The Frustration of the Kremlin Design: The United States and the Origins of Containment


The United States emerged from the Second World War a military and industrial powerhouse. In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, had in its inventory over 63,000 aircraft of all types, including the agile P-51 Mustang and the high-flying B-29 Superfortress.[1] America’s huge air force had played an instrumental role in the recent defeat of the Axis powers. During the war years, U.S. planes sank Japanese shipping, bombed German rail hubs, ports, and oil depots, and leveled scores of cities, including Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kobe. In August 1945, the B-29 carried the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While the U.S. Army Air Force ruled the skies over Asia and Western Europe, the United States Navy dominated the world’s oceans with its 6,768 ships, including 28 full-sized aircraft carriers, 71 smaller escort carriers, 377 destroyers, and 23 heavy battleships. The Iowa-class battleships were fearsome weapons of war. The class’s namesake, U.S.S. Iowa, contained nine main battle guns, each capable of firing a 2,700 lb. armor piercing shell a distance of 23 miles. No other navy even came close to the U.S. Navy in number of vessels and global reach. The air force’s vast array of planes and the navy’s ships gave the U.S. the ability to project military power at a speed and scale never before seen in world history.[2]

During the war years, a total of 16.1 million American men and women enlisted or were drafted into the various branches of the U.S. military.[3] In the last year of the war, 12,055,884 soldiers, sailors, and marines served in uniform. The U.S. Army alone possessed over eight million service members. American troops had at their disposal incredible amounts of weaponry, ammunition, and equipment, gratis of the U.S. industrial sector. The millions of machines and prodigious amounts of ammunition produced by America’s factory workers played a key role in the ultimate outcome of the war. In large measure, the Axis powers succumbed to the sheer mass and weight of American gadgetry and firepower.

After the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, the U.S. achieved a category of its own in terms of military strength. No other nation possessed the A-Bomb; and in that eventful summer of 1945, no one knew when the U.S.’s sole competitor for global hegemony, the U.S.S.R., would develop its own bomb. Following the test at Alamogordo, the United States truly became a superpower. It was the only nation on earth with the military capacity to utterly lay waste to an enemy’s urban centers and industrial base through the deployment of nuclear weapons.

Yet, ironically, just as the U.S. reached the pinnacle of its military and economic preeminence, its political leadership expressed a profound insecurity. President Harry S. Truman, who assumed the presidency upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, along with his inner circle of White House advisors, as well as high officials in the War Department and State Department, viewed the Soviet Union, and the global Communist movement supported by the Kremlin, as a looming, existential threat to the United States homeland and America’s overseas empire.

In the immediate post-war era, the Soviet Union posed two major challenges to the United States. The greatest danger to U.S. national security came from the 9.8 million-man Red Army – the largest land army in the world.[4] Coming on the heels of its recent victory over the vaunted Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front, American leaders rightly considered the Red Army a juggernaut. In the spring of 1945, the battle-hardened soldiers of the Red Army stood face-to-face with American troops along the Elbe River in central Germany. To the consternation of American leaders, the Red Army had the troops, tanks, and artillery to push the American Army aside and march westward toward the English Channel. U.S. airpower, and the A-Bomb, would certainly slow or altogether stop a Soviet advance to the Atlantic, but the employment of massive airpower and nuclear weapons against an invading Red Army would devastate western Germany, France, and the Low Countries. Destroying the agricultural lands of those regions, killing their friendly populations, and obliterating their remaining industrial facilities would not constitute an American victory. In a war with the Red Army in Western Europe, America would ravage the very area it needed as a market for its burgeoning manufacturing sector.

U.S. leaders perceived Communist ideology as the second primary threat emanating from the Soviet Union. Communism, with its advocacy of egalitarianism, atheism, worker’s rights, and the overturning of the West’s social, economic, and political order, directly challenged Western civilization and its stoutest defender – the United States.

