Containment and the Cold War (1945-1961)

Reference: U.S. Office of the Historian

When Harry S Truman became President in April 1945, much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Although the Axis powers had been defeated, an ominous new threat appeared on the horizon. The United States and the Soviet Union, who were allies during World War II, emerged from the war as global powers, increasingly in conflict with each other. By 1947, efforts to maintain cooperation between Washington and Moscow had broken down completely. President Truman, working closely with two assertive Secretaries of State—George C. Marshall (1947-1949) and Dean G. Acheson (1949-1953)—took decisive steps to contain Soviet expansion in regions in which the United States had vital interests. The United States was about to enter a new kind of war: the “Cold War.”

George Kennan and Containment

At the end of the war, the Soviet Union was a closed society under the iron grip of Joseph Stalin.

Few in the West had experience with the communist state and even fewer understood what motivated the Soviets. One man who had first hand knowledge was a Foreign Service officer, George F. Kennan. In 1946, while he was Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, Kennan sent an 8,000-word telegram to the Department—the now-famous “long telegram”—on the aggressive nature of Stalin’s foreign policy. Kennan, writing as “Mr. X,” published an outline of his philosophy in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs in 1947. His conclusion was 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.” Containment provided a conceptual framework for a series of successful initiatives undertaken from 1947 to 1950 to blunt Soviet expansion.

The Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

The first step was the “Truman Doctrine” of March 1947, which reflected the combativeness of President Harry Truman. Truman wanted to “scare the hell” out of Congress. Arguing that Greece and Turkey could fall victim to subversion without support from friendly nations, Truman asked Congress to authorize $400-million in emergency assistance. To justify this course, he said: “I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their destinies in their own way.” The key to preventing the overthrow of free nations was to attack the conditions of “misery and want” that nurtured totalitarianism.

Soon this general principle was applied to Western Europe as a whole. In June 1947, Secretary George C. Marshall proposed the extension of massive economic assistance to the devastated nations of Europe, saying that the policy of the United States was not directed “against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the existence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.”

What the Secretary of State left unsaid was that while the U.S. plan would be open to the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, it emphasized the free market economy as the best path to economic reconstruction—and the best defense against communism in Western Europe. Congress responded to Marshall’s proposal by authorizing the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. An investment of about $13 billion in Europe during the next few years resulted in the extraordinarily rapid and durable reconstruction of a democratic Western Europe.


Containment and Collective Defense

It was also inevitable that the policy of containment would develop a political-military dimension. In June 1948, Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan sponsored a resolution in the Senate that called for the “progressive development of regional and other collective arrangements for individual and collective self-defense in accordance with the purposes, principles, and provisions of the [United Nations] Charter.”

President Truman had already applied the principles of containment to Latin America. The Rio Pact, signed in September 1947, provided that “an armed attack by any State shall be considered as an attack against all the American States and, consequently, each one of the said Contracting Parties undertakes to assist in meeting the attack.” Collective security was invoked again in the North Atlantic Treaty. Signed in Washington in April 1949, it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Rio Pact and the NATO Alliance formally marked the end of George Washington’s policy of no entangling alliances. Economic assistance and collective defense agreements became the bulwark of Western containment policy.


A New National Security Structure

The new challenges and responsibilities of the Cold War convinced many in Congress that Truman’s foreign policy establishment needed reform because it relied heavily on a few key White House aides. In July 1947, Congress passed the National Security Act, which would have a profound effect on the Department of State. Proponents of reform wanted to coordinate foreign, defense, and domestic policy by establishing the National Security Council (NSC) under the chairmanship of the President and composed of only six permanent members: the Secretaries of State, Defense, Army, Navy, and Air Force, and the Chairman of the National Resources Board. The President could designate the heads of other executive departments, such as the Director of the new Central Intelligence Agency, to attend if needed.

Under the terms of the legislation, the NSC would consist of a small staff headed by an Executive Secretary appointed by the President. There was no legislative provision for the post of “national security adviser,” and the small NSC staff had no role in the formulation or implementation of policy.

Truman did not take well to the idea that his foreign policy advisers would be mandated by Congressional legislation, and he rarely attended the initial meetings of the National Security Council. The Secretary of State was named as the ranking member in his absence, and the Department of State controlled the NSC and its operations. The State Department’s Policy Planning Staff wrote most of the NSC’s papers, which after discussion by the Council and approval by Truman, were then disseminated to the bureaucracy in summary form as NSC actions.

Under Truman, the NSC did not displace the Secretary of State as the President’s senior adviser on international questions; it simply required all agencies to contribute to the decision-making process. With the proliferation of new issues and new U.S. agencies active overseas, the State Department could not on its own control everything. The NSC was the mechanism through which the Department of State could exert consistent influence on national security policy. Used properly, it had the potential to deploy the vast array of American power—diplomatic, political, economic, psychological, and military—to reach common goals. This was an objective that the Department had failed to achieve during the troubled years between 1914 and 1945.

