold War failures, particularly the Vietnam conflict which the book foreshadows, is Homer Atkins. In the fictional country of Sarkhan, Atkins attempts to help the impoverished country and her citizens, which is also confronting a Soviet inspired communist threat, through a simple water pump to help irrigate the fields so as to consistently grow crops. The idea being, that people would not turn to communism if they had enough food as well as a job. The outwardly rough appearance of Atkins, along with the fellow ‘ugly’ Sarkhanese character Jeepo, solve the water pump problem through the use of a bicycle and simple parts found in Sarkhan. Rather than expensive military hardware, the most effective method of helping a country against the Soviet/communist threat was something that could directly assist the average person in Sarkhan. Violence or threat of military action was not the best way to engage the Soviet Union; economics and individual relationships are.

III. Conclusion.

Despite large military expenditures, the Soviet Union was not as threatening as described by Walter Lippman, NSC-68 or actual U.S. policy. Further, even while labelled as a victory by some, the overall Cold War policy was more of a failure. It wasted resources and left the world in a constant state of military preparedness and fear. A policy more along the lines originally proposed by Kennan would have been more effective. Kennan, correctly, saw that the Soviet Union did not have a “do-or-die program to overthrow our society by a given date.” Further, the Soviet Union did not have an inherent wish to kill everyone in the West. The Ugly American spoke to this ‘do-or-die’ nature in U.S. policy. The true ‘ugly Americans’ were people like U.S. Ambassador Louis Sears and U.S. Senator Brown. Unwilling to look beyond their personal positions and simple conceptions of the threat of communism, they squandered resources –financial, technical – on an excessively militaristic foreign policy. Kennan noted that a strong policy against the Soviet/communist threat “has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward “toughness.’”

In that central respect, the U.S. Cold War policy was a failure. Kennan goes on to say that a more complete understanding the history of the Soviet Union makes “Soviet diplomacy at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents.” So while Cold War politicians like Reagan tried to break down the conflict into easy sounds bits, he and other policy makers did not understand the true meaning of Kennan’s words. If they had, the Cold War may have ended more quickly, with fewer humans and resources lost to an oversimplified, over-hyped conflict.

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USA Cold War Foreign Policy. (January 17, 2021).
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