In the Korean war the American people shot first and asked questions later.
Not that the President’s decision on June 27, 1950, to support the infant Korean republic against communist aggression did not have substantial, if somewhat tacit, support from the American people—support that continued through the dark days of July and August, and the brighter ones that followed in September and October. But not until the intervention of the Chinese communist “volunteers” in late November had brought an end to General MacArthur’s sprightly home-by-Christmas offensive was any really serious effort made to think through the full implications of the Korean “police action.” The Great Debate that followed over just what we were supposed to be doing in Korea anyway reached its climax, of course, in the ouster of General MacArthur and the ensuing Congressional hearings into top-level national strategy. Whatever else that singular experience may have accomplished, this much at least it did make clear: (a) there was a Korean policy, and (b), broadly speaking, that policy was the already familiar doctrine of “containment,” that is, the theory that by firmly and resolutely opposing Soviet expansion anywhere and everywhere we might eventually be able to transform the Soviet into a more agreeable and amenable nation. What the Great Debate also demonstrated, though perhaps less clearly, was that in showing up so plainly both the weaknesses as well as the strengths of that containment philosophy, the Korean war (including the highly inconclusive negotiations still in progress at this writing to bring it to a close) had in fact become the acid test of a doctrine which since 1947 has formed the backbone of American policy towards Russia.
Officially, containment first saw the light of day as an articulate theory in an unsigned article published in Foreign Affairs for July, 1947, under the title, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Although its author was identified only as “X,” the article immediately attracted widespread attention, and within a comparatively brief time had been printed in two of the largest circulation magazines in the country, Life and Reader’s Digest. The major points of the X article may be summarized as follows.
(1) There is a fundamental antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States. This antagonism stems partly from the Marxist doctrine of the innate clash between capitalism and socialism and partly from a desire on the part of the Soviet leaders to retain their power at home, as a result of which they find it helpful to create the fiction that the Soviet is in grave danger from without. In any event, X says, “the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime.” Rather, he suggests,
It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure towards the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.
(2) Formal agreements with the Soviet Union easing or eliminating this basic antagonism are impossible. As for the solemn diplomatic undertakings which the Soviet Union has already entered into with the United States and the western world, X says,
If the Soviet government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to be regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor.
(3) To deal with Russia in these circumstances, then, the United States must follow “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” It is particularly important that this “counterforce” be both firm and constant, as X explains it.
The basic antagonism between the United States and 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 the 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 signal victory on the part of its opponents ... it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only by intelligent, long-range policies ... no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application than those of the Soviet Union itself.
At the same time, “containment” does not mean “threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness’.”
... it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia [X says] that the foreign government in question should remain at all times collected and cool and that its demands on Russian policy be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.
In such circumstances, he feels, retreat is entirely possible.
The Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry. Like the Church, it is dealing in ideological concepts which are of long-term validity, and it can afford to be patient .... The Kremlin has no compunction about retreating in the face of superior force . . . if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.
It might at first glance appear that such an interplay of force and counterforce could only lead to “a great duel of infinite duration.” Actually, X envisages some kind of successful outcome for our side within possibly 10 or 15 years, based on two further propositions.
(4) Compared to the United States and her allies, the Soviet is “by far” the weaker party. Politically and economically “Soviet power . . . bears within it the seeds of its own decay”; and there is a strong possibility—though that is something which can be neither proved nor disproved—“that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.” Because of the physical and nervous exhaustion of the Soviet people, X says, the “spotty and uneven” development of the Soviet economy, and the political instability of her form of government (especially in the event of Stalin’s death), “the future of Soviet power may not be by any means as secure as Russia’s capacity for self- delusion would make it appear to the men in the Kremlin.” Comparing Russia to a distant star which continues to shine long after its light has gone out, X concludes, “Who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin ... is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is actually on the wane?”
(5) Consequently, the “added strains” which a policy of “firm containment” would place on the Soviet stale should “eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Very possibly, X says, the combination of firm containment abroad and a convincing example here at home “of a country which knows what it wants” and has a “spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time” will eventually force some kind of basic “adjustment” upon the Soviets. “No mystical, Messianic movement—and particularly not that of the Kremlin—can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.” Just how such an “adjustment” can be distinguished from a diplomatic “agreement” eliminating the basic antagonism with Russia—an agreement which X has already said is impossible—is not made clear.
The X article was an immediate sensation for two reasons. First, the doctrine it preached in such scholarly fashion was in direct opposition to a proposition that had been taken almost as dogma by the American people ever since the creation of the United Nations, the proposition that only through the “unanimity of the Great Powers,” as it was called, was peace possible. To be sure this prevailing dogma had already had some rough going. Early in 1946, for example, it had been assailed by Mr. Winston Churchill in his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, a document which precipitated a mild international crisis but nevertheless made only the slightest impression on official policy at the time—reread today it is a singularly prophetic analysis of the Russians as well as a considerably more eloquent pre-statement of the containment policy itself. But by the time the X article made its appearance, over a year later, the American people had begun to lose some of their earlier fervor for the principle of “unanimity” and were rather more disposed to listen to an alternative. X himself seemed to realize that his paper was throwing cold water on one of the more ennobling bits of current dogma, and accordingly he topped off his argument with an emotional and spiritual appeal of his own by way of compensation.
