The years between 1945 and 1948 were as fateful as any in American history. During that period the foreign policy establishment made decisions that still reverberate today. As World War II wound down, officials in the highest circles of government thought long and hard about what kind of international system was possible and desirable. [John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), chap. 2.] Though they disagreed about particulars, they had to face certain inescapable and unsettling facts.

Europe lay in ruins, an easy prey for an aggressor or, more likely, internal upheaval. The Soviet Union, too, was devastated, but its army controlled Eastern Europe, half of Germany, and had a strategic foothold in Asia. To complicate matters, Soviet leaders had been advocating the overthrow of capitalism for 25 years. Although the United States suffered heavy casualties, it otherwise escaped the war relatively undamaged. With its farms and industries intact and its skilled population healthy and well fed, it was the only non-Communist power on its feet. Simply by virtue of this condition, America seemed destined for world leadership.

But how should the United States exercise this responsibility? What role should it play? And of utmost significance, how should it deal with its wartime ally, the Soviet Union, which, after all, was the only country capable of challenging its supremacy?

The top echelons of government considered two general policies. One advocated cooperation with the Soviet Union. Its advocates believed that the Russians posed no direct threat to the United States, which should try to recognize and accommodate the Soviets' legitimate security interests. The other policy, eventually known as containment, assumed that the Soviets' ultimate goal was world domination and called for a firm commitment to hold off their expansionist tendencies.

Containment ultimately won the day in Washington. It was a fateful decision that shaped the course of American history for the next four decades.


In July 1946, Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, a former vice-president to Franklin Roosevelt, wrote President Harry Truman a letter recommending that the United States "allay any reasonable Russian grounds for fear, suspicion, and distrust" of our goals. [Letter to Harry S. Truman, July 23, 1946. Reprinted in John M. Blum, ed., The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace (1973), p. 597.] It was necessary, he said, to understand and accept the Soviet's legitimate security interests. Having suffered 10 to 12 million casualties during World War II, the Russian bear was mainly intent on being left alone to lick its wounds. Although it may be a surly and secretive animal, it posed no threat to the United States. Trying to put American policymakers in Soviet shoes, he asked:

How would it look to us if Russia had the atomic bomb and we did not, if Russia had 10,000 mile bombers and air bases within 1,000 miles of our coastlines and we did not. [Ibid., p. 591.]

Advocating a policy of conciliation, Wallace recommended that we "be agree to reasonable Russian guarantees of security," to "negotiate a treaty which will [establish] international control and development of atomic energy," to "counteract the irrational fear of Russia," to "enter into economic discussions" without preconditions, and to pursue a vigorous policy of "active trade" with them, a policy that "might well help clear away the fog of political misunderstanding." [Ibid., pp. 587-600.] In a nutshell, Wallace advocated a policy of understanding, mutual respect, and restraint toward the Soviets.

Some months earlier, however, in February 1946, the State Department received different advice about the Russians. George Kennan, a career diplomat with considerable experience inside the Soviet Union, sent a telegram to his superiors in which he warned them to be prepared for a protracted struggle. [Reprinted in Barton J. Bernstein and Allan J. Matusow, eds., The Truman Administration: A Documentary History (1966), pp. 198-212.] The conflict would in all likelihood not be violent but would nonetheless require patience and determination to win. Although Kennan agreed with Wallace on some points, he painted a much darker picture of Soviet motives and goals. According to Kennan, the Soviets saw themselves encircled by antagonistic capitalist governments with which peaceful coexistence was impossible. Their fundamental strategy, therefore, was to build up their economic and military strength at the expense of the West. They would attempt to implement this policy by exploiting divisions among capitalist powers, fomenting revolution in underdeveloped nations, imposing their ideology in the areas they controlled, consolidating their internal power, and making "timely and promising" moves against their neighbors. [Ibid., pp. 198-212.] Kennan, briefly stated, saw Russia as a dangerous foe that unless stopped could and would threaten the vital interests of the United States and its allies.

What should be done? Kennan felt that the answer lay in the minds of the men in the Kremlin. Unlike Hitler, they were not reckless, but would back down when confronted with overwhelming force: Russia "can easily withdraw--and usually does--when strong resistance is encountered at any point." [Ibid.] By mobilizing sufficient resources and displaying a willingness to use them, the United States and its allies in Europe could make the enemy abandon its objectives, usually without armed conflict. Our policy, in a word, should be containment--to halt or check Soviet expansionism.

The contrasts between Kennan and Wallace could hardly have been clearer. Wallace wanted conciliation; Kennan advised vigilance and toughness. In the end Kennan's view prevailed. The die was cast by late 1947 when President Truman, rejecting Wallace's arguments, began implementing containment.

Go to Who Governs? page
Go to power elite page
Go to course materials page
Go to H. T. Reynolds page