With large swaths of Western Europe in ruins, President Truman worried that the continent’s downtrodden would flock to the Communist banner to alleviate their dire economic plight. There existed the very real possibility of a Communist takeover of Western Europe through non-military means. Democratic elections, Communist coup de etats, and widespread street protests held the potential of undermining important U.S. allies in Germany, France, and Italy. Truman did not need to look too far to see examples of Soviet expansionism through subterfuge, electoral politics, and subversion. In 1947, a Soviet-supported coup deposed the King of Romania. In France and Italy, the Communists made strong showings in parliamentary elections; while in Greece and Turkey, Communist guerrillas threatened U.S. backed regimes.

In the immediate post-war years, the Truman administration relied on a variety of tools to check Communist expansionism. U.S. air power and the A-Bomb deterred a conventional Soviet invasion of the American sphere of influence in Western Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Truman made no secret of his willingness to incinerate an invading Soviet Army if it attempted to overrun a U.S. ally in any of those regions. In 1947, he informed Stalin that the United States would strike Soviet forces in northern Iran with atomic bombs unless the Soviet premier ordered their hasty withdrawal. After some deliberation, Stalin concluded that Truman would probably follow through on his threat. Two years earlier the president had shown no hesitation in vaporizing the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the president, thought Stalin, would have even less concern for the lives of Communist soldiers. Consequently, Stalin ordered his troops home.

Nonetheless, the A-bomb possessed only a limited deterrent value – it might discourage a conventional Soviet invasion, but it could not deter indigenous Communist movements like those in France and Italy or a Communist guerrilla army in Greece. Other methods had to be employed to halt those forms of Communist subversion. From the end of World War II to mid-1947, Truman’s foreign policy team responded to Communist initiatives in Western Europe and elsewhere on an ad hoc basis, utilizing covert political operations to stop the Communists in Italy, economic aid to the West Germans, and military assistance to the royalists in Athens. These programs succeeded in turning back the Reds, but the president, and the executive departments charged with foreign affairs, required a long-term, consistent policy toward the Soviets and their satellite states. The Americans also needed an intellectual framework that placed their struggle with Communism within a larger historical and geographical context. U.S. policymakers understood that the formation of such a long-term policy toward the U.S.S.R. and its Communist allies would help stabilize the international scene and foster predictability in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Predictability would in-turn keep the peace.

The U.S.’s situational approach to Communist initiatives risked general war for one simple reason: Russian and American political and military leaders would more likely make a miscalculation and ignite World War III if they did not know what the other side would do in a crisis. A steady, publicized policy stance by the Americans toward the Soviets would at least give the Kremlin the ability to discern likely U.S. courses of action in a future dispute. That knowledge, conveyed to the Kremlin through word and deed, would prevent the outbreak of global war. The Americans needed a foundational philosophy to guide policy during the emergence of the new international order. But what form should it take? How would it be implemented? What American institutions would take the lead in carrying it out? These questions bedeviled policy wonks at Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon, and the White House.


In the 1930s, George F. Kennan served as a staff member at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Kennan resided in the Soviet capital during a decade in which the Soviets engaged in a major public relations campaign aimed at winning the sympathy of Western diplomats, journalists, and artists toward the Russian Revolution. The Soviets sought to sway the West’s elite opinion-makers through a carefully orchestrated program of misinformation, secrecy, and outright lies. To achieve that end, Kremlin propagandists trumpeted the Soviet Union’s industrial and agricultural achievements, while suppressing information that reflected poorly on the regime, such as the widespread killing of kulaks and Ukrainians during the forced collectivization of the agricultural sector. Stalin and his thuggish compatriots did convince many in the West that the Soviet Union represented a success story – a country rapidly transitioning from feudalism toward modernity.