The thoughtful observer [he declared] will experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on them pulling together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.
The other reason for the success of the X article was the open secret that its unnamed author was really George F. Kennan, at that time top member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. Numerous reports to that effect appeared at the time in the press and were never officially denied, although the first overt acknowledgment of their truth appears to have been the publication recently of the X article in a collection of Kennan lectures.1 As a result, the article, as Walter Lippmann pointed out, was of value not merely for what it might say about the sources of Soviet conduct but, even more significantly, for what it might suggest about the sources of American foreign policy. “It was an event,” Lippmann wrote, “announcing that the Department of State had made up its mind and was prepared to disclose to the American people, to the world at large, and of course also to the Kremlin the estimates, the calculations, and the conclusions on which the Department was basing its plans.”
Technically this was not quite true, since the Department had not, nor indeed has it yet, ever officially espoused the X article. Nevertheless the presumption that the containment doctrine had become official American policy appears to have been borne out by contemporary events. Three months before the X article appeared, for instance, President Truman had enunciated the principle that later came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, the first clean break with the “unanimity” concept. In a sense Kennan had filled in the intellectual framework for the rather hastily improvised Truman Doctrine. Similarly, the long hiatus in meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers, the Berlin blockade, and the official hope that Germany and Japan should be reinstituted as the two great “workshops” of Europe and Asia—all of these actions on our part supported the presumption that our planners were indeed coming around, at long last, to the view that trying to get diplomatic agreements with the Russians was a waste of time and that Soviet expansionist tendencies could only be resolutely opposed, not compromised with nor appeased.
To be sure there was an occasional backsliding or two after that, most notably in the case of the reported effort during the 1948 election campaign to dispatch Chief Justice Vinson on a mission to Moscow. And other policies not strictly related to the basic containment idea were formulated and supported—such as the Marshall Plan and our continued participation in the United Nations. But the gradual hardening of the American attitude towards Russia was, nonetheless, far and away the dominant diplomatic theme of the period immediately prior to the Korean war.
As might have been foreseen, the Kennan proposal roused a storm of controversy. The most common criticism was that it was too “tough” on the Russians. The most vocal critic was Walter Lippmann, whose daily columns attacking the Kennan thesis eventually appeared in book form as The Cold War: A Study in U. S. Foreign Policy. While Lippmann was not Kennan’s only critic, of course, his analysis covered most of the significant points raised by others, and may, therefore, be taken as a basis for an analysis of the case against containment as it was presented at the time.
Lippmann’s argument falls under four major headings. The first is his contention that to assume that a diplomatic settlement of the cold war tension with Russia is impossible, as Kennan had done, is to deprive ourselves unnecessarily of a key weapon in the struggle. “The history of diplomacy,” he points out, “is the history of relations among rival powers which did not enjoy political intimacy, and did not respond to common purposes. Nevertheless there have been settlements. . . . For a diplomat to think that rival and unfriendly powers cannot be brought to a settlement is to forget what diplomacy is about.”
In other language this same argument was also advanced by Henry Wallace and other critics of his stripe, denouncing the containment theory for preventing harmonious and cooperative working relationships with the Soviet Union. But it should be understood very clearly that this was not Lippmann’s line. Lippmann was hard-headed enough to perceive the fundamental antagonism between the Soviets and ourselves that made notions like Wallace’s sheer fantasy; but Lippmann still felt we could handle that antagonism somewhat differently from what Kennan had proposed.
Actually there was considerable merit to this particular argument. Though there was some confusion in terminology, containment was itself a kind of diplomacy, of a blunt and unconventional sort to be sure, but still diplomacy. It was far from admitting that war was inevitable, as we shall presently see. And to make certain there was no confusion on this fact both the White House and the State Department periodically assured both the nation and the Soviets, long after containment had become the order of the day, that the door to friendly negotiation was “always open.”
Lippmann’s second objection to containment is that it is based on the most favorable assumptions concerning the Soviets rather than, as all intelligent planning should be based, on the least favorable assumptions. Kennan’s thesis requires that we assume that Soviet power is “inherently weak and impermanent”; it has to be assumed, because he admits it can neither be proved nor disproved. “I do not find much ground,” Lippmann says, “for reasonable confidence in a policy which can be successful only if the most optimistic predictions should prove to be true.”