But the Department of State could only realize its full potential in the new institutional context if the Secretary of State gained the confidence of the President. Both Secretary Marshall and Secretary Acheson did, and Truman tended to bypass the slower-moving National Security Council. Truman was always anxious to complete action on important questions, and he wanted to make his decision as soon as he had a sound basis to do so. Secretary Acheson, noted one biographer, “could always provide an adequate basis, or its appearance, before any rival body . . . In the race with time, which was the key to influence over the President, Acheson was unbeatable.”


NSC-68 and the Korean War

The events of 1949 made foreign policy the nation’s top priority. NATO became a working alliance, the United States provided military assistance to Europe, the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, and the Mao Zedong’s communist party took control of mainland China. The Department of State ordered a complete review of American strategic and military policy, and, in April 1950, the Department sent a paper calling for a broad-based and reinvigorated containment policy toward the Soviet Union, directly to the President. The paper later became known as NSC-68. After the outbreak of fighting on the Korean peninsula, NSC-68 was accepted throughout the government as the foundation of American foreign policy.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United States sponsored a “police action”—a war in all but name—under the auspices of the United Nations. The Department of State coordinated U.S. strategic decisions with the other 16 countries contributing troops to the fighting. In addition, the Department worked closely with the government of Syngman Rhee, encouraging him to implement reform so that the UN claim of defending democracy in Korea would be accurate.

The Korean War was difficult to fight and unpopular domestically. In late 1951, the two sides bogged down on the 38th parallel, and the conflict seemed reminiscent of trench warfare in World War I. The American public tired of a war without victory, especially when negotiation stalled as well. The stalemate eroded Truman’s public support and helped to elect the Republican presidential candidate, popular military hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the next President.


Foreign Policy under President Eisenhower

As Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the war, President Eisenhower had a well-earned reputation for staff work and organization. He was determined to make the Department of State a part of the NSC’s structured system of integrated policy review, and the NSC enjoyed a renaissance during his Administration. Discussion papers were prepared by the NSC’s own Planning Board—not the Department of State, and the Planning Board ironed out interdepartmental differences before a policy paper went to the NSC. The full Council, with Eisenhower almost always in attendance, debated the policy options and made decisions, which were then sent as recommendations to the President in the form of NSC actions. Another subcommittee, the Operations Coordinating Board, made sure that the bureaucracy carried out the recommendations approved by the President.

Dulles drew a sharp line between the policy review process and day-to-day operations, which he felt were the exclusive province of the Department of State. Dulles also believed that some issues, such as covert operations, were too sensitive to be discussed by the full NSC. Because of his close ties to the President and his even closer relationship with his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, John Foster Dulles was second in importance only to the President at any NSC meeting. President Eisenhower often dominated the discussions, but Dulles remained his most influential foreign policy adviser.

Dulles was a staunch anti-communist. For this Secretary of State there was no grey area—nations were either part of the “Free World” or part of the Soviet bloc; he had little time for neutralism or non-alignment. Secretary Dulles also had a tendency to speak dramatically. In a 1954 speech, he said that the United States would meet Soviet provocations not necessarily where they occurred but where the United States chose, based on its “deterrent of massive retaliatory power.” In a 1956 Life magazine interview, Dulles described how he had passed the word to the Chinese and the North Koreans that unless the communist powers signed the Korean armistice, the United States would unleash its atomic arsenal. Dulles claimed that by moving to the brink of atomic war, he ended the Korean War and avoided a larger conflict. From that point on, Dulles was associated with the concepts of “massive retaliation” and “brinksmanship,” a supposedly reckless combination of atomic saber rattling and eyeball-to-eyeball standoffs. In reality, the so-called atomic threat to China was less definitive than Dulles had claimed, and the Eisenhower Administration policy of “massive retaliation” was far more cautiously based on mutual atomic deterrence.

During the Eisenhower years, the United States consolidated the policy of containment, although some critics have argued that the administration extended it too far. The United States ratified a series of bilateral and multilateral treaties designed to encircle the Soviet Union and its allies, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Among these arrangements were the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO); the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO); and bilateral defense or security treaties with Japan, South Korea, theRepublic of China, and the Philippines. Secretary Dulles was the most prominent advocate of global containment and he traveled the world tirelessly to ensure its success. In 1954, the United States took a strong stand in favor of the Chinese Nationalists when the PRC bombarded Taiwan’s island strongholds. In 1955, assistance began to flow to the new nation of South Vietnam, created after the withdrawal of France from Indochina. In 1958, the United States again rattled the saber to protect the Chinese Nationalists’ offshore islands.