The astute Kennan never fell for Stalinist propaganda. He remained a cool-eyed realist who viewed the country and its leaders with a healthy dose of skepticism. Although he acknowledged the sincerity and dedication of junior-grade Communist officials who worked fervently for the betterment of the Soviet peasantry, he recognized the overall brutality of Stalin’s regime and its murderous secret police – the NKVD.[5] Kennan felt no love for the top echelon of Soviet leaders. Stalin and his immediate subordinates, according to Kennan, acted in a manner similar to a criminal syndicate. They maintained their positions of authority through selective violence and fear rather than popular appeal. They also worked incessantly to dominate every facet of Soviet society. Kennan, schooled in democratic values from a young age, saw little to admire in Stalin’s “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” He later wrote, “…the men in the Kremlin have continued to be predominantly absorbed with the struggle to secure and make absolute the power which they seized in November 1917.”[6]

Kennan believed Soviet leaders to be extremely insecure. Their personal insecurity stemmed from the underlying instability within the Soviet political system. There existed no institutionalized means of attaining the top position within the Communist Party and Soviet government. This absence of a legal succession process fostered a profound sense of unease amongst party officials. Leaders constantly fretted over their own institutional status within the hierarchy. As a result, they endlessly jockeyed for position and political advantage vis a vis their peers. In a very real sense, the succession process to the highest echelons of government was a free-for-all, pitting members of the Politburo and Central Committee against one another and fostering perpetual apprehension between members. A great deal of the apprehension resulted from the recognition that if an individual came out on the losing end of an internal power struggle, he or she faced the possibility of execution at the hands of his or her political opponents. It was a well-known fact in elite party circles that Stalin had his political adversaries arrested by Lavrentiy Beria’s NKVD and incarcerated in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison. Beria had many of Stalin’s enemies shot, often in the back of the head while they were being escorted down the prison’s long, dimly-lit hallways. Kennan noted the collective anxiety that gripped Soviet leaders, “…a great uncertainty hangs over the political life of the Soviet Union. That is the uncertainty involved in the transfer of power from one individual or group of individuals to others. This is, of course, outstandingly the problem of the personal position of Stalin. We must remember that his succession to Lenin’s [position]…took 12 years to consolidate. It cost the lives of millions of people and shook the state to its foundations.”[7]

In July 1947, Kennan published an article under the pseudonym “X” in the journal “Foreign Affairs.” Kennan initially did not publicly admit authorship of the piece because he feared a negative response from the Soviets. Yet, the Soviets eventually learned that he wrote the “X” article and ruled him persona non grata, meaning he was no longer welcome in the Soviet Union. In “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Kennan asserted that Soviet Communism behaved in a manner similar to water. Consequently, Communist ideology moved to areas of least resistance, taking advantage of human misery and hopelessness to gain a foothold within society. Kennan penned, “Its [Communism’s] political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.”[8]

Kennan argued that the Soviets, or their proxies, if left to their own devices, would find recruits in regions burdened by poverty, illiteracy, civil conflict, and political repression. To counter the spread of Communism, especially in areas around the periphery of the Soviet Union, Kennan proposed a program of containment. “In these circumstances it is clear 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.”[9]

Kennan favored economic containment over military containment, recommending that the U.S. provide economic aid to the pro-Western countries along the borders of the U.S.S.R., as well as in Western Europe, and North Asia. U.S. economic assistance would bolster the economies of those regions, raising the standard of living of their residents, and stabilizing their institutions. Material prosperity would convince peoples across the globe to resist the advance of Communism. Kennan trusted that over time, the vibrant economies of the West, and those situated along the edges of the Soviet Union, would undermine the Communist Bloc and its parasitic ideology. Capitalism and democracy would be shown to meet the needs and aspirations of humanity more effectively than totalitarian Communism. At some future date, and Kennan did not know when that date would come, the Soviet leadership would recognize the superiority and steadfastness of the Western economic and political model and mollify their aggressive behavior. The visible success of the Western system might even convince the people of the Communist Bloc to overthrow their governments, bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire.

President Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall recognized that Kennan, through the “X” article, and his other written work, provided a roadmap for U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The diplomat’s emphasis on economic containment offered a unifying theme to U.S. policy that had been absent over the previous two years. To assert that the article had a profound effect on the thinking of top U.S. officials is a gross understatement. The ideas expressed in the article influenced the actions of every presidential administration from Truman to George H.W. Bush. Within months, Truman made containment the centerpiece of the U.S.’s foreign policy toward the Communist Bloc. Economic containment, and later military containment, guided U.S. policy toward the Communist world until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Less than a year after the publication of the “X” article, the Truman administration initiated the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan in honor of Secretary of State George C. Marshall. During the life of the Marshall Plan, the U.S. provided a total of $13 billion in economic aid to 16 European nations. The three largest recipients of aid included Germany at $1.44 billion, France at $2.29 billion, and Great Britain at $3.29 billion. The administration also carried out a Japanese equivalent of the Marshall Plan, which directed approximately $2.5 billion to assist in Japan’s industrial recovery.[10] Although the Western Europeans and Japanese were largely responsible for the recovery of their respective economies, the billions of U.S. dollars pumped into the war-ravaged areas of Asia and Europe acted as a jump-start, hastening their economic rebound. American aid went toward the reconstruction of factories, roads, and ports – the same facilities U.S. Army Air Force planes had devastated only a few years earlier. The largest beneficiaries of the U.S. aid were the Europeans and the Japanese, yet the United States benefitted too – both economically and politically. U.S. corporations developed markets for their exports, while American dollars turned former enemies into allies. In time, the Japanese and the Germans became two of the world’s strongest proponents of democratic capitalism.

Kennan’s economic containment policy appealed to U.S. leaders for a host of reasons. First and foremost, economic containment played on U.S. strengths in the industrial arena. At mid-century, the United States accounted for 60 per cent of the world’s industrial production. American manufacturers required extensive international markets for the goods streaming out of U.S. factories. If Western Europe and Japan remained economically stunted, the U.S. would be without necessary trading partners. A policy of reviving the economic standing of Western Europe and Japan meant the reestablishment of markets for U.S. manufacturers. The reconstructed economies of Europe and Asia would complement the U.S. economic system in another way. Those economies could sell the low-value-added manufactured products and raw materials demanded by the more sophisticated U.S. economy. In essence, through U.S. foreign aid, the Truman administration created an economic system in which the core area (the United States) sold high value, manufactured products to the devastated and re-developing periphery (Japan and West Germany). Peripheral areas in-turn supplied cheap labor, raw materials, and lower value manufactured products to the core. It was a classic imperial arrangement, much like the British imperial system in the 19th century.

President Truman found economic containment attractive for another important reason. The policy would check Soviet influence, and possibly lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union, without resort to war. Through Kennan’s containment policy, the U.S. would dismantle the Soviet empire peacefully, rather than through a potentially catastrophic Third World War. Truman understood that a war between the U.S. and Soviet Union would cost the U.S. untold billions of dollars, result in millions or even tens of millions of casualties, and leave Western Europe a rubble heap. Even worse, the ideology that prompted the establishment of the Soviet Union in the first place might thrive after World War III. Communism would gain followers in the ruins left behind by the conflict. Paul Nitze, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, summarized official thinking on this issue, “Military victory [in a Third World War] alone would only partially and perhaps only temporarily affect the fundamental conflict [over beliefs and values], for although the ability of the Kremlin to threaten our security might be for a time destroyed, the resurgence of totalitarian forces and the re-establishment of the Soviet system or its equivalent would not be long delayed….”[11] In contrast to the devastating results of another world war, economic containment would peacefully deconstruct the Soviet empire and lead to the extirpation of Communist ideology.

An added bonus of economic containment – the U.S. would not have to maintain a large, permanent military establishment to bring about the Soviet Union’s downfall. A small, relatively inexpensive, nuclear-armed military would deter Soviet aggression. For Truman, a reduced military establishment ensured a freer society. There would be no need for high taxes to keep a large standing army equipped, fed, and housed. In consequence, the American people would have more disposable income for the purchase of automobiles, homes, and labor-saving appliances. The intensified consumption resulting from lower taxes would help maintain a robust manufacturing sector. In mid-twentieth century America, political philosophers and the public at-large equated material abundance with freedom. Truman wanted to rein in the size of the defense budget to enhance the freedom of the American people.