Here again the objection has a certain merit. Without the assumption that Russia is the weaker of the two parties we can hardly hope to produce the specific results in terms of an “adjustment” and a gradual “mellowing” on the part of the Soviet regime which especially commend the containment policy. And without those results we might technically be justified in discarding containment altogether. In actual practice, however, it might be that even without the certainty that containment would produce the beneficial results Kennan claims for it, we would still do better to follow that policy in preference to any possible alternative. Lippmann never raised that particular point. But it was soon to be raised, and very poignantly too, as a consequence of the Korean war.
Third, Lippmann says, containment is basically a negative policy. It gives the Russians the initiative, and lets them choose those terms of the world struggle for power which most favor themselves. “Measures of ‘counterforce’,” he says, “are doomed to be too late and too little ... a policy of holding the line and hoping for the best means the surrender of the strategic initiative, the dispersion of our forces without prospect of settlement, and in the end a war which, once begun, it would be most difficult to conclude.” In the light of what has happened since, that last statement sounds suspiciously like a foretaste of General MacArthur’s criticism of the Korean fighting. But, in the summer and fall of 1947, the complaint that containment was too “negative” a policy was a plea for less rather than more militarism in foreign policy. Many critics, for example, were arguing that a good deal more was needed to resist the Soviets than simply countering every move they made: we must formulate, it was maintained, a “positive program” of our own, designed to woo away from communism the political support of those nations most seriously threatened with domination by the Red terror. As one British economics writer has put it, “. . . the real aims of Western society far transcend the negative duty of self-defense ... if the talk is all of defense and not of production, of containment and not of creation, of armies and not of a peaceful dynamic world, the limited task of containment itself cannot succeed.”2
Certainly it cannot be denied that the struggle against communism is not a purely military one. Fundamentally we are competing with the Soviets for the support of most of the other peoples of the world, including a good many who are economically marginal or sub-marginal. That was why our foreign policy included, along with containment, such things as the Marshall Plan, adopted in 1948. At the same time, it would be disastrous to assume, as such critics often appear to be assuming, that the struggle with the Soviets could be won merely with a kind of world-wide New Deal without any corresponding support of effective military power. There are two sides to this coin, and neither can exist without the other.
Fourth and finally, Lippmann argues that the American people are militarily and psychologically unequipped to wage the kind of defensive battle which containment implies. Psychologically, he says, the Americans would “themselves probably be frustrated by Mr. X’s policy long before the Russians were.” And as far as the military aspect is concerned,
the genius of American military power does not lie in holding positions indefinitely. That requires a massive patience by great hordes of docile people. American military power is distinguished by its mobility, its speed, its range, and its offensive striking force. It is, therefore, not an efficient instrument for a diplomatic policy of containment. It can only be the instrument of a policy which has as its objective a decision and a settlement.
Once again, and much more strongly, Lippmann foreshadows the MacArthur point of view on Korea. Actually, when the MacArthur controversy broke, Lippmann sided with the administration; and other military experts, principally the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put themselves publicly on the record then to the effect that American military power could be used effectively to support a “limited war.” Nevertheless the events of the Korean war, as we shall presently see, demonstrated the truth of the contention that, if not entirely beyond the capabilities of the American people, containment did at least confront us with some very serious psychological and military “strains.”
All in all, the case against containment as Lippmann presented it is a forceful and provocative one. There is even some evidence that these criticisms, whether those of Lippmann himself or others, actually did help to tone down the application of the containment doctrine in the years immediately preceding the Korean war. Lippmann claimed that the Truman administration soon realized that containment on a world-wide basis would commit us to far more than we could ever accomplish, and at least in the case of Korea (where we easily could have pursued a strict containment policy in 1948 and J949) the plans for extending the policy to a series of “impoverished, disordered, and threatened countries on the perimeter of the Soviet Union” were “discreetly shelved.” How different the history of the past year and a half might have been had those plans not been quite so “discreetly” shelved!
However effective his criticism, when it came to offering a positive alternative of his own, Lippmann, like many another critic, was on shakier ground. Instead of trying to match and counter every one of Russia’s aggressive moves around the globe, he argued, we ought to make use of whatever power, prestige, and persuasion are still available to us to force concessions from the Soviets in some specific area where such concessions could alter in our favor the precarious power balance between ourselves and the Russians. For Lippmann, Germany was this spot. We ought, he argued, to direct all our efforts to getting the Red Army out of East Germany. The fact that any such withdrawal, accompanied, as it would of course have to be accompanied, by a corresponding withdrawal on our side, would simply create—as it did in Korea in 1949—-a power vacuum that would aggravate rather than ease the tension and instability, apparently escaped him. Today, however, with the Korean experience behind us now, no one would ever suggest that the answer to Soviet-American relations lies in a mutual withdrawal from Germany.