McCarthyism Hits the Department

The Cold War years were troubling ones for the Foreign Service, after it became the prime target of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s search for pro-Communist subversives in the U.S. Government.

In February 1950, shortly after the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weapons and Mao Zedong’s communist forces seized power in China, the Wisconsin Senator launched his anti-communist crusade with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. Describing the international position of the United States in the most dire terms, he insisted: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in the government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man.”

He announced that he had a list of 205 subversives—“a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Senator McCarthy never made that list public or proved any of his allegations. A number of the most experienced Foreign Service officers—notably the Department’s corps of Far Eastern experts, the so-called “China hands,” including Oliver Edmund Clubb, John Patton Davies, John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent—were forced out of the Department or suffered serious damage to their reputations.

McCarthy’s allegations had a lasting effect on those who remained in the Department. John W. Ford, a security officer at the time, has since noted, “few people who lived through the McCarthy era in the Department of State can ever forget the fear, intimidation, and sense of outrage which permeated Foggy Bottom.” In 1978, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David D. Newsom, said: “I can recall the shock of the taunts and suspicions leveled at the State Department and those who served in it. It must be satisfying, but not full recompense, for those who suffered in that period to have our nation now realize that they were substantially right.”

The mistaken notion that the Department of State somehow served the nation’s enemies lingered on for some years. One former Department of State employee, Epers , was found guilty of passing secrets to the Soviets in the late 1930s, but this exception did not detract from the fact that the criticism by McCarthy and others of like mind was unjustified.

The Foreign Service and Department of State were convenient targets for “Red baiting” because they were without a domestic constituency. The absence of powerful and assertive support from organized interest groups, especially in comparison with most other major agencies, made the Department vulnerable to McCarthy’s irresponsible charges and allowed him to attack it without fear of serious retaliation. Personally, Secretary Dulles and President Eisenhower may have deplored McCarthy’s attacks, but they did little to combat McCarthy. Only when the Senator took on the U.S. Army did he meet real resistance and lose his influence and power


While the Department struggled with McCarthyism, it also sought to modernize its personnel practices. Postwar growth produced what one historian described as “inertia, inflexibility, and loss of efficiency in the use of personnel.” Stanton Griffis, a businessman who served as ambassador to several countries, later satirized the confused situation. Overseas missions, he noted, constituted “a fantastic network of men, women, and typewriters, who report [on] political, economic, labor, and agricultural conditions.” These reports then went to Washington, where they were immediately filed away. Then “the home team, having properly disposed of the information from the field, proceeds to write its own endless reports to go forward to the same ultimate fate in the embassies throughout the world.”

The post-1945 personnel problems of the Department of State attracted the attention of a commission created to investigate all aspects of government organization after World War II, which was headed by former President Herbert Hoover. In 1949, the commission called for reforms to eliminate one important source of difficulty—the negative distinctions between Foreign Service officers and Civil Service employees who staffed the Department’s headquarters in Washington. In 1954, Secretary of State Dulles asked Henry M. Wriston, the president of Brown University, to undertake a study of the Department’s personnel practices. Dulles drew attention to a number of concerns, among them poor morale because of managerial shortcomings, low intake into the Foreign Service, and inequities that stemmed from variations in the treatment of different categories of employees. After examining these matters, Wriston called for the integration of many Civil Service employees into the Foreign Service, a process that took several years and was known as “Wristonization.” By the end of 1957, the Foreign Service had more than doubled in size to 3,436 officers. By August 1959, 1,523 Foreign Service officers were assigned to positions in the Department in an effort to improve communications between Washington and the overseas missions and to fulfill the legal requirement that Foreign Service officers spend a portion of their careers in the United States.


New Secretary; New Quarters

John Foster Dulles resigned in April 1959 because of ill health and died of cancer soon afterward. Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, who served mostly from a wheelchair because of his severe arthritis, replaced him. With the death of Dulles and the approaching end of Eisenhower’s second term, U.S. foreign policy initiatives became less significant. The Department more often found itself responding to crises or explaining foreign policy failures. Negotiations with the Soviet Union on a test ban treaty collapsed, the shoot down of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union allowed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to cancel a planned 1960 summit, Fidel Castro introduced communism into Cuba, and the U.S. Government began planning for a covert invasion of Cuba. In Southeast Asia, the Eisenhower Administration committed additional U.S. resources and advisers, although not U.S. combat troops.



When John F. Kennedy and his “New Frontiersmen” entered office in January 1961, they came with a reputation for being young and dynamic, but they also came with many of the same the preconceptions and assumptions held by Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles. A rapid succession of crises would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war and test the mettle of Kennedy and his diplomats.