A little over two years after the “X” article’s publication, the policy of economic containment came under serious challenge within the U.S. government. Specifically, American policymakers wondered whether economic containment would be enough to halt the advance of Communism. Two events on the far side of the world led U.S. officials to question the effectiveness of Kennan’s policy. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb at a site in today’s northeastern Kazakhstan. The mushroom cloud over the Kazakhi desert ended the U.S. atomic monopoly. Although the Soviets in 1949 did not yet possess the means to deliver an atomic bomb to U.S. shores, they were rapidly pushing the development of delivery systems. Thus, it would only be a matter of time before the Soviet Union could strike the U.S. homeland with atomic weapons. White House officials realized that the U.S. would soon lose the ability to intimidate the Soviet Union with threats of nuclear annihilation.

A month after the Soviet atomic test, Mao Tse Tung’s People’s Liberation Army succeeded in completely pushing the U.S.-backed Nationalist army of Chiang Khe Shek off the Chinese mainland. Shek and the defeated remnants of his army crossed the Taiwan Strait to the island of Formosa, where the generalissimo, who was once referred to derisively as “The Peanut” by his top American advisor, Joseph Stilwell, established the capital of his diminished domain at Taipei. On October 1, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the triumphant Mao declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the United States, Mao’s victory set off a flurry of finger pointing. The Republicans in Congress, including the fervent anti-Communists Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) and Representative Richard M. Nixon (R-CA), blamed Truman and the Democrats for the “loss of China.” McCarthy went so far as to assert that Communists in the administration conspired against Chiang Khe Shek. But China had never been America’s to lose. Revolutionary forces existed across rural China in the 1940s that no American president, or American army, could have kept in check.

Mao’s victory had tremendous import for the U.S. position in Asia. China, with 400 million residents, was the most populous Asian country, which meant the People’s Liberation Army could draw upon a seemingly endless supply of manpower in order to field armies to fight either the United States or one of its Asian allies. Furthermore, China’s central geographical position meant Mao’s government could influence countries to the west, south, east, and north, including Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

By October 1949, global Communism commanded the world’s largest country by land area (the Soviet Union) and the world’s largest country by population (China). With the recent Communist acquisition of the atomic bomb, it appeared to U.S. officials that Communism now held the initiative in the Cold War struggle.[12] The question plaguing official Washington in the fall of 1949 was whether the United States could continue to contain Communism through economic means and threats of nuclear annihilation. Neither of those two policy programs appeared to have sufficiently staunched the spread of Communism since the end of World War II.

Although Kennan’s vision of containment attained wide acceptance within the U.S. government, there were those who believed economic containment alone would not inhibit the Soviet Union or one of its proxy states from engaging in military adventures beyond their borders. The State Department’s Paul Nitze doubted the ultimate deterrent value of both The Bomb and capitalism. Nitze agreed with Kennan that economic containment would foster the creation of strong, prosperous, democratically inclined nation-states on the periphery of the Communist Bloc; yet, he also believed that conventional Communist military forces could quickly overrun those pro-Western societies, irrespective of the population’s political leanings or wealth. In other words, a vibrant capitalist economy with happy, liberal citizens, would not protect an American ally from an invading Soviet army or the conventional forces of a Soviet satellite state.

Nitze felt strongly that the U.S. needed to alter its defense strategy and rebuild its conventional military capabilities. He argued that economic development within the American sphere of influence could only go forward with the protection offered by a strong military defense. In National Security Memorandum Number 68, dated April 7, 1950, Nitze wrote, “The frustration of the Kremlin design requires the free world to develop a successfully functioning political and economic system and a vigorous political offensive against the Soviet Union. These, in turn, require an adequate military shield under which they can develop.”[13] In NSC-68, Nitze proposed the military containment of the Communist Bloc.

Nitze’s NSC-68 made a number of far-reaching policy recommendations. Principally, Nitze urged the permanent mobilization of the U.S. military because, “…a question which may be of decisive importance in the event of war is the question whether there will be time to mobilize our superior human and material resources for a war effort.”[14] Because a modern mechanized army could conquer an American ally in a matter of days, the U.S., according to Nitze, had to keep its military forces in a constant state of readiness, able to respond to Communist aggression on short notice. If the U.S. demobilized its military forces, as it had done at the end of all its previous wars, it risked not having the forces on hand to repel a Communist blitzkrieg. Under such circumstances, America would be left with two unpalatable choices, either accept the results of the Communist offensive or rapidly escalate the conflict to nuclear war. Nitze did not consider either of those choices acceptable.