In any event, in the years following 1947 the doctrine of containment generally prospered as an active foreign policy, winning some encouraging tactical successes in Greece and Berlin, rather faltering in China and the Far East, until the outbreak finally of the Korean war in June, 1950. Then, instead of being assailed as too “tough” on the Russians, the containment policy found itself, almost overnight, even more bitterly denounced as too “soft.”
From the record now available it is clear that the decision of the Truman administration to come to the aid of the Korean republic in June, 1950, was based primarily on the containment doctrine. One can argue whether the communist attack might have been avoided altogether by a more zealous adherence to the principles of that same theory in the months before June, 1950. But no one can deny that in making the decision to oppose force with force in Korea we were, in Kennan’s own words, confronting the Russians (or, as in this case, one of their satellites) with “unalterable counterforce” at a point where they were very definitely showing signs of “encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Indeed since in this case the “unalterable counterforce” was American combat troops, it would be hard to see how containment as a diplomatic policy short of war could have been applied to a more difficult situation.
Mainly, the decision to go into Korea reflected a desire to profit from our lessons learned in the years between World Wars I and II. As the President expressed it, “if the free countries had acted together to crush the aggression of the dictators, and if they had acted in the beginning, when the aggression was small, there probably would have been no World War II.” In other words* the memory of such events as Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 apparently booked large in the thinking of the President and his advisers. In that particular case, for example, Hitler’s bold move had really been an early test of the determination of the French and British to enforce the provisions of the Versailles treaty. The troops that moved into the Rhineland in defiance of treaty obligations had orders (so we learned later) to retreat if any resistance were offered. None, of course, was offered, because the Western powers feared to risk a general war. Ironically, in failing to call what actually had been a bluff because of their dread of war, the Western powers only fed the Fuehrer’s greed and self-esteem and thus actually hastened the war they were trying to avoid. Had they, instead, firmly opposed force with force in 1936, the Hitler scheme of conquest might well have suffered a fatal setback at the outset.
Whether this analogy ever actually came to mind or not, we went into Korea more or less expecting to call the enemy’s bluff. But the communists failed to fold. Our brilliant landing at Inchon and the shift in military fortunes that followed it were matched in turn by the enemy with the entry in force of the Chinese communist “volunteers.” Contrary to the Kennan analysis, the prompt and resolute application of counterforce in Korea had strengthened the enemy’s determination instead of weakening it. As November stretched into December and December stretched in turn into January, public doubts, dissatisfactions, and perplexities over the Korean undertaking erupted into the Great Debate. Why were we in Korea anyway? And, since we were in, why didn’t we fight all out, and with every weapon and technique at our disposal?
Obviously Korea was putting the Kennan philosophy to a very severe test. We had had no real appreciation, after all, of the cost, in either material or psychological terms, of the containment policy. During the days of the Louis Johnson economy, when we were tailoring our military strength to fit our budget instead of drawing our budget in such a way as to provide the military power needed to support our foreign policy commitments, we were prey to the easy delusion that merely to reiterate opposition to Soviet expansionism was to prevent it. Forgetting the sound wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt, we were walking and talking very loudly indeed and carrying a rather small and quite obsolescent stick. Perhaps, as Lippmann had said, we were biting off in containment more than we could possibly chew.
Psychologically we were having our troubles too. According to the theory, our armed resistance in Korea should be subjecting the Soviets to a series of “great strains.” Actually, as Lippmann had foreseen, the American people seemed to be suffering even greater strains. For the Korean war, psychologically, had all the disadvantages of a real war (casualties, higher taxes, economic controls, shortages, etc.) and very few of the advantages; the emotional stimulus that goes with all-out war was missing. And because it was missing, the hardships were that much tougher to put up with. “Limited war”— the military concomitant of containment— did seem to be proving too much for the American people to handle. Containment, it was said, was too soft; let’s go all out and get this thing over with once and for all. The suspense of limited war was too much to take!
Naturally, to have yielded to these demands for all-out war would have meant, among other things, the end of containment or any other diplomatic alternative to World War III. As we have already seen, our resistance in Korea was intended to prevent another all-out war, not to prepare for one. But to a people clamoring for immediate results and a clear-cut decision, it was a tough job to sell the case for military limitations. Nonetheless that selling job had to be done. And so with considerable hesitation and very little force it was started by a few second- and third-level administration officials in the early part of 1951, apparently with almost no effect.
Ambassador-at-large Philip C. Jessup summed up the argument, for instance, in an address at Union College in Schenectady on February 3, 1951, entitled, “The Fallacy of Preventive War.” Our policy, Dr. Jessup said, was a policy of peace through strength. If we build up military strength (and then show it off to advantage in Korea), “the Soviet rulers may face the facts and lay aside their plans to take over the world.” To be sure this program of peace through strength, of forcing the Soviets to back down in the face of superior military power, may take time. But those who would rather go to war now than make the effort to force a Soviet retreat are guilty, Dr. Jessup said, of the belief that the American people “have no guts.” Even if the Russians do back down, he said, we may have to face “a rather long period of armed truce”; but eventually (following now the Kennan “assumptions”) “both reason and history tell us that the corrosive elements of self-destruction are potent in a totalitarian state and not in our democracy.” Of course, the Ambassador concluded, facing up at last in the light of the Korean campaign to what Lippmann had called the overly- optimistic assumptions of the containment theory, of course it is always possible that the Soviets may not change in spite of all our strength. What then? Only this, that “if there is no change in Soviet policy, we have not left undone anything which we ought to have done.” This was still containment, to be sure, but it was a somewhat more sober brand than what Kennan had originally put forward.
Militarily, containment appeared to make a virtue out of stalemate. This view, of course, was emphatically not shared by the top United Nations commander in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. When in early April MacArthur’s efforts to take his case over the President’s head culminated in a letter to the leader of the political opposition in the House of Representatives, the whole complex issue was finally out in the open with a vengeance. In the Senate hearings that followed, the case in behalf of the containment theory as applied to Korea—the case that Ambassador Jessup had stated earlier in Schenectady—-was presented to a now attentive audience, with laborious repetition, by the Big Three of the Truman Administration, Defense Secretary Marshall, General Omar Bradley of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Acheson. Briefly their testimony boils down to the following four points.
(1) We went into Korea (a) to contain communist aggression, and thereby (b) to prevent an all-out war. “Our objective in Korea,” General Marshall testified, “continues to be the defeat of aggression and the restoration of peace ... it is our policy to contain communist aggression.” Indeed, he added, “for the past five years our supreme policy has been to curb communist aggression and, if possible, to avoid another world war in doing so.” In positive terms Marshall described the Korean operation as a “limited war” which he hoped would remain limited. General Bradley told the Senators that our military mission in Korea was “to support a policy of preventing communism from world domination.” In general, our national policy, he said, had been one of “steadfast patience and determination in opposing Communist aggression without provoking unnecessarily a total war.” Secretary Acheson told the committee that the “bedrock” purpose of American foreign policy was to “turn back this Communist threat, and to do it in such a way as to prevent a third world war if we can.”
(2) Admittedly, containment—and limited war—are difficult policies from the point of view of public psychology. General Marshall acknowledged that the implementation of the policy outlined above in Korea “has required extraordinary patience, firmness and determination. . . . The application of this policy,” he was frank to admit, “has not always been easy or popular. Korea is not the first time there have been complaints of a stalemate, and it is not the first time there have been demands for a quick and decisive solution.” General Bradley observed that “there are many critics who have become impatient with this strategy and who would like to call for a show-down.”
(3) Nevertheless, our activities in Korea have already been “successful,” though the job is not yet done. General Marshall argued that “our efforts have succeeded in thwarting the aggressors in Korea and in stemming the tide of aggression in southeast Asia and elsewhere.” And he added that he felt we were “moving towards” a “successful outcome.” Secretary Acheson told the Senators the “operation in Korea has been a success . . . has dealt Communist imperialist aims a severe set-back.” General Bradley, too, said he thought “our global strategy is paying off,” though he admitted he could not guarantee that a total war might not be “thrust upon us.”
(4) Once the communists realize their aggression won’t succeed, they may enter into negotiations to bring an end to hostilities. Administration spokesmen felt sure they saw a successful ending to the Korean war short of all-out military “victory” that General MacArthur had been clamoring for. Secretary Marshall (plainly echoing the Kennan theory) told the committee that in recent years “our foreign policy has imposed great strains on the Soviet government, and has created significant tensions within the Soviet orbit which, in the end, may yield decisive advantages to this country and our allies.” Applying that specifically to Korea he said, “If we break the morale of their armies, but more particularly if we destroy their best- trained armies, as we have been in the process of doing, there, it seems to me, you develop the best probability of reaching a satisfactory negotiatory basis with those Chinese communist forces.” This might not be “victory,” General Marshall acknowledged, but it could be called a “military triumph ... a triumphant demonstration, I think, of our military powers in proportion to the people engaged.” General Bradley said he hoped that by inflicting casualties on the enemy and by proving to them that they cannot achieve their aggression, “they will be willing to negotiate a peace with the UN.” Acheson spelled this concept out in somewhat more detail with the hope that “if the results of the fighting were to bring a conviction on the other side that they could not achieve the purpose of driving the United Nations into the sea, then you might have a really stabilized settlement, so that all foreign troops could be withdrawn after a time.”