To confront the possibility of conventional Communist military aggression, Nitze reasoned that the United States must have the air assets and sealift capability to send its troops anywhere in the world at any time, in places as environmentally diverse and distant as the Central Plains of Europe and the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. He insisted the U.S. develop and maintain a military force capable of fighting 2 ½ wars simultaneously. Such a force would be able to fight a World War II-style conflict; that is, it would have the numbers, mobility, and armaments to fight and win a big war in Europe, a second major war in Asia, and a ½ war, or low intensity conflict, in a peripheral region of the globe, such as Africa or Southeast Asia.

Nitze’s idea of military containment entailed the establishment of military bases, supply depots, and staging areas in likely theaters of operation, particularly along America’s western Pacific island chain and within West Germany. He wanted storehouses with prepositioned weapons, equipment, vehicles, and ammunition. Those storage areas would accelerate the deployment of U.S. forces to any trouble spot. Rather than being required to send their gear to an active war front on slow-moving oceanic vessels, American troops would have their supplies waiting for them near the scene of the conflict. Disembarking U.S. troops would immediately go to their stored equipment and then hastily depart for the front.[15] A rapid deployment capability would be especially important for the defense of Western Europe, where the Red Army, positioned in East Germany, sat poised to quickly overrun West Germany.

The adoption of Nitze’s proposals would remake the U.S. military establishment into a permanent and pervasive fixture in American society. When NSC-68 first came across the president’s desk in the spring of 1950, Truman rejected its recommendations. The president still considered the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal sufficient to deter Communist military aggression. As for economic containment, it would remain the cornerstone of the U.S.’s effort to stem the Communist tide.


On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington D.C. In a hall filled with America’s elite opinion-makers, the debonair Acheson, who frequently sported double-breasted suits of the finest cloth, discussed America’s military posture in the far western Pacific. Speaking in a strong, confident tone, the Secretary of State remarked, “The [U.S.] defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold…The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukus to the Philippine Islands…So far as the military security of other areas of the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.”[16]

Surprisingly, Acheson did not include South Korea within the U.S.’s Asian sphere of influence nor did he unequivocally state what areas in Asia the U.S. would defend in the event of Communist attack. Acheson’s public comments may have influenced North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s decision to invade South Korea. Sung likely interpreted Acheson’s exclusion of South Korea from the U.S.’s Asian defensive system as an indication the U.S. would not come to South Korea’s aid in the event of an invasion from the North. Acheson’s comment that the U.S. could not “guarantee” the security of areas beyond the island chain probably reinforced Sung’s belief that the U.S. would stand aside while the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) overran South Korea. And yet, Sung had wanted to reunite Korea under his rule since the early 1940s. So instead of providing Sung with his sole justification for invading the South, the Acheson speech probably persuaded the North Korean leader to merely move up his invasion timetable.

At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Truman and Stalin agreed to establish two zones of military occupation on the Korean peninsula. The 38th parallel acted as the dividing line between those two zones. The Soviets occupied the area north of the 38th parallel and the Americans held the area south of that line. The division of Korea, and the subsequent formation of separate regimes at Pyongyang and Seoul, temporarily stymied Kim Il Sung’s goal of a unified Communist Korea. But in the winter and spring of 1950, Sung prepared for a war against South Korea that would forcibly reunite the country under his rule. On June 25, 1950, the NKPA struck across the 38th parallel in a lightning fast, mechanized operation. South Korean defenses swiftly crumbled in the face of the North Korean blitz. Within days, NKPA troopers, armed with Soviet burp guns, proudly marched through the deserted streets of the South Korean capital. But the North Koreans did not stop there; they pushed on toward the south with the objective of hurling the South Korean Army and its panicked American advisors into the Sea of Japan.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation in South Korea, and the very real prospect of the country’s complete collapse, Truman wasted no time in committing U.S. ground forces to the Korean peninsula to halt the NKPA and preserve South Korea as a Western outpost on the Asian mainland. The North Korean invasion of South Korea brought home to the Truman administration the failure of nuclear deterrence. America’s nuclear arsenal had not dissuaded Kim Il Sung from launching a conventional invasion against an American ally. Truman, unwilling to deploy nuclear weapons to stop the NKPD for fear of igniting a global war with the Soviet Union and because he did not want to kill the very people in the south that he hoped to save, decided instead to contain Communism in Korea through the use of conventional U.S. forces.