In short, then, our action in Korea, as the MacArthur hearings brought out, was based on the conviction that once you presented the communists with counterforce they would back down, plainly the doctrine of containment. More than this, we were going so far as virtually to stake the soundness of that policy on the prediction that before long the Soviet would sue for peace, or at least for some kind of a cease-fire. It is possible that not everyone had been fully convinced as a result of the MacArthur hearings of the soundness of the administration’s policy in this regard. But when Mr. Jacob Malik suddenly came up in June with his own seeming acceptance of a cease-fire agreement, most people were inclined to postpone any lingering theoretical doubts until the negotiations in Korea had had a chance to demonstrate whether, as General Marshall, General Bradley, and Secretary Acheson had hoped, our determined resistance would force an “adjustment” on the part of the Soviet bloc. Over six months have passed with no immediate prospect of a settlement, even on the preliminary issue of cease-fire. That delay makes one wonder if the hope expressed by those leaders may not have been less encouraging than they had suggested. But still we keep on trying. And on the outcome of those negotiations now plainly rests the fate of the whole containment theory.
Even without a final determination of the Korean cease-fire issue, enough has happened already to make it possible for us to formulate a reasonably objective assessment of the value of the containment doctrine as the real key to Soviet-American relations.
We have already seen, for instance, that the doctrine has been successively criticized as too “tough” and as too “soft” towards the Russians. The latter objection can be disposed of fairly simply, since the alternative, as is obvious in Korea, is all-out war. And in spite of some of the easy assurances of the editors of Collier’s (whose mythical atomic war with the U.S.S.R. is buttoned up with comparative ease in three short years), most of us would probably share the conviction that atomic war would be a pretty messy business to get into, to say nothing of amounting to a confession of failure for diplomacy. Perhaps Mr. Kennan’s assumption—or, to be more accurate, his hope— that in the face of continued pressure the Russians will not go to war but rather will collapse or mellow is overly optimistic. The only answer is that any less optimistic assumption would make war virtually inevitable. Even though, as Walter Lippmann says, intelligent planning should be based on the least favorable assumptions, in this case anything less favorable than the assumptions which Kennan has included would make the whole problem of somehow “getting along with” the Russians completely meaningless. It may well be that we cannot escape this third world war after all; but while time remains it still makes sense for most of us to keep on trying.
As for the objection that containment is too “tough,” Korea should have convinced even the most obtuse that the Soviets are not running a Sunday School and that the sooner we get over the soft-headed notion that we can work with them in happy, enlightened partnership the better. We can all thank Mr. Kennan for having helped to put our relations with the Russians back onto a basis of strict power politics, where they should have been all along. Nevertheless, events since the Kennan article first appeared support at least two of the specific objections to containment offered under this too-tough heading. One is the charge that containment is too negative, that it is a defensive policy instead of a positive, creative one. The other is that by declaring all diplomatic settlements with the Soviets impossible containment defeats itself, repudiating the very diplomacy which it is designed to support and making inevitable the very war it is framed to prevent. Let us examine each of these two points in turn.
To the extent that containment implies a reliance on military power alone to deal with the threat of communism, the charge that it is a negative policy has some merit. “A policy that is nothing more than strength,” as Marquis Childs has recently said, “is hardly a policy at all.” Certainly the struggle against the Soviet must be carried out on economic and psychological as well as military levels. By itself military power might conceivably stop the Russians from starting a war; but in the battle for popular support from the peoples of countries not yet inside the Soviet orbit it leaves a good deal to be desired. What we and our allies must do— especially in countries like Indo-China, Iran, Egypt, or, for that matter, even Korea—is to win the support of native peoples for the point of view of the Western nations, before our military struggle against the Soviets can be reduced to manageable proportions.
Fortunately, that fact was recognized long ago by our planners and had its flowering, as we have seen, in the Marshall Plan and, subsequently, in the Point Four program. The Marshall “line,” as Lippmann has called it, maintaining that we can achieve this needed support best by helping other countries to help themselves, has taken its place along with containment in the top drawer of our foreign policy wardrobe. Similarly, we have made appropriate gestures in the direction of psychological weapons; although we are admittedly only in the very preliminary stages of that particular line of endeavor.
But the assumption which some critics make, that such “positive” programs as these necessarily conflict with the “negative” containment doctrine instead of simply complementing it, does not stand up under close scrutiny. Though they embrace, to be sure, more than armaments, from a long-range strategic standpoint they are still “negative” and “defensive” in the sense that they are designed primarily to maintain our position and power in the world, and by the same token to prevent the Soviet’s various efforts to undermine it. The charge is sometimes made that this nation cannot prosper in world affairs until we stop being merely “against” things—like communism, for instance—and start being creatively “for” other things. This criticism has an easy plausibility, but it overlooks the fundamental fact that in the logic of world power it is the Russians, not we, who are out to upset the applecart. We are relatively content with the power and position we already have, and so we can hardly be expected to initiate any “positive” program (similar to the communist “positive” program) to alter the world power set-up still further in our favor. All we want is to be left alone to enjoy what we have and to help our friends as we may desire.
When a burglar is trying to enter your home, the best you can do is to bar the windows, lock up your valuables, break out the old pistol, and call the police. The fact that these measures are all essentially “negative”—that you would never dream of confounding the burglar by adopting the “positive” course of robbing someone else’s house—hardly detracts from the soundness of your judgment. It is true enough that to meet the threat which communism poses today to the free way of life we have to take steps to eliminate the disease and poverty and unrest on which the deceptively appealing promises of communism thrive, just as we have to sell the peoples in these areas on the positive advantages of our way of life and possibly even inspire them with some desire for self-betterment. But even these measures are, after all, only more sophisticated ways of bolstering what, in the nature of the case, has to be basically a defensive undertaking— that is, to weather and to defeat the challenge which Russia is posing to Western democratic power. Negativeness, in a word then, seems to be the fate of a “have” nation normally interested in survival. So why let the word disturb us?
The other objection, that containment makes a diplomatic solution of the Soviet- American problem ultimately impossible, also deserves consideration, since on that score even Kennan appears to be confused. In one place he says that for the Soviets diplomatic agreements are merely tactical weapons which must be treated in the spirit of caveat emptor. Elsewhere, as we have seen, he says that the outcome of the firm and constant pressure with which he suggests Russia be confronted, is to be an “adjustment” by the Soviets to altered circumstances, something that comes very close indeed to being an “agreement” itself. Our present policy in Korea, for example, makes sense, as the MacArthur hearings demonstrated, only on the assumption that eventually the communists will back down and negotiate a “settlement.” Obviously, then, we can hardly argue that all settlements with the Soviets are out of the question.
This same confusion appears to pervade the higher councils of our own foreign policy machinery. On October 15, 1951, for instance, President Truman, speaking at Wake Forest College, said:
We do not think war is inevitable .... The stronger we become, the more possible it will be to work out solid and lasting arrangements that will prevent war .... As our defenses improve, the chances of negotiating successfully with the Soviet Union will increase. The growth of our defenses will convince the leaders of the Soviet Union that peaceful arrangements are in their own self-interest. And as our strength increases, we should be able to negotiate settlements that the Soviet Union will respect and live up to.
Yet, three days after that statement was made, Mr. Truman told a press conference that he stood by an earlier statement that an “agreement with the Soviet Union is not worth a scrap of paper.” One might dismiss this conflict as the result of an impromptu emotional outburst (more justified than not, incidentally, in the face of recent events), except for the fact that there is evidence that on this matter of negotiating with the Soviets our official attitude is just about as ambivalent as the President’s recorded remarks. Intellectually we can see that unless some kind of a “settlement” to ease the tension can be reached, especially in Korea, for example, we are wasting our time talking about keeping the war “limited.” Yet emotionally our experience to date has given us a deep and abiding distrust of any formal agreement with the Russians which, in itself, will make any such agreement all the more difficult to achieve.
All of these tangles can be avoided if we will carefully consider just what is involved in any diplomatic agreement—with the U.S.S.R. or any nation. In the first place, if one is to live peaceably and successfully with his neighbors, agreements of some sort cannot be avoided. Even war itself, as someone has observed, rarely culminates in “victory” (General MacArthur to the contrary notwithstanding) ; battles perhaps end in victory, but wars end in settlements. Settlements forced on the vanquished by the victor, to be sure, but still settlements. At the same time it should hardly come as any surprise to anyone over the age of consent that diplomacy from time immemorial has been the art of dissimulation. Traditionally governments have been wary of one another, even when allied; and written agreements are carefully scrutinized before being signed as a matter of course, much to the delight, naturally, of members of the legal profession, who might otherwise be hard put to it at times to keep body and soul together! All of this has generally been taken for granted by everybody concerned, and no one has been too much discommoded by it. Diplomats expect other diplomats to lie, at least some of the time; yet diplomacy continues to operate—a fact, by the way, which philosophy textbooks have traditionally made use of to refute Kant’s famous doctrine of the categorical imperative.3
Assuming this analysis to be correct, it follows that the difficulties in negotiating a satisfactory diplomatic settlement with the Soviets on this or that particular score should differ only in degree rather than in kind from those encountered in the case of other nations. Our disastrous experience with the Yalta agreements, for instance, can be blamed chiefly on two factors. One was the vague terminology in which those agreements were formulated, making verbalistic circumvention almost inevitable. The other was the indecent disintegration of American military power immediately following V-J day, a fact which apparently convinced the Russians that we weren’t really serious about enforcing those agreements anyway. But because of these diplomatic failures we should hardly be justified in throwing out the baby with the bath. The lesson of Yalta is not that all agreements are to be shunned, but that such as may be made should be absolutely precise in their language and, above all, should include some obvious means for their enforcement.