In late June and early July, U.S. Air Force transport planes flew thousands of American troops from Japan to Korea. Once on the peninsula, U.S. commanders threw their men against the onrushing Communist army. Having grown soft on rice wine, sushi, and mamasans while on occupation duty in Japan, the Americans frequently broke and ran when confronted by Sung’s tough, dedicated troops. By August, the Americans and their Korean allies held only the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula around Pusan.

The American amphibious landing at Inchon in mid-September and the subsequent drive eastward by U.S. forces across the neck of the Korean Peninsula quickly reversed U.S. and South Korean fortunes. In a matter of days, the NKPA fell back in full-scale retreat. In October, the shattered remnants of the NKPA streamed northward across the 38th parallel. Rather than halt U.S. units at the former dividing line along the 38th Parallel, Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur to pursue the NKPA into North Korea with the goal of running the remnants of the Communist army to ground.

In sending U.S. forces north of the 38th parallel, the president abandoned containment for a new and potentially dangerous policy, known as rollback. Rollback involved physically rolling back Communist territory and liberating people from the yoke of totalitarianism. Rollback signaled an offensive strategy toward global Communism, instead of the previous defensive strategy of containment. There was another reason Truman authorized rollback – he wanted to send the message to the Communist Bloc that aggression against a neighboring non-Communist state came at a steep cost – the forfeiture of territory and the toppling of a Communist regime.

As U.S. mechanized units sped toward the North Korean-Chinese border, Chinese foreign minister Chou En Lai issued repeated warnings thru third-country intermediaries to the Truman administration to keep American troops away from the Yalu or run the risk of Chinese intervention. The Chinese desired a geographical buffer in North Korea between themselves and the American Army. Unwilling to take the Chinese threat of intervention seriously, Truman and his military chiefs dismissed Chou’s warnings. Some Pentagon officials actually wanted the Chinese to come into the war, so the U.S. could unleash its superior firepower on Chinese troop formations. These officials believed that an overt display of America’s military power would persuade Mao to become less belligerent and more respectful of America’s dominant global position.

By early November, American troops peered across the wide, sandy Yalu River into Communist China. Only days after reaching the banks of the meandering river, the Chinese entered the war. Initially, small Chinese units crossed the Yalu to confront the Americans. These first Chinese forces served as a signal to the Americans to back away from the Yalu or face a full-scale Chinese invasion. But for a whole host of reasons, including General Douglas MacArthur’s hubris, the Americans did not heed the repeated warnings. Instead, U.S. troops continued to pour north toward the Yalu. Eventually, the Chinese decided to forcibly push the Americans away from the border region. In late November and December 1950, Mao ordered hundreds of thousands of “volunteers” to cross the Yalu and attack the American expeditionary force. The Chinese offensive was so overwhelming that the vastly outnumbered Americans quickly fell back toward the south. In subsequent days, one American unit after another caught what was referred as “Bug Out Fever,” which involved a pell-mell dash to the south to avoid being overrun by masses of Chinese troops. Through a combination of luck, tenacity, courage, and vicious winter weather, several large U.S. units, including a U.S. Marine division at Chosen reservoir, escaped certain destruction at the hands of encircling Chinese forces. By early 1951, U.S. forces had retreated south of the 38th parallel. A defenseless Seoul again fell to the Communists. Only after several months of hard fighting did the U.S. recapture Seoul and stabilize the front line at the 38th parallel.