In recent weeks it has become fashionable to speak of the need for “self-enforcing” agreements with the Soviet Union. Possibly those who use this term are simply mouthing a catchy phrase without having considered all that it involves. What it means presumably is the kind of agreement in which a violation on one side can easily be countered by corresponding retaliatory action on the other—something that was plainly lacking, of course, in the Yalta kind of agreements. An agreement to trade tungsten for machine tools, for instance, would constitute a kind of self-enforcing agreement, since any failure on the part of one party to keep up shipments of tungsten could immediately be countered by a corresponding stoppage in the shipment of machine tools by the other party. The motivating force in such an agreement would be, as the President suggested at Wake Forest, self-interest. Some agreement of this type is what we are after now in Korea: we will agree to stop fighting only if the positions we continue to hold give us a ready base for countering fresh enemy attacks, that is, “enforcing” the cease-fire. Whether agreements of this type can be successfully extended to cover every conceivable situation in the relations between important nations may well be questioned. But for the moment it would seem to be enough that we should undertake to reach such agreements in areas where they can be made to apply; and later, perhaps, with caution and with ingenuity, we may be able to extend the area of agreement in the direction of easing some of the more significant matters of tension in the current cold war. As far as the kind of “general settlement” with the Russians that Mr. Winston Churchill has often talked about, it will be up to him in his new position of responsibility to demonstrate whether they are anything more than a figment of the political imagination.4 So far his Foreign Minister, Mr. Eden, has indicated an interest only in the progressive, gradual approach outlined just above.
To summarize, then, it would seem that in dismissing the possibility of any successful diplomatic agreement with the Soviets prior to the achievement of a broad understanding with a reformed and “mellowed” Russia, Kennan overlooks one of the basic facts of diplomatic life, namely, that every application of firm and resolute force towards the Soviets should be accompanied with a clearly formulated and clearly expressed diplomatic objective or demand upon them. Once that objective is accomplished, or the demand met, then the counterforce can be eased. In this way we would give point to our power squeezes, instead of letting them appear to be merely mischievous and whimsical. This is roughly what we are doing now in Korea of course (though so far without specific success). But it was not until the MacArthur hearings that our specific objectives in Korea were formulated for everyone to see. As originally stated, therefore, the Kennan theory does tend to overlook the important fact that power can never be an end in itself, and that while containment (as the dialecticians would put it) is certainly a necessary condition for reaching any satisfactory modus vivendi with the Russians, it is not by itself a sufficient condition.
So much for the theory. Naturally, if the Russians won’t accept any such hard- headed, self-enforcing agreements as these, then you simply can’t agree. And as far as Korea is concerned, that is just about where things stand at this writing. We have applied containment and, learning from our mistakes, have finally come up with a fairly clear objective towards which our counterforce is being directed. To date the Russians, or their Chinese and Korean satellites, have not yet fully demonstrated that they are seriously interested in accepting it. There have even been indications that—contrary to the containment doctrine—our determination to oppose force with counterforce has actually increased rather than diminished the chances for all-out war, or at least for continuing the present hostilities unabated. The outcome of this Korean situation is fundamental to the containment policy because, as we have seen, our actions there have been clearly based on the assumption that faced with superior force the Communists would back down. So far they haven’t. And if force cannot win a settlement—or at the very least a slackening in communist pressure—in Korea, then it is hard to see how it can ever be expected to do so elsewhere.
Until we see which way the scales are going to tip in Korea, we have no practical proof whether that theory is anything more than impressive-sounding verbiage. If the communists accept a cease-fire (either formally or de facto), containment will have chalked up its most impressive tactical victory to date, although—because even a cease-fire is a long way from a full “settlement” of the Korean issue—we will yet have to discover just how much further the containment doctrine can be effective in dealing with the Russian threat. On the other hand, if the communists refuse a cease-fire then the soundest and most hard-headed diplomatic solution yet advanced to the baffling riddle of Soviet-American relations will have failed the acid test. Little then would be left to console us, in a bleak and menacing world, except the suspicion that probably no other policy could have done a better job.
1. George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1910- 1950 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1951.
2. Barbara Ward, “Containment Is Far From Enough,” New York Times Magazine Section, July 22, 1951.
3. In this doctrine, of course, the German philosopher maintained that right conduct was conduct which, when applied to everybody, did not contradict itself. On this basis he argued that lying, for instance, was immoral because it could be effective only on the assumption that everybody is telling the truth. If everyone were to lie, Kant said, the advantage of lying to one individual would immediately be lost. Thus, he concluded, lying is contradictory as soon as you suppose that everybody should do it. Kant’s critics, however, countered with the example of the diplomatic world, where everybody does in fact lie, expects everybody else to lie—at least part of the time—and yet somehow the work manages to get done.
4. Walter Lippmann has recently suggested that what is needed in our diplomacy with Russia is not a marriage —which all this talk about “general settlements” sometimes implies—but a divorce, that is, an agreement as to where to disagree. Such agreements in the field of domestic relations, he points out, at least are apt to produce a situation with less disruptive tension for all concerned than existed prior to their adoption. Beyond this interesting metaphor, however, Lippmann does not go into details.