Following the disaster that befell the American military in Korea in the winter of 1950-1951, Truman decided on a war strategy that emphasized the military containment of the Communists at the 38th parallel. Rollback had proven too costly. Not only had the march to the Yalu resulted in the deaths of thousands of troops, it had increased the likelihood of a global war with the Soviet Union. To make matters worse, rollback lessened the likelihood of a favorable end to the Korean War. China, with its inexhaustible manpower pool, would be a far more difficult adversary to defeat than North Korea.

Rollback represented one of Truman’s greatest foreign policy blunders. Although Truman did not publicly admit that he had made a mistake in agreeing to rollback, his later decisions related to the conduct of the war revealed that he considered the drive to the Yalu to have been an unmitigated disaster. In 1951, he rectified his earlier mistake by insisting on a limited war strategy that kept U.S. troops along the 38th parallel. Truman’s dismissal of the overly aggressive General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951 further signaled the president’s less ambitious approach to the conflict. Rollback was out. Containment was back in.

In the aftermath of the North Korean invasion of South Korea, Truman reconsidered NSC-68. In the fall of 1950, the president decided that America did in fact need to rebuild its conventional military strength per Nitze’s suggestions. From 1950 onward, the United States would check the advance of Communism through both economic and military containment. Subsequent defense budgets reflected the build-up in U.S. conventional military power. In 1949, before the adoption of NSC-68, U.S. military expenditures equaled $193 billion (2014 dollars). In the last year of the Korean War, the U.S. defense budget stood at $659 billion (2014 dollars).[17] A portion of the increased funding during those years went to pay for military operations in Korea. But billions of additional dollars paid for non-war related programs, such as the modernization and strengthening of the Air Force and Army.

By the end of the Truman administration, economic and military containment undergirded U.S. foreign policy. Nitze’s concept of military containment shaped war planning, the location of overseas bases, troop deployments, and appropriations; it determined the modalities of mutual defense pacts; it guided which nations received U.S. aid; and it influenced the contents of foreign economic aid packages. The American-constructed post-World War II international order rested on containment.

To ensure Communist compliance with the policy, successive U.S. administrations threatened the Soviet Union, China, and their Communist allies with military action. For example, in 1953, the Eisenhower administration warned China that unless it ended the war in Korea and accepted the 38th parallel as the demarcation line between the two Koreas, he would order the atomic bombing of China’s major urban centers. Unsure of whether Ike would actually destroy Chinese cities, and not wanting to find out, the Chinese leadership acquiesced to the president’s demands. In July 1953, the Chinese signed an armistice with the United States, bringing the Korean War to an end. At the conclusion of the signing ceremony at Panmunjom, the 38th parallel became the de facto border between the two Koreas.

Although the United States repeatedly engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviet Union and China to uphold containment, the policy itself actually sought to rationalize the international order and maintain the peace by ensuring permanent borders between the Western and Eastern blocs. U.S. presidents, from Truman to Bush Sr., attempted to keep the world’s borders inflexible, fearing that without firm boundaries there existed a greater potential for superpower conflict as both sides jockeyed for influence in contested zones. U.S. officials viewed geographical stasis as vital to the maintenance of world peace. Without stasis, the superpowers risked war; and in the nuclear age, war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would likely end in Armageddon. The effort on the part of the United States to create and maintain hard borders between the two Cold War foes informed U.S. policy toward the partition of Vietnam.

[1] Office of Statistical Control, Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, World War II, (Washington DC: GPO, December 1945), Table 84.



[4]  Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Land Force, “Agency Voeninform of the Defence Ministry of the RF (2007),” 14.

[5] George F. Kennan (“X”), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947, 567.

[6] Ibid., 569.

[7] Ibid., 578.

[8] Ibid., 575.

[9] Ibid., 575.


[11] Ernest R. May, ed., American Cold War Strategy: Interpreting NSC 68, 1st Edition, (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1993), 32.

[12] May, Interpreting NSC 68, 36, 65.

[13] Ibid., 68, 71.

[14] Ibid., 68, 45.

[15] Ibid., 68, 50, 66, 72.

[16] Dean Acheson, “Speech on the Far East, January 12, 1950,”


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